Recap: Heretic with Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By The London Center for Policy Research

Ayaan Hirsi Ali remembers her initial encounters with the West. Among these is with a fading manner: courtesy.

Soon after her arrival in the Netherlands, a man opened a door and uttered two words to her more beautiful than perhaps all of Bach’s Symphonies, “ladies first.” Ms. Hirsi Ali cried. She cried because those two words acknowledged something which, up to that point, Islam deprived her of: her human dignity. Further, those two words underscore the fault lines that shape the West and Islam.

On Wednesday, May 27th, now-Mrs. Hirsi Ali (she married Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in 2011) joined Herbert London, President of the London Center for Policy Research, for a discussion of her recently released book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” at the Union League Club in New York City, New York. Among those in attendance were London Center Senior Fellows Anthony Shaffer and Deroy Murdock, Board Members Kenneth Abramowitz and Harvey Lippman, and The King’s College President Gregory Thornbury.

Mrs. Hirsi Ali touched on two themes: Islamic Reformation and Western Resolve. Together, they ensure the spread of human dignity in Islamic civilization.

What does Islamic Reformation look like? Mrs. Hirsi Ali argues five requisites: 1) rejection of Jihad 2) rejection of Sharia 3) embrace of life before death 4) acknowledgement of human authorship of the Quran and 5) rejecting the impulse to “command right and forbid wrong.” Rebecca Au, a recent King’s College graduate in attendance, believes these changes offer “Muslims a way to respect their tradition without the violence and inhumanity implied by literal obedience to the faith.” Mrs. Hirsi Ali says, “I’ve read the Quran…I’m repulsed by it.” As such, her reforms go past the Medina Muslim worldview–those seeking to “emulate” the violence of Muhammad in Medina–to the religion as a whole, implicating the Mecca Muslims–the larger contingent within Islam who are more secular in practice–as well. These changes reject the apocalyptical reforms offered by Sunni Wahhabism and the Islamic State, as wells as the fading Shiite concept of the 12th Imam.

Dr. London asked about the reformist rhetoric of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as ray of light in the troubled region. Mrs. Hirsi Ali believes the Egyptian people have three options: a) accept the Islamist politics of the Muslim Brotherhood b) civil war or c) the military dictatorship of Mr. el-Sisi. Cautiously, she proffers the third option as the least of evils, believing Mr. El-Sisi will be “greatly remembered” in history if he works toward the reforms he calls for.

Mrs. Hirsi Ali did not address the theology behind rejecting at least part of Muhammad’s actions. She did, however, exhort a defense of divinity through secular reason–like Saint Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.

The premise, then, is that a reasonable political Islam will produce some modicum of respect for individual human dignity. She argues a reformed political Islam requires Western resolve, since “Islamic extremism is an assault on liberal principles.” Reformation will not occur unless there is incentive to do so. An endemic moral permissiveness in the West, particularly in academia–produces a “self-doubt” in the West. “Self-doubt” weakens the West, thus preventing any incentive for Islamic reform. John Sailer, another King’s College graduate in attendance, recently wrote for the London Center, “the West has been long robbed of any unifying picture. Instead, we cobble together pieces of deconstructed philosophy, long abandoned by those who used to be able to meaningfully identify as Westerners.”

Mrs. Hirsi Ali cites her experience at Brandeis University as proof. In 2014, the school offered, then rescinded the offer, to grant an honorary doctorate in the face of faculty backlash. She said the school, as a liberal institution, “bowed.”

Hope remains. She recounted her experience at Harvard University, where a few students tried to cancel her courses by threatening Arab endowments to the school. Harvard refused, allowing Mrs. Hirsi Ali to convey her experience within Islam to students. Some of her Muslim students privately thanked her for her courage.

The effect of this last experience encapsulates Mrs. Hirsi Ali’s mission. The West needs to assert itself. Only this incentivizes Islamic political reform. The London Center thanks Mrs. Hirsi Ali for being a courageous defender of individual freedom and human dignity.