This is the first part of a five-part feature series on Perspectives Within Islam. It includes the views of Somali born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist and outspoken critic of Muslim fundamentalism. Hirsi Ali was recently interviewed by VOA's Carolyn Weaver. Additional information is provided by William Eagle.
Outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam and former Dutch parliamentarian Hirsi Ali says the 9/11 terror attacks [in the United States] inspired her to transform her perspectives on faith and to become what she has termed a “Muslim atheist”. But, despite this statement, the Somali-born activist insisted in an interview with VOA’s Carolyn Weaver, that she was “not propagating atheism”, but is rather challenging the writings of the Koran, and she urged others to do so.
“I decided to challenge what is written in the Koran by saying, I do not wish to be part of a killing spree. I do not wish to be a part of domination. I want to live and I want others to live, and I love life on earth."
Hirsi Ali has written a number of books on her life as an activist and author that resulted in fatwahs - or Islamic legal rulings - against her by fundamentalist Muslim clerics. She has received a number of awards and was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In her activism and human rights work, Hirsi Ali continues to use the 9/11 attacks as a reference point. Following the Al-Qaeda atrocities in America she said she became embroiled in a “conflict of conscience” and was forced to question herself and her faith.
“Do I agree with what is done in the name of the Koran,” she asked, “because that is what (Osama) bin Laden and Mohammed Atta (one of the 9/11 hijackers) quoted? Do I agree with my God, or do I disagree? And if I disagree, I know I’m earning Hell.”
Hirsi Ali’s controversial viewpoints regarding the nature of Islam in the world of today have largely been shaped by her past. She is the daughter of a dissident Somali politician, and she and her family left the troubled Horn of Africa country when was a mere six years old. She spent much of her childhood in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya.
When as a child her grandmother forced her to undergo female circumcision – a traditional practice in some Muslim communities in the world, the experience had a profound impact on Hirsi Ali … as did her family’s attempt in 1992 to force her into a marriage she did not want. As a result, Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands, where she received asylum. She later became a Dutch citizen and was elected to parliament in the Netherlands.
Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, she spoke out increasingly against Muslim radicalism. Last year, Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch Parliament and moved to the United States, where she has continued her activism on various issues.
“The act of killing people indiscriminately is wrong,” she told VOA. “We can only prevent other young people from subscribing to the wrong quotations from the Koran, if we accept that those urges toward violence and domination are in the Koran, and try to reform that, and change that.”
She did, however, advocate the Prophet as an example to humanity. “We can use the Prophet Mohammed as an example in all things that I think are morally sound, such as hospitality, such as being kind to the poor and elderly.”
But she insisted that she differed with others in the Islamic faith who sometimes propagate complete allegiance to what is contained in the Koran.
“I do not want to follow the Prophet Mohammed when he says, kill the unbelievers, ambush them and take their property, disobedient wives should be beaten...(or) when he divides the world into believers and unbelievers. I do not want to follow the Prophet Mohammed in that sort of morality.”
Not all Muslims agree with Hirsi Ali.
Imam Mohammed bin Uthman of the Sahaba mosque in Kano, Nigeria, says critics of Islam are seeking “cheap popularity” in the West, sometimes to gain residency or citizenship there. “It surprises me,” he told VOA, “that the cheapest way for some wretched souls to (get asylum) in the West is to launch an attack on Islam….Every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to be heard, applauded, …given the Nobel Prize…launch attacks on Islam.”
The northern Nigerian Imam acknowledges a controversial verse in the Muslim holy book, the Koran, that allows for beating disobedient wives. But he adds, “no obedient woman will misbehave [to the point that] her husband would raise his hand against her.” He says there is violence against women in the West as well, including what he calls moral violence, including pornography.
He and other scholars also say attacks on unbelievers are taken out of context: they say Koranic passages that espouse taking the property of unbelievers and other acts of aggression are only responses to attack.
Farid Esack, who served as the chairman of South Africa’s Gender Equality Commission, said violence does not happen in a vacuum.
“You do not wake up in the morning,” he said, “read a verse in the Koran, all of a sudden grab a bomb and go.” He says violence often has a political, historical and social context behind it.
Esack, who is now a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School, said radicals like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and those who attacked the US in 2001 are disconnected from centuries of Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence that add context to the sacred texts. It is only be studying the rich traditions of Islam, they say, that verses espousing violence can be properly understood.