Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Good Start but Loses Steam — Heretic: Book Review

Summary That Islam needs a reformation, and urgently, is not in debate. The unfolding tragedy of…


That Islam needs a reformation, and urgently, is not in debate. The unfolding tragedy of the civil war Syria, where an estimated forty per cent of its population (yes, two of every five people) has been displaced as a result of the largely Shia-Sunni conflict is just one example.

Today, Islam is often said to be in the same state as where Christianity was a few hundred years ago. “Reformation” helped bring in a gradual moderation of the more violent and extremist facets of Christianity -especially the Church. While the zealous streak of “soul-harvesting” and proselytization by missionaries still threatens serious unrest wherever it rears its ugly head, it is nonetheless an undeniable fact that Christianity of the twenty-first century looks little like the Christianity of the medieval ages.

Ayaan Hrisi Ali calls for a similar “reformation” in Islam.

This book however, does not succeed in making a cogent case for such a reformation, nor does it get down to specifics in any coherent way that could provide a basis for serious discussion – beyond what can be found by a quick reading of Wikipedia or even Twitter.

What little usefulness the book offered is however, drowned out by an uncritical adulation of everything western and a blind faith in western social mores as a panacea to all ills of the Muslim world. This book is perhaps targeted at the western reader who is looking for comforting validation of existing stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world – it may provide a comforting cocoon, but will not shed light on the vexing issue that is in crying need of serious debate.

Long Review

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s rise from a Somalian refugee escaping a forced marriage, to seeking asylum in the Netherlands, to becoming an elected member of the Dutch parliament, to her landing at the Harvard Kennedy School, and becoming a target for jihadis and the recipient of endless death threats, evokes admiration for the single-minded courage that she has shown in the face of such unremitting intimidation from fundamentalists over the years.

In “Heretic”, Ali attempts to lay out the case for a “reformation” in Islam, much along the lines of a similar reformation as happened in Christianity half a millennium ago. The silencing of any voice that rises in the criticism of Islam takes many forms.

Leaving aside the obvious brutality of the so-called IS (or ISIS or ISIL -whatever name they go by on any given day), the favoured instruments of such silencing is censorship, and intimidation through labeling – call it verbal terrorism.

Ali lists out at least four forms of censorship and intimidation. First, “death threats are obviously the most troubling form of intimidation.” Then there are organizations that seek to prevent her from “speaking freely, particularly on university campuses.” “Islamophobia” is one label that is hurled freely at most critics. Fourth, “some have argued that because I am not a scholar of Islamic religion, or even a practicing Muslim, I am not a competent authority on the subject.

If these sound familiar, that’s because these have also been the favoured weapons of intimidation in India for decades – employed by Marxist and leftist academics and self-styled historians to devastating effect. Just as in India, such ad hominem lines of attack are chosen because “it is because they cannot actually refute what I am saying.

Ali’s latest brush with censorship came in 2014, when Brandeis University in Massachusetts had to rescind its decision to award her an honorary doctorate in the face of coordinated intimidation by several groups in the United States. It was a spectacle of supreme irony, if not outright farce, where a set of “strange bedfellows” came together in this act. Like “Professors of “Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies” lining up with CAIR, an organization subsequently blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates? An authority on “Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory” siding with the openly homophobic Islamists?”

Ali is quite clear that she does not believe that “Islamic belief makes Muslims naturally violent“; and if one could argue with the semantics of that statement, what she says about the religion’s sacred texts is much clearer, but also provocative – “the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam.” When Ali writes about the case for reformation in Islam, it is not quite clear as to what one is to make of such a statement – “I left Islam, and I still think it is the best choice for Muslims who feel trapped between their conscience and the commands of Muhammad.

Is Ali arguing that followers of Islam should leave Islam till such time as it reforms – a convoluted line of argumentation at best? That would be apostasy, a danger that its founder had already foreseen and had therefore classified it as a crime punishable by death.

Reforming a religion by leaving it is not quite what she intended, one assumes. While heresy is manifestly the intent of the book – in both content and title – the question of apostasy is also one that would have intrigued readers. The answer – as to why apostasy is considered the greater of the two crimes in Islam – while not debated or dwelt upon in the book, is still hinted at, through the words of Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Opposing apostasy is what kept Islam to this day.

To make a case for reformation in Islam, you also have to ask, and answer, two questions.

The Quran

First, why the holy texts of Islam have not been subjected to scrutiny and re-interpretation. After all, the Bible has been re-interpreted and the passages deemed unfit for more civilized times have been de-emphasized.

Hinduism (which interestingly enough for Ali is not one of the “three great religions of the world” – that honour is bestowed on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) has had its own history and tradition of interpretation and self-reform going back literally thousands of years. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna himself warns of the perils of taking what is written in the holy texts to be the whole and complete truth!

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, there is the question of why do a fairly large number of Muslims – in absolute numbers, though possibly not in percentage terms – and from all economic spheres, not just from the downtrodden, oppressed – find jihad such a compelling calling?

“Beheadings are sanctioned in verse chapter 47, verse 4, of the Qu’ran, among others, which states: “when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks.”

Whether the Qur’an can be re-interpretated is a question that has been asked, and answered – almost a thousand years ago. “Nine hundred years have passed, and yet al-Ghazali (yes, Ali spells it with a single “z” in one place, and with two “z”s in another) is still considered by many in Islam to be second only to Muhammad.” Ayaan Ali writes that it was the imam Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Gazalli who played a “key role” in the “closing of the gates of itjihad” – a process gradual but inexorably irreversible nonetheless that shut any possibility of new interpretation of Islamic doctrine, and which happened in the tenth century.

The related question then is, what about those passages from the Qur’an that are conciliatory in nature, and how do you reconcile them with the ones that reject any notion of conciliation or moderation?

Beheadings are sanctioned in verse chapter 47, verse 4, of the Qu’ran, among others, which states: “when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks.

“Crucifixions are sanctioned in 5:33: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting of hands and feet from opposite ends, or exile from the land.“”

“Amputations are prescribed in 5:38: “As to the thief, Male or female, cut off his or her hands…“.  Stonings are also permitted, according to the hadith Su-nan Aby Dawud, book 38, no. 4413.

David Cook, “a professor of religious studies at Rice University” noted “that in the Qur’an, “the root (the verbal derivatives” of the word jihad appears quite frequently with regard to fighting (e.g., 2:218, 3:143, 8:72, 74-75, 9:16, 20, 41, 86, 61:11) or fighters (mujahidin, 4:95, 47:31).”

It is obviously next to impossible to redefine the word “jihad” as if its call to arms is purely metaphorical. There is too much conflicting scripture, and too many examples from the Qur’an and hadith that the jihadists can cite to bolster their case.

To explain these contradictions, Ali writes, “Islamic scholars developed a doctrine known as “abrogation” (an-Nasikh wa;l Mansukh), whereby Allah issues new revelations that supersede old ones.” Then there is the concept of so-called “Satanic Verses”, that most westerners would have heard of more in the context as the title of a 1988 book that earned its author, Salman Rushdie, a “fatwa” – a death sentence – from the Ayatollah of Iran in 1989.

The second question can be answered partly, writes Ali, by “Islam’s afterlife fixation” that “tends to erode the intellectual and moral incentives that are essential for “making it” in the modern world.

Much has been made and written of the concept of 72 virgins in Islam that would be a martyr’s right in heaven. Some Islamic scholars have taken that number and concept not only too literally, but also to ridiculous limits. Ponder this “hadith narrated by the famous scholar al-Ghazzali:

These places [in paradise] are built of emeralds and jewels an in each building there will be seventy rooms of red color and in each room seventy sub-rooms of green color and in each sub-room there will be one throne and over each throne seventy beds of varied colors and on each bed a girl having sweet black eyes … There will be seven girls in each room … Each believer will be given such strength in the morning as he can cohabit with them.

Having to resolve matters of cognitive dissonance on a daily level results in a state where “… most of the Muslim world, both inside and Muslim-majority nations and in the West, lives half in and half out of modernity. Islam is content to use the West’s technological products – there is even app that will remind you when to say your five daily prayers – but resists the underlying values that produced them.

So, one can identify two ingredients that could plausibly explain much of the turmoil that has emanated from the middle-east – at least one religion that resists any and all attempts at moderation, and a fixation on the after-life to the point of rendering life on earth as nothing more than a means of attaining the mythical pleasures of heaven.

A third ingredient is the evolution of Islam in a place where tribal cultures were supreme. “In this world, conflicts within the clan had to be defused as quickly as possible to preserve the image of strength; infighting would lead to the perception of weakness and make the clan vulnerable to attack. Honor was all-important … In a clan setting, shameful behavior constitutes a betrayal of the bloodline. In the wider Islamic setting, heresy constitutes a comparable threat, as does outright unbelief – apostasy – both of which are punishable by death.” It should not come as any surprise, therefore, that “the new religion retained many traditional tribal customs and enshrined them as religious values.

But… “It is not fashionable today in academic circles to discuss the legacy of Arab clan structures in the development of Islam. It is considered ethnocentric, if not downright orientalist, even to bring it up.

This is a very intriguing assertion, but one to which no substantial space is given in the book – this flitting from one topic to the other is a consistent theme in the book. Nor does Ali try to compare the effects of such an importance on “honor” with other religions and geographies. For example, the American South saw horrific levels of savagery perpetrated in the name and defence of slavery, from a devout Christian populace, and nearly a same obsession with honour. Even today, some of the most virulently fundamentalist missionary organizations can be found in the American South. Some of the nuttiest cults in the United States, like the Ku Klux Klan, have originated in the American South. An opportunity lost perhaps, by Ali.

When Ali writes – to remind everyone of the intolerance exhibited by Islamic countries like Pakistan – that in 2010, “the offices of the international Christian aid group World Vision were attacked“, she adds that World Vision was “helping the survivors of a major earthquake“, and that the provocation of the attack seemed to be the fear that “World Vision was working to subvert Islam.

For those unaware, World Vision is an aggressive proselytizer, often using natural calamities as a cover to “harvest” “heathen” souls. Valerie Tarico, in the Huffington Post, writes 8362.html that “People in disaster zones and small children, the two primary populations served by World Vision, are both particularly vulnerable, and because of this they are particularly vulnerable to influence.”

Does this justify the murderous attack on World Vision? Certainly not. Context however, is missing from Ali’s narrative – and this again is a consistent pattern throughout the book. The desire to interpret the world in black-and-white is a consistent leitmotif throughout the book.

On a related note, an area that deserved at least some debate in this saga would have to be the role played by Western governments in overthrowing democratic governments in the middle-east – like the coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953, being just one. Such illegal, illegitimate interventions played no small role in the resentment of middle-easterns towards the West. Ayaan Ali gives this a complete skip.

It is that same cloying adulation of everything western that probably drove Ali to write – “Christians today, with few exceptions, repudiated the intolerance of the past.” I was reminded of one of the most infamous acts of religious bigotry exhibited in the United States, against Hinduism.

The Southern Baptists, in 1999, released a 16-page booklet – to coincide with the Hindu festival of Diwali – calling upon God to save Hindus from “the hopeless darkness“of their faith. The pamphlet began thus – “More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism, worshiping 330 million gods and goddesses created by the imagination of men and women searching for a source of truth and strength“.

Leaving aside the rather questionable attitude of such missionary organizations for the time being, one cannot overlook the Republican Party in the United States. Some of its statements regarding immigrants and religion would sound little different from the Islamists of the middle-east that Ali has written the book denouncing.

Like the 2012 statement of Todd Atkin, a member of the US House of Representatives and a member of the Republican Party, who claimed that “legitimate rape” rarely led to pregnancies. Or Wisconsin State Assembly member Roger Rivard, who stated in 2011 that “some girls rape easy.” Or Rush Limbaugh’s numerous statements about minorities, immigrants, African Americans, women, and people of different sexual orientations. He has, for more than twenty years, the most popular commercial talk show in the United States, with weekly listeners in excess of 13 million.

So can you really assert that Christian or right-wing radicalization in the US has declined? Compared with a century ago, undeniably yes. But the trend seems to have started to reverse in an uncomfortable way. More schools in more states today in the United States mandate that “intelligent design” – which is a neo-creationist Christian religious agenda – be taught as a theory on par with Darwin’s theory of natural evolution.

Or that there were 41 abortion clinics in the state of Texas in 2012. There were 18 left as of July 2015. Or the spate of attacks on Hindu temples throughout the United States in 2014 and 2015 – in Texas in April 2015, in Bothell and Kent in the state of Washington in February 2015, in North Carolina in July 2015, in Georgia in August 2014. According e-message-in-us/article6904604.ece  to the Hindu American Foundation, “Between July and October [2014] in Loudon County in Virginia, police documented 17 separate incidents of anti-Hindu vandalism.”

Then there is the elephant-in-the-room question: what is one to make of the breathtaking ignorance that Ali demonstrates of the world that sits east of the middle-east?

Ayaan Hrisi Ali declares, in a magnanimous concession to the Arabs that “the medieval Arabic world gave us its numerals”. One wonders whether the learned men and women at Harvard didn’t gently point out to Ali that she is terribly wrong. The Arabs neither invented nor gave anyone the numerals. It were the Hindus, that not only came up with the concept of zero, but also gave the world the concept of the decimal placeholder system.

The Arabs, smart traders that they were, learned it from the Hindus to be able to do their accounts more correctly – the west “borrowed” this practice from the Arabs. Ali’s urge to paint everything with broad strokes of the stereotypical is too jarring to not notice.

In keeping with the temptation to paint broad strokes, time and again, that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, Ali writes – “Muslim city-dwellers are much more likely to be resistant to the people I have called Medina Muslims…“.

One is tempted to remind her of a city named Mumbai, in a country named India, and of the Azad Maidan riots of 2013. That was when a crazed mob of tens of thousands rampaged through the heart of downtown Mumbai, destroying public property at will, even as police stood mutely by – a visible symbol of the impotence of the state against the might of radical Islam. Two people died, 45 policemen were injured, and property worth an estimated 27 million rupees was destroyed. Police claimed that “at least five women police constables were molested by mob.” 12] Also, the injured policemen said the protestors beat them with hockey stick,[13]

iron rod,[13]  stones,[13] wooden mace with nails[13]
<>  and metal rod.
< > [13]” [Wikipedia].

Mumbai is a city. The rioters were city-dwellers, and they did not prove to be “resistant” to “Medina Muslims”. Far from it.

It does beg the question as to what learnings can be drawn from the book when a region that is staggering in what it has to offer from an Islamic perspective: three contiguous countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) that house more than half a billion Muslims (503 million, as per a 2010 Pew report), a region which has the second and third largest Muslim majority countries (Pakistan and Bangladesh), and which has the largest Muslim minority population (India), and this region barely registers no more than a blip on Ali’s radar.

From an academic’s perspective, Ali sees nothing to discuss or educate the western reader of a region more than three million square kilometers that remained under partial or substantial Islamic rule for close to eight hundred years, and yet remains predominantly Hindu, and which – thus far -has not been engulfed in the inferno of upheaval witnessed in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

However, Ali correctly points out that “the global jihadist network would not exist on anything like the scale it does today if it had not been for Saudi funding…” But again, yet again, following a pattern of denial by omission, there is no mention of the abundant funding and military support that the United States has provided to the despots of Saudi Arabia for decades now.

Similarly, the attackers of 9/11 were all from Pakistan, a country that has received billions of dollars in military funding from the United States, to say nothing of the very public diplomatic support its dictators have received from the US political leadership for over half a century.

When Ali writes that “dozens if not hundreds of developments have convinced me” that the Muslim Reformation is “not fiction. It is fact“, I had expected at least a few examples. Apart from trotting out Malala Yousafzai and Taslima Nasreen’s names – and that too more in passing than in any real, substantive sense – there are really no women presented by way of evidence for her other assertion that “some of the most vocal critics of Islam today are, like me, women.” This sentence appears on page 225. That page has not a single woman’s name. Might one conclude that Ali herself not believe in her assertion; or perhaps Ali is not too comfortable sharing the spotlight with other women?

Finally, I would have expected Ali to be at least somewhat disturbed by the lack of religious and academic freedom even at the place where she teaches a course – Harvard University. In 2011, Harvard University dropped a course in Economics offered by Dr. Subramaniam Swamy, because he had penned an article suggesting that Indian Muslims acknowledge their (mostly) Hindu ancestry.

One wonders whether Harvard University, like so many other academic institutions in the United States, allows voices that are consistent with the narrative it wants to convey and over whom it can suitably exercise control – subtle but undeniable control. Dr. Swamy’s is not a voice that can be controlled – hence it had to be silenced from the campus of Harvard University. An instance of intimidation and censorship that should have been of interest to Ali, given her personal experience with such intimidation that she details in the opening of the book.

While the opening chapters of the book are reasonably well organized, cogent in their presentation, and one could overlook the lack of depth to any topic in the book as the exigencies imposed by the mass-market it targets; the book thereafter reads no more than a hurried collection of the atrocities perpetrated by IS and Islamic radicals in parts of the world.

Heretic comes off as written for the reader who does not want to be burdened by complexities, nuanced arguments, subtleties, and above all – inconvenient counter-narratives.

Disclaimer: views expressed are personal. Disclosure: my thanks to Indic Academy for a copy of the book.

Book and buying information:

Harper (March 24, 2015)

Publication Date: March 24, 2015

ISBN: 0062333933,  978-0062333933

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