Heretics and liberals: what Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong

Pious protestations about Islam do nothing to further our understanding of the complex relationships between religion and violence. 

William Eichler
11 May 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

The question of the relationship between Islam and violence is on the table again. You might argue that it was never off. In recent years, public debate about this controversial issue, fed by Islamist brutalities and celebrity atheists, has become an almost monthly ritual.

A corollary to this discussion is the reluctance of Western liberals and leftists to take a firm stand against Islam, or Islamism, or Islamic terrorism (three frequently conflated terms) on the one hand; and for secularism (one often ill-defined term) on the other. A new round of this well-worn debate has begun with the publication of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

According to extracts published by Huffington Post, the Somali-born ex-Muslim and campaigner for the rights of women and girls argues that the violence of organisations like ISIS cannot be “divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them.” “Instead,” she writes, “we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur'an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.”

Furthermore, Ali is exasperated by what she sees as the reluctance of some liberals and leftists to get behind her. She says that she is seen as a heretic, “not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such "insensitive" pronouncements.”

This is not a new argument. There are many who see Islam as an inherently flawed religion, prone to fanaticism and violence and in desperate need of an overhaul. In recent months the neo-atheist double-act of Sam Harris and Bill Maher have promoted the notion that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas,” and have called for liberals to recognise this fact.

A contributing editor at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood, has also argued that ISIS’s ideology is inseparable from Islam and that Obama must acknowledge this and start referring to ‘Islamic terrorism’. We can trace this argument further back to the 1990s when Samuel Huntington (who Ali admiringly quotes) coined the phrase the “clash of civilisations,” and claimed that “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Animating these arguments is a commitment to a strict form of philosophical idealism which presumes that historical phenomena are caused by ideas unmediated by any material factors. Adherents to this world view see violent actions being carried out in the name of religion and presume that it is the religion itself that is the root cause of the violence.

This has a certain intuitive logic to it. At first glance, the motivating factor of gunmen who murder cartoonists while claiming to be defending the honour of the Prophet Muhammad would appear to be Islam, pure and simple. But surface appearances frequently hide more complex realities. The relationship between ideology and action, or more specifically, religion and violence, is a complicated one and requires unpacking.   

The key word here is interpretation. Religion is always an act of interpretation and this is always carried out within a particular context. Islam, like all religions, is not a clearly defined monolith that has existed unchanged since its birth. From the 7th to the 21st century and from Cairo to Jakarta, it has been interpreted, reinterpreted and practiced in a variety of different ways according to time and place.

There are, of course, core texts, principles and traditions. But how these are read and understood is shaped by the context within which the reader is operating. The Islam of a Saudi oil baron is very different to that of a British street cleaner of Pakistani descent which, in turn, differs radically from that of a member of China's Uighur minority, even when they are all reading the same book.

This more nuanced approach to understanding the relationship between Islam and violence is rejected by Ali, Harris, Maher et al. Islam is, for them, a static set of beliefs that exists apart from the social context within which it is practiced. Ali is quite explicit on this point: “Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself.” The problem is the religion—period.

This is not simply a philosophical issue. The rise of Islamist organisations over the last 40 years—from the ‘moderate’ neo-Islamists of Turkey’s AK Party to the extremist thugs of IS and Boko Haram—cannot be explained in terms of a homogenous ‘Islam’ that has been abstracted from all context.

Similarly, we cannot understand the prevalence of socially conservative attitudes to gender relations, LGBTQ people and religious minorities merely by quoting the “foundational texts of Islam.” These texts are read and interpreted within concrete historical conditions, so the ideologies that are cobbled together out of them can only be understood when placed in the very “social, economic, or political conditions” that Ali deems irrelevant.

Idealism—the strict focus on ideas at the expense of their material context—leads to bad politics. In an interview with Huffington Post, Ali defended Egyptian dictator Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, explaining that “he wants to engage intellectually and he also wants to engage with what it is about the religion that is wrong.” She has also been an advocate for the so-called “War on Terror” (or the “War on Islam” as she prefers to characterise it).

A more historical and materialist understanding of the relationship between religion and violence might have led Ali, and many others, to conclude that full-scale western interventions and support for “secular” dictators have been major contributing factors to the emergence of Islamism. More of the same would be counter-productive, not to mention immoral in its own right.

This is why many liberals and leftists are reluctant to support Ali and other so-called "critics of Islam." It is not simply the case that they are too busy wringing their hands and worrying about offending Muslim sensibilities. It is about the inadequacies of the analysis.

Religion, like all ideologies, must be submitted to critique. Pious protestations about Islam being “a religion of peace” or defensive accusations of “Islamophobia” do nothing to further our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and violence. But for a critique to hold any water it must take into consideration the multiple factors that shape the interpretation and practice of religion. This is the all-important difference between a critique, and ideologically motivated criticism. 

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