Monday, May 24, 2010

Nomad - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I wonder if Ayaan Hirsi Ali's well-known atheist friends, including writers Christopher Hitchings, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, were surprised when she suggested in a chapter entitled "Seeking God but Finding Allah" of her new book Nomad that Christians should engage in active dawa to convert Muslims to Christianity just as Muslims do to convert Christians to Islam. If they weren't, others certainly were. Susanne Pari, who identifies with Ayaan as a woman who was born Muslim but chose atheism over Islam, writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that Ayaan, "Veers off the track of reason by advocating the revitalization of Christian conversion as a solution. This is not only strange but goes against all that Hirsi Ali has come to believe in. It's the kind of idea one has in the middle of the night that seems genius, but in the light of morning is too embarrassing to tell anyone about". Susanne adds that, "This is not a novel solution. It is an ancient one that has failed, time and again, to produce peace."

I'm not as quick as Susanne to jump to conclusions. Before simply dismissing Ayaan's proposal whole hog out of hand, I'd suggest looking a little more closely at exactly what she said, why she might have said it, and how it could be implemented.

First of all the why, which is always the most interesting. It is possible that Ayaan was saying the following, "I'm an atheist, as any rational and clear-thinking human being should be. But I realize that most people don't have the intellectual capability or spiritual honesty to reach the truth of God's non-existence as I have. To these beings of lesser mental capacity, I suggest that if they have to have a god they choose the god of the Christians, since he is at least a little kinder and gentler than the god of the Muslims."

But that doesn't ring true to me. It doesn't register with the humility I sense in Ayaan's writings, nor does it make sense morally. I can't imagine myself urging Sadhus in India to convert Muslims to Hinduism, or Bhiksu monks in Thailand to convert Muslims to Buddhism. There must be another reason.

Here is my theory. I don't think ex-Muslims make good atheists. The true religion of atheism requires one to believe that time, calculated in billions of years, plus an extraordinary amount of chance, equals all that exists. Mathematically, that formula is: time + chance + nothing = everything. I don't think it comes naturally for Muslims, who from birth are taught God's greatness and power, to adopt the hard-core atheism that seems to come easily for Western born sceptics and intellectuals.

I'd even go a step further. It seems strange for me to see Ayaan Hirsi Ali at atheist conferences, presented as the newest poster child of some of the West's famous nonbelievers. I don't think she is at ease there. It comes across as exploitation, similar to the Republicans' parading Paula Jones around the country after she settled her sexual harassment case with President Bill Clinton.

Wafa Sultan is another ex-Muslim writer who is often described as now an atheist. I listened carefully to her on three ninety-minute interviews on the Arabic TV program Daring Question with host Rashid. She said she does not follow any organized religion, but stopped far short of declaring herself an atheist. Like Ayaan, she acknowledged that if she did choose a deity it would be the God of Christianity.

I don't think Ayaan and Wafa have parked themselves in the camp of atheism. I would suggest instead that they, similar to many of us, are on a spiritual journey that has not yet ended, and where they are now is not necessarily where they will be ten years from now. They have given up the God created by Muhammad ("I am a Prophet of God, and if you don't believe me Allah will be very angry at you"), but are unwilling to exchange him for a God of apples, trees, and snakes in the Garden of Eden.

Next, what exactly did Ayaan say? I don't think she was suggesting Sunnis become Baptists and Sufis become Pentecostals. The church, in my opinion, has placed far too much emphasis in insisting that membership requires believing certain things rather than  being a particular type of person. Jesus, on the other hand, required a certain type of action. He told people to treat others as they would like to be treated, and the wealthy to give their money to the poor. People were to forgive their enemies, and do good to those who mistreated them. My guess is that Ayaan realizes the Golden Rule is non-existent in Islam but the central core of Christianity, and that people will have to leave Muhammad behind if they want to experience this new kind of life.

Now the how; that's the hard question, but Aayan at least partially provides the answer. She wants Christians to simply become involved with Muslims. She suggests this on an organizational level, but I would add it also needs to be on an individual basis. Once before a trip to Lebanon, I was warned not to engage people in conversation about religion and politics, because the scars of the recent Civil War were still too fresh and hatreds ran too deep. To my surprise, I found out that people there - Muslims as well as Maronites - wanted to talk about what they believed. I don't think the situation is different in the West.

I heard an interesting story the other day. A Jewish man began visiting the church I now attend. He was not necessarily interested in the Christian message, but something kept him coming back. Perhaps the same things attracted him as did me, and about which I wrote here. One day he came forward to participate in the Holy Communion service. The pastor, who was telling the story, said, "I looked up, and there he was. What was I supposed to do? I knew he wasn't a Christian, but I wasn't going to turn him away so I offered him the bread and wine."

Later that man said that as he ate the bread and drank the wine, he knew that Jesus had died for him, and he was now a Christian. My response to the story was that if anyone had tried to argue the man into belief in Jesus, it would have been impossible. You can't talk someone into believing something they don't believe. But when you invite people to participate in what you believe, mysterious things can happen. I think that might have been a little of what Ayaan Hirsi Ali was talking about.


Unknown said...

Victoria from Cairo- You hit the nail on the head! Atheism would not work for Muslims, but neither does prepackaged religion with snakes and hellfire and the rest of it. The Golden Rule is what it is all about!!

John Lollard said...


I just went back and read through a lot of the earlier posts on this blog all the way back to 2008, and I think I have to agree with one of the comments I saw. The reason why you probably don't get very many comments is because the posts you write are so brilliant, they leave little else to be said. I greatly admire your perspective and your gentle, respectable tone. Keep up the good work, my friend!

Love in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Atheism requires some degree of intelligence, but so does acknowledgement of the Golden Rule.

A vast majority of Atheists are also Golden Rule believers, no surpise there, for the smarter ones amongst us it's a no-brainer to accept we are all better off with a Golden Rule of some kind.

Contrary to various popular liberal beliefs, the Golden Rule is not a natural human state, most of us would happily chop up another human if we felt threatened, or even just insulted. It is the impact of Christianity that has encouraged western cultures to adopt the Golden Rule as law, to not only not kill our enemies but to understand them too, to regard everyone's life as sacred.

Of course, most liberals, humanists and atheists and the like, will deny this, even though a wealth of evidence of human culture and history says otherwise. Most would rather cut off their own head than admit their beliefs originate from basic Christian theology.

Devout mainstream Christians would even go out of their way to help non-Christians over others of their own belief, an almost unique property that you could call "Golden Rule extremism". It is the concepts of forgiveness and repentance and their standing in Christianity that make the Golden Rule that much more evident and central.

Ex-Muslims like Ali realise this, that the Golden Rule, in all it's glory, is a very hard thing to suggest to the uneducated. You have no chance introducing atheism so the next best way is to adopt Christianity as a vehicle to let the Golden Rule gain ground.

Mother Effingby said...

I know of several muslims who say they are atheists, but they say the same thing as Miss Hirsi Ali. For the same exact reasons. I think that one reason for hope in expanding Christianity in its birthplace is because of men like Father Zakaria Botros. He uses every fragment of intelligence to force muslims to confront the hideous truths about their prophet, and it is having an effect.
There are many reasons to hope for a spiritual awakening in the darkest regions on earth.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

It is sad that so many seems to believe(sic) that Atheism should be classified as a faith in comparison with beliefs in super-natural beings.

Do you really consider Atheism = Not believing in claims there are no solid/reasonable proof for, with
Theism = Believing in claims for the existence entities there are no solid/reasonable proof for?

With regards to "the golden rule".
No need for very sofisticated thinking, there.
It is a variety of "reciprocity".

If you look to contemporary biological knowledge, you will learn that reciprocity is a quite well-developed biological feature. "Proto-morality" is reckognized in e.g primates.
(Reccomended reading: "Good Natured" by F. De Waal).

In Cod we trust

Emma said...

I definitely got the same sense from reading Nomad. It seemed like when Hirsi Ali said she was an atheist she wasn't using the word "atheist" exactly as I would.

I am not sure it is a strictly Muslim inability to embrace atheism, it seems more individual to me. I know former Muslims who are as atheist as they come and self-described atheists who still believe in the supernatural.

Her appreciation for Christianity sounded to me like she was determined to embrace the "lesser of two evils" and "make a deal with the devil" so to speak. It sounded to me like from her perspective Christianity was less than idea but still to be preferred to Islam.

Just my two cents. Your entry was very thought provoking and I am definitely going to begin following your blog!

Traeh said...

You write well. But I've said that before.

You speak of an ongoing spiritual journey that Wafa Sultan and Hirsi Ali are on. Sometimes I get the feeling that Ali Sina, too, is shifting subtly as time goes by. Sometimes he drops a comment that sounds as if he were closer to Christianity than previously. Maybe he is like Oriana Fallaci: an atheist Christian. Even if you are an atheist, Jesus can be pretty remarkable.

As for getting a lot or a little comments at your website -- someone in a comment above mentions it -- I'm not sure that matters, but if it does, I wonder if a key is to bring in a news format, where one comments on the latest news. The news mode brings in an element of controversy, drama, battle, all taking place NOW. But that might turn into a heap of work...

Cyril Lucar said...
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