There is an Alternative to Islam’s Example
01 Jul, 2006
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a widely admired and controversial political figure because of her attempts to free women from an oppressive Muslim culture. She survived years of death threats and furious denouncements after moving to the Netherlands, where she was elected an MP. Labeled an infidel, she has had to have permanent protection since 2002, when she described the Prophet Muhammad as a tyrant and pervert and Islam as a backward religion. She was threatened with deportation by the Dutch authorities after a dispute over her asylum application, and announced her intention of living in America.
- Her bestselling collection of essays, The Caged Virgin, brings together some of her most passionate and compelling writing on a wide range of issues concerning Islam. Drawing on her own first-hand experience and cultural background, she assesses the role of women in Islam both in practice and in theory; the rights of the individual; fanaticism; and Western policies towards immigrant communities.
AFTER THE CARNAGE OF THE terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, Tony Blair defined the situation as a battle of ideas. “Our values will long outlast theirs,” he said, to the silent acquiescence of the world leaders who stood alongside him. “Whatever (the terrorists) do, it is our determination that they will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear in this country and in other civilized nations throughout the world.”
By defining this as a battle of values, Blair raised the question: which values are at stake? Those who love freedom know that the open society relies on a few key shared concepts. They believe that all humans are born free, are endowed with reason and have inalienable rights. These governments are checked by the rule of law, so that civil liberties are protected. They ensure freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and ensure that men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, are entitled to equal treatment and protection under the law. And these governments have free-trade practices and an open market, and people may spend their recreational time as they wish.
The terrorists, and the Sharia-based societies to which they aspire, have an entirely different philosophical point of view. Societies that espouse the following of Sharia law, which is a code derived from a literalist reading of the Koran, are fundamentalist Islamists. They believe that people are born to serve Allah through a series of obligations that are prescribed in an ancient body of writings. These edicts vary from rituals of birth and funeral rites to the most intimate details of human life; they descend to the point of absurdity in matters such as how to blow your nose and with what foot to step into a bathroom. Humans in this philosophy must kill those among them who leave their faith, and are required to be hostile to people of other religions and ways of life. In their hostility, they are even sanctioned in the murder of innocent people. The edicts make no distinction between civilians and the military — anyone who does not share this faith is an infidel and can be marked for murder.
In this Sharia society women are subordinate to men. They must be confined to their houses, beaten if found disobedient, forced into marriage and hidden behind the veil. The hands of thieves are cut off and capital punishment is performed on crowded public squares in front of cheering crowds. The terrorists seek to impose this way of life not only in Islamic countries, but, as Blair said, on Western societies too.
The central figure in this struggle is not bin Laden, or Khomeini, or Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Sayyid Qutb (the Egyptian schools’ inspector whose ideas fed the minds of those who flew the planes on 9/11), but Muhammad. A pre-medieval figure to whom these four men — along with all faithful Muslims in our modern world — look for guidance, Muhammad and his teachings offer a fundamental challenge to the West. Faithful Muslims — all faithful Muslims — believe that they must emulate this man, in principle and practical matters, under all circumstances. And so, before we embark on a battle of ideas, we will need to take a look at this figure, and his presence in the daily lives and homes of faithful Muslims today.
On reading the Koran and the traditional writings, it is apparent that Muhammad’s life not only provides rules for the daily lives of Muslims, it also demonstrates the means by which his values can be imposed. Yet remnants from some of the earliest Korans in existence, dating from the 7th and 8th centuries, show small aberrations from the text that is now considered the standard Koran. Nonetheless, just as some fundamentalist Christians cannot understand that the Bible went through numerous changes, interpretations, and translations before it became the contemporary text now widely used, and consider it inerrant, many fundamentalist Muslims consider the Koran a perfect, timeless representation of the unchanging word of God.
To spread his visions and teachings, which he believed to be from God, and to consolidate his secular power, Muhammad built the House of Islam using military tactics that included mass killing, torture, targeted assassination, lying and the indiscriminate destruction of productive goods. This may be embarrassing, and even painful, for moderate Muslims to admit and to consider, but it is historical fact. And a close look at the propaganda produced by the terrorists reveals constant quotation of Muhammad’s deeds and edicts to justify their actions and to call on other Muslims to support their cause.
In their thinking about radical Muslim terrorism most politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and other commentators have avoided the core issue of the debate, which is Muhammad’s example. In order to win the hearts and minds of those millions of undecided Muslims, it is crucial to engage them in a process of clear thinking on how to evaluate the moral guidance of the man whose compass they follow. The advantage of this rational process is that it provides an alternative to the utopia as well as the hell promised by the terrorists. Indeed, the threat of Hell is the single most effective menace that the fundamentalists hold over the heads of young men and women in order to indoctrinate and intimidate them into violent action. Yet the literal translation of utopia is “not (a) place”, from the Greek “ou”, meaning not, or no, plus topos, meaning place. The dictionary defines a utopia as “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place”. The true alternative to such an impossible place is the open society, democracy, which has already been empirically proven to work. The open society gives Muslims, as it gives Christians and Jews, the opportunity to liberate themselves from the ever-present menace of Hell. The extremists tell the young people that they must defend their faith, avenge insults against Muhammad and the holy word of God, the Koran. What is it exactly that they think they are defending? A call for clear thought on this important question should not be offensive, or hurtful, to Muslims. And yet many people in the West flinch from doing so. The communis opinio seems to hold that questioning or criticizing a holy figure is not polite behavior, somehow not done. This movement for cultural relativism within Western society betrays the basic values on which our open society is constructed. As thinking human beings, we should never censor our analytic thoughts; we should never censor our reason.
Along these lines, I would argue that Tony Blair should rethink his Bill against blasphemy. Years ago some British Muslims unsuccessfully called for Salman Rushdie to be tried under Britain’s blasphemy law after the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses.
But the law recognized only blasphemy against the Church of England, Britain’s dominant, official religion. But in June 2005 the British Parliament approved government plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. This Bill was aimed primarily at preventing racism against Muslims in Britain.
Even though the Home Secretary argued that the Bill wasn’t about stopping people from making jokes about religion — which would be a tragedy in the land that gave birth to Monty Python — or stopping people from having robust debates about religion, it is unclear why this Bill was necessary. Inciting religious hatred is already against the law. And as the head of a civil rights group in Britain said: “In a democracy there is no right not to be offended.” He added that religion is related to a body of ideas and people have the right to debate and criticise other people’s ideas. Another activist fighting the Bill averred: “The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas — even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.”
Muslims in Europe and across the world may be seen as roughly dividing into three groups. Most visible are the terrorists, who resort to violence (and their allies, the fundamentalists, who do not kill or maim, but provide the terrorists with material and non-material or psychological assistance). Second, their polar opposite is a group of people (and although tiny, it is growing) which may be characterized by its questioning of the relevance and moral soundness of Muhammad’s example.
They may one day provide an intellectual counterweight to the terrorists and their supporters. I, who was born and bred a Muslim, count myself among them. We in this group have embraced the open society as a true alternative to a society based on the laws of Muhammad — a better way to build a framework for human life. We could call this group the reformers.
The terrorists have far more power and resources than the reformers, but both groups vie to influence the thinking of the vast majority of Muslims. The reformers use only nonviolent means, like writing, to draw attention to debates over core values. The terrorists and fundamentalists, however, use force, the threat of force, appeals to pity (“look at what the West is doing to Islam and Muslims”), and ad hominem smears to evoke a knee-jerk community to withdraw into self-defence.
In the West, these tactics give rise to moral relativists who defend so-called victims of Islamophobia; meanwhile, the reformists are shunned by their families and communities and live under the constant fear of assassination. In short, the core of the debate is made taboo, and the fundamentalists attain a near monopoly on the hearts and minds of the third and largest group of Muslims, the undecided.
Who are these “undecided” Muslims? They are the group to which Tony Blair refers when he says: “The vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people.” They live in Edgware Road and Bradford, and in Amsterdam and St Denis; they are not fervent observers of every ritual of Islam, but they count themselves as believers. They are immigrants and second-generation youths who have come to the West to enjoy the benefits of the open society, in which they have a vested interest. But they do not question the infallibility of Muhammad and the soundness of his moral example. They know that Muhammad calls for slaughter of infidels; they know that the open society rightly condemns the slaughter of innocents. They are caught in a mental cramp of cognitive dissonance, and it is up to the West to support the reformists in trying to ease them out of that painful contradiction. The established Muslim organizations, which operate on government subsidy, offer no more than a cosmetic approach to eradicating terrorism inspired by the Prophet Muhammad — “peace be upon Him”, naturally.
The first victims of Muhammad are the minds of Muslims themselves. They are imprisoned in the fear of Hell and so also fear the very natural pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. There is as yet no consensus in the West on whether to support the side of the radical reformers. The present-day attitude of Western cultural relativists, who flinch from criticizing Muhammad for fear of offending Muslims, allows Western Muslims to hide from reviewing their own moral values. This attitude also betrays the tiny majority of Muslim reformers who desperately require the support — and even the physical protection — of their natural allies in the West.
Muslims must review and reform their approach to Muhammad’s teachings if those who love freedom and the open society are to co-exist peacefully with them. The terrorists and their allies the fundamentalists should not dictate to us Westerners the rules of the game. We must maintain and proclaim our core values of free and open debate, of rational thinking, and the rule of law not religion. In this, the resolve of the British people to preserve civil rights is brave, and should be an example to all of us. The use of torture and the denial of legal rights to suspects of terrorism will serve only to corrupt Western systems and views of the West as a model of openness. Such actions also provide the terrorists with facts that serve as ammunition to prove their specious argument that the West is hypocritical and morally confused.
© Ayaan Hirsi Ali 2006
In the preface to The Caged Virgin Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes how she came to question her upbringing
My parents in Somalia brought me up to be a Muslim — a good Muslim. Muslims, as we were taught the meaning of the name, are people who submit themselves to Allah’s will, which is found in the Koran and the Hadith, a collection of sayings ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. I was taught that Islam sets us apart from the rest of the world, the world of non-Muslims. We Muslims are chosen by God. They, the others, the Kaffirs, the unbelievers, are antisocial, impure, barbaric, not circumcised, immoral, unscrupulous, and above all, obscene; they have no respect for women; their girls and women are whores; many of the men are homosexual; men and women have sex without being married. The unfaithful are cursed, and God will punish them most atrociously in the hereafter.
But, through my personal experiences, through reading a great deal and speaking to others, I have come to realize that the existence of Allah, of angels, demons, and a life after death, is at the very least disputable. If Allah exists at all, we must not regard His word as absolute, but challenge it.
AYAAN HIRSI ALI, a Somali immigrant who served in the parliament of the Netherlands until earlier this year, is the author of best-selling 'Infidel' and 'The Caged Virgin'. She is currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.