By now, you should be familiar with the name Ayaan Hirsi Ali. You should know at least this much about her: She is brilliant, beautiful, black and she has been banned near Boston.
You might also have learned that she was born in Somalia and raised as a devout Muslim in Africa and Saudi Arabia. While a teenager, she joined the Muslim Brotherhood, “believed in jihad” and was “ready for holy war.” But in 1992, to avoid an arranged marriage, she sought asylum in the Netherlands where she eked out a living cleaning factories, learned Dutch, went to college, entered politics and won a seat in the Dutch Parliament.
And then: She wrote a documentary about the plight of women under Islam. Soon after, the producer, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in the street by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who considered it his duty to punish those who criticize his religion. He left a note — pinned with a knife to his victim’s body — threatening Ms. Hirsi Ali’s life as well.
She moved to the United States where, one hopes, she is in less danger. Nevertheless, those who believe freedom of speech does not apply when it comes to Islam are determined to silence her. One example: A year ago this month, officials at Brandeis University, in suburban Boston, withdrew their offer of an honorary degree and an invitation to address their graduating class. They were pressured by an online petition — organized by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and circulated by some students and faculty — accusing her of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia.” She responded: “What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming.”
Nevertheless, she has refused to be intimidated or muzzled. In her new book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,” she argues that Muslims fall into three categories: a small but significant number who believe they are divinely commanded to wage war against non-Muslims; a large majority who are peaceable but unwilling to stand up to the extremists or repudiate “the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts”; and the dissidents, a small group of individuals who risk everything by denouncing extremists and advocating an interpretation of Islam that unequivocally embraces freedom and peaceful coexistence.
She goes on to propose “five theses” that, she says, Muslims must adopt if there is to be a “Muslim Reformation”; if Islam is to become compatible with modernity, rather than the antidote for modernity; if Muslims are to live in and be productive members of liberal democratic societies, rather than helping to destroy those societies.
Among her theses: that Shariah, Islamic law, be regarded as “subordinate to the laws of the nation-states where Muslims live,” and that “the concept of jihad as a literal call to arms against non-Muslims and those Muslims they deem apostates or heretics” be disavowed. A Muslim who rejects those formulations, she argues, must be seen as contributing to the problem, not the solution.
Ms. Hirsi Ali believes “the Muslim Reformation has begun.” I hope she’s right but I don’t see much evidence. Such a movement requires a leader, a Martin Luther, if you will. She cannot be that leader, as she understands, because she is no longer among the believers.
Here in North America, such courageous reformers as Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and Irshad Manji, author of “The Trouble with Islam Today,” refuse to be suppressed by threats and fatwas. But the audiences most receptive to their messages are not comprised of Muslims.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has long promoted a reading of Islam that eschews belligerence. The same is true of Moroccan King Mohammed VI. But beyond the borders of the lands they rule their followers are few.
In January, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for reform, telling clerics at Al-Azhar University, the great center of Islamic scholarship: “We have reached the point that Muslims have antagonized the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] want to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims prosper?” But as a tough authoritarian, Mr. el-Sissi is an unlikely champion of a kinder, gentler Islam.
For now, it is the jihadis who are on the march — literally, in such lands as Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya and Gaza. And then there is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is ruled by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution of 1979. For him, the idea of Islam as “a religion of peace” was ludicrous. “Those who study jihad,” he proclaimed, “will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world.”
If President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were to read Ms. Hirsi Ali’s book, they might begin to understand what those committed to revolutionary, supremacist Islam believe, and to what lengths they will go in pursuit of their beliefs. Lacking such understanding, they are bound to be unrealistic about what diplomacy, “outreach” and invitations to join the “international community” can achieve. Lacking such understanding, the American side will continue to be bested in negotiations, seeking common ground while the Iranian side wages war by other means.
The West, Ms. Hirsi Ali writes, is enmeshed in “an ideological conflict” that cannot be won “until the concept of jihad has itself been decommissioned.” By now, perhaps you have perceived this: If American and Western leaders continue to refuse to comprehend who is fighting us and why, the consequences will be dire.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.