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All Things in Moderation

At first glance, the interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the current London Spectator seems slight, a rehash of the innumerable articles that have written about her since she became the face of anti-Islamic courage and the target of Islamic … Read More

By / November 29, 2007

At first glance, the interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the current London Spectator seems slight, a rehash of the innumerable articles that have written about her since she became the face of anti-Islamic courage and the target of Islamic fury. There’s plenty to recommend such a rehash, of course; the more who know about Hirsi Ali, the better. But throughout this piece the reader finds hugely important questions and refreshingly “divisive” answers, and the result is a forceful reminder that these aren’t just debate club prompts. These are things we’d better figure out soon. When even Morrissey is willing to stick his neck out on behalf of “basic identity,” you know the time for hypersensitivity has passed.

The most important question, which I touched on yesterday, is what it means to be a “moderate” Muslim. Hirsi Ali has at times been accused of fundamentalism for denying that there’s any such thing. If that sounds either uncharitable or merely crazy, consider her explanation:

‘I find the word “moderate” very misleading.’ There’s a touch of steel in Hirsi Ali’s voice. ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as “moderate Islam”. I think it’s better to talk about degrees of belief and degrees of practice. The Koran is quite clear that it should control every area of life. If a Muslim chooses to obey only some of the Prophet’s commandments, he is only a partial Muslim. If he is a good Muslim, he will wish to establish Sharia law.’ But I don’t call myself a ‘partial Christian’ just because I don’t take the whole Bible literally, I say. Why can’t a Muslim pick and choose his scriptures too? . . . ‘Christianity is different from Islam,’ says Hirsi Ali, ‘because it allows you to question it. It probably wasn’t different in the past, but it is now. Christians—at least Christians in a liberal democracy—have accepted, after Thomas Hobbes, that they must obey the secular rule of law; that there must be a separation of church and state. In Islamic doctrine such a separation has not occurred yet. This is what makes it dangerous! Islam—all Islam, not just Islamism—has not acknowledged that it must obey secular law. Islam is hostile to reason.’

This is an interesting, not to mention inflammatory, tack to take: Muslims can only be moderate insofar as they’re not really Muslims. Still, it’s strange to see Hirsi Ali use it as a cudgel with which to beat Muslims, because, as Mary Wakefield points out, it applies to every religion. In order to be a moderate anything (except maybe a Unitarian), one has to stray from the stricter points of doctrine. Some people frown on this premise, but I suspect that most rely on it.

If any part of Hirsi’s argument about Islam is correct, the best hope of those who believe in liberal democracy is that Muslim faith will weaken, that Muslims will come to ignore some of Islam’s more unsavory teachings the same way Catholics, for example, by and large ignore the Vatican’s views on contraception. It’s not for us to worry about whether “moderate” Muslim means bogus Muslim. If that’s the way it’s got to be, fine: Self-preservation should interest the West more than the preservation of a tradition in its original intensity. All the same, one struggles with the fact that some of the allies in the fight against religious totalitarianism have no time for faith, period:

During a recent debate with Ed Husain, as Husain was explaining his moderate Islam, she began to laugh at him, saying: ‘When you die you rot, Ed! There is no afterlife, Ed!’ And it makes me wonder whether, for Hirsi Ali, Islam’s crime is as much against reason as humanity; whether she sees the point of spirituality at all.

If Hirsi Ali can praise Christianity for allowing one to question it—I suppose in the sense that most Christians won’t kill you for questioning it—why can’t she understand that the people doing the questioning, many of them quite “spiritual” in their own right, are squarely on her side against the worst abuses of both humanity and reason?

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