One Woman’s Fight to Reform Islam: Heretic
Consider Ayaan Hirshi Ali, a Somalian-born woman who was a practicing Muslin for some 20 years, but who later as an adult made an abrupt transformation.
Born in 1960 in Mogadishu, Hirshi Ali’s politically active father, who helped lead the Somalian Revolution, was imprisoned when she was very young. Despite her father’s strong views against female genital mutilation, while he was imprisoned Hirshi Ali’s grandmother had the procedure carried out on her at age five. When he escaped from prison, her father took his family first to Saudi Arabia, and then to Ethiopia and then on to Kenya in 1980.
Hirshi Ali lived a comfortable life in Nairobi, attending a Muslim girl’s school, and when in high school she became involved in a Saudi Arabia funded program to study a more rigorously interpreted version of the Qur’an. She began to wear a hijab, which was not as common as it is today.
In 1992, when her family was living in Germany, she obtained permission to visit them, but then went to the Netherlands where applied for refugee status. She worked at a variety of jobs, including cleaning and translating, then studied at Leiden University where she earned a MSc in political science in 2000.
Hirshi Ali’s interest in human rights and assisting Somalian immigrants propelled her into politics, where she won a seat in the Dutch parliament in 2003. Combined with her revulsion with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and her desire to help those in need prompted her to rethink her commitment to Islam. Her outspoken advocacy resulted in her receiving death threats, thus requiring security from the Dutch government
In May 2006, she resigned her seat because of accusations that she had lied on her 1992 asylum forms. She shortly afterwards accepted a position with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Around that time she married Scottish financial historian (and Harvard professor) Niall Ferguson.
Over the past decade-plus, Ayaan Hirshi Ali has become known globally for her straight forward criticisms of Islam–and not just those prosecuting violence against Muslims and non-Muslims but those who sit on the sidelines and do not engage in confronting their Islamic peers.
In a period where political correctness rules in most Western countries (my home country, Canada, is near the top of the list) Hirshi Ali pulls no punches in tackling head on the issues and challenges inherent in Islam. She begins by tracing her own journey, starting in Somalia and ending up in the US. She eloquently explains her decision to leave Islam:
“I left Islam, and I still think it is the best choice for Muslims who feel trapped between the conscience and the demands of Muhammad. However, it is unrealistic to expect a mass exodus from Islam. This fact leads me to think of the possibility of a third option. A choice might have enabled someone like me to remain a believer in the God of my family. A choice that might somehow have reconciled religious faith with the key imperatives of modernity: freedom of conscience, tolerance of difference, equality of the sexes, and an investment in life before death.”
Her clarity in identifying at the outset three “sets” of Muslims is helpful in framing her book.
1) Mecca Muslims: the majority throughout the Muslim world who are loyal and devout but who do not practice violence (based on Muhammad’s early days when he went door-to-door to invite people to accept Allah as their god and that he was his messenger).
2) Medina Muslims: the fundamentalist minority–the “problem”–who seek to impose sharia, Islamic law. In short, this set aims to return Muslims to the 7th Century, reflecting when Muhammad, upon becoming frustrated with his lack of success of converting others to Islam, travelled to Medina, where his mission assumed a political tone.
3) Modifying Muslims: Seen as the dissenters, to whom Hirshi Ali belongs, they’re nevertheless very concerned about the future of Islam. An eclectic set, they include clerics and regular working Muslims. As she puts it bluntly: “In the eyes of the Medina Muslims, we are all heretics, because we had the temerity to challenge the applicability of seventh-century teachings to the twenty-first-century world.”
Hirshi Ali’s goal is to engage the Mecca Muslims. She presents five “theses,” as she calls them, based on five core Islamic concepts which she views as being incompatible with modern society:
1. The Qur’an as being the final word of God and the infallibility of Muhammad as the last divinely inspired messenger;
2. Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife instead of the present;
3. That sharia is the overarching system of law that governs the spiritual and temporal realm;
4. The obligation of Muslims to command right and forbid wrong;
5. The concept of jihad, or holy war.
She believes that the five concepts need to be amended if the Muslim world is to integrate itself into the 21st Century.
In the midst of the dissension in the global Muslim community–the Medina, Mecca and reformist (Modifying) Muslims–accompanied by the horrific violence that continues to be perpetrated by a small, yet growing minority, fueled by the emotive-laden media coverage by the West, one person has laid bare the historical issues, yet also presented an agenda of hope: Ayaan Hirshi Ali.
As she states in her concluding chapter:
“The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”
Ali has done a valuable service to both Islam and the world at large. Read her book. It is painful at times yet compelling and tentatively optimistic.
It leads your correspondent to ask the question:
How many peace marches by Muslims have been held in Canada, the United States or Europe, whose aim is to: a) explicitly denounce ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, b) insist on equal rights for Muslim women and the end of violence towards them in Islamic dominated nations, and c) demand democratic governance by separating the state from Islam?
All I want is an education, and I am afraid of no one.
– Malala Yousafzai
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