Thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) recent brazen and aggressive Islamic apologetics, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is again in the news, this time as an alleged “anti-Muslim extremist”. This is an interesting formulation, since “extremists” is what everyone calls those people who go around committing Islam-inspired mass murder, such as Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaida, Boko Haram, ISIS, the Taliban, etc. Their extremism, as it happens, kills many more Muslims than non-Muslims. If the description “anti-Muslim extremist” is to be accurately applied to anyone, it is to these terrorist outfits. So how Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, as far as I know, has never killed a single Muslim, or anyone else for that matter, can come to upstage an entire slew of the world’s worst realisations of Qur’anic doctrine is staggering. The word “Poverty” in “Southern Poverty Law Center” has just taken on the same meaning as in The Poverty of Philosophy, Karl Marx’s critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty.
But I’d like to pick up where I left off. In an earlier post I said that I have some difficulty with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s formulation of three groups of Muslims. While there are many different ways in which one might subdivide the category “Muslims” and there are certainly very great differences to be observed across the world’s Muslim communities, I believe that Hirsi Ali’s grouping is not supportable, or, at most, supportable only in the broadest terms. Her formulation appears in at least one place. Here it is quoted from Islam Is a Religion of Violence that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine just over a year ago, in which she says,
I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims in the world today based on how they envision and practice their faith.
The first group is the most problematic — the fundamentalists who envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version and take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else. I call them “Medina Muslims,” in that they see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty, following the example of the Prophet Mohammed when he was based in Medina. They exploit their fellow Muslims’ respect for sharia law as a divine code that takes precedence over civil laws. It is only after they have laid this foundation that they are able to persuade their recruits to engage in jihad.
The second group — and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance towards non-Muslims. I call this group “mecca Muslims.” The fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.
More recently, and corresponding with the rise of Islamic terrorism, a third group is emerging within Islam — Muslim reformers or, as I call them, “modifying Muslims” — who promote the separation of religion from politics and other reforms. Although some are apostates, the majority of dissidents are believers, among them clerics 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.
In broad terms, Hirsi Ali is correct: there are Muslims who violently impose Shari’a; there are Muslims who do not observe much of what their religious texts require of them and more or less coexist peacefully with non-Muslims; and there are Muslims who perceive the need to change Islam into something other than what it has been since its inception.
Below this level the formulation breaks down several times. Let us consider each group’s raison d’être. The first group, “the fundamentalists who envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law,” do not argue for anything. The do not “take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.” And it is not that they “see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty.” This is not a matter merely of their perception and their making a case. Hirsi Ali herself, in the same article, very successfully shows that this is a matter inherent to the sacred texts of Islam. Even if these fundamentalists did not exist — and this is the point of my blog — the wellspring of the violent imposition of Shari’a on the entire world can find outlet in anyone who has been inculcated into the teachings of the Qur’an. The desire to violently impose Shari’a on the world can lie dormant for centuries and fail to trigger in millions of Muslims, but it is always there and can always flare up, as it has been doing repeatedly right from the earliest days of Islam. And, of course, if it is a forcible imposition, as Hirsi Ali says, then it obviously isn’t argued for, unless “argued for,” means something like the glowingly generous Qur’anic mandate towards apostates: first try to persuade them to return to Islam, and if they fail to be persuaded, only then kill them. I’m sure this is not what she means.
But it is Hirsi Ali’s second group, “Muslims who are loyal to the core creed …but are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance towards non-Muslims,” that I have the biggest problems with. Of course, there is the contradiction inherent to this formulation itself: the core creed is violent and intolerant towards non-Muslims. Again, this she shows successfully in the very piece I’m quoting from. It is not possible to be non-violent and tolerant towards non-Muslims and simultaneously loyal to the core creed. It is either one or the other. Thankfully, Hirsi Ali is right in that this second group, “are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance towards non-Muslims,” but she is wrong in saying that they are, “loyal to the core creed.” If they were loyal to the core creed, then they would be part of the first group.
My biggest problem, though, is with the classification of these first two groups as either “Mecca Muslims” or “Medina Muslims”. It may be useful to differentiate between Muslims in this way for the purposes of more insightful understanding, but this bears no relation at all to, “how they envision and practice their faith.” No Muslim picks their way through the Qur’an and the Hadith to consider and select/reject those bits that correspond to Muhammad having been in one or the other location when the particular commandment was “revealed,” or the particular saying or practice was first recorded. I would argue that while the first group is simply loyal to the core creed, the second group envision and practice their faith according to their own humanity and sense of decency, learned from their upbringing and social circumstances, independently of the holy texts and early Islamic history. They prefer not to know, or not to be reminded, of those parts of the holy texts and Muhammad’s behaviour that induce their fellow Muslims to behave in ways repellent to them. The only way they can be Muslim is by being ignorant (wilfully or otherwise) of what it means to be a Muslim, while continuing to identify as Muslim. If they were cognisant of the distinction between a “Mecca Muhammad” and a “Medina Muhammad,” then one would have to say that they practice as much of Islam as they are able to stomach.
This distinction between Mecca Muslims and Medina Muslims makes Hirsi Ali’s third group, “Muslim reformers” or “modifying Muslims,” i.e., those “who promote the separation of religion from politics and other reforms,” particularly shaky. If they are neither Mecca Muslims not Medina Muslims, i.e., they are not premised on any of the saying and doings of Muhammad, or, indeed, on any of the “revelations” he received, then on what grounds are the “Muslim”? Certainly, there are many who would wish Islam to be something other than it is. Every schism, and there have been many, attests to this. It is certainly not a recent phenomenon in response to terrorism. It doesn’t take terrorism to see what’s wrong with Islam.
A more useful differentiator, if I were to run with this thought, would be between those who wish to change Islamic practise into what it has never been, i.e., reformers, and those who seek to restore it to what it once was, i.e., revivalists. The reformers may then, in turn, be differentiated between two subgroups: those ignore the Qur’an and the Hadith who start from the premise of ethics and humanity, and retain those Islamic practices that meet their civilised standards; and those who find it necessary to search for their own civilised standards within the core texts of Islam. This latter subgroup is the creative interpreters, the obfuscators and the downright liars (not to be confused with those who lie to non-Muslims in order to advance jihad, protect terrorists and impose Shari’a – another admirable requirement of their faith).
It isn’t clear to me why Ayaan Hirsi Ali felt the need to invent “Mecca Muslims”, “Medina Muslims”, and “Muslim Reformers/Modifier Muslims.” She has enough honesty and intellectual acumen to get to the bottom of the problem of Islam without resorting to such contrivances. Indeed, it is a job she has already accomplished and accomplished well. The thrust of Hirsi Ali’s formulation, and its Achilles’ heel in my view, is a presumed voluntarism. I would suggest that she has missed the most important distinction of all: Muslims who are subject to secular law verses Muslims who are subject to Shari’a (to whatever degree). Had she started from this premise, she would not have missed the single most important group of Muslims in the world today: those Muslims in the Muslim world who have looked at their religion and come to the same conclusions about it as she has. Such people tend not to be interested in reforming Islam, for they recognise it to be irreformable. If they are believers, then they either go off and join or form another sect, or they convert to another religion, but by the time they’ve seen through Islam, they’ve usually seen through all religion. I am convinced that hope lies with the latter.
Hirsi Ali closes her formulation by referring to “clerics 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.” Such clerics are not the only ones who have realised this. Occasionally, one also hears of the rare cleric for whom it comes as a shock that the interminable cycle of political violence is the conditio sine qua non of their faith. To the vast majority of their colleagues, the interminable cycle of political violence marks out their faith as superior to all others. The more mindlessly a madrassa child repeats a Qur’anic command, the more proud such clerics are of their achievement. Am I hinting at another problem I see with Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Lest someone gets the wrong impression, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is someone I admire.