Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A Critical Examination

Mark Kolsen

One of America’s most prominent atheists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has been severely criticized, even threatened, for her views regarding Islam. Critics say she has misinterpreted the Qur’an, inaccurately characterized Muslims, and promoted “Islamophobia” in the United States. They further posit that she does not understand that Islam is a religion of peace, not war, and that only a radical fringe threatens the West, a minority that can be contained by military means. In her argument that Islamic doctrine must be “reformed” (delineated in her book Heretic), Hirsi Ali has also been characterized as a delusional wishful thinker. One humanist critic has even suggested Hirsi Ali must think Muslims are “stupid,” incapable of making the same (atheistic) choices she has made.

Criticism of Hirsi Ali has been especially sharp because of her support of Donald Trump and his administration. In her most recent book, The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It, she endorses the broad goals outlined by Trump in a Youngstown campaign speech from August 2016. In that speech, Trump said that Americans must “take on the ideology of radical Islam. Our administration will be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East, and will amplify their voices.” Concomitantly, Hirsi Ali criticizes Barack Obama’s previous “narrow focus” on combating only Islamist extremism, an approach that, in her words, “has proved both costly and ineffective.”

Being a friend to “all moderate Muslim reformers” seems fair enough, but some of Hirsi Ali’s concrete policy recommendations seem to align her with right-wing bigots such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, in the words of Peter Beinart, “has a history of making dangerously misleading statements about Muslims,” and whose ally, Frank Gaffney, seems to think that Muslims secretly control the U.S. government. Like Pompeo, Hirsi Ali has recommended that the Muslim Brotherhood—the alleged orchestrator of U.S. Islamists—be declared an international terrorist organization. Many of her vague recommendations about the ideological scrutinizing and surveillance of mosques, prison and military chaplains, as well as refugees and immigrants—all aimed to determine “their loyalty to the United States” —present the specter of trampling on the First Amendment rights that she claims to champion.

Why does an atheist like Hirsi Ali devote so much time to criticizing Islam, advocating its reform, and making policy recommendations that identify her more with right-wing than left-wing thinkers? How was it possible for Christopher Hitchens, and now Sam Harris, to call her their “personal hero”?

Part of the explanation lies in Infidel, her autobiographical account of growing up as a Muslim in Somalia. Having been “cut” as a child in preparation for an arranged marriage she barely escaped and having seen many Muslim women suffer under Islam (even in Holland, where she fled and lived for a time), Hirsi Ali is deeply committed to sparing other women from the same fate. Despite death threats, she continues to speak out. But personal experience only partially explains her viewpoint and commitment: to fully understand Hirsi Ali, I think one must understand Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, an extremely influential book to which Hirsi Ali often refers.

Huntington argues:

In the first half of the twentieth century intellectual elites generally assumed that economic and social modernization was leading to the withering away of religion as a significant element in human existence … . The emerging society would be tolerant, rational, pragmatic, progressive, humanistic, and secular.

Instead, Huntington argues, “a global revival of religion has occurred … . In society after society it manifests itself in the daily lives and work of people and the concerns and projects of governments.” Huntington believes that this revival is most “dramatically evident in former communist states,” especially in Russian cities where “churches are the busiest places in town.” In Central Asia, there were 160 mosques and one madrassa in 1989; by 1993 there were 10,000 mosques and ten madrassahs! The Islamic surge has involved some fundamentalist political movements but is “basically an extremely broad-based, mainstream cultural movement.”

According to Huntington, the primary cause of the “global religious resurgence” is, ironically, the social, economic, and cultural modernizations that were supposed to cause the death of religion. Huntington believes that modernization has created a global identity crisis, especially in countries such as India, China, and South Korea, where millions have moved into cities and mass communication has penetrated village life. He says:

People move from the countryside into the city, become separated from their roots, and take new jobs or no job. They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships. They need new sources of identify, new forms of stable community, and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion, both mainstream and fundamentalist, meets these needs.

Huntington says that the religious resurgence is also “a reaction against secularism, moral relativism and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help and human solidarity.” By secularism Huntington means both “godlessness” and the separation between church and state, which Islam rejects.

Huntington’s argument also explains why, in Latin America, Protestantism has replaced Catholicism and why Christianity has supplanted Buddhism in South Korea. In Latin America, Protestantism has spread among the poor because, in contrast to Catholicism’s “passivity,” it better meets “the basic needs of the person—human warmth, healing, a deep spiritual experience.” In cases such as this, religion becomes (in the philosopher Debray’s words) not an “opium for the people but a vitamin for the weak.”

Religion’s resurgence is not confined to the poor. Huntington says Islam has spread most rapidly “in advanced and seemingly more secular Muslim societies” (Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia), among people who are “modern oriented, well educated, and pursue careers in the professions, government and commerce.” As with Hindus in India, religion for these Muslims means (in the words of historian William McNeill) “the repudiation of European and American influence upon local society, politics and morals.” Huntington stresses that among these peoples, the Muslim revival is “not a rejection of modernity,” it is rejection of the West’s “secular, relativistic, degenerate culture … a proud statement that ‘We will be modern but we won’t be you.’”

In the larger context of his book, Huntington’s argument is alarming. He offers very powerful evidence that, at least since 1920, the West’s power and influence has been declining and will continue to decline well into the twenty-first century. Of course, economic development in China and other Asian countries primarily challenges Western power, but “social mobilization and population growth” in Muslim countries—especially among the fifteen to twenty-four age group—is the engine powering what Huntington calls the “Islamic Resurgence,” an event he compares to the Protestant Reformation in Western societies. He again stresses this Resurgence “is mainstream, not extremist, pervasive, not isolated,” an attempt to make Islam not just a religion but a way of life by reconstructing society from the top to the bottom and implementing sharia as the law of every land. As such, the Resurgence presents a very powerful threat to the West and has, ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, manifested itself in a “quasi war” and a “growing clash” between Islam and the West. But not only with the West: Huntington offers substantial evidence that “Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with neighbors … . Muslims make up about one fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming.”

Hirsi Ali shares Huntington’s outlook and conclusion: namely, that “[t]he underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” Hirsi Ali especially believes that to mitigate the threat Islam poses to the West, Westerners must understand the primary “cause” of this conflict and, ultimately, Islamic violence: Islamic doctrine itself, as stated in the Qur’an. Throughout her works and public presentations, she has stressed that the Qur’an does not simply express a “religion,” as Westerners know the term, but a political ideology that, she says, includes five “pernicious tenets”:

  1.  The Qur’an is the final word of God;
  2.  Muslims should strive not for happiness on this planet but in the afterlife;
  3.  Sharia, a comprehensive system of laws, should govern the spiritual and temporal realms;
  4.  Ordinary Muslims are obliged to command right and forbid wrong; and
  5.  To counter infidels refusing to convert, Muslims should engage in jihad, or holy war.

Why do these five tenets seriously threaten Western freedoms, especially its traditional separation between church and state? Because, Hirsi Ali argues, unlike the Catholic Church’s bishops or pope, Islam has no “professors of Islam” to interpret these tenets; rather, every man is a self-appointed interpreter of the Qur’an. However, unlike the Christian moderate, who may read the Bible and select only those parts that agree with his or her values, the average Muslim mostly ignores the Qur’an and has not reflected critically on its meanings. When a young Muslim questions his identity and asks “What does it mean to be a Muslim?,” he or she turns to self-appointed “scholars” who provide literal interpretations of these tenets with little or no historical context to moderate their meaning. These “scholars” are part of Muslim networks marketing dawa, the call to become, and act like, a Muslim. A young Muslim who answers the call and “understands” the tenets can quickly become radicalized. A conflicted young Muslim who has lived a Western lifestyle and ignored obligatory prayers may especially be motivated by knowing that martyring oneself will wipe out all past sins and provide immediate happiness in heaven.

Hirsi Ali recognizes that not all Muslims are “Islamists” or “jihadists.” But throughout her writings and presentations, she offers weighty and wide-ranging evidence that, per Huntington, the Muslim “threat” is not confined to a lunatic fringe. To cite just a few examples: Convinced by the Qur’an’s teaching that happiness lies in the afterlife, some Muslim parents will encourage, and then celebrate, their children’s “martyrdom.” What Western parents would do the same? On college campuses where Hirsi Ali has spoken, Muslim students will completely lack empathy when she offers examples of Muslim women getting beaten. In fact they will become enraged when she cites verses in the Qur’an justifying these beatings. Or consider a Pew study of 2013 that showed that in twenty-five of thirty-nine countries surveyed, a majority of Muslims wanted their countries governed by sharia law. In countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and among Palestinians, more than a quarter of Muslims surveyed said that acts of violence are sometimes justified. In the United States, only 86 percent thought violent tactics were rarely if ever justified: “only” because the other 14 percent constitutes more than 400,000 Americans!

In every act of terrorism, Hirsi Ali sees Islamic doctrine coming to life. She is highly critical of those “on the left” who view terrorist acts as aberrations and caution against a reactive intolerance of most Muslims: it is, she argues, Islam—as stated in the Qur’an—that is intolerant of traditional Western values such as free speech and the separation of church and state. As long as there is an inconsistency between the doctrines of the Qur’an and the words of peace-loving Muslims, the threat to Western values will exist, and more acts of terrorism can be expected. Quoting Karl Popper, Hirsi Ali says tolerance has its limits, and Westerners have the right to be intolerant of values threatening their own, just as they were intolerant of fascism during World War II. Muslim immigrants to Western nations must be strictly scrutinized, with priority given to those showing “loyalty” to the United States. The government should increase its surveillance of mosques or other Muslim groups preaching dawa. Beyond intolerance, the only other “solution” for Westerners is to follow Trump’s Youngstown words and work to “reform Islam.”

Reform Islam? Here Hirsi Ali’s thinking hits roadblocks. When it comes to actually reforming the Qur’an’s five pernicious tenets, she merely suggests that “the administration should ally itself with genuine Muslim moderates and reformers, not with ‘nonviolent’ Islamists.” It should also engage in a cyber-war with those online groups preaching dawa and “use broadcast institutions overseas (e.g. Voice of America) to fight the war of ideas by disseminating a counter-dawa message, highlighting the work of Muslim reformers … .”

Who are the “genuine Muslim moderates and reformers”? Hirsi Ali is speaking of people such as Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who now runs Quilliam, “the world’s first counter extremism organization.” In Islam and the Future of Tolerance (a book Hirsi Ali has endorsed), Nawaz explains to Sam Harris what moderates can do to change, or at least challenge, “the rigidity of ideological dogma” that Hirsi Ali sees as the primary cause of the Muslim threat. Nawaz speaks from deep experience: in Radical, he details his own transition from a deeply aggrieved sixteen-year-old to an Islamist and then to an advocate of a secular, liberal, human-rights perspective. Reading Radical will give pause to anyone doubting Hirsi Ali’s view that dawa and the Qur’an can quickly radicalize young Muslims.

Unlike Hirsi Ali, Nawaz believes that Islam is a religion of peace “because the vast majority of Muslims do not believe it is a religion of war.” However, he agrees with Hirsi Ali that the Qur’an is a major cause of Islamic violence and needs to be reformed. To Nawaz, the problem is that Muslims need to understand that historically, jurists have interpreted the Qur’an in different ways, and that the fundamentalist interpretation is not the “correct” one. Texts, he says, “don’t speak for themselves”; their meaning, he argues, is a function of “the relationship you have with the text.” There is no one “correct interpretation” of any text.

Nawaz hopes to persuade Muslims that the Qur’an, including its “pernicious tenets,” can be interpreted in various ways. For example, with regard to the afterlife, various Muslim jurists have seen a contradiction between the Qur’an’s depiction of God as “infinitely merciful” and hell as “infinite punishment” for those who don’t accept dawa. Nawaz says that, in contrast to the fundamentalist interpretations, the student of one famous jurist, Ibn al-Qaayim, “took the view that hell is not really eternal. He focused on particular passages in the Qur’an, after God’s description of ‘eternal hellfire,’ where caveats such as ‘except as God wills’ and ‘everything terminates except his grace’ appear.” In his discussion with Sam Harris, Nawaz points to other examples of jurists who have cast doubt on fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an.

Given the historical and intellectual difficulties in conveying these various interpretations to Muslims, it is easy to agree with Sam Harris that moderates such as Nawaz have an “almost impossible” task. But there is also no doubt that Hirsi Ali and reformers such as Nawaz have persuasively argued that a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an presents a real threat to the West, a threat not confined to a radical fringe.

And at least one government—Denmark’s—appears to be taking Hirsi Ali’s arguments seriously. In July 2018, the Danish parliament passed laws to curb potential violence and encourage greater assimilation of Muslim immigrants living in Danish ghettoes. Among these laws, poorer Muslim children must attend classes on Danish culture and values for twenty-five hours each week. Parents are also forbidden to send their children abroad for “re-education” in Islamic nations. The government believes that if families “do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled.” To discourage potential violence, the law authorizes local officials to increase surveillance in Muslim ghetto neighborhoods. More laws are forthcoming.

Are these laws “harsh,” as the New York Times has stated? Perhaps, but Sweden offers evidence that admitting Muslim immigrants without cultural “education” can have explosive consequences. This past summer, I spoke with many Swedes about the violence in Gothenburg and the rise of the anti-immigrant right wing throughout Sweden. Generally, they criticized their government for only addressing the economic needs of Muslim immigrants and felt that Muslims needed to understand what it means “to be a Swede.” They predicted that unless the government addresses cultural differences, violence would increase.

In the end, although Hirsi Ali’s views may irritate liberals and/or those who advocate that government respect all religious beliefs, she understands, in theory and practice, why Islam is a dangerous religion. Her willingness to advocate her controversial but well-founded position, despite persistent death threats, explains why Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, as well as other New Atheists like me, consider her a hero.

Mark Kolsen

Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and has been a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.

One of America’s most prominent atheists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has been severely criticized, even threatened, for her views regarding Islam. Critics say she has misinterpreted the Qur’an, inaccurately characterized Muslims, and promoted “Islamophobia” in the United States. They further posit that she does not understand that Islam is a religion of peace, not war, and …

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