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.