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Is Islam to Blame for Its Extremists?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Manal Omar continue their debate on the Quran, the Islamic State, and how to save the religion.



In the age of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram, is there a link between the violence these groups perpetrate and the faith they profess? As the past few weeks have seen Russia and the United States escalate their campaigns against jihadists wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, Foreign Policy’s Peace Channel, a partnership with the United States Institute of Peace, asked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, and United States Institute of Peace acting Vice President Manal Omar, one of the foremost voices on peace and Islam, to debate what is behind this newest breed of extremism and how can it be defeated.


In the age of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram, is there a link between the violence these groups perpetrate and the faith they profess? As the past few weeks have seen Russia and the United States escalate their campaigns against jihadists wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, Foreign Policy’s Peace Channel, a partnership with the United States Institute of Peace, asked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, and United States Institute of Peace acting Vice President Manal Omar, one of the foremost voices on peace and Islam, to debate what is behind this newest breed of extremism and how can it be defeated.

Earlier this week, we published the first installments. While Ali argued, “Anyone seeking support for armed jihad in the name of Allah will find ample support in the passages in the Quran and Hadith that relate to Mohammed’s Medina period,” Omar asserted, “the complicated truth of the matter is that the extremist violence that has overtaken a majority of Muslim countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, is the product of complex political and social circumstances.” (You can read Ali and Omar’s arguments here and here.) Now, we’ve asked the authors to respond.

Manal Omar responding to Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s argument is particularly striking in three ways: First, she ignores the genuine and productive evolution in the understanding of Islam that already is going on — and has gone on throughout the history of the faith. Second, she tries to delegitimize those who disagree with her by referring to them as “apologists,” thus insulting and, indeed, negating the very moderates she calls on to speak out more against violence. Third, she discounts the many who are already speaking out worldwide in favor of peaceful resolutions.

Ali calls for “change within Islam to bring the morally outdated parts of the religion in line with modernity or genuine tolerance for those who believe differently.” Interestingly, she no longer uses the term “reformation” that she has used in the past, suggesting an evolution even in her own thinking about the changes needed. But change within Islam has been happening for the past 1,400 years. Islam has never been a static religion.

The development of Islamic law and jurisprudence has always included a diverse and rich debate. The different schools of thought within Islam recognize each other’s legitimacy, despite sometimes contradicting one another. Such deliberations have created a long history of legal and theological cohesion. Today, you see respected scholars like Shaykh Bin Bayyah holding conferences on religious minorities and building peaceful Muslim communities.

Contemporary scholars around the world in institutions such as California’s Zaytuna College are good examples of Islam’s ability to adapt to different places and times. Within Shiite Islam, for example, the main school of jurisprudence, though hierarchical, grants considerable power to scholars to alter religious decrees if the decision is based on intellect. This flexibility, and allowance for independent reasoning, has led to the autonomous establishment of dynamic institutions such as the Next Wave Muslim Initiative.

Ali maintains that radical Islam is rooted in Islamic scriptures and is a dominant force within the beliefs of the majority of practicing Muslims. But I personally know many Muslims across the world who work courageously for the cause of justice based on their faith, not despite it. One is Mohammed Gudson, a Generation Change fellow and chief elder at Africa Kingdom Council in Nairobi, Kenya. Gudson has always emphasized how he draws on his Islamic teachings to serve his community.

Such constructive forces are the same as those that compelled so many Muslims to take to the squares during the Arab Spring or to rescue non-Muslims from the Islamic State when it swept across northern Iraq last year. To dismiss these actions as that of a minority — and the Islamic State as somehow true Islam — is revisionist and paints Islam in a narrow image as if to reinforce a preconceived — and false — notion.

Regarding the second point, Ali’s dismissal of moderate Muslims and their defenders as “apologists” hardly leads to dialogue toward finding common ground. It does the opposite. The insistence that the dominant Islamic paradigm is one of violent extremism automatically declares 1.5 billion Muslims as guilty until proven innocent. A proper public discourse that can truly counter violent ideology cannot take place when the majority of people are placed in a defensive posture.

Not only has the discourse on Islamic thought progressed, but Ali’s own argument has developed significantly. In March, Ali told the New York Post, “The assumption is that, in Islam, there are a few rotten apples, not the entire basket. I’m saying it’s the entire basket.” Ali has undermined her own ability to make change with her gross generalizations in the past. At the very least, her current argument leaves the small possibility to claim Islam as peaceful.

Ali describes the vast majority of Muslims, the “Meccan” Muslims, as waiting passively to be persuaded by either the violent “Medina” Muslims or a very small handful of reformers. To the contrary, the majority of Muslims that she says are “loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly” are the very people who hold both the moral authority and vast numbers to combat the extreme fringe within Islam.

Ali is correct when she writes, “We will win only if we engage with the ideology of Islamist extremism, and counter the message of death, intolerance, and the pursuit of the afterlife with our own far preferable message of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

And it is all right there in the very evolution of Islam itself. No reformation needed.

* * *

Ayaan Hirsi Ali responding to Manal Omar:

Manal Omar views “radical Islam” and “extremist violence” largely as contemporary movements that are the result of certain geopolitical factors, poverty, and alienation. But that is only part of the picture.

Radical Islamic movements flourish in authoritarian and anarchic conditions where they seek to exploit the poor, the oppressed, and the impressionable — but these conditions, like many other factors, are not the causes of Islamic extremism. Here are a few questions for Omar: Would Islamic extremism cease to exist if the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda were obliterated? Would it cease to exist if the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were met? Or if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fully resolved? Would there be no radical Islam if the West had not colonized some of the Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia?

How come there are no similar radical movements among the Christian, Yazidi, and Zoroastrian peoples of the Middle East? If anything those groups are subjected to more oppression, poverty, and alienation than their Muslim counterparts.

There are Islamic extremists who are healthy, wealthy, well-educated, have never seen a Jew (or faced occupation by one), and were born in post-colonial societies who long for a caliphate or strive to impose sharia law. Even more striking is that there are Islamic extremists who were raised in comfortable homes in the liberal West — who still join al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Ahmad Abousamra, who reportedly runs the Islamic State’s social media operations, is the son of an endocrinologist, was raised in the middle-class suburb of Stoughton in Boston, attended a private school, and graduated from Northeastern University. Aafia Siddiqui studied neuroscience and obtained her doctorate from Brandeis before she joined al Qaeda.

Radical Islamic movements are the consequence of a worldview based on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed expounded in Medina — teachings based on a particular vision of what constitutes a just society and of what God requires of his followers.

In Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed had proclaimed a monotheistic spiritual value system. In Medina, by contrast, Islam acquired a military dimension it had hitherto lacked. Mohammed led numerous military expeditions and provided these with religious justification. This reflected the tribal culture and values of the time. Unfortunately, as Islam was codified into official schools of religious law (madhahib), Islam retained a mixture of Mohammed’s Meccan period and his Medinan period. Today, those who the West calls “extremists” place Mohammed’s Medina period at the core of their thoughts and actions.

What exactly is mainstream Islam? The official schools of Sunni religious law — the Maliki, Hanbali, Shafii, and Hanafi schools — are all mainstream among Sunni Muslims. Ibn Khaldun, a scholar of the Maliki school, wrote that “holy war is a religious duty.” Ibn Taymiyyah of the Hanbali school wrote that jihad “is the finest thing in this world.” And Reliance of the Traveller, the well-known Shafii handbook of religious law certified as authoritative by Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the world’s most prestigious Sunni institution, approves of violent jihad. It is true that Shiite Islam offers more flexibility (in theory) for new interpretations. Yet Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for jihad led thousands of Iranian children to sacrifice their lives, and his Shiite successors have refused to distance themselves from his teachings.

As Omar observes, there are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world who do not wage jihad. Yet the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts. Reformist Muslims who wish to change “mainstream” doctrine are often referred to with contempt as “those who indulge in innovations and follow their passions.”

Princeton professor Michael Cook wrote in 2014 that today “the military side of Muhammad’s life plays a conspicuous part in the jihadi outlook.” Similarly, terrorism expert Lorenzo Vidino observed in a 2010 U.S. Institute of Peace report that “theories that set aside ideology and religion as factors in the radicalization of Western jihadists are not convincing.”

Mainstream Islam today is simply not like any other religion. In contrast to Christianity, which distinguished between worldly power and spiritual authority, in Islam the boundary between the civil and the religious has always been deeply problematic and remains so today. Mohammed was, after all, lawgiver, warlord, and prophet.

The war with what is often called “radical Islam” is primarily a war of ideas. Such a conflict cannot be won by military means alone. It will require “mainstream Islam” to formally renounce Mohammed’s period in Medina. Such an act of religious reform will require a concerted effort from within the House of Islam.

There are some strong signs that such an effort is underway. The Bangladeshi humanist bloggers, the Saudi secularists of whom the brave Raif Badawi is the most famous, Ayatollah Hossein Boroujerdi, and many more men and women all across the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West risk their lives — or have been murdered — fighting to separate politics and science from the stranglehold of the Muslim clergy. In Shiite Iran today, the most powerful religious figure calling for a clear separation between religion and politics in Islam — Ayatollah Boroujerdi — languishes in prison. These brave men and women are not aided by denying the very obvious link between Islam and the horrors committed in its name.

John Moore/Getty Images

Manal Omar is associate vice president of the Center for the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Follow her on Twitter @Ayaan.

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