Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Muslim-turned-atheist, told a National Press Club audience last week some hard facts about Islam and its propensity toward violence. But her remarks about Christianity—about its capacity to soften sectarian hatreds—may prove an even tougher pill to swallow.
The New York Times best-selling author is promoting her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. For over a decade, Hirsi Ali has argued that Islam is not a religion of peace and tolerance. Although Islamic belief does not make Muslims naturally violent, she says, the call for violence is explicitly justified in the sacred texts of Islam. “This theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses,” she writes, “including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.”
In her National Press Club talk, Hirsi Ali admitted that her initial hope for many Muslims was that they would convert—to Christianity. “Back then I was promoting the idea, if you’re a peace-loving, tolerant Muslim and you want to be religious, why not convert to Christianity?” She confessed to sending “a very naïve letter” to the Pope, imploring him to “capture the hearts and minds of all of these millions of people who are spiritual, in search of redemption.”
Hirsi Ali no longer believes that strategy is practical; it is not easy for people to reject the religion of their birth and their families. Hence her agenda for reform: what Islam needs now, she says, is a revolution akin to that which transformed Christianity in the sixteenth century.
Hirsi Ali’s understanding of the Protestant Reformation seems hampered by her secular lens: she fails to grasp how Martin Luther and the early reformers drew deeply on the Bible to defend the rights of conscience against coercion from church or state. This fact alone raises troubling questions about the ability of Islam to reform itself. Nevertheless, Hirsi Ali rightly emphasizes the importance of religious liberty in the struggle for political freedom. “The liberation of the individual conscience from hierarchical and priestly authority,” she writes, “opened up space for critical thinking in every field of human activity.”
This is one of the great contributions of Protestant Christianity to the West, a fact unknown or ignored by most liberal elites. Hirsi Ali’s recent appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for example, was another reminder of the appalling historical ignorance that cripples our public debates. The Protestant reformers, Stewart suggested, were really no different than the Islamist extremists in ISIS or Al Qaeda.
“If I’m remembering the Reformation correctly...Martin Luther wanted a purer form of Christianity,” Stewart said, “and so when he put that up there it created a hundred years of violence and mayhem. Isn’t that the process that we’re going through right now?”
No, Mr. Stewart, you were not remembering correctly. In fact, you were not actually engaged in the act of remembering. Indeed, it is unclear whether this kind of argument even qualifies as an act of thinking.
But let’s return to Hirsi Ali’s more honest critique of Christianity at the National Press Club. Referring to her appearance on the Daily Show, Ali complained that her critics see no difference between Christianity and Islam in their approach to confronting religious intolerance. She is worth quoting at length:
“My observation is yes, Christianity is different from Islam…The worst thing that a Christian has ever said to me, the rudest thing that a Christian has ever said to me, the thing that made me most uncomfortable that a Christian said to me was ‘I’m going to pray for you. I hope you will be safe. I hope you will be redeemed.’ But within my own family and my own community, when I say I’m in doubt about the Koran and Muhammad and life after death and all that, it is ‘well, you are to die.’ So I just want to point out the differences between the religions…What makes me angry is the moral equivalence.”
Yes, the moral equivalence, a staple of the ideological left, should make honest men and women angry. For it signals a corruption of the intellect that invites a corruption of the will. Here, it seems, is yet another belief system that needs a reformation.
Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.