Sunday, April 26, 2015


"Heretic", subtitled "Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now", is the fourth book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Richard Dawkins recommended it on twitter, and I decided I could do with something different to read.

The book is 288 pages, 8 chapters with an intro, conclusion, and an appendix that lists muslim dissidents and reformers. It is an easy read.

Ms. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia and raised a muslim. She describes being a radical muslim as a teenager. She fled to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, was elected to parliament there, and became known as a proponent of women's rights and an opponent of Islam and FGM (female genital mutilation). She collaborated on a controversial short film on the treatment of women in Islam titled "Submission" with Theo van Gogh who was later murdered by a radical Islamist. She came to the US in 2006. She now is a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University. I think I had previously heard of her after there had been opposition to her speaking at some university based on her being an islamophobe.

Ugh, she came to the US to work at the American Enterprise Institute, home of warmongers like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz. And she's married to conservative Harvard historian Nial Ferguson, who was a big Romney backer and who got into it with my fav Paul Krugman. I guess her right leaning associates are not so far right as to be a problem with her support of women's rights.

I read The Koran, along with most of the world's other holy books, when I was in my mystical period, ages 21-23. It was probably my least favorite of these books. Mohammed came across as pretty much a used camel salesman from whom you would not want to buy a camel. His message was straightforward: do what I say and give me 10% and when you die you go to paradise with all the cold water you want and lots of fresh fruit; otherwise, you go to hell and have demons gnaw on your bones for all eternity. So it's easier to understand than, say, the Tao, but, no thanks, I think I'll take door #3. So I really wasn't expecting to learn much about Islam, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn several new things.

Ms. Hirsi Ali really does not come across as a vitriolic Islam hater. She seems sympathetic to muslims, but feels that Islam must be held accountable for its worst features. In the introduction, she opens with this headline template, which you have to admit, we see instantiated all too often:

On ______, a group of ______ heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a ______ in ______, opening fire and killing a total of ______ people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”

Speaking at a press conference, President ______ said: “We condemn this criminal act by extremists. Their attempt to justify their violent acts in the name of a religion of peace will not, however, succeed. We also condemn with equal force those who would use this atrocity as a pretext for Islamophobic hate crimes.”

She concludes "Islam is not a religion of peace.". I'm not sure that this is a valid statement. Kind of an apples to oranges comparison. I'll return to this later.

She breaks Muslims up into 3 groups:

  1. Medina Muslims - these are the bad ones, who strongly identify with the parts of the Koran that take place after Mohammed has moved from Mecca to Medina and become a warlord. She puts this at 3% of the Muslim population, but rising.
  2. Mecca Muslims - these are "the clear majority throughout the Muslim World", "who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence." But they have the same problem with which we see fundamentalist Christians struggle: "their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity."
  3. Modifying Muslims - these are the Muslims to whom she is addressing this book, to offer encouragement and support as they try to reform their faith.
She lists 5 things that she believes must be addressed for a "true Muslim Reformation":
  1. Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;
  2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;
  3. Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;
  4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;
  5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.
I like this statement of hers:
this is an optimistic book
I am always in favor of optimism in looking forward. [ I have just recently come to think that one of the things that defines conservatives is that they do not believe in a "moral arc bending towards justice". They really don't believe in progress, they haven't read Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of our Nature", which I blogged here. They see all of history as cyclical, for example, with the USA inevitably declining as the Roman Empire did. So anyone who identifies with optimism is OK by me. ]

I think that, based on the number of times she repeats it, this idea is central to her message:

The Muslim world is currently engaged in a massive struggle to come to terms with the challenge of modernity.
In Chapter 1, she reviews her life story in more detail. She saw several different flavors of Islam in the various places she lived, including Saudi Arabia. Another flavor of her main idea:
Embracing violent jihad has become an all-too-common means for young Muslims to resolve the cognitive pressures of trying to lead an “authentic” Muslim life within a permissive and pluralistic Western society.
Chapter 2 asks "Why Has There Been No Muslim Reformation?" You can't get much more conservative than this:
The triumph of the Asha’ri school cemented a belief that, with the message of Muhammad, “History came to an end.”
One of the things I had not realized about Islam was its decentralized organization:
Unlike Catholicism, Islam is almost entirely decentralized. There is no pope, no College of Cardinals, nothing like the Southern Baptist Convention—no hierarchical structure, no centrally controlled system of ordination. Any man can become an imam; all it takes is a self-professed knowledge of the Qur’an and followers.
This is similar, I think, to charismatic christian sects. Here's an interesting anecdote from when Ms. Hirsi Ali was teaching a Harvard seminar.
She replied: “I haven’t done the assigned reading. I don’t need to. I already know everything.” This goes to the heart of the matter. Paradoxically, Islam is the most decentralized and yet, at the same time, the most rigid religion in the world. Everyone feels entitled to rule out free discussion.
At the end of Chapter 2, she states her action plan again, this time in positive terms. In Chapters 3-7 she examines each of her 5 reforms in detail.
Some of these changes may strike readers as too fundamental to Islamic belief to be feasible. But like the partition walls or superfluous stairways that a successful renovation removes, they can in fact be modified without causing the entire structure to collapse. Indeed, I believe these modifications will actually strengthen Islam by making it easier for Muslims to live in harmony with the modern world. It is those hell-bent on restoring it to its original state who are much more likely to lead Islam to destruction. Here again are my five theses, nailed to a virtual door:
  1. Ensure that Muhammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism.
  2. Give priority to this life, not the afterlife.
  3. Shackle sharia and end its supremacy over secular law.
  4. End the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong.”
  5. Abandon the call to jihad.
Chapter 3 was interesting in its discussion of how much of 7th century Arab tribal life became part of the Koran: patriarchy, and tribal honor and shame.
“Muhammad created a new monotheism fitted to the contemporary needs of tribal society.” The effect was to perpetuate tribal norms by freezing them in place as holy writ.
Another new fact I learned deals with "abrogation". Like all (static) holy books, the Koran contains many contradictions. These are resolved by positing that the later passages "abrogate" or replace the earlier passages. Unfortunately, the later parts of the Koran, after Mohammed had fled to Medina and became a warlord, tend to be the ones that incite violence.
Thus Ibn Salama (d. 1020) argued that chapter 9, verse 5, known as ayat as-sayf, or the sword verses, abrogated some 124 of the more peaceful Meccan verses. The same applies to the verses concerning forcible conversion. As Ibrahim explains, “whereas Allah supposedly told the prophet that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256), once the messenger grew strong enough, Allah issued new revelations calling for all-out war/jihad till Islam became supreme (8:39, 9:5, 9:29, etc.).”
One of the things that Chapter 4 concludes is that Islam's emphasis on the afterlife leads to a fatalistic outlook in this life.
Allah has willed it to be this way; it is there because Allah has willed it. And if Allah has willed it, Allah will provide. It is an unbreakable ring of circular logic.


Though it is unfashionable to say so, Islam’s fatalism is a more plausible explanation for the Muslim world’s failure to innovate.

Chapter 5 discusses sharia law.
it is as if our priests, ministers, and rabbis were also our judges and legislators, employing their religious theology to establish legal boundaries of acceptable conduct in our daily lives.
And on top of that, you have the whole medieval flavor of the justice system: beheading, crucifixion, amputation, stoning, lashing. What can you say besides "ugh"? After Friday prayers in Saudia Arabia, "many men flock to the central squares to watch the implementation of Islamic justice". We should remember tho, that it has been less than 100 years since public executions stopped here in the USA.

Chapter 6 discusses the "command right and forbid wrong" thing. This is totally creepy, very much reminiscent of "1984" and thought crime.

It is almost always the immediate family that starts the persecution of freethinkers, of those who would ask questions or propose something new.


commanding right and forbidding wrong are very effective means of silencing dissent. They act as a grassroots system of religious vigilantism.


As modern Islamic communities have become radicalized, there is a kind of arms race of commanding right and forbidding wrong.

Chapter 7 addresses jihad. In addition to the terrorist attacks in the West as a sign of ongoing jihad, Ms. Hirsi Ali notes that there is also a "Worldwide War on Christians".
One of the most devastating manifestations of the modern era of jihad is the violent oppression of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority nations all over the world.


Yet any fair-minded assessment of recent events leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the Christophobia evident in Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other.

There is a good discussion of what leads young westerners to become jihadists.
Ghaffar Hussein, the managing director of Quilliam, a British think tank working on combatting terrorism, notes that jihad is appealing because of its “one size fits all” set of answers to complex problems. Introspection is not required, he notes, because all blame is shifted to outside enemies and “anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.” The jihad narrative has therefore become “the default anti-establishment politics of today. It is a means of expressing solidarity and asserting a bold new identity while being a vehicle for seeking the restoration of pride and self-dignity.” In response, “mainstream Muslim commentators” — not to mention non-Muslims — have failed to articulate a positive narrative that does not simply reinforce the idea that Muslims are somehow victims. In short, Hussein’s argument is that the jihadists have the more compelling narrative.
Chapter 8 is titled "The Twilight of Tolerance". She advocates for the west and champions of western values to develop a more compelling narrative to compete with jihadism.
It [Islam] is a political religion many of whose fundamental tenets are irreconcilably inimical to our way of life.


I have spent more than a decade fighting for women’s and girls’ basic rights. I have never been afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight. As I have repeatedly said, the connection between violence and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to Muslims when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect. We need to ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Should it be blasphemy — punishable by death — to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Why, when I have made these arguments, have I received so little support and so much opprobrium from the very people in the West who call themselves feminists, who call themselves liberals?


In the midst of all our efforts at policing, surveillance, and even military action, we in the West have not bothered to develop an effective counternarrative because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam. We persist in focusing on the violence and not on the ideas that give rise to it.


If we continue this policy of nonintervention in the culture war, we will never extricate ourselves from the actual battlefield.

In the conclusion, Ms. Hirsi Ali frames the conflict within Islam.
Today there is a war within Islam — a war between those who wish to reform (the Modifying Muslims or the dissidents) and those who wish to turn back to the time of the Prophet (the Medina Muslims). The prize over which they fight is the hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims.
She says that currently, the bad guys (Medina) are winning, using 4 measurements: individuals joining; media attention; resources; and coherence. On coherence:
In many ways this is the most important advantage the Medina Muslims have over the Modifier Muslims. The latter are faced with the daunting — and dangerous — task of questioning the fundamentals of their faith. All the Medina Muslims have to do is pose as its defenders.
But she does see the good guys winning eventually, yay! The section "Why the Tide Is Turning" begins:
Three factors are combining today to enable real religious reform:
  • The impact of new information technology in creating an unprecedented communication network across the Muslim world.
  • The fundamental inability of Islamists to deliver when they come to power and the impact of Western norms on Muslim immigrants are creating a new and growing constituency for a Muslim Reformation.
  • The emergence of a political constituency for religious reform emerging in key Middle Eastern states.
Together, I believe these three things will ultimately turn the tide against the Islamists, whose goal is, after all, a return to the time of the Prophet — a venture as foredoomed to failure as all attempts to reverse the direction of time’s arrow.
Her final conclusion:
The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.
Reviewers of this book think that her hope for a reformation is unlikely to be fulfilled. I think she is doing the right thing, tho, and certainly hope that some of all of her proposed reforms take hold in the decades to come.

I want to return to the statement "Islam is not a religion of peace", and discuss religion, Islamophobia, and multiculturalism.

1st off, I think "not a religion of peace" is basically an invalid statement. Religions are amongst the most complex memeplexes ever created with in human mindspace, containing 10s of 1000s of memes or more. Most religions probably have verbiage that comes on both sides of any issue, for example, war vs peace. So I think that basically, the nature of religions is that anything you can say about them is both true and false. So why bother?

I sometimes have a much darker read on the Jehovah-based religions. At times it seems to me that the main social use of these religions has been to convince individuals that it is OK to engage in mass murder. To quote physicist Steven Weinberg, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." So maybe instead, saying any religion is violent is indeed true.

I think that these memeplexes evolve over time. Islam is, what 600 years younger than Christianity? I think that, in general, the younger a religion is, the more virulent a mind virus it is. As time passes, the other memes in our minds create defenses against the religious memes. Hopefully, as with Ms. Hirsi Ali's prognosis of victory, our immense information infrastructure will speed this memetic immunization.

So, is Ms. Hirsi Ali Islamophobic? I don't think so. But I think that those attacking her show that something very unfortunate has happened in liberal / progressive thinking. I think that all progressive thinkers support immigrants and welcome them to our countries, unlike conservatives, who seem to have forgotten that all of us are descended from immigrants. But supporting immigrants does not mean that they get a blank check, in the name of multiculturalism, to import all the customs of their native countries. They are of course free to practice their religion, but, it must be subject to the civil laws of their new land. So allowing sharia law in muslim immigrant enclaves is a definite "hell no".

One thing on which I totally agree with Ms. Hirsi Ali is that Islam's treatment of women is abhorrent. The Koran doesn't even talk about women in heaven, just men. Multiculturalism is one thing, but, if your culture treats women, or anyone for that matter, as 2nd class citizens, then your culture is inferior and unacceptable.

I see Middle Eastern immigrant females wearing head coverings when I'm in the grocery store or otherwise out and about. I find it offensive, like seeing a slave wearing chains. But should it be banned, as I think France has done in its schools? I had forgotten how when I was a kid attending Catholic school and going to mass every morning, females were absolutely required to wear head coverings to church. And, per this article with which The Google provided me, the 1917 Catholic Canon Law not only required head covering, but also required males and females to be separated in church, just like most muslims and conservative Jews still do. And this was in place until 1983.

So how upset do we get over these backwards practices? I think that a lot of these issues will go like language does for immigrants. The 1st generation largely speaks their old language at home; the 2nd generation speaks both languages; the 3rd generation just speaks English. So if this generation of Islamic American females doesn't quietly quit going veiled, I would hope the next generation will. Still, it's hard to watch females relegating themselves to being 2nd class citizens.

I'll conclude with one of my many failed memes. Here's an image of the prophet Mohammed, which I drew and tweeted after "Je suis Charlie":

I thought that this was a meme worth spreading - how to break sharia law in 5 characters - but, it seemed to get no traction whatsoever. On the plus side, I haven't received any death threats, so, phew!

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