An Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

Lantos Prize Recipient Ayaan Hirsi Ali, advocate against child marriage, FGM, and honor violence, speaks at the Lantos Human Rights Prize ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on December 10, 2015. Credit: Ron Sachs

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-born, Dutch-American scholar, former politician, author and activist, is also one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. She is known for her critiques of Islam, and her intransigent devotion to freedom of speech. She is the author of numerous books. Her latest is Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Hirsi Ali is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the founder of the AHA Foundation which is a non-profit organization for the defense of women’s rights. The organization fights against female genital mutilation and forced marriages.

Hirsi Ali’s life is proof that grit, tenacity and an exalted vision for one’s life can result in the achievement of greatness. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969 and raised as a devout Muslim before later leaving the religion, Hirsi Ali spent her childhood among her birthplace, Saudi Arabia and Kenya where she learned English. She fled Kenya for Germany pending an arranged marriage she had no choice in formulating. Alone, but armed with a heroic spirit and a belief in life’s better possibilities, she quietly boarded a train from Bonn to Amsterdam. There, she ended up in a refugee camp, was granted asylum, and worked for a while cleaning factories. Hirsi Ali learned and mastered Dutch from scratch within a year. She eventually earned a university degree in political science and, at age 33, was elected to the Dutch parliament.

She fled Holland after receiving death threats for working on the film Submission with Theo Van Gogh, who was shot eight times and murdered by a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan Islamist terrorist.

In Heretic, Hirsi Ali makes several uncompromising statements about Islam. She writes that violence is inherent in Islam, and that Islam is not a religion of peace. She submits that this does not mean that Islamic belief makes Muslims naturally violent. Rather, the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Hirsi Ali argues that this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by a number of offenses including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and threats to the honor of family and Islam itself.

A dignified human being with a rarefied mind, and possessed of an almost preternatural calmness, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while preparing for the publication of her new book Prey, granted me the pleasure of this interview.

Jason Hill: Ayaan, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. It has been an intellectually exhilarating experience to re-read your books, but on the fifth anniversary of HERETIC: WHY ISLAM NEEDS A REFORMATION NOW, I must ask: how optimistic are you about that reformation today in 2020 as you were in 2015 when the book was published?

Hirsi Ali: Since 2015, I have been heartened by the efforts of individuals such as Elham ManeaSeyran Ateş, Asra Nomani, Yahya Cholil Staquf, and many others—think of Abdullahi an-Na’im– to reform Islam. These “reform” Muslims are diverse.

Some are what you would call “religious figures” who were formally trained in religious matters, such as Yahya Cholil Staquf or Abdullahi an-Na’im. Others are authors and intellectuals with a deep knowledge base who are not formal religious figures.

As such, these “reform” Muslims defy easy categorization: some are more progressive, others more conservative. On foreign policy, too, they differ.

What unites them is the recognition that traditional Shariah law simply cannot go unreformed. It has to be fundamentally—no pun intended—reformed. The Qur’an, and in particular the political and military activities of Islam’s formative Medina period, and the activities of the Prophet Mohammed, all have to be put in a historical context.

There is an excellent new book out by Krithika Varagur titled The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project. The book describes the tens of billions of dollars and countless man-hours that have gone into disseminating the Wahhabi/Salafi (and there are differences between these two) strands of Islam across the globe over the past five decades or so. Although the subject matter of tracking funding flows is opaque, today it appears the Saudis have begun scaling back this effort a bit as the Saudi Crown Prince (MBS) is seeking some kind of religious moderation in order to help Saudi Arabia modernize more generally.

Can you ask yourself: what if reformist and humanist Muslims today could benefit from the same scale and scope of support that extremists have over the past five decades? What could be accomplished if reformers, humanist and dissident Muslims were supported in terms of organization, infrastructure, steady funding?

If reformers could reach out to young Muslims who are targeted by extremist preachers? We—the Western world— cannot hope to defeat extremism by weapons. We need to counter the ideology that creates the violence. The Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea has a good book on this very topic that will be released in English shortly.

Disappointingly, one of the main impediments to this reform effort is the “woke” assertion, widely prevalent, in the West that Islam needs no reforms and that raising the issue of Islamism is “Islamophobic.” When, at the time Heretic was published, I encouraged the U.S. to engage in the battle of ideas, one expert scoffed that “funding Muslim reformers is not the solution.”

I suppose we should let reformers twist in the wind? Of course, I acknowledge that Islam can only be reformed by Muslims—whether they live in the West or in other parts of the world—but reform Muslims need all the support they can get given the threats, the lack of support and the ostracization they face. They face a difficult, steep climb.

In many ways, the purse strings of American and European grant-making foundations that could make a difference remain tied today. Many Western donors and grant-making foundations are extremely uncomfortable wading into religious issues, even though the battle against Islamism is the battle that will define the future of the Islamic world and our relationship with them.

To answer your question: I am optimistic in the sense that there are many Muslims who support reforms and are seeking a better path, but pessimistic that there is little support for them.

My optimism is tempered by a concern we are letting a great opportunity go to waste. Remember also that today, considerable numbers of Muslims in the Arab world appear to be leaving the faith entirely as religious extremism has left them profoundly shaken and disillusioned.

Read the whole interview here.