I recently read ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now‘ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book is an attempt to persuade Western liberals to stop regarding Islamist violence as a politically-motivated aberration that has nothing to do with true Islam; to recognise that movements such as IS do in fact draw from the core texts and tenets of the religion, and that therefore, the only way to stop them proliferating is for Islam to undergo a Reformation in which the faith is reinterpreted and revised for the present day. In her view this would have to mean letting go of some core doctrines, such as belief in the Qur’an as the absolute and infallible word of God.
Well, I found the book frustratingly shallow. There was no recognition at all of the complex interplay between global politics and religion: she notes that Hassan al-Banna – who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – wanted a return to a precolonial era, but she does not discuss the effect of colonialism at all. She cites that “Pew found that 91 percent of Iraqi Muslims and 99 percent of Afghan Muslims supported making sharia their country’s official law”, noting that these countries “are considered to be transitioning to democracy” but failing to note the glaringly obvious thing these countries have in common: recent invasion by Western coalitions.
She is in thrall to the West, and seems to take a very rose-tinted view of its actions: she contrasts the cult of martyrdom in IS with “in the Judeo-Christian world … the concept of self-sacrifice as a noble act when it aims to preserve the lives of others. In the United States, we expect the men and women of our armed forces to be willing to die to protect their fellow citizens.” In other words, self-sacrifice in Islam is aggressive in nature while in the West it is benevolent and only concerned with saving others. This is laughable.
Her arguments about the nature of early Islam as a conquering, expanding empire, and the way that that has fused a political model into the religion, did ring true for me. It’s clear that IS is an attempt to recreate the Islamic empire of old, although I’m sure it is a mistaken one in many ways.
I think the legacy of the rise and decline of an Islamic imperial power also makes Western infractions – colonialism, greed-motivated invasions of oil-rich Muslim nations, support for the occupation of Palestine – sting all the worse for Muslims. It has left a sense of solidarity across the Muslim world that amplifies their grievances and deepens the fault line between East and West.
But Western nations are trying to hang on to a threatened hegemony too. In many ways I feel that the Muslim world holds a mirror up to the West and we don’t like what we see, but we refuse to recognise ourselves in it. There is a somewhat analogous pattern of solidarity across Western nations that shows itself in our huge, demonstrative sympathetic responses to terrorist attacks in Western countries (the flags overlaid on Facebook profile pictures and so on), and comparative silence over the continual attacks suffered in the rest of the world. We seem barely aware of this selective solidarity, let alone able to see it as a threatening thing. And yes, there are violent, extremist fringes in our crumbling empires too. The Brexit referendum has unleashed an ugliness that has shocked a lot of people.
There is a nastiness that comes with the memory of lost power. Moral superiority is easy when you’re still on top. We pride ourselves on our liberal tolerance, our practical shows of solidarity with the most marginalised, disadvantaged or oppressed groups; but to some extent, this is made possible by idealising those people in their powerlessness. As soon as they make a move to empower themselves in a way that makes us feel unsafe, we have a problem. For British liberals this can just as easily apply to disenfranchised, marginalised Brexit voters as to radical Islamists.
Having said that, though, I would certainly rather live in a country that clings to a liberal identity (however flawed and arrogant it may be) than one that clings to a religious identity.
And I suppose this gets at the heart of why I was drawn to read the book: I may be one of those “misguided” Western liberals that insists global power dynamics are relevant to discussions about terrorism and freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also agree with Ayaan in finding aspects of sharia law deeply problematic, and strongly value the rights afforded to women, gay people and religious minorities in the West. What should we do with these feelings? Is white guilt making Western liberals come up with too many excuses; is it even perhaps condescending to maintain that an equal exchange of ideas is not possible?
During the EU referendum campaign, technical arguments were rejected out of hand by many because they came from “elites” – that is, they came from power, and the desire to resist and take back power was stronger than anything else. If Muslim countries are increasingly adopting sharia as a reaction against Western imperialism, trying to restore a unifying identity and come out of the West’s shadow post-colonialism, what influence can non-Muslim Westerners possibly have? Does a Muslim Reformation only stand a chance if non-Muslims stay out of the conversation?