Hirsi Ali: the empowered apostate

Leaving Islam can be hazardous. Apostasy is a capital crime in a number of Islamic countries. But even in elite conservative circles in the United States, there is a tendency to dismiss or at least ignore some important former Muslims who have a lot to teach us about their former faith, as we face an era in which religious war on the West has been declared by radical Islam. 

Two years ago, following a modest Washington, DC area reception celebrating the release of  Leaving Islam, a compilation of Ibn Warraq's own brilliant essays, and poignant, harrowing testimonials from other ex—Muslim 'apostates,' I received a disturbing communication from a former admirer and supporter of Warraq's work (particularly the seminal, Why I Am Not A Muslim)  who attended the same event.

This individual dismissed Warraq's unique and important collection on apostasy in Islam, because Warraq (and by extension, all Muslim apostates) was (were), '...no longer in the game.' It was astonishing to hear such a glib assessment from a conservative intellectual and self—appointed doyen (subsequently, government—appointed) examining Islamic terrorism. The pernicious effect of this mindset—apparently quite pervasive among the lemming—like denizens of the most influential Washington, DC area conservative 'think tanks'—was reinforced during Warraq's dismissive small audience (composed entirely of self—important, self—appointed doyens) at perhaps the pre—eminent Institute of this ilk. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's rise to prominence as an openly avowed Muslim apostate Parliamentarian in the Netherlands—both before, and most decidedly after the murder of her colleague, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh—demonstrates that it is completely misguided to dismiss the profound intellectual and sociopolitical contributions courageous apostates can make to both the public discourse, and specific policy initiatives, regarding Islam.

Four recently published interviews (here, here, here and here) of Somalia—born Ayaan Hirsi Ali provide an informative overview of her evolution—from a teenage Islamic school—educated supporter of the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood, to an asylum—seeking refugee in the Netherlands in her early 20s (in 1992), and now, a courageous Dutch Parliamentarian (since January 2003) dedicated to the defense of the core Western values (i.e., such as true freedom of conscience) embodied in modern human rights constructs.

Shortly after completing her studies in political science at Leiden University, Hirsi Ali was hired as a researcher for the Dutch Labor Party, and assigned to write a brief on immigration. She stunned her Labor colleagues by making blunt recommendations that were a frontal assault on established multicultural taboos: shut down all 41 Islamic schools; curb immigration; and radically alter Article 23 of the Dutch constitution (which embraced the multicultural orthodoxy by sanctioning the creation of separate schools and cultural institutions for distinct religious groups). 

Disillusioned with the Dutch left, Hirsi Ali joined the opposition VVD party in 2002, and by September 2002, also publicly 'apostasized' from Islam—an action which precipitated death threats against her. Ibn Warraq's unique compilation and analysis of apostate testimonies highlights the courage of such a public declaration:

"...for a free discussion of Islam remains rare and dangerous, certainly in the Islamic world, and even in our politically correct times in the West...Apostasy is still punishable by long prison sentences and even death in many Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Iran...."

The fact that Hirsi Ali's declaration elicited murderous threats in the Netherlands—in the heart of Western Europe—where, as Warraq notes,

"...one talks of being a 'lapsed Catholic' or 'nonpracticing Christian' rather than an 'apostate.' [and] There are certainly no penal sanctions for converting from Christianity to any...superstitious flavor of the month, from New Ageism to Islam...." 

underscores the serious erosion of Europe's core values under its new Islamized Eurabian sociopolitical ethos.

Combining lucid intellectual and experience—based understanding with rare valor, uncompromised by politically correct apologetics, Hirsi Ali has made explicit the threat that orthodox Islam (as she stated, 'The problem is the Prophet and the Koran' )—not 'Islamism'—poses to the Western civilization she has come to cherish, and staunchly defend. She identifies the core Muslim texts—Koran, hadith, sira—their codification into Islamic Law (i.e., Shari'a), and the orthodox interpretation of this sacralized literature by seminal Muslim jurists—noting Ibn Taymiyya's 'pure' Islamic exegesis, specifically—as being responsible for the incompatibility between Islamic and Western values. In particular, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, versus the Shari'a—based Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (Cairo, 1990). 

The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam included the triumphal statement that the Shari'a has primacy over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the specific proclamation that God has made the umma (Islamic community) the best nation, whose role is to 'guide' humanity. This formulation captures the indelible influence of the uniquely Islamic institutions of jihad and dhimmitude on the Shari'a, rendering sacred and permanent the notion of inequality between the community of Allah, and the infidels—reiterated in the Cairo Declaration.

Hirsi Ali's response to the standard non—sequitur apologetic about the putative existence of, 'different Islams', is unequivocal:

"No that is an erroneous idea . If one defines Islam as the religion founded by Muhammad and explained by the Koran and later by hadiths,  there is only one Islam that dictates the moral framework."

Finally, she concludes that true reform of Islam, to render it compatible with modern human rights standards, must include criticism of both its core sacred text, and founder:

"You cannot liberalize Islam without criticizing the Prophet and the Koran...You cannot redecorate a house without entering inside."

As a VVD Parliamentarian since 2002, Hirsi Ali's major legislative focus has been on women's issues: drawing up legislation, which was subsequently enacted, to improve enforcement of the statute against female genital mutilation [a practice sanctioned by hadith]; working to assure better enforcement of laws protecting women from 'honor killings', a particular problem among Turkish Muslim immigrants in Europe; and drafting a position paper about the economic integration of women. Her outspoken positions on matters apart from women's issues include: urging intensive oversight of new Muslim schools before they are accredited; supporting the US—lead coalition's invasion of Iraq; and raising sober concerns about Turkey's candidacy for EU membership (which she characterizes as a 'big gamble' for Europeans).

It is quite illuminating to juxtapose Hirsi Ali's unapologetic arguments, and her concrete legislative agenda based upon those principles, with the views and 'achievements' of 'moderate' Muslims championed by U.S. media and policymaking elites, across the political spectrum. Four prominent examples will suffice.

Conservative elites have promoted, most notably, Suleyman Ahmad Stephen Schwartz [SASS] and Khaleel Muhammad [KM], while liberal elites have embraced Irshad Manji [IM] and Khaled Abou El Fadl [KAEF]. Despite certain disagreements between them, what these individuals unfortunately share is a persistent avoidance or absolute denial of the need to challenge and alter institutions intrinsic to Islam—to the Shari'a. Instead, they blame so—called 'distorted' interpretations of a theological—juridical system they deem completely compatible with modern human rights constructs, and normal international and inter—communal relations. The logical conclusion of their arguments is the absurd notion that jihad war, and its corollary institution, dhimmitude (which only IM of the four 'moderates' even acknowledges, albeit fleetingly) are 'distortions' of basic Islamic dogma.

Below, I have summarized a series of their specific views on critical issues. The dismaying opinions range from denying altogether, to ignoring or trivializing:

  •  Jihad war— denied (KAEF); ignored/trivialized (SASS, KM); trivialized (IM)
  •  Dhimmitude— denied (KAEF, SASS, KM); trivialized (IM)
  •  Acknowledgement of specific Judenhass motifs in Islam, i.e., from Koranic and other sacred text sources, and/or Islamic Law: denied (KAEF, SASS, KM); ignored (IM)
  •  Incompatibility of the Shari'a with modern human rights constructs: denied by KAEF who endorses the Shari'a as a model under which all human beings should live!; ignored (SASS, KM, IM)
  •  Views on Europe's Islamization, and the 'Eurabia' phenomenon: All four imply or state explicitly that the mere discussion of this matter is tantamount to 'racism.' IM favors continued mass Muslim immigration into Europe and blames their lack of assimilation on European xenophobia. She completely ignores the role of irredentist Islamic precepts—promoted in many of these Muslim immigrant communities—which direct believers not to assimilate within societies outside the jurisdiction of Shari'a law.

    Moreover, while constantly engaged in self—promotional activities, the four enlightened moderate Muslim 'reformers' conspicuously avoided involving themselves in any substantive way with these noble efforts:

  •  The broad coalition to raise awareness of, and opposition to, the jihad genocide and mass enslavement of black South Sudanese Christians and animists, by the Muslim Arab Khartoum government, from 1983—2002.
  •  Opposition to the 1990 Cairo Declaration (i.e, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam), particularly, its threat to article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protecting freedom of conscience
  •  Opposition to the establishment of Shari'a courts in Canada

    In stark contrast, despite repeated death threats which mandate 24—hour protection, clandestine living arrangements, and a virtually non—existent social life, Hirsi Ali remains, as described aptly by journalist Christopher Caldwell   , 

    "...a democracy campaigner for whom the role of an ordinary democratic citizen is off limits...Hers is a big heroic life that moves her fellow citizens but now gets lived mostly in locked rooms and bulletproof cars."

    Hirsi Ali, condemned Muslim 'apostate', and intrepid politician committed to maintaining the democratic vitality of her adopted Dutch society, epitomizes the powerful, effective voice Ibn Warraq foresaw in Leaving Islam. Recalling The God that Failed, a collection of testimonial essays by ex—Communist intellectuals and their warnings about the all—encompassing oppression of body and spirit intrinsic to Soviet—style Communism, Warraq noted that the accounts of these ex—Communist 'Cassandras' appeared eerily similar to the ex—Muslim apostates whose testimonies he had compiled. Warraq concluded,

    "Communism has been defeated, at least for the moment...unless a reformed, tolerant, liberal kind of Islam emerges soon, perhaps the final battle will be between Islam and Western democracy. And these ex—Muslims...on the side of Western Democracy, are the only ones who know what it is all about, and we would do well to listen to their Cassandra cries."

    Hirsi Ali's practical efforts in the Netherlands mirror the strategies outlined by Warraq in a thoughtful essay about reform (somewhat ironically) of Middle Eastern Muslim societies. She clearly shares the unapologetic views about the obstacles to such reform presented by Islam itself, which Warraq characterized as follows:

    "There are some (I believe, misguided) liberal Muslims who deny any such transformation is necessary, that Islam need not be marginalized for liberty to flourish. These liberals often argue that the real Islam is compatible with liberal democracy, that the real Islam is feminist, that the real Islam is egalitarian, that the real Islam tolerates other religions and beliefs, and so on. They then proceed to some truly creative re—interpretation of the embarrassing, intolerant and misogynist verses of the Koran. But intellectual honesty demands that we reject just such dishonest tinkering with the Koran's text, which, while it may be open to some re—interpretation, is not infinitely elastic. The truth is there is no real difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism — at most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. All the tenets of so—called Islamic fundamentalism are derived from the Koran, the Sunna, and the Hadith — the defining texts of Islam — and elaborated in intimate detail by the classical Muslim jurists from all four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, as well as by Shi'ite jurists. The only solution is to bring the questions of human rights out of the religious sphere and into the sphere of the civil state, in other words to separate religion from the state and promote a secular state where Islam is relegated to the personal. Here, Islam would continue to provide consolation, comfort, and meaning, as it has to millions of individuals for centuries, yet it would not decree the mundane affairs of state."

    It is also apparent from her own statements and actions that Hirsi Ali agrees with Warraq's assessment, summarized below, about the crucial need to encourage scholarly criticism of the Koran, in particular, and more generally, to promote secular education emphasizing critical thought:  

    "First, we who live in the free West and enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inquiry should encourage a rational look at Islam, should encourage Koranic criticism. Only Koranic criticism can help Muslims to look at their Holy Scripture in a more rational and objective way, and prevent young Muslims from being fanaticized by the Koran's less tolerant verses. It does not make sense to lament the lack of a reformation in Islam, and at the same time boycott books like Why I am Not A Muslim nor to cry 'Islamophobia' (or 'fatwah!') every time a critique of Islam is offered. Instead, political leaders, journalists and even scholars are bent on protecting the tender sensibilities of the Muslims. We are not doing Islam any favors by protecting it from Enlightenment values. ... We can encourage rationality by secular education. This will mean the closing of religious madrassas where young children from poor families learn only the Koran by heart, learn the doctrine of Jihad — learn , in short, to be fanatics... What kind of education? My priority would be the wholesale rewriting of school texts, which at present preach intolerance of non—Muslims, particularly Jews. One hopes that education will encourage critical thinking and rationality. Again to encourage pluralism, I should like to see the glories of pre—Islamic history taught to all children."

    Finally, we should consider this insightful warning from another Muslim secularist, Professor Reza Afshari, the pre—eminent historian of the human rights tragedy   engendered  by Iran's return to its theocratic roots, after a 50—year hiatus, in 1979:

    "What we have from liberal Muslims today are only ideological claims punctuated by expressed good intentions. A sector of the traditional custodians of religion, the ulema, politicizing Islam did come to power[in Iran]; therefore it is logical to assume what we faced in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of Shiite Islam (at least an authentic version of it) injecting itself into the politics of a contemporary state. They created a record of what the `culturally authentic' rulers did... The issue is not Islam as a private faith of individuals. It is about what state officials claiming Islamic authority might have to say about the state's treatment of citizens."

    Dr. Bostom is an Associate Professor of Medicine, and the author of the forthcoming The Legacy of Jihad, on Prometheus Books (2005).