Open Essay

The Ideological Threat of Islam

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Islam’s most daring heretic, argues for a war on Islamist missionaries

AYAAN HIRSI ALI has just published an important—and importantly provocative—new book. I propose to discuss its message, but would first like to take you on a swift tour of her life.

In 1992, at 23 years of age, Hirsi Ali arrived in The Netherlands as a refugee from Somalia, fleeing an arranged marriage and every other form of psychic (and bodily) oppression that a conservative Muslim society is in the habit of heaping on its young women.

In 2004, when she was 35, she was threatened with violent death by an Islamist extremist who murdered— in broad Amsterdam daylight—Theo Van Gogh, a radical anti-Islamist film-maker with whom Hirsi Ali had collaborated. The threat to her life was set out in a note that was stuck to Van Gogh’s chest with a butcher’s knife. She had no earthly reason to disbelieve it.

In the years between her arrival in The Netherlands and Van Gogh’s jihadist murder, Hirsi Ali had taught herself Dutch, given herself a modern European education, assimilated as closely into Dutch society as she could, and been elected to Parliament. The liberal Dutch political elite found her profoundly disconcerting: She was an African Muslim woman who wouldn’t play by the country’s multicultural rules, which ascribed equal value to every culture, however backward, and imposed almost no pressure on incomers to acquire local Dutch ways. The liberal catch-phrase, she told me in an interview I did with her recently for The Wall Street Journal, was “Integrate with your own identity.” This meant, of course, that very few foreigners integrated at all. After all, how well could an immigrant or refugee function in Dutch society if ‘Dutchness’ wasn’t even elevated as a desirable goal by the Dutch themselves?

Hirsi Ali fought tigerishly to acquire a Dutch identity, pushing Dutch co-workers to help her learn their language and their customs; she did not wish to remain culturally Somali, not after what Somali culture had done to her. What is more, she became a most outspoken critic of Islam, especially of the way in which that religion treated women.

Given the Dutch left’s unwillingness to challenge Islam for fear of being seen as Islamophobic, it was inevitable that Hirsi Ali was courted by the robust right of Dutch politics. But with her life under constant threat, and with the Dutch government unwilling to give her the protection she needed, she moved to the United States, where her critiques of Islam weren’t met with reflexively horrified distaste—as they were in The Netherlands—but were, in fact, read and heard with considerable attention. And it was in the United States, with its intellectual, political, and—yes— physical protections, that she found the perfect environment in which to blossom into a most formidable critic of Islamism, the radical, often violent, form of Islam that poses such a threat to societies in the West, not to mention majority-Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Egypt and Turkey, where secular citizens grapple with increasingly irrepressible fundamentalism.

HIRSI ALI’S LATEST book— her fifth—is called The Challenge of Dawa, in which she focuses on the ideological campaign for sharia that serves as a complement to global jihad. Unlike jihad, dawa is non-violent, and is the process by which Islamist activists—whether in the West, or in India, or in Muslim-majority countries— convert non-Muslims to radical Islam and exhort existing Muslims to embrace increasingly uncompromising readings of the Qur’an. She is critical of the West’s obsession with jihad—and ‘terror’—and believes that the real war that needs to be won is the war against dawa. Her targets are the Islamist activists who operate openly in the West, seeking refuge, as ostensibly religious missionaries, in the constitutional protections that Western countries offer to religion and speech. The United States, with its exceptionally permissive First Amendment, is particularly vulnerable to dawa, she believes.

Hirsi Ali’s latest book focuses on the ideological campaign for sharia that serves as a complement to global jihad. Unlike jihad, dawa is the process by which Islamist activists exhort existing Muslims to embrace uncompromising readings of the Qur’an

I first met Hirsi Ali in 2004, and have met her regularly at what have seemed to be two-year intervals. I have read her books, starting with her memoir, Infidel, her second book, and Nomad, her third, in which she urged Muslims to abandon their faith and become Christians. In that book, published in 2010, she rejected Islam as her personal creed and called upon other Muslims to do the same. In a chapter titled ‘Letter to My Grandmother’, she addresses the late mother of her own mother with words that would be manifestly incendiary if spoken aloud in any public place in the Muslim world: ‘Salvation lies in the ways of the infidel, grandmother…. Grandmother, I have compared the infidels’ morals to those that you taught us, and I must say that they have, in practice, a better outcome for humans than the morals of your forefathers.’ ‘Grandmother,” she continued, ‘I will even strive to persuade my fellow nomads to take on the ways of the infidel.’

These were grandly, bravely provocative words, and they consigned Hirsi Ali even more irredeemably to hell in the eyes of many Muslim believers. Certainly, radical Islamists were goaded afresh into renewing their vows to finish her off. She was no doubt a dangerous foe, not least because her prose was so deft, and so devastating. ‘Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis of Islam,’ she wrote, and ‘the fundamentalists seem haunted by the female body and neurotically debate which fractions of it should be covered, until they declare the whole thing, from head to toe, a gigantic private part.’

The radicals had no counter for this irony, this mordant wit, but they did have allies in the West among those progressives who bought into the notion that Hirsi Ali—and other critics of Islam—were Islamophobes and right-wing extremists, peddling a brand of intolerance that would consign Muslims living in the West to second- or third-class status.

But Hirsi Ali continued to confound her critics, among liberals and Islamists alike. In 2015, five years after Nomad, she published her fourth book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. This book was, by her own admission, less ‘hotheaded’ than the previous ones, and was, in fact, a seemingly unexpected show of optimism. In it, she went from being a person—an apostate—who held that Islam was irremediable, unreformable, and beyond the pale, to one who contended that Islam could indeed be reformed. But the reform had to come from Muslims themselves, from those she called ‘Mecca Muslims’, the faithful who subscribe to the gentle, relatively tolerant version of Islam that the prophet, Muhammad, taught his followers in the time preceding his flight to Medina in the year 622 CE.

That flight, Hirsi Ali contends, was the turning point in Islam, transforming the religion into one that was combative, bellicose, and intolerant. Jihad and dawa are the tools of ‘Medina Muslims’, and the battle for the soul of Islam—for the reform of the religion— will be fought between the Mecca and Medina Muslims.

Hirsi Ali argues that Islamists should be fought as ruthlessly as the West once fought Communist sympathisers and moles during the long Cold War

In her latest book, Hirsi Ali urges the governments of the West—and the Trump Administration in particular—to take sides in this battle for the soul of Islam. She wants Washington to develop, with some urgency, an ‘anti-dawa strategy’ that will ‘tackle the menace of dawa’. Since the ultimate goal of dawa is ‘to destroy the political institutions of a free society and replace them with sharia’, should we not, she asks, neutralise the dawa activists first? She invokes Karl Popper, the philosopher, who wrote in 1945: ‘If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.’ America has the right, she says, to be intolerant of the intolerant in order to safeguard its primordial tolerance.

Hirsi Ali regards Islamists as implacable enemies of the American Constitution. She argues that Islamists should be treated not as religious missionaries but as political ideologues, and be fought as ruthlessly as the West once fought Communist sympathisers and moles during the long Cold War.

In fact, Hirsi Ali would make it as difficult as possible for Islamists to gain entry into the United States. She proposes an Islamist Test to replace what she believes is the outdated and hackneyed Communism Test that those aspiring to enter the United States still have to take, including answering a question that asks, ‘Are you, or have you ever been, a Communist?’ She would ask prospective entrants from Pakistan or Egypt, for instance, whether they have been members of (or sympathetic to) the Jamaat or the Muslim Brotherhood, or a whole range of other Islamist organisations, with the aim of denying entry to the US to anyone on whom a shadow of Islamist suspicion might fall.

This is, indeed, a radical idea, and will meet with resistance from a phalanx of civil libertarians. But Hirsi Ali is adamant that such steps are essential if America is to avoid the fate of virtually every Western European democracy, where large numbers of apparently unassimilable Muslims live. She would combine such rigorous exclusion of Islamists with enhanced surveillance, as well as a muscular diplomatic effort aimed at ending monetary support to worldwide dawa that comes from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries.

Hirsi Ali is already facing a backlash that she attributes to an unholy alliance between Islamists and progressives. She had to cancel a tour to Australia recently after a Muslim group there orchestrated a call to boycott her. She finds it difficult to speak at university campuses in the United States, even as she enjoys sanctuary at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where I also work. It is evident that her Islamist opponents now regard her as particularly dangerous, given that she has moved away from the more confrontational positions she once took—and was entitled to take—toward a stance that is both reformist and pragmatic, with clear policy suggestions for the Trump Administration.

DOES HIRSI ALI have lessons for India? Here are my own thoughts. One hesitates to compare the situation in the West with that in India, whose Muslims are indigenous, and where notions of ‘assimilation’ are fraught with political and religious tension. Is there an Indian norm to which assimilation can be demanded of citizens? Are there demands that can be made of religious minorities beyond loyalty to the Indian Constitution? Hindu chauvinists who would seek to invoke Hirsi Ali in their cultural skirmishes with India’s Muslims would do well to remember that she seeks, foremost, a civic state in which Muslims living in America pledge fealty to the US Constitution. She fights dawa because its activists seek to separate American Muslims from American values as enshrined in the Constitution. These include a respect for religious pluralism, the equality of men and women (and girls and boys), as well as respect for an individual’s sexual orientation. She is fond of pointing out that Islamists are homophobic, ‘not in the sense that they oppose gay marriage, but because they would put gays to death’.

The situation in India is very different. There, a certain tribe of political activists that purports to speak for the country’s Hindu majority is hard at work subverting the constitution in the name of whipping Muslims into line. To call their activities—which include intrusions upon the food habits of religious minorities and secular Hindus alike—a battle for ‘assimilation’ would serve only to dignify the uncouth and frequently violent majoritarianism that is in danger of getting out of hand in India. Hirsi Ali’s America is a very different place. It has its own battles, and its own rules. And it is fortunate to have in her an advocate for equality, scientific values, and tolerance— and a critic so eloquent of the worst kind of cant.

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