Defining the Dissident

By Rafia ZakariaJuly 16, 2015

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“I have been silenced, stunned and shamed.”


IN THE INTRODUCTION to her book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, author Ayaan Hirsi Ali refers to her persecution, apostasy, and heresy more than 10 times in 20 pages. Her intent, it can be assumed, is to ensure that even the most scattered reader does not miss the fact that it is she, our narrator, who is the heretic, she the victim and the dissident, she that has been silenced, shunned, and shamed. In the service of this purpose, we hear of the horrific murder of her filmmaker friend Theo Van Gogh, the threats she has received from extremist groups, and the hellfire and brimstone brand of Islam she was fed as a child. We have heard all of this before. In her three earlier books — The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (2006), Infidel: My Life (2007), and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (2010) — Hirsi Ali has successfully mined these same moments of misery past to literary and political acclaim.

In her latest, Heretic, Hirsi Ali seems to be running out of new material or at least the sort of material that fuels the persecution and liberation memoir. The previous works told of murder and a life on the move and under threat; the closest Heretic comes to presenting an actual example of being silenced is a “disinvitation” to speak at an American university and the grating questions of a group of Harvard seminar students skeptical of Hirsi Ali’s disbursements of wisdom. Perhaps conscious of this, Hirsi Ali turns to the normative, her recipes for an Islamic Reformation organized step by step, to be cooked up even by those with no experience and little proficiency. The project is crucial, Hirsi Ali tells us, because “without fundamental alterations to some of Islam’s core concepts, we shall not solve the burning and increasingly global problem of political violence carried out in the name of religion.”

She begins with a typology. There are three kinds of Muslims she tells us: the Medina Muslims, the Mecca Muslims, and the “dissident” Muslims. The first category is the worst one, full of fundamentalists who believe a forcible imposition of Sharia is necessary. Hirsi Ali estimates their numbers to be around three percent of Muslims as a whole. The Mecca Muslims come next and comprise most of the world’s Muslims. While not as awful as Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims have a major problem, in that “their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity.” In simple terms, Mecca Muslims are backward, uninterested in progress, rationalism and all the good things in the world. These categories are used throughout the book, but Hirsi Ali does not say how they were conjured up (or counted), nor does she explain why Muslims do not use the terms when referring to themselves.

Ten pages after she lists the three kinds of Muslims, Hirsi Ali gives us a list of five proposed amendments to Islam, which she argues are need to happen “for us to defeat the extremists for good.” These precepts are, in Hirsi Ali’s words:

(1) Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran, 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 Quran, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence,

(4) the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong and

(5) the imperative to wage jihad or holy war.

All of these she argues need to be “either reformed or discarded” for reasons she will present in subsequent chapters.

The next chapter does not fulfill this promise. Instead, it presents a meandering summary of Hirsi Ali’s previous books and her many tribulations at the hands of extremists. In Chapter 2, “Why Has There Been No Islamic Reformation,” Hirsi Ali pulls on this thread, railing first against the combative students of the “study group” on Islam that she leads at Harvard University. These students, who seem to function as a sort of focus group for Hirsi Ali’s ideas on Muslims in general, are in her view often “uninterested in learning.” One female Sudanese student, who gets special mention, tries to get the whole study group canceled. With these opening missives, the chapter then turns to the Protestant Reformation and “The Lesson of Luther.” Hirsi Ali counts three factors as crucial to Luther’s success; the new technology of the printing press, his ideas empowering the believer, and the fact that those ideas aligned with the interests of key states, like England.

With Luther as her avowed inspiration, Hirsi Ali proceeds to nail her five theses on the Islamic Reformation to the “virtual door.” They include: (1) “Ensure that Mohammed and the Quran are open to interpretation and criticism,” (2) give priority to “this life and not the afterlife,” (3) “shackle sharia,” (4) end the practice of “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” and (5) “abandon the call to jihad.” In other words, five bad practices, followed by five proposals, each of which is to reverse the bad practice. And not a clue as to how these ideas align with the interest of key states, although that much is obvious at a glance: such a reformation fits the United State’s interests more than Saudi Arabia, Germany’s more than Indonesia’s. It is, quite simply, the West against the rest again.

If Luther had the printing press, Hirsi Ali has Google. As she says: “Without the assistance of Google it would have been far harder to write this book.” It is this confession that best sums up her book; Heretic reads like a well-Googled assemblage on Islam and reform, put together with little attention to either historical context or philosophical complexity. Hirsi Ali seems unaware, for instance, that her central prescription — that Islam should have a “reformation” — is rooted in the evolutionary precepts of Western colonialism toward their colonized populations. As Bernard Cohn has written in Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, “[T]he application of social evolutionary theories to India by a wide range of British officials and scholars yielded a crucial ruling paradigm; the Indian present was the European past.” The trick was a useful one for colonizers past; in the subcontinent it permitted the British to characterize their presence as benevolent and progressive, diverting attention from its exploitative and extractive reality. Hirsi Ali simply repeats the formulation here.

Even as she gushes over Enlightenment values and rationalism, Hirsi Ali forgets to consider how knowledge gathering itself was used as an epistemological tool to control colonized populations. A 1794 speech by Warren Hastings, a British official in Bengal, sums it up: “Every accumulation of knowledge especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise dominion founded on the right of conquest is useful to the state.” To newly colonized Indians, British collection and categorization of knowledge was presented as objective and factual, eliding over the fact that the arrangement of knowledge in particular forms and categories had at is core the agenda of colonial rule.

Throughout its fulsome eight chapters, Heretic relies and propagates a racialized conception of Islam. In the emphasis on doctrinal reform as the single basis for changing Muslim lives, Hirsi Ali reduces the Muslim to a robotic being whose entire gamut of action is dictated by doctrine. The doctrinal “fix” is simple and easy: change or amend the doctrine and everything else will follow. Hirsi Ali, despite her pocket history of Lutheranism, seems to have little sense of religious history. The major transformations in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim doctrine have been the result of reinterpretations of doctrine, not abandonment of basic doctrine, a war between competing fundamentalisms. When doctrinal change at the level Hirsi Ali recommends happens — as in the case of the origins of Christianity, or Buddhism, or Islam — a new religion emerges, not a reformation. A serious discussion of what an Islam separated from five of its basic doctrinal anchors might look like — beyond it curing what she sees as Islam’s current news-cycle ills — is absent.

Also absent in this discussion is engagement with the idea that for many Muslims; it is the mystical promises of the saint or the shrine, the celebratory fervor of the festival or the palliative power of prayer, which defines everyday faith and practice. It is this inner or metaphysical aspect of faith — its inherently extra-rational and in important ways anti-doctrinal aspect — that Hirsi-Ali seems simply unable to see. Despite this being her third book about faith, we hear nothing about her own inner wranglings with the metaphysical; if she actually believes beyond, in the Kierkegaardian sense, it is in the ethical and legal. It maybe a deliberate omission, for while her tritely numbered prescriptions for the reform of dogma and doctrine may come easily, the transcription of the existential dimension of faith is more laborious, and entails a different sort of consideration of the rational, a personal account that must go beyond the external persecutions she has suffered to an encounter with the faith qua faith.

The dictionary definition of a dissident is a person who disagrees with an established authority, state or system. It is clear that Hirsi Ali is eager to inhabit the valorous space of dissidents past, notably Luther. Her vehement reiteration of this desire throughout the book poses an important question: who really counts as a dissident in our constantly connected contemporary? Per the old recipe, all who rebel against religious authority qualify as heretics, and Hirsi Ali deserves the label. However, if dissidence is to be judged on the scales of power and privilege, where valor resides in a crucial way in the minority position, in truth spoken against the tide, then she falls miserably short. If dissidence is an orientation against all authoritative power, then the call for reformation of Islam should be accompanied also by a stance against a global order where the poor (of whatever faith) are destined to lives of deprivation. Luther was enraged by the Catholic church’s exploitation of the poor first, after all, not doctrinal issues.

To be a true heretic in this sense would entail at least acknowledgement of the fact that Muslims, who she hopes to conscript into the task of Reformation, perhaps more than members of any other faith, are likely to be victims of war and displacement, too poorly placed, and too busy just trying to survive to engage in the refined dialogue that even her Harvard study group students are unable to properly model. Judged thusly, Hirsi Ali’s position is not one of dissidence but of strategic alliance, her vociferous affirmation of the imperial and the powerful, a clever calculation that effectively deploys her past for maximum gain in the divisive political realities of her present. There is no heresy here and no dissidence, just effective political positioning and an alignment with those she believes will emerge victorious.


Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher, and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015).

LARB Contributor

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015). She is a columnist for Dawn Pakistan and Al Jazeera America.


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