Islamic scripture is not the problem. And funding Muslim reformers is not the solution

This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is correct that darker passages of Islamic Scripture endorse violence and prescribe harsh punishments for moral or theological infractions. And she is right that in many Muslim countries, too many citizens still think it is a good idea to kill people for apostasy, stone them for adultery, and beat women for disobedience just because Scripture says so. But Hirsi Ali is profoundly wrong when she argues that Islamic Scripture causes Muslim terrorism and thus that the U.S. government should fund Muslim dissidents to reform Islam.

Islamic Scripture is a constant. Over 1,000 years old, it is composed of the Koran and hadith, words and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by his followers. Muslims who want to justify violence can find plenty of passages to cite—collections of hadith run into the hundreds of volumes. Nevertheless, Muslim political behavior has varied greatly throughout history. Some Muslims have cited Scripture to justify violence, and some have cited it to justify peace. If Scripture is a constant but the behavior of its followers is not, then one should look elsewhere to explain why some Muslims engage in terrorism. And if Islamic Scripture doesn’t automatically lead to terrorism, then one should not expect the reform of Islam to end terrorism. Indeed, even the ultratextualist followers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State ignore Scripture that is inconvenient for their brutal brand of insurgency.

Consider the Gospels, Scriptures that advocate far less violence than the Koran or the Hebrew Bible. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek. Yet the crusaders murdered thousands in their rampage across the Middle East, and U.S. President George W. Bush, a devout Christian, invaded Iraq without military provocation. Readers may object to these examples, arguing that other factors were at play—but that is exactly the point: Christian Scripture doesn’t always determine the behavior of its followers, and the same goes for Islamic Scripture.


The faulty causal chain is the biggest flaw in Hirsi Ali’s essay, but there are others. Even assuming that the liberal reform of Islam would help reduce terrorism—and indeed, few outsiders would complain if the majority of Muslims decided that some of the harsher passages of their Scriptures weren’t relevant to modern life—the picture Hirsi Ali paints of lonely Muslim dissidents trying to start an Islamic reformation is not accurate. A liberal reformation of Islam has been ongoing for two centuries; the problem is that it has faced some stiff competition.

As with the Protestant Reformation, there is a conservative reform movement in Islam today that competes with the liberal reformers. Foremost among the conservatives are the ultraconservative Salafists—Islam’s Puritans. They want to scrape off all the foreign accretions, such as Greek philosophy, that have attached themselves to Islam over the centuries and go back to a supposedly pure version of the faith. One big reason the conservative reformers have won the day so far is that some governments, especially the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf, have sponsored the ultraconservatives. Because rich Muslim governments have put their thumbs on the conservative side of the scale, Hirsi Ali wants the United States and other Western countries to do the same on the liberal side.

There are many problems with this approach. For one thing, the United States has laws against promoting one set of religious beliefs over another. Before 9/11, the U.S. government refused to fund programs that gave preference to one sect over others or a more tolerant version of a faith over a less tolerant form, although there was some wiggle room for secular programs, such as science education, overseen by religious institutions. Better, officials argued, to promote human rights and freedoms without the trappings of religion. But after the attacks, the U.S. government began to make a few exceptions to this long-standing tradition by funding some Muslim institutions overseas to promote pluralistic versions of Islam. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Indonesia funded a group that put pluralistic messages in religious sermons delivered by women and sponsored a radio show about religion and tolerance. That’s not quite what Hirsi Ali wants—the programs didn’t repudiate parts of Islamic Scripture or seek to reform the religion wholesale—but it’s close.

Such programs are rare and usually get axed by government lawyers. When I served at the U.S. State Department as a senior adviser for countering violent extremism, I tried to fund a proposal submitted by a small Muslim nongovernmental organization overseas to compile Islamic Scriptures that promoted tolerance. Its plan was to use the compilation to teach locals about pluralism in the vernacular of their religion. Religious tolerance is an American value, after all, so why not fund others who saw that same value reflected in their own faith? And since they were just compiling Scripture, not writing interpretations of it, I didn’t think we would run up against U.S. law.

But the lawyers at the State Department would have none of it, even though the department itself had funded a similar program elsewhere. Compiling such a document, they argued, would still promote one interpretation of a religion over another. When I asked about the similar program that was being funded elsewhere, they responded that it probably shouldn’t have been funded either and said they might need to review that program, too. Needless to say, the nongovernmental organization had to look elsewhere for support. Given the institutional and legal barriers to funding religious groups that promote American values, it is impossible to imagine the U.S. government funding the reformation of an entire religion.


Government backing of liberal Muslim reformers would run into more practical problems, too. For the sake of argument, assume that the U.S. government, finding the national security argument so compelling, managed to circumvent its laws and political culture to fund programs aimed at reforming Islam. At that point, it would still have to figure out whom to fund. There are plenty of smart, well-meaning Muslim liberals to choose from, to be sure. But as anyone who has followed the liberal Muslim reform movement lately knows, many of its loudest advocates clamoring for money and attention are not so tolerant. They don’t want to see Muslim societies where conservatives and liberals compete for a share in the marketplace of ideas; they want the conservatives locked up or legally prohibited from spreading their ideas. Like Hirsi Ali, who approvingly quotes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, they are willing to overlook the bloody excesses of dictators as long as they claim to promote Islamic reform and suppress conservative Muslim activists and political parties. This is not liberalism; this is intolerance dressed up as liberalism. True liberals would decry authoritarianism whatever its religious hue.

Still, imagine the U.S. government managed to navigate a thicket of laws and find its Muslim Martin Luther. His or her cause is going to suffer greatly in the arena of Muslim public opinion if it is revealed that the wildly unpopular United States is bankrolling it—a secret that will not last long in the era of WikiLeaks. There is a centuries-long history of conservative Muslim critics impugning the motives and agenda of liberal reformers because they have received money or political appointments from Western governments, whether or not the accusations are true. The reformers, the conservative argument goes, are part of the colonial project to eviscerate the Muslims, because they introduce a weak form of Islam that apes the West and serves its interests.

Westerners often fail to understand how all this blithe government meddling in other people’s religions comes off or why it’s so flawed, so it’s helpful to conduct the following thought experiment. Suppose Saudi Arabia felt threatened by evangelical Christianity because of its anti-Islamic tone, its influence over Republican politicians, and its pro-Israel slant. Rather than promote more positive images of Islam, ingratiate themselves with Republican politicians, and compete with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Saudis decide to fund evangelicals who are working to reform Christianity in ways that fit the Saudis’ agenda. Because that agenda goes against the grain of contemporary evangelical culture, the Saudis will probably not find a reformer who is popular among evangelicals. And because most Saudis don’t know a thing about American evangelical culture, they will have a tough time figuring out who can get the job done. Still, Saudi Arabia has plenty of money, so they assume it’s just a matter of spending enough on books, events, television shows, and so forth. Would they succeed?

Of course not. Apply the same reasoning to what Hirsi Ali proposes, and the flaws in her policy immediately become clear, even for those who know nothing about Muslim countries or U.S. laws and bureaucracy. There is nothing wrong with the liberal Muslim reformist agenda, even though some of its advocates should be met with skepticism. Many people of every faith want to see the rougher edges smoothed off all the ancient religions. But when people outside those faiths—especially Western governments—start getting involved, it sets back the reformist agenda. They usually back the wrong people, and even when they back the right ones, their funding can severely damage the legitimacy of those who use it to reform their religion.

So grave are the problems with the type of government funding Hirsi Ali advocates that readers would be right to ask, Why can’t private citizens simply fund the reformers? There are plenty of private individuals and groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that are willing to donate to her cause. And while non-Muslims would likely be better off spending their money on something else, at least they represent themselves and not the government of an entire nation.

There are also ways to promote legal and social reform without casting it as religious reform. If an effort leads to the same place—more universal freedom and more respect for human rights—it shouldn’t matter whether it is part of a religious reform movement. Muslim countries ended slavery without reforming their religion, and they can do the same for many other behaviors endorsed by Scripture but out of step with modern norms and values.


Throughout her essay, Hirsi Ali employs a historical analogy: just as the United States funded intellectuals to discredit communism during the Cold War, it should fund intellectuals to point out the flaws in Islam today. Hirsi Ali’s evocation of the Cold War may appeal to Westerners, especially Americans. After all, if the United States won that war in part because it managed to counter Soviet propaganda, it makes sense to draw on that experience when combating the newer challenge of jihadism.

But the analogy falls apart on closer inspection. The United States was seeking not to reform communism but to destroy it: the U.S. government funded intellectuals on the noncommunist left to discredit the communist program altogether. If that were the model followed today, then Muslims around the world would not react well when they learned about a U.S. program funding liberals to discredit their religion. It would only stoke fears that the United States is a Christian nation bent on destroying its religious rival.

The Cold War analogy doesn’t work for another reason: Western propaganda did not play a major role in discrediting communism. As the former CIA officer Thomas Troy, Jr., wrote in a review of a book on the agency’s Cold War propaganda programs, “I also suspect that the ham-handed tactics of the Soviet Union and its allies had a far more profound impact on the West European populaces than any Western propaganda program.” If U.S. policymakers were to really follow the Cold War analogy today, they would publicize the ham-handed tactics of the jihadists.

Even then, there wouldn’t be much to do, since jihadists have already discredited their cause in the eyes of many Muslims. Al Qaeda hasn’t polled well ever since it started killing its coreligionists—in Jordan, after the head of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq ordered the bombing of hotels in Amman, support for the group fell, from 56 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011—and the Islamic State is even less popular. The jihadists do still manage to dupe some Muslims into signing up for their cause, but most Muslims are horrified by their wanton killing of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The United States and its allies should keep driving down public sympathy for the jihadists’ cause by exposing their atrocities and hypocrisies, but the levels of sympathy are not that high to begin with anyway.

Rather than refer to poll numbers about support for terrorism, which would undermine her case, Hirsi Ali equates Muslim support for conservative Islam with Muslim support for jihadism, asserting that “substantial proportions of many Muslim populations support at least some of [the jihadists’] goals (such as the imposition of sharia and punishing apostates and those who insult Islam with death).” Her sleight of hand not only obscures the unpopularity of jihadism in the Muslim world; it also elides the difference between holding illiberal ideas and using violent methods to achieve them. Even though Hirsi Ali would contend that this is a distinction without a difference, it makes all the difference in the world to the United States. Americans want to stop groups that violently impose their illiberal views on others, but the United States was founded on the idea that such groups have a right to promulgate those views peacefully. When citizens want to pursue a foolish religious project in private—such as reforming someone else’s faith—the U.S. government stays out of their business provided they do not kill anyone. It should make no exception in the case of Islam.