B Islam a Religion


Emphasis mine - Keith Hunt


IN what is sure to be her most controversial book  to date, Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a powerful case that a religious Reformation is the only way to end the terrorism, sectarian warfare, and repression of women and minorities that each year claim thousands of lives throughout the Muslim world. 

With bracing candor, the brilliant, charismatic, and uncompromising author of the bestselling Infidel and Nomad argues that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of Islamic extremists can be divorced from the religious doctrine that inspires them. Instead we must confront the fact that they are driven by a political ideology embedded in Islam itself.

Today, Hirsi Ali argues, the world's 1.6 billion Muslims can be divided into a minority of extremists, a majority of observant but peaceable Muslims, and a few dissidents who risk their lives by questioning their own religion. 

But there is only one Islam, and as Hirsi Ali shows, there is no denying that some of its key teachings—not least the duty to wage holy war - inspire violence not just in the Muslim world but in the West as well.

For centuries it has seemed that Islam is immune to historical change. But Hirsi Ali is surprisingly optimistic. She has come to believe that a Muslim "Reformation"—a revision of Islamic doctrine aimed at reconciling the religion with modernity—is at hand, and may even already have begun.

Partly in response to the barbaric atrocities of Islamic State and Boko Haram, Muslims around the world have at last begun to speak out for religious reform. 

Meanwhile, events in the West, such as the shocking Charlie Hebdo massacre, have forced Western liberals to recognize that political Islam poses a mortal threat to free speech. Yet neither Muslim reformers nor Western liberals have so far been able to articulate a coherent program for a Muslim Reformation.

This is where Heretic comes in. Boldly challenging centuries of theological orthodoxy, Ayaan Hirsi Ali proposes five key amendments to Islamic doctrine that Muslims must make if they are to bring their religion out of the seventh century and into the twenty first. 

She also calls upon the Western world to end its appeasement of radical Islamists—and to drop the bogus argument that those who stand up to them are guilty of "Islamophobia." It is the Muslim reformers who need our backing, she argues, not the opponents of free speech.

Interweaving her own experiences, historical analogies, and powerful examples from contemporary Muslim societies and cultures, Heretic is not so much a call to arms as a passionate plea for peaceful change and a new era of global tolerance. 

As jihadists kill thousands, from Nigeria to Syria to Pakistan, this book offers an answer to what is fast becoming the world's number one problem.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the New York Times bestselling author of Infidel, Nomad, and The Caged Virgin. Born in Somalia and raised a Muslim, she grew up in Africa and Saudi Arabia before seeking asylum in 1992 in the Netherlands, where she went from cleaning factories to winning a seat in the Dutch Parliament. A prominent speaker, debater, and journalist, she was chosen as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. She is now a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Hirsi Ali is the founder of the AHA Foundation.



On ____ a 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  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 Quran 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."

In these pages, it is my intention to make many people— not only Muslims but also Western apologists for Islam— uncomfortable. 

I am not going to do this by drawing cartoons. Rather, I intend to challenge centuries of religious orthodoxy with ideas and arguments that I am certain will be denounced as heretical. My argument is for nothing less than a Muslim Reformation. Without fundamental alterations to some of Islam's core concepts, I believe, we shall not solve the burning and increasingly global problem of political violence carried out in the name of religion. I intend to speak freely, in the hope that others will debate equally freely with me on what needs to change in Islamic doctrine, rather than seeking to stifle discussion.

Let me illustrate with an anecdote why I believe this book is necessary.

In September 2013, I was flattered to be called by the then-president of Brandeis University, Frederick Lawrence, and offered an honorary degree in social justice, to be conferred at the university's commencement ceremony in May 2014. All seemed well until six months later, when I received another phone call from President Lawrence, this time to inform me that Brandeis was revoking my invitation. I was stunned. I soon learned that an online petition, organized initially by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and located at the website, had been circulated by some students and faculty who were offended by my selection.

Accusing me of "hate speech," the petition began by saying that it had "come as a shock to our community due to her extreme Islamophobic beliefs, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be receiving an Honorary Degree in Social Justice this year. The selection of Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree is a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students, but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech. It is a direct violation of Brandeis University's own moral code as well as the rights of Brandeis students."1 In closing, the petitioners asked: "How can an Administration of a University that prides itself on social justice and acceptance of all make a decision that targets and disrespects it's [sic] own students?" My nomination to receive an honorary degree was "hurtful to the Muslim students and the Brandeis community who stand for social justice."2

No fewer than eighty-seven members of the Brandeis faculty had also written to express their "shock and dismay" at a few brief snippets of my public statements, mostly drawn from interviews I had given seven years before. I was, they said, a

"divisive individual." In particular, I was guilty of suggesting that:

violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus [and] . . . the hard work on the ground by committed Muslim feminist and other progressive Muslim activists and scholars, who find support for gender and other equality within the Muslim tradition and are effective at achieving it.

On scrolling down the list of faculty signatories, I was struck by the strange bedfellows I had inadvertently brought together. Professors of "Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies" lining up with CAIR, an organization subsequently blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates? An authority on "Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory" siding with the openly homophobic Islamists?

It is quite true that in February 2007, when I still resided in Holland, I told the London Evening Standard: "Violence is inherent in Islam." This was one of three brief, selectively edited quotations to which the Brandeis faculty took exception. 

What they omitted to mention in their letter was that, less than three years before, my collaborator on a short documentary film, Theo van Gogh, had been murdered in the street in Amsterdam by a young man of Moroccan parentage named Mohammed Bouyeri. First he shot Theo eight times with a handgun. Then he shot him again as Theo, still clinging to life, pleaded for mercy. Then he cut his throat and attempted to decapitate him with a large knife. Finally, using a smaller knife, he stuck a long note to Theo's body.

I wonder how many of my campus critics have read this letter, which was structured in the style of a fatwa, or religious verdict. 

It began, "In the name of Allah—the Beneficent— the Merciful" and included, along with numerous quotations from the Qur'an, an explicit threat on my life:

My Rabb [master] give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom. Allahumma Amen [Oh, Allah, please accept]. Mrs. Hirshi [sic] Ali and the rest of you extremist unbelievers. Islam has withstood many enemies and persecutions throughout History. . . . AYAAN HIRSI ALI YOU WILL SELF-DESTRUCT ON ISLAM!4

On and on it went in the same ranting vein. "Islam will be victorious through the blood of the martyrs. They will spread its light in every dark corner of this earth and it will drive evil with the sword if necessary back into its dark hole. . . . There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions." The note also included this passage, copied directly from the Qur'an: "Be warned that the death that you are trying to prevent will surely find you, afterwards you will be taken back to the All Knowing and He will tell you what you attempted to do" (62:8).

Perhaps those who have risen to the rarefied heights of the Brandeis faculty can devise a way of arguing that no connection exists between Bouyeri's actions and Islam. I can certainly remember Dutch academics claiming that, behind his religious language, Bouyeri's real motivation in wanting to kill me was socioeconomic deprivation or postmodern alienation. To me, however, when a murderer quotes the Qur'an in justification of his crime, we should at least discuss the possibility that he means what he says.

Now, when I assert that Islam is not a religion of peace I do not mean that Islamic belief makes Muslims naturally violent. 

This is manifestly not the case: there are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. 

What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. 

Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.

Yet from the moment I first began to argue that there was an unavoidable connection between the religion I was raised in and the violence of organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State (henceforth IS, though others prefer the acronyms ISIS or ISIL), I have been subjected to a sustained effort to silence my voice.

Death threats are obviously the most troubling form of intimidation. But there have also been other, less violent methods. Muslim organizations such as CAIR have tried to prevent me from speaking freely, particularly on university campuses. Some have argued that because I am not a scholar of Islamic religion, or even a practicing Muslim, I am not a competent authority on the subject. In other venues, select Muslims and Western liberals have accused me of "Islamophobia," a word designed to be equated with anti-Semitism, homophobia, or other prejudices that Western societies have learned to abhor and condemn.

Why are these people impelled to try to silence me, to protest against my public appearances, to stigmatize my views and drive me off the stage with threats of violence and death? 

It is not because I am ignorant or ill-informed. On the contrary, my views on Islam are based on my knowledge and experience of being a Muslim, of living in Muslim societies— including Mecca itself, the very center of Islamic belief—and on my years of study of Islam as a practitioner, student, and teacher. 

The real explanation is clear. 

It is because they cannot actually refute what I am saying. And I am not alone. Shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Asra Nomani, a Muslim reformer, spoke out against what she calls the "honor brigade"—an organized international cabal hell-bent on silencing debate on Islam.5

The shameful thing is that this campaign is effective in the West. Western liberals now seem to collude against critical thought and debate. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that non-Muslims who consider themselves liberals— including feminists and advocates of gay rights—are so readily persuaded by these crass means to take the Islamists' side against Muslim and non-Muslim critics.


In the weeks and months that followed, Islam was repeatedly in the news—and not as a religion of peace. On April 14, six days after Brandeis's disinvitation, the violent Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria. On May 15, in Sudan, a pregnant woman, Meriam Ibrahim, was sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy. On June 29, IS proclaimed its new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. On August 19, the American journalist James Foley was beheaded on video. On September 2, Steven Sotloff, also an American journalist, shared this fate. The man presiding over their executions was clearly identifiable as being British educated, one of between 3,000 and 4,500 European Union citizens who have become jihadists in Iraq and Syria. On September 26, a recent convert to Islam, Alton Nolen, beheaded his co-worker Colleen Hufford at a food-processing plant in Moore, Oklahoma. On October 22, another criminal turned Muslim convert, named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, ran amok in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, fatally shooting Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was on sentry duty. And so it has gone on ever since. On December 15, a cleric named Man Haron Monis took eighteen people hostage in a Sydney cafe; two died in the resulting shootout. Finally, just as I was finishing this book, the staff of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were massacred in Paris. Masked and armed with AK-47 rifles, the Kouachi brothers forced their way into the offices of the magazine and killed the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, along with nine other employees and a police officer. They killed another police officer in the street. Within hours, their associate Amedy Coulibaly killed four people, all of them Jewish, after seizing control of a kosher store in the east of the city.

In every case, the perpetrators used Islamic language or symbols as they carried out their crimes. To give a single example, during their attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Kouachis shouted "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") and "the Prophet is avenged." They told a female member of the staff in the offices they would spare her "because you are a woman. We do not kill women. But think about what you are doing. What you are doing is bad. I spare you, and because I spare you, you will read the Quran."6

If I had needed fresh evidence that violence in the name of Islam was spreading not only across the Middle East and North Africa but also through Western Europe, across the Atlantic and beyond, here it was in lamentable abundance.

After Steven Sotlof's decapitation, Vice President Joe Biden pledged to pursue his killers to the "gates of hell." So outraged was President Barack Obama that he chose to reverse his policy of ending American military intervention in Iraq, ordering air strikes and deploying military personnel as part of an effort to "degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL." But the president's statement of September 10, 2014, is worth reading closely for its critical evasions and distortions:

Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not "Islamic." No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. . . . ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

In short, Islamic State was neither a state nor Islamic. It was "evil." Its members were "unique in their brutality." The campaign against it was like an effort to eradicate "cancer."

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the White House press secretary went to great lengths to distinguish between "the violent extremist messaging that ISIL and other extremist organizations are using to try to radicalize individuals around the globe" and a "peaceful religion." The administration, he said, had "enjoyed significant success in enlisting leaders in the Muslim community ... to be clear about what the tenets of Islam actually are." The very phrase "radical Islam" was no longer to be uttered.

But what if this entire premise is wrong? 

For it is not just Al-Qaeda and IS that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice. It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labeled as blasphemy and punishable by death. 

It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed, and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment, so much so that there was almost a beheading a day in August 2014. 

It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their "crime." 

It is Brunei, where the sultan is reinstituting Islamic sharia law, again making homosexuality punishable by death.

We have now had almost a decade and a half of policies and pronouncements based on the assumption that terrorism or extremism can and must be differentiated from Islam. 

Again and again in the wake of terrorist attacks around the globe, Western leaders have hastened to declare that the problem has nothing to do with Islam itself. For Islam is a religion of peace.

These efforts are well meaning, but they arise from a misguided conviction, held by many Western liberals, that retaliation against Muslims is more to be feared than Islamist violence itself. 

Thus, those responsible for the 9/11 attacks were represented not as Muslims but as terrorists; we focused on their tactics rather than on the ideology that justified their horrific acts. In the process, we embraced those "moderate" Muslims who blandly told us Islam was a religion of peace and marginalized dissident Muslims who were attempting to pursue real reform.

Today, we are still trying to argue that the violence is the work of a lunatic fringe of extremists. We employ medical metaphors, trying to define the phenomenon as some kind of foreign body alien to the religious milieu in which it flourishes. And we make believe that there are extremists just as bad as the jihadists in our own midst. The president of the United States even went so far as to declare, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012: "The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam"—as opposed, presumably, to those who go around killing the slanderers.

Some people will doubtless complain that this book slanders Muhammad. But its aim is not to give gratuitous offense, but to show that this kind of approach wholly—not just partly, but wholly—misunderstands the problem of Islam in the twenty-first century. Indeed, this approach also misunderstands the nature and meaning of liberalism.

For the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.

It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been "hijacked" by extremists. The killers of IS and Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct. And instead of letting them off the hook with bland cliches about Islam as a religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice. We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.

At the same time, we need to stand up for our own principles as liberals. Specifically, we need to say to offended Western Muslims (and their liberal supporters) that it is not we who must accommodate their beliefs and sensitivities. Rather, it is they who must learn to live with our commitment to free speech.

Three Sets of Muslims

Before we begin to speak about Islam, we must understand what it is and recognize certain distinctions within the Muslim world. The distinctions I have in mind are not the conventional ones among Sunni, Shia, and other branches of the faith. Rather, they are broad sociological groupings defined by the nature of their observance. I will subdivide Muslims. I will not subdivide Islam.

Islam is a single core creed based on the Qur'an, the words revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and the hadith, the accompanying works that detail Muhammad's life and words. Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger." This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

The Shahada may seem a declaration of belief no different from any other to Westerners used to individual freedom of conscience and religion. But the reality is that the Shahada is both a religious and a political symbol.


In the early days of Islam, when Muhammad was going from door to door trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah's messenger, much as Christ had asked the Jews to accept that he was the son of God. However, after ten years of trying this kind of persuasion, Muhammad and his small band of believers went to Medina and from that moment Muhammad's mission took on a political dimension. Unbelievers were still invited to submit to Allah, but, after Medina, they were attacked if they refused. If defeated, they were given the option either to convert or to die. (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they submitted to paying a special tax.)

No symbol represents the soul of Islam more than the Shahada. But today there is a contest within Islam for the ownership of that symbol. Who owns the Shahada? Is it those Muslims who want to emphasize Muhammad's years in Mecca, or those who are inspired by his conquests after Medina? There are millions upon millions of Muslims who identify themselves with the former. Increasingly, however, they are challenged by fellow believers who want to revive and reenact the political version of Islam born in Medina—the version that took Muhammad from being a wanderer in the desert to a symbol of absolute morality.

On this basis, I believe we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. 

These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: "We must live by the strict letter of our creed." They envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I was tempted to call this group "Millenarian Muslims," because their fanaticism is reminiscent of the various fundamentalist sects that flourished in medieval Christendom prior to the Reformation, most of which combined fanaticism and violence with anticipation of the end of the world.7 But the analogy is imperfect. Whereas Shiite doctrine looks forward to the return of the Twelfth Imam and the global triumph of Islam, Sunni zealots are more likely to aspire to the forcible creation of a new caliphate here on earth. Instead, then, I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad's teaching, but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians "pigs and monkeys" and preach that both faiths are, in the words of the Council on Foreign Relations Fellow (and former Islamist) Ed Husain, "false religions." It is Medina Muslims who prescribe beheading for the crime of "nonbelief" in Islam, death by stoning for adultery, and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled. It was Medina Muslims who in July 2014 went on a rampage in Gujranwala, Pakistan, setting eight homes on fire and killing a grandmother and her two granddaughters, all because of the posting of an allegedly blasphemous photo on an eighteen-year-old's Facebook page.

Medina Muslims believe that the murder of an infidel is an imperative if he refuses to convert voluntarily to Islam. They preach jihad and glorify death through martyrdom. The men and women who join groups such as Al-Qaeda, IS, Boko Ha-ram, and Al-Shabaab in my native Somalia—to name just four of hundreds of jihadist organizations—are all Medina Muslims.

Are the Medina Muslims a minority? Ed Husain estimates that only 3 percent of the world's Muslims understand Islam in these militant terms. But out of well over 1.6 billion believers, or 23 percent of the globe's population, that 48 million seems to be more than enough. 

Based on survey data on attitudes toward sharia in Muslim countries, I would put the proportion significantly higher;8 I also believe it is rising as Muslims and converts to Islam gravitate toward Medina. Either way, Muslims who belong to this group are not open to persuasion or engagement by either Western liberals or Muslim reformers. They are not the intended audience for this book. They are the reason for writing it.

The second group—and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world—consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was raised a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: their 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.

In Muslim-majority countries, the power of modernity to transform economic, social, and (ultimately) power relations can be limited. Muslims in these societies can use cell phones and computers without necessarily seeing a conflict between their religious faith and the rationalist, secular mindset that made modern technology possible. 

In the West, however, where Islam is a minority religion, devout Muslims live in what is best described as a state of cognitive dissonance. Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these

Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a secular and pluralistic society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn. Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.9

To many such Muslims, after years of dissonance, there appear to be only two alternatives: either leave Islam altogether, as I did, or abandon the dull routine of daily observance for the uncompromising Islamist creed offered by those—the Medina Muslims—who explicitly reject the West's modernity.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims— those closer to Mecca than Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith. I hope that they will be one of the primary audiences for this book.

Of course, I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel. But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate, but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group—only a few of whom have left Islam altogether—that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents; call them the Modifying Muslims. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam's future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers—among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

I shall have more to say in what follows about this neglected—indeed largely unknown—group. 

For now, it is enough to say that I choose to identify myself with the dissidents. In the eyes of the Medina Muslims, we are all heretics, because we have had the temerity to challenge the applicability of seventh-century teachings to the twenty-first-century world.


The dissidents include people such as Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, the former dean of Islamic law at Qatar University, who disavows the hatred of religions other than Islam. He has quoted at length a Saudi woman who asked why her daughter should be taught to hate non-Muslims: "Do they expect me to hate the Jewish scientist who discovered insulin, which I use to treat my mother? Am I supposed to teach my daughter that she should hate Edison, who invented the lightbulb, which lights up the Islamic world? Should I hate the scientist who discovered the cure for malaria? Should I teach my daughter to hate people merely because their religion is different? Why do we turn our religion into a religion of hatred toward those who differ from us?" Al-Ansari then quotes a response by a leading Saudi cleric, who replied, "This is none of your business" and "cooperation with the infidels is permitted, but only as a reward for services, and not out of love." Al-Ansari's plea is to "make religious discourse more human."

And that is precisely the thing Western-based reformers such as Irshad Manji, Maajid Nawaz, and Zuhdi Jasser are seeking: what they have in common is an attempt to modify, adapt, and reinterpret Islamic practice in order to make religious discourse more human, (For further details on the Modifying Muslims, see the Appendix.)

How many Muslims belong to each group? 

Even if it were possible to answer that question definitively, I am not sure that it matters. On the airwaves, over social media, in far too many mosques, and of course on the battlefield, the Medina Muslims have captured the world's attention. Most disturbing, the number of Western-born Muslim jihadists is sharply increasing. 

The UN estimated in November 2014 that some 15,000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have traveled to Syria to join the radical jihadists.10 Roughly a quarter of them come from Western Europe. And it is not just young men. Between 10 and 15 percent of those traveling to Syria from some Western countries are female, according to estimates from the ICSR research group.11


But there are more troubling statistics. According to estimates by the Pew Research Center, the Muslim population of the United States is set to increase from around 2.6 million today to 6.2 million in 2030, mainly as a result of immigration, as well as above-average fertility. Although in relative terms this will still represent less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population (1.7 percent, to be precise, compared with around 0.8 percent today), in absolute terms that will be a larger population than in any West European country except France.12

As an immigrant of Somali origin, I have no objection whatever to millions of other people from the Muslim world coming to America to seek a better life for themselves and their families. My concern is with the attitudes many of these new Muslim Americans will bring with them (see table 1).

Approximately two fifths of Muslim immigrants between now and 2030 will be from just three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iraq. Another Pew study—of opinion in the Muslim world—shows just how many people in these countries hold views that most Westerners would regard as extreme.13 

Three quarters of Pakistanis and more than two fifths of Bangladeshis and Iraqis think that those who leave Islam should suffer the death penalty. 

More than 80 percent of Pakistanis and two thirds of Bangladeshis and Iraqis regard sharia law as the revealed word of God. Similar proportions say that Western entertainment hurts morality. Only tiny fractions would be comfortable if their daughters married Christians. Only minorities regard honor killings of women as never justified. A quarter of Bangladeshis and one in eight Pakistanis think that suicide bombings in defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified.


Medina Muslims can exploit views such as these to pose a threat to us all. In the Middle East and elsewhere, their vision of a violent return to the days of the Prophet potentially spells death for hundreds of thousands and subjugation for millions. In the West, it implies not only an increasing risk of terrorism but also a subtle erosion of the hard-won achievements of feminists and campaigners for minority rights.

Medina Muslims are also undermining the position of those Mecca Muslims attempting to lead a quiet life in their cultural cocoons throughout the Western world. 

Yet those under the greatest threat are the dissidents and reformers: the Modifying Muslims. They are the ones who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats—or face death itself. So far, their efforts have been diffuse and individual, compared with the highly organized collective action of the Medina Muslims. We owe it to the dissidents—to their courage and their convictions—to change that.

Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that the only viable strategy that can hope to contain the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformists and to help them a) identify and repudiate those parts of Muhammad's moral legacy that stem from Medina and b) persuade the Mecca Muslims to accept this change and reject the Medina Muslims' summons to intolerance and war.


This book is not a work of history. I do not offer a new explanation for the fact that more and more Muslims have embraced the most violent elements of Islam in my lifetime— why, in short, the Medina Muslims are in the ascendant today. I do seek to challenge the view, almost universal among Western liberals, that the explanation lies in the economic and political problems of the Muslim world and that these, in turn, can be explained in terms of Western foreign policy. This is to attach too much importance to exogenous forces. There are other parts of the world that have struggled to make democracy work or to cope with oil wealth. There are other peoples besides Muslims who have complaints about U.S. "imperialism." Yet there is precious little evidence of an upsurge in terrorism, suicide bombings, sectarian warfare, medieval punishments, and honor killings in the non-Muslim world. 

There is a reason why an increasing proportion of organized violence in the world is happening in countries where Islam is the religion of a substantial share of the population.

The argument in this book is that religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform. 

Non-doctrinal factors—such as the Saudis' use of oil revenues to fund Wahhabism and Western support for the Saudi regime—are important, but religious doctrine is more important. 

Hard as it may be for many Western academics to believe, when people commit violent acts in the name of religion, they are not trying somehow to dignify their underlying socioeconomic or political grievances.

Islam is at a crossroads. Muslims, not by the tens or hundreds but by the tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions, need to make a conscious decision to confront, debate, and ultimately reject the violent elements within their religion. To some extent—not least because of widespread revulsion at the unspeakable atrocities of IS, Al-Qaeda, and the rest—this process has already begun. But ultimately it needs leadership from the dissidents. And they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.

Imagine if, in the Cold War, the West had lent its support not to the dissidents in Eastern Europe—to the likes of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa—but to the Soviet Union, as the representative of "moderate Communists," in the hope that the Kremlin would give us a hand against terrorists such as the Red Army Faction. Imagine if a "Manchurian candidate" president had told the world: "Communism is an ideology of peace."

That would have been disastrous. Yet that is essentially the West's posture toward the Muslim world today. 

We ignore the dissidents. Indeed, we do not even know their names. We delude ourselves that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm. 

And we pin our hopes on a majority that is conspicuously without any credible leadership, and indeed shows more sign of being susceptible to the arguments of the fanatics than to those of the dissidents.

Five Amendments

Not everyone will accept this argument, I know. All I ask of those who do not is that they defend my right to make it. 

But for those who do accept the proposition that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam, the central question is: What needs to happen for us to defeat the extremists for good? Economic, political, judicial, and military tools have been proposed and some of them deployed. But I believe these will have little effect unless Islam itself is reformed.

Such a Reformation has been called for repeatedly—by Muslim activists such as Muhammad Taha and Western scholars such as Bernard Lewis—at least since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent abolition of the Caliphate. In that sense, this is not an original work. 

What is original is that I specify precisely what needs to be reformed. I have identified five precepts central to the faith that have made it resistant to historical change and adaptation. Only when these five things are recognized as inherently harmful and when they are repudiated and nullified will a true Muslim Reformation have been achieved. The five things to be reformed are:

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.

All these tenets must be either reformed or discarded. In the chapters that follow I shall discuss each of them and make the case for their reformation.

I recognize that such an argument is going to make many Muslims uncomfortable. Some are bound to say that they are offended by my proposed amendments. Others will no doubt contend that I am not qualified to discuss these complex issues of theological and legal tradition. I am also afraid—genuinely afraid—that it will make a few Muslims even more eager to silence me.

But this is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam. 

The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If nothing else comes of it, I will consider this book a success if it helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves. That, in my opinion, would represent a first step, however hesitant, toward the Reformation that Islam so desperately needs.

For their part, many Westerners may be inclined to dismiss these propositions as quixotic. Other religions have undergone a process of reform, modifying core beliefs and adopting more tolerant and flexible attitudes compatible with modern, pluralistic societies. But what hope can there be to reform a religion that has resisted change for 1,400 years? If anything, Islam today seems, from the Western point of view, to be moving backward, not forward. Ironically, this book is written at a time when many in the West have begun to despair of winning the struggle against Islamic extremism, and when the hopes associated with the so-called Arab Spring have largely proved to be illusory.

I agree that the Arab Spring was an illusion, at least in terms of Western expectations. From the outset, I regarded parallels with the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Velvet Revolution of 1989 as facile and doomed to disappointment. 

Nevertheless, I think many Western observers have missed the underlying import of the Arab Spring. 

Something was—and still is—definitely afoot within the Muslim world. There is a genuine constituency for change that was never there before. It is a constituency, I shall argue, that we overlook at our peril.

In short, this is an optimistic book, a book that seeks to inspire not another war on terror or extremism but rather a real debate within and about the Muslim world. It is a book that attempts to explain what elements such a Reformation might change, written from the perspective of someone who has been at various times all three kinds of Muslim: a cocooned believer, a fundamentalist, and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan, and to the idea of a Modified Islam.

The absence of a Muslim Reformation is what ultimately drove me to become an infidel, a nomad, and now a heretic. 

Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.

The Muslim world is currently engaged in a massive struggle to come to terms with the challenge of modernity. The Arab Spring and Islamic State are just two versions of the reaction to that challenge. We in the West must not limit ourselves solely to military means in order to defeat the jihadists. Nor can we hope to cut ourselves off from contact with them. For these reasons, we have an enormous stake in how the struggle over Islam plays out. We cannot remain on the sidelines as though the outcome has nothing to do with us. 

If the Medina Muslims win and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world will pay an enormous price. And, with all the freedoms we take for granted, Westerners may have the most to lose.

That is why I am also addressing this book to Western liberals—not just to those who saw fit to disinvite me from Brandeis but also to all the many others who would have done the same if their university had offered me an honorary degree.

You who call yourselves liberals must understand that it is your way of life that is under threat. Withdraw my right to speak freely, and you jeopardize your own in the future. Ally yourselves with the Islamists at your peril. Tolerate their intolerance at your peril.

In all kinds of ways, feminists and gay rights activists offer their support to Muslim women and gays in the West and, increasingly, in Muslim-majority countries. However, most shy away from linking the abuses they are against—from child marriage to the persecution of homosexuals—to the religious tenets on which the abuses are based. To give just a single example, in August 2014 the theocratic regime in Tehran executed two men, Abdullah Ghavami Chahzanjiru and Salman Ghanbari Chahzanjiri, apparently for violating the Islamic Republic's law against sodomy. That law is based on the Quran and the hadith.

People like me—some of us apostates, most of us dissident Muslims—need your support, not your antagonism. We who have known what it is to live without freedom watch with incredulity as you who call yourselves liberals—who claim to believe so fervently in individual liberty and minority rights—make common cause with the forces in the world that manifestly pose the greatest threats to that very freedom and those very minorities.

I am now one of you: a Westerner. I share with you the pleasures of the seminar rooms and the campus cafes. I know we Western intellectuals cannot lead a Muslim Reformation. But we do have an important role to play. We must no longer accept limitations on criticism of Islam. We must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently "racist." Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought. 

We support the women in Saudi Arabia who wish to drive, the women in Egypt who are protesting against sexual assault, the homosexuals in Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, the young Muslim men who want not martyrdom but the freedom to leave their faith. But our support would be more effective if we acknowledged the theological bases of their oppression.

In short, we who have the luxury of living in the West have an obligation to stand up for liberal principles. Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture's intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women's rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity. And we need to say unambiguously to Muslims living in the West: If you want to live in our societies, to share in their material benefits, then you need to accept that our freedoms are not optional. They are the foundation of our way of life; of our civilization—a civilization that learned, slowly and painfully, not to burn heretics, but to honor them.

Indeed, one highly desirable outcome of a Muslim Reformation would be to redefine the meaning of the word "heretic" itself. Religious reformations always shift the meaning of this term: today's heretic becomes tomorrow's reformer, while today's defender of religious orthodoxy becomes tomorrow's Torquemada. 

A Muslim Reformation would have the happy effect of turning the tables on those I am threatened by—rendering them the heretics, not me.






Keith Hunt