The Push for Islamic Reform: Why Muslims Should Hear Out Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Other ‘Heretics of Islam’

Much has been written about and, responded to, the book ‘Heretic’ authored by one of the fiercest critics of Islam and former Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (referred to as AHA from here on). As usual, I wait for the dust to settle, for the tempers to cool down, and for my own research to conclude before I give my own opinion on sensitive topics that revolve around religion, politics, and terrorism.

In Ayaan’s case, however, I am fortunate to have been following her work for many years now. I am not sure if other Muslims who are quick to criticize the work of ‘Muslim Heretics’ like Ayaan have, in fact, read any of her books before. From reading ‘The Caged Virgin’ essays to her incredible memoir ‘Infidel’ in 2007 when I was in Australia, and the follow-up book ‘Nomad’ in 2010 which entails her journey to America and now ‘Heretic’ in 2015 as a recognized Muslim critic in America, I believe I am in a pretty good position to give a perceptive analysis on her latest work and why I believe we, the Muslim world, should give people like AHA the opportunity to challenge us as people of faith, followers of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), readers of the Holy Quran, and believers of God – also known as Allah – despite the fact that some Christian right-wingers (yes, hold your breath!) claim that the Muslim God is not the same as their ‘God’.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the film
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the film “Submission,” which criticized the treatment of women in traditional Islam and led to the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, talks to a reporter in New York, Monday, Feb.5, 2007. (AP Photo/Shiho Fukada)

As much as AHA’s critics have pinpointed holes subjectively and/or objectively in ‘Heretic’, I think it is Ayaan’s most academic work yet. For starters, she makes it clear to the readers that she will avoid slandering Prophet Mohammed – in the first-half of the book, at least – perhaps this was a tough lesson learned a long time ago when she was an MP in the Netherlands. Secondly, she tries to make her position felt with Muslim readers before letting the real AHA come out in the second-half of the book – this is the harshly careless, rageful, angry, and critical side of Ayaan that Muslims are familiar with. Unlike Ayaan’s previous work, ‘Heretic’ is an attempt with a softer approach to challenging and a call to changing the core beliefs (or dogmatic beliefs – however way you want to look at it) of Islamic scriptures and shaking up the Islamic faith with a confrontation of the Muslim world with the text taken straight from the Quran.

People like her give us a different, often difficult, perspective/narrative and make us question the status quo. The questioning can lead to strengthening of faith among some Muslims or it could lead to having an even further confused lot of young Muslims.

While AHA directly holds the Quran responsible for the actions of Muslim terrorist groups like ISIS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the like, I always find it fascinating how former Muslims like her, or even the political/religious leftists and neo-conservative right-wingers, do not see how closely aligned their extremist attitudes are with these same group of terrorists?! The very same quotes that AHA takes from the Quran in ‘Heretic’ to support her argument that Islam is not a religion of peace and use it to call for an Islamic reform are also the very same quotes of the Quran that Muslim terrorists use to call for the world to turn to Islam. Both extremes use Islam as a means to endorse their political agendas in a post-9/11 world where the rhetoric of “us” versus “them” and the western zero-sum foreign policy runs rampant through means of eternal wars of “good” versus “evil”.


So why, if AHA is such a liberal extremist and a former Muslim who is constantly attacking Islam, should the rest of the Muslim world listen to her and welcome her as a challenger of our faith? Even if the foundations of her arguments are deemed weak and flawed?

For me, it is for one simple reason: because people like her give us a different, often difficult, perspective/narrative and make us question the status quo. The questioning can lead to strengthening of faith among some Muslims or it could lead to having an even further confused lot of young Muslims – but as long as the debate is ongoing and people are constantly challenging our strongly held beliefs, it gives everyone the reason to explore and understand the essence of Islam better – both for Muslims and non-Muslims. As we had seen immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there were many Americans who ended up converting to Islam – the very religion that was supposedly the driving philosophy behind the worst attacks on the American soil in recent history. More recently, we have also seen how negative attitudes against Islam amongst some of the anti-Islamic protesters in Phoenix, Arizona, changed after a dialogue with the local Muslim community.

Having lived in both east and the west, in democratic and non-democratic countries, in Islamic and non-Islamic societies, I can relate to her calls for change when it comes to areas such as women’s rights in the Muslim world – there is no doubt about that and she has my full support; however, when it comes to Islam, I don’t think she will have many Muslims supporting her mainly because her rise to stardom as a Muslim critic came about after she launched a tirade of attacks and insults targeting both Prophet Mohammed and Islam as opposed to engaging in an intellectual debate.

From her interviews in promoting ‘Heretic’, I can see Ayaan Hirsi Ali has toned down on her rage against Islam but unfortunately for her, it has come too little too late. Not all Muslims are willing to give her a second chance, much less even follow her and accept her proclaimed ‘right to blaspheme’ in the name of freedom of speech and expression. No to mention that even freedom has become much more of a political tool than a reality in a post-9/11 world. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the first person to renounce her Islamic faith and declare herself as an ex-Muslim/heretic/apostate/infidel (whatever you want to call them) and she will certainly not be the last to criticize the Prophet or the Quran.

The Muslim world should embrace these voices of dissent as a wake-up call to look within and revive the essence of Islam within the Muslim countries through a culture of inclusion which counts everyone in. Lest we forget that Islam is not owned by anyone. After all, isn’t it the Quran (2:256) that tells us that ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’?

If you’re interested to see parts of a debate between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and renowned European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramada, watch the video clip below:


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