An Incomplete Proposal For Reform
Ayaan Hirsi Ali presents a case for the reformation of Islam in her new book. In spite of her indubitably noble intentions, her suggestions fall short of being consistently convincing.
In the last two decades, terrorism has emerged as the biggest impediment to global peace. It has long been convenient and popular among the elite of our society to fall back on the economic cause of poverty and deprivation to explain any form of terrorism. However, for the present menace of terrorism, such an explanation, though very much politically correct, is—in reality—the least tenable one.
Using the data on profiles of terrorists, noted economist Alan B. Krueger demonstrated that terrorists predominantly come from a middle-class background with considerable education. In polite society, we used to avoid mentioning religion, but, no more now. Most of the acts of terrorism are perpetrated today by Muslims for a self-described religious purpose; after every such violent act of terrorism, statesmen, intellectuals and their ilk, in a ritualistic fashion, mention that such violent acts have nothing to do with Islam.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in a tribal Muslim society of Somalia and grew up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. She was a devout Muslim from childhood and an ardent supporter of death penalty for Salman Rushdie in her teens. She eventually ended up as an “infidel” (the title of her fascinating autobiography that narrated the story of her transformation) in the Netherlands, being imposed with her own death penalty by Islamists. Currently a fellow at Harvard University, her latest book has two salient contributions: one, the exposition of the link between Islam and terrorism; two, a proposal of reform for Islam.
Though a flurry of criticism has been heaped on Islam regarding its role in fuelling terrorism, much of it suffers from straw-man fallacy. Quotations from the Quran approving or inciting violence do not necessarily prove any causal connection between Islam and terrorism. Many of the religions advocate “just” violence, and none possibly has a completely clean record regarding human rights. As for example, the Old Testament contains many verses inciting plunder, rape and murder; however, followers of those traditions are hardly engaged in such atrocities in the present age driven by their religious zeal.
For this particular issue, a real connection can be demonstrated through identification of the policies that are pursued uniformly in the Islamic world and which would potentially fuel terrorism. It is not an easy task because of the widespread diversity of the Islamic countries, from Indonesia to Syria and from Nigeria to Iraq.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is quite up for this job, armed with her personal experience and academic rigour. She—somewhat abstractly and artificially—divides the Muslim society into three groups for facilitating an understanding: the “Mecca Muslims” (who see Islam purely as a personal faith inspired by Muhammad’s life at Mecca), the “Medina Muslims” (who believe in a political narrative of Islam inspired by Muhammad’s political career at Medina) and a tiny fraction of agnostics or atheists.
The third group mostly remains as an invisible one, for public acknowledgement of atheism means pronouncement of death penalty by the legal system in most Muslim countries. Such legal provisions are missing in moderate Muslim countries like Bangladesh, but public opinion is loaded heavily against the atheists. For example, three atheist bloggers were murdered during the last three months in Bangladesh. At a minimum, this practice allows no constituency for any self-criticism in the Muslim world.
The “Mecca Muslims”, a dominant majority, are peace-loving but also find themselves increasingly out of place in today’s world to follow religious edicts of a seventh-century world, whereas the “Medina Muslims”, definitely a minority, find their purpose very well in today’s world through promotion of a political narrative of Islam. They support, sponsor, enjoin and participate in violence for their political narrative, in varying degrees. The increasingly out-of-place feeling of a “Mecca Muslim” sometimes pushes him either to becoming a “Medina Muslim” or to an unreal cocooned world. Neither is particularly healthy for the concerned person. This out-of-place syndrome affects the immigrant Muslims in the West even more, leading to the rise of a political narrative-based Islamism in those countries.
Often, it is argued that Islam has nothing to do with the backwardness of Islamic societies, but that it is tribalism and patriarchy which lies at the heart of their cultural backwardness, resulting in injustice towards women, general intolerance for other cultures and impoverishment in the areas of scientific and technological knowledge. The argument is not incorrect, but it ignores the crucial role of Islam and its attendant Sharia Law in perpetuating tribalism and patriarchy. Indeed, Arabian culture before Muhammad was driven by tribalism and patriarchy as was the case with many other parts of the contemporary world.
However, with the growth of human consciousness, other parts of the world moved ahead, getting rid of laws and customs of those times in favour of more mature ones. In most Muslim societies, on the other hand, Sharia law that embodies laws and customs of those times and is cherished by Muslims as the ideal, anchors Muslims to the seventh-century culture dominated by tribalism and patriarchy.
Moreover, Sharia punishments that are publicly inflicted in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, such as stoning, flogging or amputation of hands, inculcate a culture of barbarism and sadism. The book dedicates a chapter to document the enormous obsession of Muslim societies with afterlife rather than the present life and the harmful impact of this obsession. This attitude, when coupled with escapism and a religious fundamentalism-based education system, leads parents to send their children to suicide bombing missions in places like Palestine.
It is not that the ubiquitous human values never touched the Muslim world. They did so many times and reformed the underlying culture too. In the Middle Ages, Khalifas of Bagdad were patrons of science, arts and philosophy; the Muslim world, then, was much ahead of Europe in terms of science and culture. Even fifty years ago, Muslims societies from Kabul to Bagdad to Tehran to Libya, were far more liberal and progressive compared to now. These societies, nevertheless, could not steadily move forward, breaking the shackles imposed by the seventh-century values, because of the dominance of a political narrative-based Islam.
Whenever a wave of resentment hits a Muslim society, almost inevitably it seeks to go back to a “past” golden age. This desire for going back to a past golden age is retrogressive by nature, and it—at a minimum—unmakes a part of the progress already made by the society, if not negates the previously made progress altogether.
As much as this book is successful in clarifying the link between the state of affairs in Muslim societies and the rise of pan-national terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram and Taliban, the author’s discussion on reformation of Islam borders on disappointment. Is it because of the fact that she, as an ex-Muslim, considers “reformation of Islam” merely a second-best realistic option for Muslims rather than a genuinely best option?
Her reformation plan includes a change in Prophet Muhammad’s status in Islamic theology and similarly a change in Sharia, the fountainhead of Islamic jurisprudence. This plan appears like an effort to remodel Islam in the mould of Christianity so that the Islamic world can be built on a secular principle. The other aspects of the proposed reform such as more emphasis on the present life and less on afterlife, pursuit of non-vigilantism as culture and abolition of Holy war (Jihad) as doctrine, echo the happenings in the Christian world after renaissance. These ideas are fantastic, but seem devoid of any in-depth understanding about the would-be process of a potential game-changing reform.
To her credit, she presents her case of reform as a proposal with historic continuity. She demonstrates the existence of this “reform” constituency among Muslim intellectuals, from the 11th-12th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Rushd to Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, a former dean of Islamic law at Qatar University in the present times. This intellectual constituency could never dictate the narrative of their society and its vocal proponents were and have been exiled or denounced time and again. She is optimistic of the success this time due to the presence of a large number of urban Muslims, who can be inspired to reform because of the abundant flow of information due to the information and communication technology revolution. She views the Arab spring of 2011 as an early expression of the Muslim people’s yearning for reform. In spite of the apparent failure of the Arab Spring, she is hopeful of the long-term prospects of similar would-be revolutions.
Well, who can really predict how things will be unveiled in future? However, the way reform is described in this book, all of it appears quite synthetic. Ms. Ali elaborates no concrete interaction of various salient social forces—for example, some kind of dialectic—and offers little insight into the socio-economic political process of a would-be religious reform. Such an analysis would have been much helpful for activists working towards reform.
Admittedly, it is improper to put the entire onus of this unsatisfying answer on her, particularly when modern psychology and sociology offer no great insight about religion and spirituality and their relation to human consciousness. In defence of her, she does mention about a couple of Muslim Heads of State who are extremely serious about reform but cannot move their agenda by overcoming the hegemonies in the feudal society of theirs. In a nutshell, her articulations fail to satisfy an analytic mind.
It would have been far more rewarding for the reader if she could have studied some of the reformation movements in Islam that ended up being separate sects, like Ahmadiyya of Punjab and Bahai of Iran. To a large extent, the theology of these sects is not very far from what she proposed and these sect members are enormously persecuted as non-Muslims—sometimes despite their own claim to the contrary—in Muslim countries like Pakistan or Iran.
Let us suppose, for a moment, that the reformation proposed by Ms. Ali takes place in the Muslim world to render their Islam-induced political narrative void. Since man is a political animal, he cannot live without an alternative political narrative. What would be a new political narrative for the secularised Muslim world? How would the Islamic world fill this vacuum in the post-reform phrase? Yes, it is indeed a hypothetical question, but an important one. Ms. Ali has not taken it up for discussion.
We know that in case of post-renaissance Europe, Nationalism flooded contemporary Europe, the roots of which were sown by the rise of regional languages instead of Latin. In case of the Muslim world, there exists a striking vacuum. Most of the Muslim countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, have long lost their national heritage; many of them have lost their own language to embrace Arabic. Devoid of most of their national heritage, it is not easy for them to go for a nationalism-induced political process. Clearly, the ground for a potential secularisation of Islamic nations is non-comparable to the medieval secularisation of Christian nations.
Countries such as Turkey and Bangladesh, that have been most successful to corner political Islam in their own land, have first carried out a revival of their own language and culture. Both countries rejected Arabic language and Arabic script in their education system and national narrative, relegating Arabic to a liturgical language. Hence, they succeeded in creating a strong constituency that yearns for national culture and considers Islam merely as a matter of personal faith. Creation of such a constituency is a prime requirement for every country, and it is only possible when those countries feel proud about their own culture expressed in their own language.
Even then, one can question stability and feasibility of such nationalism-based models in the wake of some of the recent setbacks to this narrative in Turkey and Bangladesh. It is very much possible that an average Muslim may feel, “No, I am not a “moderate Muslim” after the initial enthusiasm for secularisation settles down; he may, then, simply refuse to restrict himself to a particular aspect of the faith. And, once he refuses to acknowledge the boundary between Islam as personal faith and Islam as a political narrative—as the argument may go—he will invariably end up being a “Medina Muslim”.
The solution may lie in a parallel inculcation of a genuine spiritual tradition in those countries rather than insisting on a faith-based imposition. Yearning for such spirituality exists in Islamic societies. For example, Aatish Taseer has described the case of Iran in details in his book Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands (Graywolf Press; 2009), where people embrace trouble to any extent to satisfy personal spiritual thirst, defying the State officials. Ms. Ali discusses too about the pre-Islamic past of the Arabs as a polytheistic nation where hundreds of different gods and goddess used to be worshipped side by side in Kaaba, a history of manifold spiritual quest and tolerance—a history that can serve as a beacon to this newfound pursuit of individual spirituality for them.
The author says, rightly, that her book is aimed at the non-Muslims as much as it is written for the Muslims. As the highest idea for humanity, we must view the entire mankind as one brotherhood, without the distinction of caste, creed and religion. But, the so-called liberals often do not particularly adhere to this ideal that is ironically most cherished by them. A critic of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, enjoy their popularity as public intellectuals in the Christian West; a Hindu agnostic like Jawaharlal Nehru or a Hindu atheist like Amartya Sen are celebrated and respected in the West, and more so in Hindu-majority India.
On the contrary, the jurisprudence in most Muslim countries prescribes—quite sadly—death penalty for agnosticism or atheism.
It is doubly sad that when an ex-Muslim atheist like Ayaan Hirsi Ali critiques Islam, she is again hounded in the secular West as Islamophobic. Ms. Ali mentions about various occasions when ex-Muslim atheists like her were boycotted by liberal intellectuals and ostracised in the relevant circles. This is sheer double standard and the flag-bearers of this dichotomy deserve more condemnation than the terrorists, for the former are all educated and knowledgeable people as opposed to the terrorists who are often misguided youth.
Acknowledgement: The author thanks ‘The Indic Academy’ for encouragement.
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