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Heretic: Don't Demonize Ayaan Hirsi Ali Because She Tells It Like It Is

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Message Reza varjavand
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I know Ayaan Hirsi Ali has many detractors who vehemently oppose her just because she has the courage to stick her neck out and tell it like it is. An informed opinion about her and her thinking cannot be reached without reading her books open-mindedly and attending to what she is fighting for. I just finished reading her latest book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. I found it to be a quite intriguing and informative book that presents a candid inquiry about numerous issues unique to Islam and the reforms Hirsi Ali believes Islam needs if it is to uplift its fouled image and become a more positive and meaningful influence in the modern world.

Although there might be other reasons for the violence perpetrated by some Islamists, Hirsi Ali argues that the root cause of this violence is the Islamic texts and hadiths. Without the proper reformation of Islam, we cannot effectively deal with global terrorism and its related ills. The existence of such texts, the author suggests, allows Muslim extremists to act on them on an ad hoc basis to justify their misdeeds. Although she acknowledges the unpopularity of her arguments, she says they are not far-fetched. "My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideas that inspire them."

Why is Islam in the news so frequently, usually in horrific stories of inhumane punishment, human burnings, floggings, beheadings, rioting, and more? The latest killing of four marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a so-called misguided, radicalized young Muslim is one of the latest examples. Throughout her book, Hirsi Ali reports numerous such acts of carnage committed by those who claim to be devout Muslims acting in the name of Islam to enforce sharia laws all over the world. These acts support her claim that this violence is rooted in Islamic texts, the Quran and hadiths more specifically. Her critical views are also based on her first-hand experience of having had to endure harsh treatment as a young girl growing up in Somalia, her home country, and later on in Saudi Arabia where she especially witnessed the misogynistic treatment of women under sharia laws.

Although Hirsi Ali admits that the majority of Muslims are peaceable people, the problem is that they adamantly cling to the tribal views prevalent at the time of early Islam that are at odds with modern, democratic values, and many such believers are like untapped resources waiting to be manipulated by Islamic clerics. The majority of Muslims who live in Western countries lack coping mechanisms when it comes to conflict between their beliefs and Western values, and she argues, "Many are able to resolve this tension by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influence, permitting only the Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community." Many of these Muslims may be willing to embrace reforms; however, they don't trust reforms if they come from Western-educated reformists like the author of this book. They only trust imams and mullahs who seem to be in control of their life.

Hirsi Ali places Muslims into three categories: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims, and heretic Muslims. Medina Muslims are radical and militant, although they are a small minority. Most Mecca Muslims are peaceful and reserved and cling to the traditional, old fashioned Islamic values. They are usually less educated and can be manipulated by mullahs who seduce them into violent behavior. Finally, the heretic Muslims are people who are born into a Muslim family but they turn away and even become anti-Islam as they grow older, become more knowledgeable, or go through vicissitudes in their life. They want to reevaluate their faith critically and possibly react to injustices they had experienced if they lived in an Islamic country in the earlier stages of life. Hirsi Ali asserts, "It is this third group--only a few of whom have left Islam altogether--that I would now identify myself." She believes the first two groups have enjoyed enough support and attention, and now it is time to heed the third group and give them room to maneuver.

Insidiously, Islam has always been resistant to change. The ulama (guardians of the faith) have fought tooth and nail to preserve the sacred texts and Islamic traditional views, instead of addressing obviously needed reforms, just to hold onto their monopoly on positions of power. However, their control and power seem to be dissipating, the author argues, even in Islamic countries that brutally suppress its critics. The younger generation of Muslims no longer accepts the archaic ideas imposed by imams and mullahs, even in the face of threat and costly consequences. They are determined to earn their basic rights, especially free speech. Young Iranians, for example, have had the courage to openly voice their criticism of Islam and the Islamic Republic on Facebook and other social platforms and even declare their religious affiliation as atheist, although doing so may cost them dearly. They have placed under scrutiny the record of the Islamic Republic, especially when it comes to human rights, economic prosperity, and its inability to elevate the standard of living for a typical Iranian family. Moderate Muslims typically embrace modernity and demand a secular political environment. The Arab Spring in Egypt and Green Movement in Iran are the two prime examples of the outgrowth of such efforts. Muslims who live in the free world and enjoy respect for and the protection of their basic rights cannot be neutral observers of the status quo in their native countries. They have a responsibility, and hopefully the courage, just as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has, to voice their concerns and expose the absurd ideas force-fed to people in the name religion.

Hirsi Ali has the valor to ask questions no one dares to ask. Questions such as why is Islamic preaching like a one-way street and no one should question the claims Islamic clerics make? Why must the outdated ideas like ghesas (the Islamic punishment system) be enforced in the 21st century? Why do some Muslims living in the U.S. isolate themselves from the mainstream community and refuse to assimilate to the culture of this country? Why is there is no centrality in Islam? And, why do influential Islamic clerics refuse to take a firm position when it comes to violence-provoking Islamic texts? Islamic teaching is like a black and white scenario; you are either a believer or disbeliever. "There is no cognitive room to be an agnostic," Hirsi Ali declares.

Especially under Shia Islam, ordinary Muslims have to unquestioningly follow the rules and the instructions of ayatollahs. "The problem is that. Right now, too many young Muslims are at risk of being seduced by the preaching of the Medina Muslims," the mullahs who have been adamant on preserving the political Islam just to hold onto their power. "Why is it so hard to question anything about Islam?" the author asks. "The deeper historical answer may lie in the fear that many Muslim clerics [have] [O1] that allowing critical thoughts may lead many to leave Islam." So, to keep adherents obedient and prevent them from leaving Islam, they deny them opportunities to question and inquire. Nonetheless, even in the face of apostasy charges, some Muslims may still lose faith and leave religion altogether. The truth is, to keep believers from fleeing Islam, we have no choice but to engage in the "critical appraisal of the core creeds of Islam" that has been so hard to come by thus far simply because of "fundamental conflicts within Islam itself."

Hirsi Ali argues that the pressing issues unique to Islam such as apostasy, blasphemy, mixing of religion and politics, the quest for jihad and sharia laws, the infallibility of sacred texts, no innovation [bedah] in Islam, and the limited traditional interpretation of "commending right and forbidding wrong" serve no purpose other than to shackle and threaten believers and non-believers alike. These things create walls, isolating Muslims mentally and otherwise. They must be reformed and possibly revoked, the author maintains.

Despite all the antagonistic opposition, Hirsi Ali believes that reformation is imminent, thanks to several facilitating resources. First is the global dissemination of uncensored information via social media and exposure of Muslims to Western democratic values. Second, concerns about the destabilizing effects of radical Islam are rising, even in prominent Muslim countries as evidenced by the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which aspired to install a theocratic government in that country. "El Sisi is by no means the only Muslim leader who sees the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk as posing a fundamental threat to his country's political stability and economic development. Similar encouragement of religious reform is being given by the government of the United Arab Emirates." Third, the Islamic apologists may offer as many excuses as they want, but the realities cannot be ignored. Moderate Muslims, especially those living in democratic societies and having access to unfettered information, should no longer buy the claims that those who commit brutal acts are not Muslims, or Islam has been hijacked by a bunch of fanatics. "Instead, they must acknowledge that inducements to violence lie at the root of their own most sacred texts, and take responsibility for actively refining their faith." Forth, the majority of Muslims are tired of the current state of affairs and they want a better life and higher standards of living for themselves. Many of them care less about the ambition of their theocratic leaders for ideological imperialism; this is especially true of women who are treated as second-class citizens in most Muslim countries.

The needed reforms, Hirsi Ali believes, are not going to come from the Islamic elite establishments such as Alazhar or the hard-line ayatollahs whose reign is possible only by keeping believers economically deprived and mentally unaware. Reforms should come from caring Muslims like her who live in advanced democratic countries. Other major religions have come a long way in implementing reforms. The reforms that Christianity implemented over the centuries, Islam and its gate-keeping sharia lovers refuse to even consider in 21st century.

Because Islamic clerics have no desire or interest in refuting or abrogating their sacred texts or scrutinizing what they think are the deeds and creeds of the prophet Muhammad and his infallible successors, they try sarcastically to find justifications for these things and go to great lengths to prove that they are practical in our time and use them to rationalize their own misdeeds and those of other Muslims. For example, "Modern Islamic scholars [use] Muhammad's decision to marry a six-year-old girl, consummating marriage when she turned nine, to justify child marriage in Iraq and Yemen today."

Even though she is a vehemently-opposed Islamic critic, I believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali is gaining more credibility and momentum with the publication of this book. She has continued to embark on a very difficult mission, challenging the status quo, a monumental, albeit precarious, undertaking in itself. If you have the will to criticize Islam, you are called a bigot, Islamophobic, and intolerant; however, you are also expected to tolerate Muslims' intolerance. Hirsi Ali should not be vilified; instead, she should be given credit for having ignited a conversation on the structural reforms Islam needs in order to survive and warning us about the outcome of preaching beliefs that are hostile to the way of living in modern societies and seek their destruction. Her reform proposals, as outlined in this book, are not unreasonable, far-fetched, or unattainable.

History has shown that established religions can and have changed over time. In response to new realities, sacred texts have been reinterpreted and long-time practices have been abandoned without the religion losing its identity and compromising its core values. Islam, I believe, needs to engage in an open-minded, dialogic process similar to that of the Catholic Ecumenical Councils that were held periodically over the centuries wherein the sacred texts of Christianity and Catholicism where examined in an effort to struggle with and pastorally address the reforms that were needed at the time. Of most recent note in this regard is the Second Vatican Council (1965), which produced the ground-breaking pastoral document The Church in the Modern World that challenged believers to be conscious that they live in a global community and it is their duty to work for the enhancement of human dignity, the common good of all people, and the promotion of peace and justice. A growing number of Islam's 1.6 billion adherents yearn for this kind openness and pastoral guidance from their spiritual leaders, and the world as a whole would benefit from and welcome a united, truly peace-filled, moral voice from the second-largest religion in the world.

While Islamic apologists enjoy the support of some politicians as well as well-endowed religious organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the true reformers like Hirsi Ali have been unfairly targeted by various Islamic groups, demonized, labeled as intolerant, and often threatened with violent retribution. Islamic zealots are free and steadfast in their misdeeds and are allowed to speak and brand their critics as bigots and hatemongers. They try to silence their critics and stigmatize their reformist views. We can no longer afford to look the other way and refuse to link the violence to the core beliefs of Islam, Hirsi Ali affirms. "We cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the ground of cultural sensitivity."

[O1] You may need to check this quotation. Something seems to be missing.

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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