The Anti-Jihadi Debate

Wednesday, 21st November 2007

There was a riveting discussion in London yesterday evening, hosted by the Centre for Social Cohesion, between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ed Husain. Both of these courageous people have been warning the world about the dangers of Islamic extremism, but there is a crucial division between them. Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch MP who has lived in acute fear of her life ever since speaking out forcibly against the treatment of women in Islam (and whose disgraceful abandonment by both the Dutch and American authorities has been recorded here) believes that Islam is intrinsically totalitarian and violent and accordingly thinks that the distinction between Islam and Islamism (or political Islam) is a false one. Ed Husain, who chronicled his embrace and subsequent repudiation of Islamic extremism in his book The Islamist, firmly believes by contrast that Islamism is but one interpretation of Islam, and that the Islamic world can and must have a ‘renaissance’ in which it rediscovers its own religious traditions of peaceful co-existence which have been all but buried by the recent dominance of Wahabbism and other extremist interpretations.

This division of opinion, about whether or not Islam has the capacity to accommodate itself to the fundamental requirement to separate mosque from state and thus turn away from violence, is dividing the anti-jihadi world. Husain’s argument was plausible and attractive. It was only by drawing upon precepts within Islam’s pluralist tradition, he said, that he and others like him had been able to repudiate Islamism through grasping that the jihadis who once recruited them had sold them the falsehood that their Wahhabi doctrines were the only authentic version of a monolithic Islam. To his argument that Islamic theology was in fact pluralist, Hirsi Ali did not have a conclusive rejoinder. She stated that Islam meant submission to the will of God, pointed out the extremism of the Islamic world which largely accepted the primacy of the precepts of jihadi Medina over the more pacific Mecca, and drew attention to the global terrorism being perpetrated in the name of Islam. All this was true enough. But it did not answer the claim that there was a pluralist religious tradition on which the Islamic world could draw.

For his part, however, Husain did not answer the flip side of this question — that if such pluralist traditions had the authority he was claiming for them, how come the history of the Islamic world has been largely one of violent jihadi conquest whenever it has had the opportunity, not to mention the violence and oppression it practised towards other faiths (although not as bad as Christian upon Jew). He also said a few troubling things, claiming that the Muslim world had been anti-Nazi — thus obscuring the alliance between the Nazis and the Arabs of Palestine — and supporting on its face value the recent ‘peace’ letter from 138 Muslim scholars to the Christian churches, about which I have written here as a threatening ultimatum demanding ‘peace on our terms’.

Recovering Islamists have much baggage to jettison, and it can take time to throw it all overboard. The great question is whether they can do so without losing their faith: whether intellectual honesty can enable decent Muslims to follow the path taken by Ed Husain and others, as Muslims desperate to assert a civilised religious tradition, or must force them onto the path taken by Ayaan Hirsi Ali out of the religion altogether (and, in her own case, out of all faith).

I find Ed Husain’s arguments more persuasive. Although last night Ayaan Hirsi Ali acknowledged the distinction between Muslims and Islam and accepted that Muslims can achieve reform, the logic of her position is surely that there can be no space for Muslims like Ed Husain. But we know that there are and always have been Muslim individuals and communities who live peaceful and unthreatening lives and derive only spiritual sustenance from their faith. We know that religions which claim to rest on the immutability of God’s word nevertheless depend on human agency to interpret that word, which opens the way to alternative interpretations. And we also know that the history of a culture is no predictor of its future. Before the Reformation, Christianity was a savage religion that burned heretics and put meek Jews to the sword; in medieval times, who could have possibly envisaged that Christianity would come to underpin the central Enlightenment doctrine of the separation of church and state that gave rise to individual freedom and liberal democracy? As circumstances change, so people change. None of us is a prisoner of the past. There is currently a great debate raging within the Islamic world about all this. Who can say how it will end?

It is vital that this debate continues. And it is vital that both Ed Husain and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, along with both Muslims and ex-Muslims who take their lives in their hands to fight this fearsome threat that we all face, are properly supported, promoted and protected –and actually listened to. We have a duty towards such people no less than towards dissidents in the former Soviet Union. It is on the stand that they are taking, and the desperately important debate they are helping promote, that the future of our world depends.