Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
I have followed the career of Ayaan Hirsi Ali with interest for a number of years now. I read her first book Infidel when I realized that this was the same Dutch politician that had made the movie with Theo van Gogh that ultimately cost him his life. I read her follow up book, Nomad, a few years ago which sort of carried on where the first book had left off. It also called for people to take a closer look at Islam, particularly where the rights of women and girls were concerned.
I remember that reading that book made me uncomfortable. Her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, made me even more uncomfortable.
Hirsi Ali’s main thesis in this book is that, like Christianity 500 years ago, Islam needs a reformation. It needs to be updated and modernized so that people don’t hide behind it when they commit jihad in religion’s name. She calls out Westerners for being too lenient on Islam, claiming that we are allowing extremists too much leeway. She wants the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad to be opened up to criticism, for this life and not the afterlife to be the priority, to end sharia law’s supremacy over secular laws, to end the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong” and to abandon the call to jihad.
Hirsi Ali will be the first person to tell you that she is not an Islamic scholar – as a woman she can’t really be one. But she knows Islam inside and out. In Heretic she explains these facets of the religion that she feels are so dangerous. The book is littered with statistics and anecdotes that illustrate her points. She separates Muslims into three categories to explain her theory: Medina Muslims, the ones that see the “forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty”, Mecca Muslims, who are “loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but not inclined to practice violence”, and the Modifying Muslims, those who have “come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.”
I’m not going to lie – this book was kind of scary to read. All of the examples she cites have happened in the last five years and seem to creep ever further West, so that those of us living in non-Muslim countries really have no choice but to take notice of what’s happening. The theses that Hirsi Ali outlines are meant to reform Islam so that it can exist side-by-side with the world’s other major religions. I read this book on the bus, which happens to run by a Mosque. The morning that I was going to start reading it on the way to work, I took the dust jacket off and left it at home. I didn’t want to potentially offend anyone. Having read the book, I know that Hirsi Ali would be very disappointed in me – she lives under threat of death at the hands of extremists because she chooses to speak out against Islam and I can’t even leave the dust jacket on.
Hirsi Ali’s writing style is still unapologetic and blunt. She has experienced Islam in all three varieties – when she was young she heard the siren call of the Medina Muslims and dedicated herself to her faith, she grew up as a Mecca Muslim and of course these days she spends her time calling for Islam to reform.
This book is an eye opener about the world that we’re living in. It is scary and uncomfortable and it’s a book that should be read. At the end of the book, Hirsi Ali turns to Voltaire:
“‘I disapprove of what you say […] but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ The dawn of the Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”