'Anyone in Islam who puts question marks on theology gets ostracized, gets silenced, gets killed'

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Marco Werman: So, how can peaceful Muslims stop other Muslims from committing terrorism in the name of Islam? It depends on whom you ask, that much is sure. Our next guest on the World says nothing short of a complete reformation of Islam will do the trick. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised a Muslim by her Somali, but she turned her back on the religion when she moved to the Netherlands as a refugee and became a politician there. Now she's here in Boston, a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and she has a new book out called Heretic. In it, she argues that Islam desperately needs reform because the faith, as it's practiced now, encourages intolerance and discourages questioning. She also recalls first learning about Muslim doctrine from a school teacher in Kenya named Sister Aziza.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali: At first, my classmates and I would giggle when she asked "How do I know you're a Muslim? How can I tell the difference between you and the other Christian girls in the school?" That would have us thinking. So I thought, and this is all in hindsight, but I found I had to be very persuasive. She was asking us, if you're a Muslim, then you have to behave like a Muslim. We would go through the list of what is halaal, what is permitted, and what is haram, that which is forbidden. If you neglected to do your obligations, cover yourself, pray five times a day, do not take the Christians and Jews as your friends. She just gave us these choices, but the way she did it was, you're not doing it for me, you're not doing it for your parents, it's for (inaudible) Allah, you're doing it for the sake of Allah. You're investing, you need to do these things to invest in the hereafter.


Werman: When you look back on this period where Sister Aziza presents you with this dichotomy, what strikes you in how you received this information?


Hirsi Ali: When I read the Quran, what she was saying was in there, so I had no reason to doubt her. It was up to me, the challenge was, and that's probably what they call the inner struggle when some people are describing jihad. The inner struggle was to be able to follow the rules as much as possible. So praying five times a day if you're fifteen years old living in Kenya, with all the distractions and all the temptations out there, is extremely difficult. As I joined this debate, and it became, well, it's Islamic, it's not Islamic. I started to  put together, again, very much in hindsight, that these preaching teachers who entered our lives awakened a desire in Muslim believers that went from just believing and being spiritual to being warrior-like. I had to then confront myself and my conscience with the question, okay, it's true what the preaching teacher is saying. This in the Quran. But if I'm given a command in the Quran, what if I don't approve of it? That puts you in a mental state where you have to, you have to argue with God. As Muslims, we're not used to the concept of arguing with God. We submit and we submit completely. I was going through this mentally, if I disobeyed Allah and I didn't take the Quran literally, then I would risk going to hell after I die. That led to the question, of course, and that's the central question: is there hell and is there heaven? Is there life after death? For me, personally, I answered that question with a no, which then liberated me from this incredible fear of the afterlife.


Werman: Don't you get equally upset, though, when you see the pastor from the Westbrook Baptist Church burn Qurans, you know, his version of screaming fire in a crowded theater, or the Haredim Jews in Jerusalem who feel they have the right to spit at or throw stones at women who wear trousers in their neighborhood?


Hirsi Ali: this book is not about getting upset. This book is a proposal for change. The Muslim world is up in flames. It's a major crisis. I think the best thing is not to run away from it and look for comparisons with fringe groups in Judaism and Christianity, but to look at this reality head on, especially for those of us who were born in Islam and Muslim countries, and say how can we bring about peaceful change? That's the message of this book.


Werman: In your book, you call for a reformation of Islam. That sounds measured, it's reasonable. At other times, you seem to be arguing that there's something inherently toxic about all interpretations of Islam. But all great religions can be used for good and evil, right?


Hirsi Ali: In the case of Islam today, it's being used for evil, and the people who are doing it are succeeding in persuading young people. I mean, I just want to give you, again, the thousands of young men and women increasingly who are leaving peaceful and comfortable lives and going to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State.


Werman: But, they're being attracted by radical Islam.


Hirsi Ali: This is a minority view, that there is one Islam that's unreformed, but three sets of Muslims. In the book, I describe these three sets of Muslims. The Medina Muslims, those are the ones who say religion is the answer, and then the largest number, the Mecca Muslims, who are religious, one more religious than the other, but who are sort of trapped in "should we go with Sharia law or should we go with secular law?" And then you have a smaller group, again, and that's what I find heartening and that's why I'm optimistic. A growing group of Muslims who are actually risking their lives to say "we need to go forward with secular laws, man-made laws, and leave divine law behind us."


Werman: I imagine you have friends and relatives with dramatically different interpretations of Islam. Have you ever sat down with those who disagree with you, and how do those conversations play out?


Hirsi Ali: Well, I do. I sit down with them all the time. In fact, the latest, and he's not a family member, but he's become a family friend [Speaking Arabic].  Three years ago, he and I stood diametrically opposed to one another in our views. We debated one another. The proposition was "Islam is a religion of peace." He was saying it's a religion of peace, I was saying no it's not. Today, we don't agree. He's still a religious, practicing Muslim. I've become an apostate, a heretic, whatever you want to call me. But, we feel, today, that it's really urgent that something needs to change within the religion. It is not that I don't talk to Muslims or address Muslims, the point is, if you don't agree, talk it out. Don't threaten to kill one another. Islam has been doing this for so long. Muslim apostates...anyone within Islam who puts question marks on theology gets ostracized, gets silenced, gets killed, gets labeled mad. So, I think the time is now to talk.


Werman: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Boston Globe contributor. Her new book is called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.