by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Muslim Dissidents and Reformers

The best evidence that a Muslim Reformation is actually under way is the growing number of active dissidents and reformers around the world. It would be quite wrong of me to publish this book without acknowledging them and their often courageous contributions. Broadly speaking, they can be grouped into three broad categories: 

dissidents in the West, 

dissidents in the Islamic world, 

clerical reformers.

Dissidents in the West

There is a growing number of ordinary Muslim citizens in the West who are currently braving death threats and even official punishment in dissenting from Islamic orthodoxy and calling for the reform of Islam. These individuals are not clergymen but "ordinary" Muslims, generally educated, well read, and preoccupied with the crisis of Islam.

Among them are Maajid Nawaz (UK), Samia Labidi (France), Afshin Ellian (Netherlands), Ehsan Jami (Netherlands), Naser Khader (Denmark), Seyran Ate§ (Germany), Yunis Qandil (Germany), Bassam Tibi (Germany), Raheel Raza (Canada), Zuhdi Jasser (U.S.), Saleem Ahmed (U.S.), Nonie Darwish (U.S.), Wafa Sultan (U.S.), Saleem Ahmed (U.S.), Ibn Warraq (U.S.), Asra No-mani (U.S.), and Irshad Manji (U.S.).

These individuals are not clerics, but informed citizens speaking out on the basis of reason and conscience. 

They are urging either a fundamental reinterpretation of Islam or a change in the core doctrines of Islam. 

Some of them have left the faith, seeking reform from the outside, whereas others seek to reform Islam from within.1 

Their arguments focus on the importance of viewing the Quran and the hadith in a historical context and on respecting man-made civil laws as legitimate, overriding sharia religious law.

Zuhdi Jasser, an American Muslim physician, is the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Jasser has embarked on the "Jefferson project" for Islam. He favors the separation of mosque and state, which will "include the abrogation of all blasphemy and apostasy laws" currently used to stifle Muslim reformers. His aim is to reform Islam and place civil law above sharia law:

If government enacts the literal laws of God rather than natural law or human law, then government becomes God, and abrogates religion and the personal nature of the relationship with God. Governmental law should be based on and debated in reason, not from scriptural exegesis.2

Saleem Ahmed, a Muslim now living in Hawaii, was born in India and raised in Pakistan. Ahmed founded the Honolulu-based All Believers Network in 2003, promoting genuine interfaith dialogue. Its board has individuals from numerous religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and Islam. 

Ahmed argues that the more political and violent verses of the Quran are superseded by spiritual passages having universal applicability.3 He has written a book arguing for a fundamental reform of Islamic doctrine. A number of fellow Muslims have called Ahmed a kajir (nonbeliever) and his local imam has criticized him for "diluting our religion."4 Ahmed says that his role model is Gandhi.

Yunis Qandil, now living in Germany, was born in Amman, Jordan. He is the son of Palestinian refugees. In his later youth he became closely involved in a Salafi mosque for five years before turning to the Muslim Brotherhood for another four years. He moved to Germany in 1995 and increasingly "sought to combine his spirituality with a secular stance regarding politics."5 

Qandil is critical of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that seek to create a "parallel society" of European Muslims, preventing individual Muslims from fully integrating into their host societies.6 Even if Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood oppose the use of violence in the short term, they are not true partners for genuine integration and peaceful coexistence in a pluralist democracy. Qandil continues his work for the separation of mosque and state.

Samia Labidi, now living in France, was born in Tunisia in 1964. She attended an Islamic school and grew up in a traditional but tolerant family.7 When she was eleven, her sister married one of the founders of the Islamist group MTI, known as El Nahda (the Renaissance). Her family then became Medina Muslims and Labidi began wearing the veil.8 Labidi's mother found the situation too confining and left Tunisia to live with her brother in France. Labidi, too, felt that she could barely breathe:

My mind was sterilized gradually, unable to have access to freedom of thought, to myself. . . . Women continued to be treated like incapable beings who need to be systematically under the guardianship of a close male relative in order to move, to exist, or even to breathe.9

When she was eighteen, Labidi left Tunisia and went to Paris, earning a master's degree in philosophy from Universite de Paris X Nanterre. Labidi's brother, meanwhile, became radicalized before abjuring terrorism. Labidi has written about her brother's radicalization10 and now argues for reforming Islam: "Ultimately," she writes, "the solution lies in separating religion from politics, particularly in that part of the globe that is still suffering from this amalgam between . . . temporal . . . and spiritual power."11 Labidi remains highly active in groups that are seeking to give secular French Muslims a voice.12

Seyran Ates is a German lawyer of Turkish descent. Ates moved with her family from Turkey to Germany as a six-year-old in 1969. Just before she turned eighteen, she left her parents' home, moved in with a German man, and studied law.13 As an attorney specializing in family law, Ates represented numerous Muslim women for two decades in cases involving abusive marriages, forced marriages, and divorce proceedings.

Through her work, Ates has seen the dark side of excessively tolerant multiculturalism. According to Ates, forced marriages are locking up German-born Muslims in separate Islamic enclaves to the point that tens of thousands of women are so isolated from German society that they are unable even to call an ambulance. There has been excessive tolerance for the repressive side of Islam, something Ates calls the "multicultural mistake," the title of one of several books she has written.

Before she was pressured to stop her public appearances by security threats, Ates argued that Islam needs "a sexual revolution" to emancipate women as equals: 

"Part of the process is that sexuality [in Islam] has to be recognized as something that every individual determines for himself or herself."14 

She has proposed creating a mosque that would welcome Sunnis and Shiites and treat men and women equally, allowing men and women to pray together and women to serve as imams in mixed congregations.

Ates argues that Islam must be completely separated from politics: "If we are going to stop that movement and separate politics from religion," Ates says, "then we will have chance for Islam to be compatible with democracy."15

Citizen Reformers in the Islamic World

In the Islamic world, too, a growing number of ordinary citizens are calling for reform. These voices include the Egyptian Kareem Amer, the Palestinian Walid Husayin, the Turk Aylin Kocaman, the Iraqi Nabil al-Haidari, the Pakistani Luavut Zahid, the Saudi Arabians Hamza Kashgari and Raif Badawi, and the Bangladeshi Taslima Nasrin.

Kareem Amer (real name Abdel Suleiman) is an Egyptian and a former student at Al-Azhar. In 2005, after Muslims attacked a Coptic church, Amer called Muhammad and his seventh-century followers the sahaba—"spillers of blood"—for their teachings on warfare.16 Amer criticized Al-Azhar as being a force for Islamic orthodoxy and intolerance of reformist views. Early in 2006, he was expelled for criticizing the extreme dogma of his Islamic instructors, writing on his blog that "professors and sheikhs at al-Azhar who . . . stand against anyone who thinks freely" would "end up in the dustbin of history."17 Amer also criticized the autocratic rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 before being released in 2010 after being beaten in confinement. He exemplifies those young Egyptians who question not only political but also religious authoritarianism.

Walid Husayin, about thirty years old, is a Palestinian skeptic who has described the Islamic God as "a primitive, Bedouin and anthropomorphic God."18 On Facebook, Husayin also satirized various Qur'anic verses. Husayin is in every sense an irreverent freethinker who in the West might have found work as a comedian or satirist. Many Palestinians, however, responded with anger to Husayin's criticism of Islam, accusing him of working for the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. Some residents of his hometown called on him to be killed "as a warning to others."19 Husayin responded that his critics "actually don't get that people are free to think and believe in whatever suits them."20 After being jailed for a month, and under heavy pressure, Husayin apologized.21

Luavut Zahid, a Pakistani writer and women's rights advocate, wrote in April 2014 that Muslims had to make some significant changes to their religion, and that the crisis of Islam could not be blamed on outsiders:

The tactics of terror used by Islamic countries and Muslims at large in general ensure that people will either put up with them, or shut up and leave. There is no concept of freedom of speech, and there is furthermore no concept of criticism. ... A more pertinent question instead would be why people never spring into action when someone passes a fatwa allowing and requiring female genital mutilation. If it is not real Islam to circumcise young girls, then why did people realize it only after [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali spoke about it? . . . Does she at times sound too extreme? Definitely.

But stop for a second and ask yourself this: how many Muslims has she killed? How many Muslims have had to go into hiding because of her? The onus for change lies with Muslims alone. If they are so hell bent on proving that this extreme interpretation of their faith is wrong, then they need to come forward and start transforming things from the inside. Hirsi Ali cannot and should not be called an Islamophobe only because she loudly repeats the things that she has experienced, and continues to see happening around her, and all in the name of God.22

Taslima Nasrin, an apostate born in Bangladesh currently living in India, has said that "what is needed is a uniform civil code of laws that is not based on religious dogmas, and that is equally applicable to men and women."23 The rule of civil law rather than sharia law will ensure all citizens are treated as equals, regardless of their private religious affiliation. This would entail a full separation of mosque and state.

Dissident Clerics

My own sense is that a Muslim Reformation will not come from within the ranks of the Islamic clergy. 

In the current crisis of Islam, however, there is a growing chorus of Muslim clerics calling for reform of existing Islamic doctrine. Such reformers can be found among both Sunni and Shia clerics, in the Islamic world as well as in the West. These clerics ought to be distinguished from what I would call "fake" reformers, who may condemn the violence used by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State while fervently working toward the imposition of sharia through nonviolent means. That is not what a real "reformer" is, though Western governments— including the U.S. government—have often made the mistake of partnering with such individuals.24 

A real reformer is a cleric who not only rejects violence in the short term but also favors changing certain core religious doctrines of Islam.

These clerical reformers differ on the specific substance of reforms. Some (such as al-Ansari) favor reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine while respecting, for example, the integrity of the text of the Quran. Others (such as al-Qabbanji) view the Quran as a human-influenced text subject to far-reaching reinterpretation.

A description of some clerical reformers will reveal that there are meaningful efforts at present to reform Islam from within, though my own sense is that citizen-reformers will ultimately be more powerful than clerics in reforming Islam.

Imam Yassin Elforkani, a Sunni preaching in the Netherlands, has argued that "a new theology must arise in a Dutch context."25 Though Elforkani views the Qur'an as a divine text (in that regard adhering to orthodoxy), he insists that "all interpretations of the Quran are the work of human beings" and subject to change. 

About young Dutch Muslims who leave the Netherlands to join IS, he says, "We [Muslims] can't permit ourselves to look away, we've got to think critically about ourselves. . . . These young people left with ideals that did not fall from the sky. Those ideals coincide with elaborate theories, with concepts from Islamic theology that have been taught for decades."26

Elforkani has expressed himself critically about the theory of the Caliphate and the activities of IS: "The concept of the Caliphate, of the global rule of Islam—sorry, but that is not of this era, is it? But if we do not develop alternatives to this, IS will only gain more and more ground." Elforkani has received numerous death threats in the Netherlands for explicitly calling for theological reforms within Islam.

In the Islamic world, a number of clerics are publicly calling for theological reforms within Islam. The Sunni Abd Al-Hamid al-Ansari is a former dean of Islamic law at Qatar University. Born in Doha in 1945, al-Ansari has defended liberal Muslims for years. Rejecting calls by Islamic preachers for young Muslims to love death, Ansari has said: "I would like the religious scholars, through their religious discourse, to make our youth love life, and not death."27 Al-Ansari has called for a fundamental overhaul of educational systems in the Islamic world to encourage critical thinking. He has called for Arab freethinkers to be able to sue inflammatory Islamic preachers for harm that befalls them as a result of their sermons.28

Ahmad al-Qabbanji is a Shiite cleric who has proposed to change core aspects of Islam's doctrines. Al-Qabbanji was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1958, and studied Islamic jurisprudence at the Shiite Hawza of his hometown in the 1970s. He has said openly:

I have deviated from [t]his religion, every bit of which I reject. Let them say that I am an apostate and a heretic. It is true. I am an apostate from their religion, which stirs nothing but hatred of the other—a religion devoid of beauty, devoid of love, devoid of humanity.29

Al-Qabbanji proposes "a modifiable religious ruling based on fiqh al-maqasid, or the Jurisprudence of the Meaning."30 According to this innovation, "jurisprudence should address the meaning conveyed by the revelation, rather than adhere blindly to its literal wording, with no regard for reality or reason."31 Al-Qabbanji has proposed viewing the Qur'an as divinely inspired but not divinely dictated, a break with current orthodoxy. Al-Qabbanji believes that "the Qur'an was created by the Prophet Muhammad, but was driven by Allah."32 Al-Qabbanji argues that structural reforms are needed within Islam to prevent its stagnation: "If we want Islam to be eternal even though reality is mobile, then Islam must also be mobile. It cannot stagnate. The scholars in the religious institutions view Islam as stagnant teachings."33

Another reformer worth noting is Iyad Jamal al-Din, an Iraqi cleric. Though he is a Shiite, al-Din has argued against political rule by clerics as occurs in Iran, and for separation of mosque and state, and has faced numerous threats for taking these positions. Al-Din rejects the imposition of sharia and favors civil laws in a civil state in order to guarantee full freedom of conscience to each individual citizen:

I say that either we follow thefiqh [Islamic religious law], in which case ISIS is more or less right, or else we follow man-made, civil enlightened law, according to which the Yazidis are citizens just like Shiite and Sunni Muslims. We must make a decision whether to follow man-made civil law, legislated by the Iraqi parliament, or whether to follow the fatwas issued by Islamic jurisprudence. We must not embellish things and say that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and rose water, and that everything is fine.34

Al-Din has defended the religious diversity of Iraq and has rebuked IS on theological grounds for imposing its religious views on nonbelievers. He has described the first article in most Islamic constitutions, which declares the state to be an Islamic state, as "a catastrophe." He argues that "religion is for human beings, not the state."35

Ibrahim al-Buleihi, a former member of the Saudi Shura council who has held a number of government posts, has publicly stated that the Arab world needs a fundamental cultural change to empower the individual and make possible independent thinking.36 Al-Buleihi rejects the groupthink and tendency toward public conformity that has constrained independent thinking in the Islamic world. Independent thinking, outside of the shackles of orthodoxy, is necessary for a civilization to flourish.

Similarly, Dhiyaa al-Musawi, a Bahraini Shia cleric, thinker, and writer, has called "for a cultural Intifada in the Arab world, in order to sweep away the superstitions that dwell in the Arab and Islamic mind."37

Reformers and the West

Just as critics of communism during the Cold War came from a variety of backgrounds and disagreed on much, today's critics of Islam unreformed are not in agreement on all issues. Al-Qabbanji, for example, has expressed strong criticism of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. Other reformers, such as al-Ansari, are generally pro-American in inclination.

Those Muslim reformers who propose breaking with Islamic orthodoxy to empower the individual, who want to create a civil state under civil laws, who view the Qur'an as a document created by men, and who support critically analyzing the Qur'an and the hadith—these individuals are ultimately allies of human freedom though they may differ with Westerners on matters of public policy. 

These men risk imprisonment and even death in order to reform Islam from within and change its core doctrines. They merit our support—though they are unlikely to agree with Westerners on every matter of foreign policy.

I do not believe, as some people do, in the innate "backwardness" of Arabs or of Muslims, or for that matter of Africans or Somalis. I do not believe Islamic orthodoxy is "ingrained" in the nature of Muslims. I do not believe the Islamic world is doomed to a perpetual cycle of violence, whoever succeeds in reaching the levers of power. And I do not believe that Islamic clerics— guardians of orthodoxy—are powerful enough to stop a ground-swell of dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs.

I am a universalist. I believe that each human being possesses the power of reason as well as a conscience. That includes all Muslims as individuals. At present, some Muslims ignore their consciences, and join groups such as Boko Haram or IS, obeying textual prescriptions and religious dogma.

But their crimes against human reason and against human conscience committed in the name of Islam and sharia are already forcing a reexamination of Islamic scripture, doctrine, and law. 

This process cannot be stopped, no matter how much violence is used against would-be reformers. Ultimately, I believe it is human reason and human conscience that will prevail.

It is the duty of the Western world to provide assistance and, where necessary, security to those dissidents and reformers who are carrying out this formidable task. 

Dissidents have many disagreements among them: what unites them is a concern that Islam unreformed provides neither a viable ethical framework nor a strong connection to the Divine, to the realm beyond. 

To repeat the words of al-Din, "We must not embellish things and say that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and rose water, and that everything is fine." 

It is not. But the fact that such words can be uttered at all is one of the reasons I believe the Muslim Reformation has begun.





Keith Hunt