Rules Are for Schmucks: Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali is Wrong

I am one of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s biggest fans. I went so far as to feature her story in a book I wrote about history’s twenty leading humanist heroes, ranking her alongside the likes of Socrates, Voltaire, Kemal Atatürk, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Which is why it’s so disappointing to see her fumble about with false history and backwards logic in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Heretic’s premise is appallingly simplistic. Christianity had its so-called Reformation, turning it from bad to basically ok. Therefore, Islam needs its own reformation, to do the same thing.

The first problem with this tidy little package is her complete mischaracterization of the Christian Reformation. The conventional wisdom parroted by Hirsi Ali bears little relation to what really happened. The Reformation in Germany and England changed virtually nothing about the day-to-day operation of religion other than its chain of command, from the pope to the prince. It was more of a coup d’état than a revolution. Where real change did occur—in Calvinist Switzerland, Scotland, Holland, and parts of France—reform made the religious burden on ordinary people far more oppressive than it had been under more decadent Catholicism.

What ultimately broke the religious stranglehold in Europe was not the Reformation itself, but exhaustion after the nearly two centuries of brutal warfare it triggered. Best estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of central Europe’s population was wiped out in these wars. Is that what Hirsi Ali really wants for Islam? It’s certainly true that point could be reached more quickly now, with the advent of nuclear weapons.

The next problem with Hirsi Ali’s tidy package is that Islam has already had a reformation, tracking that of the Christians quite closely. It started in Arabia in the eighteenth century as a “purifying” reaction against what was seen as the decadence of Islam under Ottoman rule, and against the growing influence of Sufi mysticism with its Christian/pagan magical elements. It was led by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and its followers ultimately succeeded in winning control of civil government, just as the earlier Christian reformers did. Wahhabists still hold that control in Arabia today, much to the anguish of the rest of the world. That’s what “reformations” produce.

Hirsi Ali is well-read enough in Muslim history that she must know all this, yet she omits it while spouting falsehoods like, “Islam has had a schism; it has never had reformation.” If confronted with this, her response would probably be that what she really wants is another reformation of the reformation, along the lines I have carefully laid out. Herein lies the root of the problem: her complete lack of credibility for the point she is making. Here we have a prominent figure who has publicly proclaimed her atheism telling God-believers what they ought to believe about God. Not because she thinks it’s true, but simply because it would be nicer for the rest of the world if they did so.

Here’s one example from Hirsi Ali’s five-point theology for reformed-reformed Islam: Muslims should stop taking the afterlife so seriously and focus more on earthly existence. This makes no sense whatsoever. If there truly is an afterlife of bliss for the devout and eternal agony for everyone else, then of course you should concentrate on that afterlife rather than on the paltry few decades you get here. If she had said, “This is the only life we get, so make the most of it,” that would make logical sense. But there is no possible way to accommodate that view with the mass of Muslim scripture, and her compromise is almost comically half-baked.

Then there’s her bullet point that Islam needs to retire the notion that the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad are the sum of all divine revelation, and allow modern God experts to revise the interpretation of what God really wants. The problem with this is that it’s already been tried. It’s called Shi’ism. The main point of contention between Shia and Sunni Muslims is that Shiites believe that certain descendants of Muhammad shed additional light on God’s will, such as the marvelous institution of “temporary marriage,” which can last by contract for as little as an hour. We can see how well Shi’ism has worked out in Iran.

Even Sunni Muslims are doing what Hirsi Ali says they are not: critiquing and reinterpreting Islam to fit the modern age. Just last week, Muslim authorities in Turkey breathlessly announced their approval of the use of toilet paper rather than water and rocks, a profound reform that may well relieve the grumpiness of many devout Muslims.

So why exactly does Hirsi Ali undermine her own credibility so badly by distorting history to promote a belief system she doesn’t herself believe? Does she think that Arabs, Persians, North Africans, and South Asians are stupider than she is and therefore unable to make the choice she made? I read Heretic eagerly looking for her careful analysis of why steering people toward a supernatural lifestance is better than advocating a simple humanist “what you see is what you get.” You can spare yourself that effort. All she ever says is that “it is unrealistic to expect a mass exodus from Islam,” with no explanation and no effort to compare the likely outcomes of advocating what you really believe rather than what you don’t. I don’t expect either a mass exodus from Islam or a mass abandonment of the teachings that make it so obnoxious, but I do believe that the way to get anywhere is to start with a clear vision of where you want to go. Taking seriously what experts tell us God wants about any issue is not part of that vision. Atatürk had it right when he growled that attempting to “reform” Islam was “as useless as a graft on dead wood.”

Both in this book and in her earlier work, Hirsi Ali proclaims that the Muslim world needs a Voltaire. Rest assured that Voltaire never wasted his time urging Christian God experts to reform their theology to suit his tastes. Instead he used satire, historical analysis, eloquence, and hard politicking to help break the power of religion in western Europe and advance an enlightenment, not a reformation—which is exactly what the Muslim world needs today.

Ms. Hirsi Ali: you have shown so much courage and so much wisdom that it’s unfair to let one stumble like Heretic sully your reputation. The hard truth, though, is that your instinct when you first came out as an apostate is spot on: Islam needs a Voltaire. Like it or not, you’re it. You need to get back to acting like it.