In the Name of God, the Beautiful, the Kind
I have been a long-time critic of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Dutch politician and based at the American Enterprise Institute. I have been watching her make the rounds on various TV shows as part of her promotion of her new book, Nomad: From Islam to America, a Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Below is an excellent review by Professor Spencer Dew. In her book, she advocates Christians actively converting Muslims in America! What if a Muslim had said that? The folks at LoonWatch alerted me to this review.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Dutch politician based now at the American Enterprise Institute, draws on her own harrowing childhood and journey from Islam to atheism (or, as she calls it in the subtitle of her most recent book, Nomad: From Islam to America, a Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations) to argue that Islam poses a grave threat to Western civilization, which she identifies as rooted in the legacy and ideals of the Enlightenment, specifically in individualism, free expression, and rational inquiry.
Yet Ali’s work is as much an argument for a specific understanding of Christianity as it is a specific understand of Islam. Ali holds to radically distorted visions of each religion such that Christianity emerges as a private, more or less secular set of beliefs about divine love while Islam emerges as a monolithic, oppressive system of group-think. Christianity is rational and science-friendly; Islam is a continuation of a perverse pre-medieval mindset.
Ali, of course, is an atheist, and she frequently cites 9/11 as the tipping point in her own rejection of religion, claiming in her new book that “I found it impossible to ignore [bin Laden’s] claims that the murderous destruction of innocent (if infidel) lives is consistent with the Qur’an. I looked in the Qur’an, and I found it to be so. To me this meant that I could no longer be a Muslim.”
Building a Straw Horse
Religious terrorists justify their actions via scripture and tradition: from racist militias citing Genesis to Muslim groups drawing on the words of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet. Ali, however, insists that the exegesis of Islamic terrorists is correct, true to Qur’anic intent and the history of Islam. She dismisses Muslim protests against such justifications as naïve and uninformed. “Most Muslims do not know the content of the Qur’an or the Hadith or any other Islamic scripture,” she argues, going on to insist that while “the much-quoted edict promoting freedom of religion is indeed in the Qur’an… its authority is nullified by verses that descended upon the Prophet later, when he was better armed and when his following had grown to great numbers.” Her own vision of Islam thus shapes her interpretation.
Likewise, in the face of repeating Qur’anic refrains about the compassionate nature of the divine, Ali argues that “Muslims who say that Allah is peaceful and compassionate simply do not know about other concepts of God, or the concepts they do have are wrong.” Nevermind that Islamic thinkers have, since the dawn of the tradition, had much to say about the paradox of a God at once compassionate and just; Ali’s interest here is in constructing a straw horse. Thus, while she holds that “uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Qur’an” poses a threat to civilization, she simultaneously opposes any exegetical work that offers alternatives to her own (and the terrorists’) simplistic, violent interpretations—theological work she dismisses as “reinterpreting the Qur’an so as to tone it down.”
While Ali is eloquent in her admiration for the ideals of the Enlightenment, she is equally indebted to the Reformation. Recognizing that some humans may still need religion “as a source of comfort,” she is willing to allow them that, yet she rejects what she sees as more problematic manifestations of religion, notably “religion as a moral gauge, a guideline for life,” which function she sees as applying “above all to Islam.” Acceptable religion, in other words, is “protestant” with a small ‘p’—individual piety— something, Ali argues, that should remain in the individual heart and house, but not seek to effect political change.
In contrast to her monolithic fantasy of Islam, Ali offers a vision of Christianity that is equally fantastic, a religion of individualism and critical reflection where the old superstitions have been replaced with humanist abstractions. “Nowadays,” she writes, “God is referred to as ‘love’ or as ‘energy,’ and those who believe in Him have done away with the concept of hell.” While she admits that there are certain “freak-show churches” opposed to, for instance, the theory of evolution, Christianity is presented by Ali as, all for all, a force for the good. Indeed, in her new book, this atheist calls on “the community of Christian churches” to act as “a very useful ally in the battle against Islamic fanaticism.”
One terrifying aspect of Ali’s developing thought on Islam, however, is that “Islamic fanaticism” is no longer presented as an extreme but as the norm. While in earlier writings, Ali made parallels between Christian fundamentalists and their claims about the Bible with “fundamentalist Muslims [who] consider the Qur’an a perfect, timeless representation of the unchanging word of God,” she has now revised her thinking and insists that “Anyone who identifies himself as a Muslim believes that the Qur’an is the true, immutable word of God. It should be followed to the letter.” While some Muslims may not “obey” in this way “they believe that they should.” Thus, seemingly “moderate” Muslims among us are in fact a potential threat, wolves in Western clothing, their religion necessarily in conflict with the ideals of the contemporary Western state. As she chillingly phrases her stance: “Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot? You can if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim.”
A War Between Theologies?
Thus, atheist Ali, in her crusade against Islam, turns to her idealized vision of a Christian community. Arguing that the world is undergoing a clash not so much of civilizations but of theologies, Ali actually begins to resemble none other than the fundamentalist Islamists whom she credits with prompting her religious turn, who likewise frame the current moment in terms of a war between theologies. “I feel we now need a Christian school for every madrassa,” she writes, basing this policy prescription on the assumption that Christian schools “teach not only the full range of sciences and the humanities, but also about a God who created reason and told humankind to let reason prevail.”
Convinced that radical jihadist interpretations represent the true intent of the Qur’an, Ali perceives her own mission as a public intellectual as alerting non-Muslims to the danger in their midst while persuading Muslims to “admit that the Prophet Muhammad’s example is fallible, that not everything in the Qur’an is perfect or true.” In this regard, however, she has arrived at
a theory that most Muslims are in search of a redemptive God. They believe that there is a higher power and that this higher power is the provider of morality, giving them a compass to help them distinguish between good and bad. Many Muslims are seeking a God or a concept of God that in my view meets the description of the Christian God. Instead they are finding Allah.
“Many Muslims… need a spiritual anchor in their lives,” Ali writes, but since Islam must be as she insists that it is, this atheist thinker has, oddly, become a sort of proselytizer for her own idealistic vision of Christianity. “This modern Christian God is synonymous with love,” she writes, “His agents do not preach hatred, intolerance, and discord; this God is merciful, does not seek state power, and sees no competition with science. His followers view the Bible as a book full of parables, not direct commands to be obeyed.”
It is unlikely that many American Muslims will find Ali’s hateful characterization of their own religion convincing—let alone her dreamy musings about a utopian Christianity. Ali may well be preaching, so to speak, to the choir, but it is a choir poisoned by distorted visions of Islam and a dangerous recapitulation of the terrorist fantasy of the world as a battleground between religions and gods.