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Why Islam needs a reformation now

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Not a Religion of Peace

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.”

As I revised the introduction to this book, four months before its publication, I could of course have written something more specific, like this:

On January 7, 2015, two heavily armed, black-clad attackers burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, opening fire and killing a total of ten people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”

But, on reflection, there seemed little reason to pick Paris. Just a few weeks earlier I could equally as well have written this:

In December 2014, a group of nine heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a school in Peshawar, opening fire and killing a total of 145 people.

Indeed, I could have written a similar sentence about any number of events, from Ottawa, Canada, to Sydney, Australia, to Baga, Nigeria. So instead I decided to leave the place blank and the number of killers and victims blank, too. You, the reader, can simply fill them in with the latest case that happens to be in the news. Or, if you prefer a more historical example, you can try this:

In September 2001, a group of 19 Islamic terrorists flew hijacked planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., killing 2,996 people.

For more than thirteen years now, I have been making a simple argument in response to such acts of terrorism. My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them. Instead we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.

Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.

For expressing the idea that Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself, I have been denounced as a bigot and an “Islamophobe.” I have been silenced, shunned, and shamed. In effect, I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.

My uncompromising statements on this topic have incited such vehement denunciations that one would think I had committed an act of violence myself. For today, it seems, speaking the truth about Islam is a crime. “Hate speech” is the modern term for heresy. And in the present atmosphere, anything that makes Muslims feel uncomfortable is branded as “hate.”

Does the Quran Inspire Violence?

If the Qur’an were used only to heal the sick, there would be less need for a Muslim Reformation. Unfortunately, as we have seen, it is also very commonly cited today to justify acts of violence, including all-out war against the infidel.

David Cook, a professor of religious studies at Rice University who has carefully studied jihad, notes that in the Qur’an, “the root (the verbal derivatives) of the word jihad appears quite frequently with regard to fighting (e.g., 2:218, 3:143, 8:72, 74-75, 9:16, 20, 41, 86, 61:11) or fighters (mujahidin, 4:95, 47:31).” Most verses in the Qur’an, Cook emphasizes, “are unambiguous as to the nature of the jihad prescribed—the vast majority of them referring to ‘those who believe, emigrate, and fight in the path of Allah.’ ” In the historical evolution of Islam, “the armed struggle—aggressive conquest—came first, and then additional meanings became attached to the term [jihad].”

To be sure, there are stories of violence and brutality in the Torah and Bible. When King David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her half-brother, David imposes no punishment and Tamar is discarded and shamed. But Talmudic and biblical scholars today do not sanction sibling rape. Instead, they are most likely to express grief for Tamar and revulsion at the crime, and to show how this one act led to the unraveling of David’s family. Contrast this with the use by modern Islamic scholars of Muhammad’s decision to marry a six-year-old girl, consummating their marriage when she turned nine, to justify child marriage in Iraq and Yemen today.

The literal reading of the Qur’an is a central part of what animates the bloody battles of jihad playing out across Syria and Iraq. Many of today’s Sunni and Shiite fighters believe they are participating in battles foretold in seventh-century prophecies—the accounts in the hadith that refer to the confrontation of two massive armies in Syria. “If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken,” a Sunni Muslim jihadist who uses the name Abu Omar explained to a Reuters reporter in 2014. “They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised—it is the Grand Battle.” “We have here mujahideen from Russia, America, the Philippines, China, Germany, Belgium, Sudan, India, and Yemen and other places,” a journalist was told by Sami, a Sunni rebel fighter in northern Syria. “They are here because this is what the Prophet said and promised, the Grand Battle is happening.” In much the same way, the leader of Boko Haram cites the Qur’an as his excuse to sell 276 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery.

Modern Martyrdom

Today the call to martyrdom can be heard not just in mosques, but also in schools and in the electronic media, from television to YouTube. The argument is a subtle one that is not well understood in the West. During an interview on Al-Aqsa television in May 2014, Dr. Subhi Al-Yazji of the Islamic University in Gaza acknowledged, “the Islamic concept of sacrifice motivates many of our youth to carry out martyrdom operations.” But he added:

Contrary to how they are portrayed by the West and some biased media outlets, which claim that they are youths of eighteen to twenty years who have been brainwashed, most of the people who sacrificed their lives for the sake of Allah were engineers and had office jobs. They were all mature and rational. Some people claim that they did this for the money. [But] take, for example, someone like brother Sa’d, who was an engineer, had an office job, owned a home and a car, and was married—what made him embark on jihad? He believed that the Muslim faith requires us to make sacrifices.

Ismail Radwan, an Islamic University professor and spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, explains what the reward will be for those who embrace death. “When the Shahid (Martyr for Allah) meets the Lord,” he writes, “all his sins are forgiven from the first gush of blood, and he is exempted from the torments of the grave. He sees his place in Paradise. He is shielded from the Great Shock and marries 72 Dark-Eyed [Virgins]. He is a heavenly advocate for 70 members of his family. On his head is placed a crown of honor, one stone of which is worth more than all there is in this world.”

In part because the Palestinians have been the most frequent proponents and practitioners of suicide bombing, they have developed the most elaborate and detailed rationalizations of martyrdom. To many of them, the afterlife is not a theoretical, abstract concept; it is exceedingly real. As the Tel Aviv disco bomber explained in his will, written before his June 2001 attack, which left twenty-three Israeli teenagers dead, “I will turn my body into bombs that will hunt the sons of Zion, blast them and burn their remains.... Call out in joy, oh mother! Distribute sweets, oh father and brothers! A wedding with the black-eyed [virgins] awaits your son in Paradise.”

As a mother of a three-year-old son, I can imagine nothing more unbearable than his death. So I have tried hard to understand the psychology of Mariam Farhat, the Palestinian “mother of martyrs” also known as Umm Nidal, who positively encouraged three of her sons to undertake attacks on Israel that cost them their lives. “It is true that there is nothing more precious than children,” she said before one of her sons died in a suicide attack she herself had planned, “but for the sake of Allah, what is precious becomes cheap.”’ Her son Muhammad Farhat attacked an Israeli settlement school with guns and hand grenades, killing five students and wounding twenty- three others before being killed himself. Why did she condone this? “Because I love my son,” she replied, “and I wanted to choose the best for him, and the best is not life in this world”:

For us there is an Afterlife, the eternal bliss. So if I love my son, I’ll choose eternal bliss for him. As much as my living children honor me, it will not be like the honor the Martyr showed me. He will be the intercessor on the Day of Resurrection. What more can I ask for? Allah willing, the Lord will promise us Paradise, that’s the best I can hope for. The greatest honor [my son] showed me was his Martyrdom.

The Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh commented that Nidal’s words made him “recall the words of the hadith that ‘Paradise lies under the feet of the mothers.’ ”

As the organization Palestinian Media Watch explains, this message “comes from all parts of society, including religious leaders, TV news reports, schoolbooks, and even music videos. Newspapers routinely describe the death and funerals of terrorists as their ‘wedding’…. The longest running music video on PA TV, originally aired in 2000 and broadcast regularly in 2010, shows a male martyr being greeted in Islam’s Paradise by dark eyed women all dressed in white.” Yet this cult of murderous martyrdom is no longer confined to the Palestinians. It is not only in Gaza that kindergartners are dressed up as suicide bombers. All across the Muslim world, children are being inculcated with a death wish. On Egyptian television, the child preacher Abd al-Fattah Marwan extolls “the love of martyrdom for the sake of Allah.” On Al-Jazeera, a ten-year-old Yemeni boy chants a poem he has composed himself, promising, “I will become a martyr for my land and my honor.”

In Somalia, fathers recruit their children, some as young as ten, to become suicide bombers and film their “martyrdom operations” with the same pride as an American father filming his son scoring a goal or hitting a home run. The leaders of Boko Haram likewise raise their children to be martyrs. Finally, and inevitably, the cult of death has reached European Muslims. In 2014 a British-born woman calling herself Umm Layth tweeted a breathless comment on her new life as the wife of a Syrian IS fighter: “Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahada [in this case meaning martyrdom].” At the time she wrote those words, Umm Layth had more than two thousand Twitter followers.

Such ideas are already established in America. Consider the very popular Methodology of Dawah el-Allah in American Perspective, by Shamim Siddiqi, a leading commentator on Muslim issues, and published by the Forum for Islamic Work. The book sets out how Muslims can establish an Islamic state in the United States and more broadly in the West. It presents both the preferred ways of reaching potential adherents— through mosques, conferences, television and radio appearances— and the best strategies for doing so. But what is most striking is the book’s death-laden language, starting in its very first pages. It is dedicated to those “who are struggling and waiting to lay down their lives for establishing God’s Kingdom on earth” and quotes the Qur’an on its dedication page: “Of the believers are men who are true to that which they covenanted with ALLAH. Some of them have paid their vow by death (in battle), and some of them still are waiting; and they have not altered in the least” (33:23). Siddiqi focuses on how the ideal Muslim must sacrifice everything for the sake of the Islamic movement and “expect rewards from Allah only in the life hereafter.” The perfect Muslim “prefers to live and die for [the hereafter]. He gladly gives up his life for its sake….” Unfortunately, this isn’t mere rhetoric.

Needed: A New Language of Emancipation

Beyond the ways it restricts women’s rights and legitimizes violence against them, sharia does something more. Because of the very foundation of sharia in the dictates of the Qur’an and the hadith, there is no vocabulary in Islam that can be used to emancipate women. All the words for female rights and basic female freedoms are invariably Western. If you fight for access to education or the right to vote or the right to drive or the right not to be beaten or stoned, the vocabulary you have to use in making that argument is Western because Islamic texts and the Arabic language simply do not have the words for these types of rights and opportunities. By contrast, when women face opposition to their emancipation, those words and that vocabulary are exclusively Islamic. In Somalia, people say to women who do not want to be in polygamous marriages, “Oh, yeah, sure, you want to be just like the gaalo.” The gaalo are the infidels, a derogatory term that means being unfaithful to God. So if you don’t want to be a second or third wife, or you don’t want to be replaced by a second or third wife, you are simply being unfaithful to God. It is almost impossible to have a discussion about these issues that doesn’t bring Islam into the conversation. People say, “It’s ungodly, it’s not what the Prophet Muhammad said to do.”

This is not to say that women have a long history of being fully emancipated in the West. Until well into the 1970s, as is well known, a married woman couldn’t even open a charge card at a Sears store in her own name. Historically, some of the most vocal forces opposing the emancipation of American women came from the Christian clergy. Many argued that the subservience of women was a God-given fact, and that to release women from the home would lead to the enslavement of men. Yet there were equally convinced clergymen on the other side. Reverend Theodore Parker of Boston said in 1853, “To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife, and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made.” In Islam, by contrast, such arguments are scarcely ever heard.

Cultural relativists prefer to wrap the issue of sharia in the intellectual equivalent of a black jilbab or blue burqa and intone the old platitudes that we should be nonjudgmental about the religious practices of others. Why? The ancient Aztecs and other peoples practiced human sacrifice, tearing the still-beating hearts out of their sacrificial victims. We teach our children that this happened five hundred years ago, but we don’t condone it—and wouldn’t if the practice were suddenly revived in Mexico today. So why do we condone the “sacrifice” of women or homosexuals or lapsed Muslims for “crimes” such as apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, marrying outside of their faith, or simply wishing to marry the partner of their choice? Why, aside from the publication of reports by human rights organizations, is there no discernible reaction? In the twenty-first century, I believe that all decent human beings can agree that such barbarous acts should not be tolerated. They can and must be condemned and prosecuted as crimes, not accepted as legitimate punishments.

The abuses carried out under sharia are irrefutable. If we are to have any hope for a more peaceful, more stable planet, these punishments must be set aside.

There is probably no realistic chance that Muslims in countries such as Pakistan will agree to dispense with sharia. However, we in the West must insist that Muslims living in our societies abide by our rule of law. We must demand that Muslim citizens abjure sharia practices and punishments that conflict with fundamental human rights and Western legal codes. Moreover, under no circumstances should Western countries allow Muslims to form self-governing enclaves in which women and other supposedly second-class citizens can be treated in ways that belong in the seventh century.

Yet that is not enough. We must also address and reform Islam’s most powerful social tool: the informal grassroots enforcement of its strictest religious principles in the name of commanding right and forbidding wrong.

The Zone of Privacy Is Now a Dead Zone

Part of what makes commanding right and forbidding wrong such a menace is that, unlike the term “jihad”, it sounds so virtuous. What could be wrong with living a moral life? Isn’t that the primary aspiration of all major religious teachings? And what could be more reasonable than a devolved discipline, with norms of behavior enforced by family rather than some external power?

The problem is that these questions expose some fundamental differences between Islam and Western liberal thought. A core part of the Western tradition is that individuals should, within certain limits, decide for themselves what to believe and how to live. Islam envisages the exact opposite: it has very clear and restrictive rules about how one should live and it expects all Muslims to enforce these rules. In its modern conception, commanding right has become (in the words of Michael Cook) “the organized propagation of Islamic values.” As Dawood Azami puts it, if you depart from the basic (and time-consuming) requirements of the faith, you had best “keep quiet about it” if you hope to survive unscathed even by your own family.

It was not always this way. In the medieval period, there were disagreements about how far commanding and forbidding should extend. Behind closed doors, in private lives, without witnesses, there was more latitude. As Patricia Crone notes, “Freethinkers could discuss their views with like-minded individuals in private salons, in learned gatherings at the court, and to some extent in books and even more so in poetry, where things could be put ambivalently.” There was even an entire Islamic literary style, the mujun, which allowed its practitioners to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in society, allowing them to teeter on the edge of the blasphemous, the pornographic, the scurrilous. “In short,” Crone concludes, “freedom lay essentially in privacy. The public sphere was where public norms had to be maintained, where there might be censors or private persons fulfilling the duty of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ who would break musical instruments, pour out wine, and separate couples who were neither married nor closely related. But their right to intrude into private homes was strictly limited.” There was even a way to say, to those who sought to enforce the Qur’an’s dictates, “Mind your own business.”

The idea of a zone of privacy and the concept of “mind your own business” have eroded in our time. As modern Islamic communities have become radicalized, there is a kind of arms race of commanding right and forbidding wrong. This means that a closet atheist is quickly outed because he is soon caught not praying five times a day, not fasting in the month of Ramadan, not praising Allah constantly, not saying “Inshallah” every time he refers to the future. While we in the West have surrendered our privacy to our credit card companies, website cookies, social media networks, and search engines, in the Muslim world the zone of privacy has been eroded by other means.

Decommissioning Jihad

In one of the many IS videos that can be found online, a British man who identifies himself as Brother Abu Muthanna al Yemeni extolls the virtues of jihad. He encourages foreign Muslims “to answer the call of Allah and His Messenger when He calls you to what gives you life…. What He says gives you life is jihad.” This is not empty rhetoric. We need to answer these words. We need more than just a counternarrative. We need a theological reply.

The nuclear arms race of the Cold War was not won by the proponents of unilateral disarmament. No matter how many thousands of people turned out for antinuclear marches in London or Bonn, missiles were still deployed in NATO countries and pointed at the Warsaw Pact countries, which had their own missiles pointed right back at the West. The only way the arms race ended was with the ideological and political collapse of Soviet communism, after which there was a large- scale (though not complete) decommissioning of nuclear weapons. In much the same way, we need to recognize that this is an ideological conflict that will not be won until the concept of jihad has itself been decommissioned. We also have to acknowledge that, far from being un-Islamic, the central tenets of the jihadists are supported by centuries-old Islamic doctrine.

The IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani recently called on Muslims to use all means to kill a “disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian or a Canadian.” “Please don’t” is not an adequate reply. As Ghaffar Hussain, himself a former Islamist, has said, “You need to stand up, challenge them, and rubbish their ideas.”

It is obviously next to impossible to redefine the word “jihad” as if its call to arms is purely metaphorical (in the style of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”). There is too much conflicting scripture, and too many examples from the Qur’an and hadith that the jihadists can cite to bolster their case.

Therefore I believe the best option would be to take it off the table. If clerics and imams and scholars and national leaders around the world declared jihad “haram,” forbidden, then there would be a clear dividing line. Imagine the impact if those hundred imams in Great Britain had explicitly renounced the entire concept of jihad. Imagine if the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holy shrines, itself renounced jihad, rather than turning the jihadists into beneficiaries of (yet more of) its largesse.

And if that is too much to expect—if Muslims simply refuse to renounce jihad completely—then the next best thing would be to call their bluff about Islam being a religion of peace. If a tradition truly exists within Islam that interprets jihad as a purely spiritual activity, as Sufi Muslims tend to do, let us challenge other Muslims to embrace it. Christianity was itself once a crusading faith, as we have seen, but over time it abandoned its militancy. If Islam really is a religion of peace, then what is preventing Muslims from doing the same?

Je Suis Charlie

There is one final reason I am optimistic. I begin to hope that the West may finally be coming to its senses.

Over the past twenty years, terrified of appearing culturally insensitive or even racist, Western nations have bent over backward to accommodate the demands of their Muslim citizens for special treatment. We appeased the Muslim heads of government who lobbied us to censor our press, our universities, our history books, our school curricula. We appeased leaders of Muslim organizations in our societies, who asked universities to disinvite speakers deemed “offensive” to Muslims. Instead of embracing Muslim dissidents, Western governments treated them as troublemakers and instead partnered with all the wrong people—groups such as the Council on American- Islamic Relations. And we even subsidized the jihadists. (For example, the man who killed Theo van Gogh was living off Dutch welfare benefits.)

Yet I dare to hope that what happened in Paris in January 2015 may prove to be a turning point. It was not that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was especially bloody. Many more people had died in the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014. Many more people died in the Boko Haram attack on Baga in Nigeria in the same week as the attack in Paris. Rather, it was the fact that more than a dozen people were murdered because they had drawn and published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

There were, of course, the usual craven editorials and press statements by moral idiots arguing that the editors of the magazine had lacked “common sense” in offending Muslims, and that nevertheless the violence had nothing to do with Islam. But for the millions of people who took to the streets bearing “Je Suis Charlie” signs, these arguments clearly were not reassuring.

As of this writing, ten thousand military and security personnel have been deployed across France as authorities brace for more attacks. Even to me, just a week ago, such a militarization of policing in one of the West’s largest and oldest democracies would have been unthinkable. France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, said three days after the attack that France was at war with “radical Islam.” The French, once so critical of the United States after 9/11 (not least for the sweeping scope of the Patriot Act), are now following in the footsteps of George W. Bush. Stephen Harper, the prime minister of the other great French-speaking democracy, Canada, explicitly connected the Charlie Hebdo attack to the “international jihadist movement.” “They have declared war on anybody who does not think and act exactly as they wish they would think and act,” Harper said. “They have declared war and are already executing it on a massive scale on a whole range of countries with which they are in contact, and they have declared war on any country, like ourselves, that values freedom, openness and tolerance. We may not like this and wish it would go away, but it is not going to go away.”

At a time like this, the claims that the “extremists” have nothing to do with the “religion of peace” simply cease to be credible. The enemy in this war is saying just the opposite. Consider, for example, the book written by the Al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Suri, entitled The Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As the enemies of Islam, al-Suri lists: the Jews, America, Israel, the Freemasons, the Christians, the Hindus, apostates (including established Muslim leaders, officials, and their security apparatus), hypocritical scholars, educational systems, satellite TV channels, sports, and all arts and entertainment venues. This would be comical if it were not so deadly serious.

Western leaders who insist on ignoring such explicit threats run two risks. Not only do their words (“Islam belongs to Germany”) embolden the zealots. They also create a political vacancy. Even before Charlie Hebdo, Germans were protesting under the banner of Pegida (short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) in Dresden, Berlin, Munich, and Leipzig. All over Europe, populist parties are mobilizing voters in increasing numbers against immigration and Islam, from the National Front in France to the Sweden Democrats. It can be in nobody’s interests for Europe to slide in this way down a perilous path of polarization.

Instead, as briefly happened in Paris in the days after the massacre, we in the West need to unite. But we need to be clear about what we are uniting for, and what we are uniting against.

In all holy books, in the Bible as well as the Qur’an, you will find passages that sanction intolerance and inequity. But in the case of Christianity, there was change. In that process of change, the people who wanted to uphold the status quo made the same arguments that present-day Muslims are giving: that they were offended, that the new thinking was blasphemy. In effect, it was through a process of repeated blasphemy that Christians and Jews evolved and grew into modernity. That is what art did. That is what science did. And yes, that is what irreverent satire did.

The Muslim Reformation is not going to come from Al-Azhar. It is more likely to come from a relentless campaign of blasphemy. So when a Muslim sees you reading his book and says, “I am offended, my feelings are hurt,” your reply should be: “What matters more? Your sacred text? Or the life of this book’s author? Your sacred text? Or the rule of law? Human life, human freedom, human dignity—they all matter more than any sacred text.” Christians have been through this, Jews have been through it. It’s now time for Muslims to go through it. In that sense—in the sense that I passionately believe in the world- changing power of blasphemy—je suis Charlie.

Yet we need to do more than merely blaspheme. We need to reform.

(Excerpted from Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, published by HarperCollins, 271 pages, Rs 599)