This month’s Foreign Policy magazine features an essay by Ayyan Hirsi Ali who argues that to counter ISIS, and other forms of radical violent Islam, the religion needs a reformation. Here W&Y Guest Writer Aisha Ali Khan responds –
By Aisha Ali Khan
“In her essay titled, ‘A Problem from Heaven,’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes that Islam is in desperate need of a reformation, that America needs to shrug off its current position of hesitancy and dithering and get behind that call by helping to fund it.
She believes the absence of such a movement has contributed to the present volatile situation in the world, and in particular, in the Middle East and that the rise of Islamic State (IS) can only be defeated if the rest of the world’s Muslim’s reject violence and extremism through a process of Reformation.
As a (fairly) young Muslim, I find her views intriguing and interesting. I will try to evaluate Hirsi Ali’s essay based upon my own outlook and experience of a Muslim woman growing up in the West.
Yes, Islam is a 1,400 year old religion and like many other religions, it has picked up a lot of additional baggage. A difficult, blood soaked beginning gave rise to the notion that Islam was spread primarily by the sword, thus unfairly linking it to violence and violent ideology. This perception remains and it is no doubt justified in the minds of many who see the recent carnage of IS as another, more current example of Islam’s relationship with death and destruction.
Do I believe that a reformation is necessary for Islam to shed its widely believed current position as a religion whose followers seem to embody the very essence of intolerance and xenophobia? I am, currently, inclined to say ‘no’.
I, and many of my Muslim contemporaries, do not accept violence in the name of Islam. Indeed the rise of IS has shown a new, different side to the argument that Muslims are prone to harbouring violent tendencies; many Muslim have been so repulsed by the barbarity being inflicted by IS that they are turning away from attempts of trying to justify the savagery and bloodshed of recent years.
These attempts placed the blame for the violence in the Middle East entirely at the feet of America and the West. ‘The American/ Western aggressors deserve their soldiers being killed and maimed because they chose to go to war’ was a common response circa 2003. It is believed less and less now.
Hirsi Ali’s argument that a reformation within Islam could provide the answer to combat the rise of IS is therefore flawed; the majority of Muslims across the world have decided to reject IS and their ideology anyway. A reason why there are so many Muslims who have left their established lives in the West (3,400 according to her essay) could simply be because there currently exists a robust IS strategy to recruit Western Muslims; they have mastered the use of social media and honed their narrative down to simple, effective messages that do not require critical thinking. Such messages are thus easily absorbed and accepted without much thought by eager and willing followers. This is something the Western countries are simply lacking; a counter narrative to the IS violent but seductive narrative.
In his response to Hirsi Ali’s essay, William McCants writes “if (Islamic) Scripture is a constant but the behaviour of its followers is not, then one should look elsewhere to explain why some Muslims engage in violence” (‘Islamic Scripture is not the problem’).
He further argues “if Islamic Scriptures doesn’t automatically lead to terrorism, then one should not expect the reform of Islam to end terrorism.” In this last statement, I feel McCant has hit the proverbial nail in the head. If a person is already predisposed to violent interpretation, a change in Islamic Scriptures will not make any kind of difference. They will find some hidden meaning in the most innocuous Scriptures to justify their thirst for violence and murder anyway.
Sadly we live in a world in which generations of young people are being born into conflict. For them, extremism and violence are not isolated phenomenon, but are part of the fabric of their existence.
What is required is a frank and open acknowledgement that, for some people, these tendencies have become intrinsically woven into the fabrics of their characters.
Take for example, some British born families who hail from the Kashmir region of Pakistan. Known as Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), the region has been involved in a territorial dispute with India since just after the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. There have even been three wars between India and Pakistan over this region since that date.
When I visited the Pakistan side of the Line of Control in 2010 the Pakistan Border Forces were referred to as Mujahideen Border Forces; any attack by India, either military or otherwise, is seen as a direct attack against the faith of those living in AJK. Stories of Indian transgression such as violence, rape and murder, are routinely covered in the UK based, Urdu press and young children are fully aware of violent events in AJK. I believe that terminology such as Mujahideen (a person fighting Jihad, or Holy War) and the drip, drip feed of violence eventually leads to desensitisation and creates a person more susceptible towards adopting violent and extreme views themselves.
Therefore, going back to Hirsi Ali’s stance that a Reformation of Islam could lead to the rejection of violent extremist ideology – I believe her argument is too simplistic and one dimensional. However, it is a brave viewpoint and one that should not be overlooked outright. Let us instead use Hirsi Ali’s argument as a starting point and try to move towards countering the violent extremist narrative offered by groups such as IS, preferably more rapidly than we are doing so now.”