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opinion | Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Reform is the best weapon against radical Islam

Afghan women rights activists carried the coffin of 27-year-old Farkhunda, an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob, during her funeral in Kabul on Sunday.Associated Press

Last week’s horrific lynching of an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning the Koran perfectly illustrates the desperate need for a Muslim Reformation.

The woman, named Farkhunda, was just 27. Her real “offense” was, it appears, to have argued with a mullah selling amulets at the Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque in Kabul.

Violence in the name of religion is endemic in the Muslim world today, from Afghanistan to Tunisia, from Yemen to Syria and Iraq. Yet there is also a backlash brewing against it, and that is what gives me hope. The real significance of Farkhunda’s death is the storm of protest it has sparked. Symbolizing their defiance of the outdated rules of sharia law, Afghan women carried her coffin at her funeral.

These brave pallbearers personify the Muslim Reformation I am talking about. They perfectly illustrate the new divisions within the world of Islam.


These are not the conventional distinctions among Sunni, Shiite, and other branches of the faith. Rather, they are broad sociological groupings, defined by the nature of their observance. We cannot subdivide Islam. But we can subdivide Muslims. The groupings I now discern are threefold: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims — and dissidents or reformers, of whom Farkhunda was clearly one.

Islam is a single core creed based on the Koran, the words revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed, and the hadith, the accompanying works that detail Mohammed’s life and words. Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Mohammed is His messenger.” This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

In the early days of Islam, when Mohammed was going from door to door trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he invited them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger, much as Christ had asked the Jews to accept that he was the son of God. However, after 10 years of trying this kind of persuasion, Mohammed and his small band of believers went to Medina, and from that moment Mohammed’s mission took on a political — indeed, military — dimension.


No symbol represents the soul of Islam more than the Shahada. But today there is a contest within Islam for the ownership of that symbol. Who owns the Shahada? Is it those Muslims who are inspired by Mohammed’s conquests after Medina? Is it those Muslims who want to emphasize his more spiritual years in Mecca? Or is it the third group: the Muslims who wish to see a modern Islam that is compatible with the 21st century?

Islamic State fighters prayed at a spot in Syria where they claimed a US drone crashed into a communications tower on Sept. 23.AFP/Getty Images

The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: “We must live by the strict letter of our creed.” They envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I call these the Medina Muslims. They aim not just to obey Mohammed’s teaching, but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call the Jewish and Christian faiths “false religions.’’ It is Medina Muslims who prescribe beheading for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery, and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled. It was Medina Muslims who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. It was Medina Muslims who killed 20 tourists at Tunisia’s Bardo Museum last week. And it was Medina Muslims who lynched poor Farkhunda.


Medina Muslims believe that the murder of an infidel is an imperative if he refuses to convert voluntarily to Islam. They preach jihad and glorify death through martyrdom. The men and women who join groups such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab, in my native Somalia, are all Medina Muslims. This group also includes “quietist” (politically uninvolved) Salafi Muslims, who do not use violence, but do hold views that cannot be reconciled with the principles of a free society.

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. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was raised a Mecca Muslim.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with the rational, secular, and individualistic values of modernity.


In the West, where Islam is a minority religion, Mecca Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a secular and pluralistic society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn.

To many such Muslims, after years of dissonance, there appear to be only two alternatives: Either leave Islam altogether, as I did, or abandon the dull routine of daily observance for the uncompromising Islamist creed offered by those — the Medina Muslims — who explicitly reject the West’s modernity.

There is, however, a third group: dissident Muslims, who may also be called Modifying Muslims. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. I consider myself part of this group. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers — among them, clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

Reformers such as Irshad Manji, Maajid Nawaz, and Zuhdi Jasser seek to modify, adapt, and reinterpret Islamic practice. Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently called for a “revolution” in Islamic religious thought, seems also to favor this approach.

The clamor for reform is growing. Yet, in the eyes of the Medina Muslims, we are all heretics, because we have had the temerity to challenge the applicability of seventh-century teachings to the 21st-century world.


For the world at large, the only viable strategy for containing the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformers and to help them to do two things: First, identify and repudiate those parts of Mohammed’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war, and second, persuade the great majority of believers — the Mecca Muslims — to accept fundamental changes to Islamic doctrine.

We in the West cannot remain on the sidelines, as though the outcome has nothing to do with us. For if the Medina Muslims win, and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world too will pay an enormous price — not only in blood spilled but also in freedom lost. But if that Reformation comes, then Farkhunda will not have defied the mullahs in vain.

This column is adapted from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,’’ to be published on March 24 by HarperCollins. She is a fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. In 2007 she founded the AHA Foundation to protect the rights of women.


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