In an important article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Islam Needs a Reformation,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls for a kind of reformation that actually can happen.
Although in some parts of her article Ali speaks of reforming “Islam itself”—a goal made impossible by the fact that Islamic scripture is historically set—her overarching aim is to persuade certain kinds of Muslims to reform the way in which they approach Islam.
Ali identifies three different groups of Muslims: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims, and Muslim dissidents. These groups amount to: those who take Islam seriously, those who take it semi-seriously, and those who choose to think critically about the religion. Ali’s goal is to persuade Mecca Muslims to become Muslim dissidents, to examine Islam critically, to judge it accordingly, and, preferably, to do what she and a small minority have done: exit the death cult.
Ali observes that over the centuries Jews and Christians “gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past.”
[B]ecause their faiths went through a long, meaningful process of Reformation and Enlightenment, the vast majority of Jews and Christians have come to dismiss religious scripture that urges intolerance or violence.
Although the Talmud and the Bible still do and always will contain commandments to murder and to violate rights in other ways, Jews and Christians today largely ignore those parts, and this is the direction in which Ali wants to persuade Mecca Muslims to move. As she puts it, Mecca Muslims’
religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity—the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it. The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status. . . .
It is my hope to engage this . . . group of Muslims—those closer to Mecca than to Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith . . . [and to persuade them to become] Muslim dissidents . . . to confront, debate and ultimately reject the violent elements within their religion. To some extent—not least because of widespread revulsion at the atrocities of Islamic State, al Qaeda and the rest—this process has already begun. But it needs leadership from the dissidents, and they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.
Ali specifies five areas that require amendment, and they amount to a complete repudiation of the essence of Islam (which, again, is why I see the reformation she seeks not as reformation of the religion per se, but rather as reformation of the way in which less-serious Muslims approach the religion). Ali aims to persuade Mecca Muslims to:
1. Repudiate “Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.”
2. Deny “the supremacy of life after death.”
3. Repudiate “Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.”
4. Reject “the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.”
5. Reject “the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.”
Of course, not many Muslims are likely to embrace the entirety of such reforms anytime soon. But that does not change the fact that any Muslims who do embrace such reforms—and any extent to which they do—will make a difference and may inspire other Muslims to do so too. That is Ali’s point.
It is worth emphasizing that these prescribed reforms roughly parallel the changes that Jews and Christians have undergone in the way they approach their religions. Few Jews or Christians today call for death to those who serve other gods or death to homosexuals or death to those who work on the Sabbath or the like, even though such commandments remain in their religious texts. Granted, such changes in the ways that Jews and Christians approach their religions took place gradually, across centuries, and the ideal of the West’s full embrace of reason and its complete rejection of religion is yet to be realized. But the reforms to date have made a difference, and every step counts. Likewise, the more Muslims who begin down the path toward reason, secularism, and freedom—and the sooner they do it—the better.
Ali’s project obviously is not a sufficient form of activism for ending the jihad against the West; other forms are necessary as well. But hers is one of several important forms. Westerners who want to end the jihad and make the world a safer place for those who want to live and prosper must fight this war at multiple levels and in every effective way.
At the political level, we must call for Western governments to eliminate jihadist groups and the Islamic regimes that sponsor them.
At the moral level, we must advocate the morality of self-interest along with its relevant corollaries, the principle of individual rights and the moral imperative of self-defense; we must condemn the creed of self-sacrifice along with its nonsensical precepts such as “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek”; and we must call out and condemn those who whitewash Islam.
At the epistemological level, we must recognize and uphold the principle that man’s only means of knowledge is reason, and we must reject and mock the nonsensical notion that faith (i.e., ESP) is a means of knowledge.
And when an articulate, brave, ex-Muslim activist such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali seeks to work within Muslim communities toward the goal of persuading the less-serious Muslims to think critically about Islam, to repudiate its worst aspects (if not the whole religion), and to embrace the “rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity,” we should support her efforts wholeheartedly.