The ferment we see in the Muslim world today is not solely due to despotic political systems, and it is not solely due to failing economies and the poverty they breed. Rather, it is also due largely to Islam itself and the incompatibility of certain of that faith’s key tenets with modernity. That is why the most important conflict in the world today is between those who are hell-bent on preserving, and even increasing, these incompatibilities, and those who are bravely prepared to challenge them — not to overthrow Islam but to reform it.
Forget the crude distinction between “extreme” and “moderate” Muslims. Rather, we should distinguish among three groups of Muslims.
The first group is the most problematic. Those in this category envision a regime based on sharia, or Islamic religious law. They aim not just to obey the prophet Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, the people in this group do not hesitate to condone it.
The second group — which composes the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — is loyal to the core creed of Islam and worship devoutly but is not inclined to practice or preach violence. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every week and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, these “Mecca Muslims” focus on religious observance. Sometimes some members of this group are mistakenly termed “moderate.”
In the third group is the growing number of people who were born into Islam but who have sought to think critically about the faith in which we were raised. These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue as believers yet remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. But the majority of dissidents are reformist believers who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of violence.
The first group — the Islamist zealots — poses a threat to everyone. In the West, the existence of this group promises not only an increasing risk of terrorism but also a subtle erosion of the hard-won achievements of feminists and campaigners for minority rights: gender equality, religious tolerance and gay rights. And anyone who denies that this threat is growing — not only in Europe but in North America, too — just hasn’t looked at the data on immigration and on Muslim immigrants’ attitudes.
But the zealots’ vision of a violent return to the days of the prophet poses an even bigger threat to their fellow Muslims. They are undermining the position of the majority who simply want to lead a quiet life. Worse, they pose a constant lethal threat to the dissidents and reformers. We are the ones who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats — or face death itself.
Western policymakers today are so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia that they generally won’t touch Muslim reformers with a 10-foot pole. They would much rather make nice with the self-proclaimed representatives of “moderate Islam,” who on close inspection often turn out but to be anything but moderate. For this reason, our leaders are missing the boat on the Muslim Reformation.
“It is not your job,” Western governments are told, “to help bring about religious change.” So Western leaders stick to their decade-old script: “Islam is a religion of peace.”
But during the Cold War, no American president said: “Communism is an ideology of peace.” None said: “The Soviet Union is not truly communist.” Rather, the West celebrated and supported dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Václav Havel, who had the courage to challenge the Soviet system from within.
Today, there are many dissidents who challenge Islam. Yet the West either ignores them or dismisses them as “not representative.” This is a grave mistake. Reformers such as Asra Nomani, Irshad Manji, Tawfiq Hamid, Maajid Nawaz, Zuhdi Jasser, Saleem Ahmed, Yunis Qandil, Seyran Ates, Bassam Tibi and Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari must be supported and protected. These reformers should be as well known in the West as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel were generations earlier.
The reformers’ task will not be easy. Nor was that of the Soviet dissidents. Nor, for that matter, was that of the Protestant reformers. But the Muslim Reformation is the world’s best shot at a solution to the problem President Obama calls “violent extremism.” The time for euphemism is over. The time for reform of Islam is, at long last, now.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the AHA Foundation. She is the author of the newly published book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.