Ayaan Hirsi Ali is Islam’s best known—her critics would say most incendiary—dissident in the West. Born in Somalia, she escaped an arranged marriage by seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she studied furiously, assimilated with a vengeance, and became a member of the Dutch parliament. Her political views attracted scandal from the very start. She was blunt in her condemnation of Islam and Islamists, earning her the ire not just of the Muslim objects of her criticism, but also of a liberal political establishment that found her vehemently pro-Western views impossible to digest.
Her life changed forever in November 2004: Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker with whom she had collaborated on “Submission,” a film that excoriated the treatment of women in Islam, was stabbed to death in broad daylight by an Islamist assassin. Pinned by a knife to Van Gogh’s chest was a note that threatened Hirsi Ali with death. Not long after, she moved to the United States, where she now lives under round-the-clock protection.
Hirsi Ali is the author of four books, the most recent being Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, published this week by HarperCollins. In it she divides the world’s Muslims into three groups: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims, and dissidents. Medina is the town where, in 622 AD, the prophet Mohammad was transformed into a warlike evangelizer: This first group comprises those who “see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty,” and “who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.” In the second group are the vast majority of Muslims, people “who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence.” Their religious beliefs “exist in an uneasy tension with modernity,” and so they are “engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn.”
Hirsi Ali belongs to the third group—the dissidents—“forced by experience to conclude that [they] could not continue to be believers; yet [who] remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future.” In the struggle for the soul, and future, of Islam, she argues, the dissidents need to prise the Mecca Muslims away from the control of the Medina Muslims. In her new book, she offers five “amendments” to Islam, some of which are breathtaking in their sweep. Muslims must abandon their belief that the Mohammad was infallible and that the Quran is the literal word of God; life on earth must mean more than the afterlife; secular law must trump the Shariah; clerics should have no power to enforce law; and jihad must be abandoned. All of these changes would lead to a revolution in Islam, and would forever break the grip of Muslim hardliners.
On a blustery winter’s day recently, I traveled to Boston to interview Hirsi Ali. We huddled in the corner of a hotel lobby, under the watchful eye of her security detail, and spoke for an hour. Here are some excerpts:
Women in the World: Is this your most ambitious book?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: It is my most intellectually ambitious book, yes.
WITW: And your most provocative?
AHA: I think Chapter 16 of Nomad, where I urge moderate Muslims to become Christians, is perhaps more provocative. But this one is provocative in a different way: It argues that Islam has to reform. I think now there is a large number of people who agree with me. People have been talking about reformation for the past two hundred years—a reformation of Islam. But people fail to articulate what it is that needs to be performed, and in that sense this book is provocative.
WITW: It’s also an optimistic book. You’ve gone from saying, in Nomad, that Islam was beyond reform, to saying that Islam is not just in need of reform but can be reformed.
AHA: Yeah, I take back my earlier argument. Nomad was published in 2010, just before the Arab Spring, so I hadn’t yet seen what I have seen since then. I’m still very optimistic about it: We saw masses of young people stand up to absolute authority, and the sort of questions they were asking went beyond economic demands to include the sort of questions that ultimately lead not just to the reform of government systems, but to the reform of religion. Because, remember, in Islam, religion and politics are intertwined. That’s what happens once you start questioning the despot, asking: “Where do you get this idea that you’re the absolute authority?” As an individual—and it happened to me—you find yourself asking the question of your own mother, husband, and even, truly, the Prophet and God. It’s a Pandora’s Box, and once that box is opened, you can close it but what’s out is not going to go back in.
WITW: You point to a paradox in which you describe Islam as perhaps the least hierarchical of the great religions, while also being the most rigid. How do you explain that paradox?
AHA: Well, the Catholic Church has the Pope. And in that sense, when people agree that something needs to change, there’s a final authority to execute that change. Islam assumes that all men–forget about women–are equal. In terms of authority, that’s very fluid. But it is rigid in the sense that there was the last messenger–the Prophet Muhammad–and he is assumed to have left us with the perfect message. Who are you to change it? Are you the Prophet? If you step into the Prophet’s shoes then you’re automatically a heretic. So that’s why I chose the title.
Every single individual in the history of Islam who has proposed meaningful change has been dismissed as a heretic. Mainly silenced. Banished, killed, threatened. One of the points that I discuss is the obligation that every Muslim must command what is right and forbid what is wrong. Innovating the Faith is seen as heretical. But that doesn’t mean that it cannot be changed. If you have a large, meaningful enough crowd who adopt the heresy, then you have reform of Islam.
WITW: So, you are calling for an uprising of heretics? For a crowd of heretics to take matters into their own hands and wrest control of Islam from the Medina Muslims?
AHA: The Medina Muslims and the clerics. Yes. The most interesting set of Muslims are the reformers, those who want to change. Not “reformation” in the sense that Luther used the term—to “go back to scripture.” What I mean is an innovation, a renovation of the faith. That there is no hierarchy in Islam creates this vacuum. But the clergy don’t want to change… Why would they change? If the clergy proposed and became the leaders of change, their authority would be undermined. So the change has to come from somewhere else, and it can be grassroots. As you’ve seen in the Muslim world, it’s either the crowds or the despot. And I find the clergy, with a few exceptions–as a body, as an institution–despotic. The worst despotism in Islam has been overlooked for centuries.
WITW: Would you say that the resistance to change in Islam is really a case of men refusing to relinquish power, resisting equal status for women? Or is that too simple a way to look at it?
AHA: Some men, and especially the clergy, think of themselves as great changers and innovators, but it’s piecemeal. So if we want to put a feminist spin on it, I think it is men who have an interest in resisting change. Some Muslim men–reformers–propose that we treat women as equal human beings. And that’s the first act of heresy they commit.
Thankfully, because of education, because of the Internet, because of globalization, women are taking things into their own hands, not waiting to get permission from men to change. And we’re all taking advantage—by “we” I mean those of us born into Islam who want to change–we’re taking advantage of the modern means of organization, the modern language, English, and other modern languages to organize. And just as ISIS is trying to unite people across geographical borders, languages, cultures, skin colors, those of us who really want to change Islam from within can take advantage of the same opportunities.
WITW: You write that the Internet could serve the same role in creating change that the printing press served at the time of the Christian Reformation, which is a point I wouldn’t dispute. But at the same time, the Internet is also serving the purposes of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
AHA: The printing press served in the same way. It served the purposes of propaganda for the Catholic Church and European despots and superstitious people. So it’s only a medium and, absolutely, you’re right, it is serving their purposes. But I think that groups like ISIS–and not just super-violent ones, but even groups like the Muslim Brotherhood—haven’t been challenged in terms of ideas. It is possible to challenge them, not to simply say that “they are bad,” and that this is the consequence of the establishment of Shariah. I think that we all agree on the fact that a Shariah state is a totalitarian state. That it’s bad for women. It’s intolerant. We all agree on that. But we need to ask: “How can we challenge them in terms of ideas?”
There is the challenge from within—groups like the 120 imams who got together and wrote an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. But if you read that letter carefully, it really doesn’t change anything or even challenge them. It just tells them that they’re wrong. The insistence that extreme groups like ISIS are wrong, the insistence that they’re un-Islamic, the insistence that they’re perverting Islam… That really doesn’t take us anywhere.
WITW: Is this ultimately about persuasion? Is that what you mean when you say that the battle against groups like ISIS cannot be won by physical war alone?
AHA: You can’t bomb bad ideas out of people’s heads. You can bomb the outfit, the organization in Iraq and Syria, and I’m confident that if we were really serious about this, we could eliminate ISIS. But that doesn’t eliminate Islamic extremism in all its forms. If you don’t eliminate Islamic extremism, when ISIS dies, you’re just going to have another organization like it. You have ISIS now, you have Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, even Hamas. So an alphabet soup of organizations and movements, one more lethal than the other.
WITW: You want to win this debate. One of the purposes in writing this book is to initiate a debate that leads ultimately to reformation of the kind that you describe. And you list five things that you wish to focus on. Is there not a danger that some of those things will actually shut down debate at the very outset? For example, you wish to dissuade people of the sacrosanctity of the Quran, and you call on them to question the infallible status of Mohammed. Wouldn’t far too many of the kind of middle-ground Muslims you call Mecca Muslims simply shut down at that point?
AHA: I think some people will shut down, but here is another paradox: Some people will shut down because of the very dissonance that I describe, between professed believe and practice. The Mecca Muslims are challenged by modernity. The more they adopt a modern lifestyle and make use of modern means, the more their behavior, their practice, is removed from what they believe. And you don’t want to be constantly reminded of that dissonance. It is becoming increasingly difficult with groups like ISIS, as a Mecca Muslim, to stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing is happening. It used to be possible. In 2010.
Is it possible to separate religion from politics in Islam? I’m not saying, “don’t worship Allah.” I’m just saying, don’t take the Quran and use it like the Massachusetts manual for driving. And that’s what Medina Muslims want us to do.
Instead of saying the Medina Muslims are wrong in this, follow your conscience as a Muslim and accept that some of what Allah supposedly said is morally unacceptable, that that book came about in the 7th century, the 8th century, a time of completely different morality. Not just Muslims but all human beings adhered to different moral precepts. In the case of Mohammed, when you see a very extreme group like ISIS wage jihad, enslave women, behead people, and when for every action that we find atrocious, they find a justification in Mohammed. Remember: Mohammed took slaves and Mohammed beheaded people and ordered his followers to do so. Then it really doesn’t help to run away from the fact that Mohammed did these things. Mohammed married a nine-year-old.
WITW: And yet the president of this country insists that we not call these groups Islamic. How does one explain the constant urge in the West to describe them by any label other than the one by which they wish to describe themselves?
AHA: This president and the former president and I would say, really, all the Western leaders, except Prime Minister Harper of Canada and the president of [the Czech Republic]. Except for those two.
WITW: And maybe Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France…
AHA: Manuel Valls is coming around, isn’t he? Very interesting development there. But except for these three, forced to take these positions, again because of ISIS and terrorist attacks on their own soil, the prevailing idea is that we are not at war with Islam. And that if we make it clear, and we repeat ourselves over and over and over again, the populations, the people in the Muslim countries, will finally at some point hear us.
Western leaders are talking over the heads of despotic leaders to the Muslim populations. The United Nations speech by Barack Obama last September conveyed the message that most of the victims of ISIS are Muslim, that ISIS is destructive, and we need to destroy them. . .wage war against them. But only against them. Leaders insist that we are not at war with Islam, we are not at war with Islam, we are not at war with Islam. That may be so, and I don’t think that the West is at war with Islam. But what if key leaders of the Islamic world proclaim that they’re at war with us, and do so in the name of Islam?
Even countries like Saudi Arabia, (allegedly our ally for decades), have been waging ideological war against us in the name of Islam. It’s beginning to sound absurd, as most generalists now know, to keep on insisting that ISIS is not Islamic.
WITW: I think all sentient beings can agree that nobody believes it when the President says things like this. There must be some political reason for him to use this device.
AHA: Yeah. And it’s insulting because he’s saying: “I’m not at war with Islam.” But he’s bombing Muslim countries. Sorry—it just comes across as insincere, and I think that that will provoke the question: “Who do you take us for?”
WITW: How do you think the Islamists react to this intellectual insincerity?
AHA: They point it out. Clearly and consistently. They say: “You see, they’re saying they’re not at war with Islam. We’ve managed to form a caliphate. We’re calling all Muslims to come to our caliphate and they want to destroy our caliphate. They are at war with Islam.” That’s one part of the argument. And the other part is, of course, the Islamists believe in the dichotomy of the Dar-ul Islam and Dar-ul Harb, and America is not Islamic. It is not bowing to Islam, not accepting Islam, so al-Baghdadi says it’s a duty to wage jihad until everyone bows to Islam. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation. You can’t just run away from the ideology.
WITW: But do they see our insincerity as some form of weakness?
AHA: I think they see infidels as insincere, and it just confirms all of the supremacy and the way they look down on us. But this is the paradox, isn’t it? Our restraint is seen as weakness. So the fact that America wants to go after the leaders but goes to great lengths to avoid bombing the population is seen as a weakness. It’s also seen as a weakness—and they keep repeating this over and over again, every Islamist has said it—that America has “no better ideas than Islam.” So America is morally decadent, morally bankrupt. American has no soul. The West has no soul, it’s just materialistic.” And it’s never occurred to us to actually confront them with the superiority of our ideas and our institutions and our freedoms.
WITW: Setting aside Islamic parameters, do you think that the West is in any way decadent and has lost its soul?
AHA: No. I think that there are definitely decadent portions of all societies, but if you compare Western civilization today to others, or even to Western civilization in the past, you will see that, in fact, it is the most soulful and most tolerant. And I’ll give you examples that we should be throwing in the face of accusations of decadence and moral bankruptcy; that so many young people today in the West want to spend most of their lives giving and sharing and looking after other people, and the sheer amount of philanthropy, and I’m not talking about billionaire philanthropy, I’m talking about the average family, even when they are struggling. And the way something terrible happens somewhere far away, to strangers in Indonesia or Pakistan or God knows where, and Americans—I’ve seen this in Europe as well—show their empathy, collect money, even journey there to help people.
This kind of altruism is something we need to advertise. We have not lost our soul. We have transcended helping only your own tribe or clan member. We are united in our humanity, and that is the message that America and the West need to convey. Now, we do have cultural institutions like Hollywood, reality TV, Hip Hop music. Not all Hip Hop is bad, but a lot of it is seen in places outside the West as extremely decadent and immoral.
WITW: Brandeis University last year offered you an honorary degree and then withdrew the offer after protests by the faculty. How do you explain the failure of Western liberals to side with you? What you’re calling for is a reform that would lead to the freedom from oppression of half of the Muslim world, and to see the end of stoning for homosexuality, and yet feminist and gay groups can be vociferous in their opposition to you and others who support this message.
AHA: It’s a very loud minority, these relativists and, I think, remnants of communism and socialism in all its worst forms, who are too comfortable in their positions as tenured professors, and in the very institutions and the very countries, Western countries, free countries, that they incite and constantly mock and deride. They live here for a reason. I would say multiculturalism and cultural relativism, two forms of moral vanity, are also a form of cultural and moral suicide, and it’s showing. They’re being confronted now with the fact that there are good ideas and bad ideas. They are not all equal, and religions are not equal, and groups are not equal, and cultures are not equal, and civilizations are not equal. So if they can stay with just the basic premise that only human beings are equal, then, yeah it would help, but a very loud minority indeed.
WITW: Are you happy in America? Would you say that America is still a much more robust defender of the sort of Western cultural values that you find soulful and beautiful than Western Europe is?
AHA: Yes, I am happy in America. With this administration, I have to confess, a whole bunch of what I saw in Europe is adopted as policy, and so in a way it’s like going backwards. The Europeans are struggling to find a way out of their multiculturalism and all the cultural relativist ideas. They’re trying to turn the clock back, and they can’t. It’s interesting that American leaders then look at Europe and see something to be copied.
WITW: Can Europe turn the clock back? Europe has, living in its midst, millions of Muslims, many of whom are “Mecca Muslims” at the mercy of the “Medinas”… How does one cope with that?
AHA: I think they know that they are in a critical place now, also because of the demography. There’s going to be this flip at some point where immigrant communities, mostly Muslim, will simply be more than the native Europeans. There’s the age issue, the birth issue. So, could they turn the clock back? In my view, turning the clock back could be making sure that European ideas and values are instilled into the minds and hearts of the children of the immigrants. In order to do that you have to be really confident about those values. Europe was lacking that confidence, but maybe incidents like what happened in Denmark and Charlie Hebdo are going to reawaken them to the fact that you can’t have all these many people within your borders who want to go and fight for ISIS. I’m hoping that they’re shocked back into their senses.
WITW: I don’t know the precise figure of Muslims living in the United States. But I presume that the US, too, stands to face a similar quandary, does it not? So far it has not manifested itself in quite the same way.
AHA: We’ve already seen some incidents here in the US, and America faces the same challenges that Europe has. But America has an advantage: America is an idea, it’s not an ethnicity, and so it’s easier to become an American than it is to become, say, Dutch. But at the same time, America also has to show the confidence in its values that I’m talking about, and that means dealing with the infrastructure: Muslim schools, Islamic centers, Mosques, and of course extremism on line. There is an infrastructure that promotes a set of values through preaching. And I’m not even talking about the violent extremism, but the non-violent sort, the ideas that ultimately lead to an attraction to the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s also related to commanding right and forbidding wrong. I’m not saying that we have to close down mosques. We could target the Muslim community with better ideas, superior ideas, and tell them that they are here because of freedom. The language and the vocabulary of freedom and tolerance are superior to the vocabulary of damnation and submission.
WITW: Do you think a Muslim reformation will, by necessity, come from Muslims in the West, who’ve been exposed to these values? Or is that not likely, because Muslims in Muslim countries would reject anything that blows in their direction from the West?
AHA: Because of globalization there are a lot of Muslims standing up in Muslim majority countries, and I think an example to watch is Iran. They lived under Sharia for over thirty years, so they know exactly what it is: They have experienced it, and they reject Sharia, not just despotism. But Muslims who come to the West have something that Muslims in Muslim countries don’t have: freedom of expression, of association, of conscience. All of these freedoms give Muslim reformers an opportunity that reformers in Muslim countries don’t have, and that is why I believe that it will be much faster for Muslim reformers in the West to bring about this grassroots movement. You know, you couldn’t publish a book like that in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or Pakistan. You can’t address the problem without being harmed in some way.
WITW: Is your book going to be translated into Arabic and Persian and Urdu and Bengali?
AHA: And Somali, yes. In those languages I’d like to actually offer it for free online. I’ve done an audio taping of it and I’d like that also translated into the various languages and offered for free in these languages, in Muslim languages. But the lingua franca of the Muslim diaspora, interestingly, is not Arabic, it’s English. So, if you’re an Indonesian, a Pakistani, a Nigerian, a Somali, and you want to understand one another, you use the English language, and of course, French and a little bit of Spanish. But the main language is English.
WITW: I imagine it’ll be translated into the European languages.
AHA: That has already happened. Right now I think it exists in fifteen languages.
WITW: Turkish is one of the languages in which it’ll be available.
AHA: Well isn’t Turkey a very interesting place? Probably the president will ban it or something.
WITW: At one point one would have thought that reformation might’ve come from Turkey.
AHA: Well it didn’t, did it? Kamal Ataturk abolished the caliphate, adopted a nation state and the idea of nationhood and citizenship, and he left behind institutions that unfortunately this president, Erdogan, has destroyed. The institution of the military, whose sole purpose was to keep the Islamists out, was destroyed, and he has more plans to curtail the judiciary. This is what comes of underestimating Islamists; this is what comes of not taking them at their word. The president of Turkey has always been honest about his Islamism, and the direction in which he wanted to take the country. It’s just that nobody took him seriously, because everyone thought Turkey would be immune to that. He’s completely changed the narrative and history of Ataturk. He’s now painted Ataturk in the darkest colors possible, and turned him into a villain instead of a national hero.
WITW: So how do you forecast the reaction to your book? How do you think it will be received? Obviously great howls of anger will arise in certain quarters, but I assume you’re confident that there will be others who will say: “I think she’s making some sense.”
AHA: I didn’t publish this book so that people would all agree with its contents, but I think it’s going to shift the discussion with both Muslims and non-Muslims, shift the discussion away from where we’re stuck—“Is this Islamic, or is this not Islamic?”—to “Let’s agree that it is Islam,” which is what the reformers do. They’re saying we have problems. And then the next and most urgent question is: “If it’s Islamic, what do we do about it?”
In 2010, I suggested that if you are a good Muslim with a good conscience, go and look for a better God, and I think that was juvenile of me. I shouldn’t have said that, and it just doesn’t work that way for all. But in 2015, I think the perception might be surprising again. I think there’ll be more support within Islam than last time.
WITW: How would you describe yourself? What are your cultural attributes? Who is Ayaan Hirsi Ali today?
AHA: I don’t know. It’s always good if other people describe me. I just want to say, maybe, that I am a permanent dissident. Once that question mark pops up in your head—in my case it did in my teenage years—it just keeps popping. I’m a Muslim dissident, and an American Citizen. I’m also a Dutch citizen, unless the Dutch change their law. And also a Dutch dissident and a dissident of multiculturalism. I think of myself as a loving wife, and a loving mother, and a loving friend and all of that.
WITW: You’re a woman of many dissents…
AHA: Yeah, really, Islamic, Muslim, whatever, it’s a dissent. Once you dissent from the tribe or the clan and you discover your individualism or your individual self, it becomes difficult to get back into the mode of group-think.
WITW: Can you go to the movies? Can you go to a restaurant?
AHA: Yes, I have protection. Two gentlemen, one of whom you met. The other one is invisible. They try to be visible to me, but invisible. I have my life and this is my public contribution.
WITW: But there will always be someone out there who wishes to inflict death on you, let’s just face it, until your dying days– the same as it is with Salman Rushdie. No matter how much acceptance, there will always be someone out there, and I guess that’s the nightmare.
AHA: Yes, there’s no forgiving. If Ayatollah Khomeini were alive today and he had forgiven Salman Rushdie, Rushdie wouldn’t be forgiven by all the other masses of angry jihadists. That’s Islam for you—now, unreformed. I think that is also what drives me to say that you can’t silence dissent through violence. They could attack me, but this is what they can’t silence. That’s what the Internet and the printing press and literacy do. You can kill the source, the human being who thought of the idea, but the idea remains out there. I was influenced by books by white dead men—all of them dead. The question is: How do we get those books out there?
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity