In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, author Ayaan Hirsi Ali warns of the threat posed by “Dawa,” an Islamic term that Hirsi Ali describes in her latest book as an even graver threat to liberal democracy than that posed by jihadi terrorism. What Hirsi Ali misses is that Dawa, as practiced by millions of Muslims in the United States, is an essential tool in the very fight against extremism.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an axe to grind against Islam and Muslims and up to a point, I understand it.
She suffered genital mutilation as a child in Somalia where she was born into a devout Muslim family. She was exposed to a virulent form of misogyny in Saudi Arabia. She was briefly radicalized by a fanatical preacher in Kenya. She was threatened with death in The Netherlands where she found refuge after renouncing Islam. Currently she apparently lives under multiple death threats in her new home in America and requires round-the-clock protection.
With a trauma-list like that, who wouldn’t have scores to settle? Yet her obsessive quest to paint Islam and Muslims in the darkest possible light is not only regressive and dangerous but fundamentally wrong.
The evolution of Hirsi Ali’s thought process is easy to trace. In 2011, she published “Nomad: From Islam to America - A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations” in which she focused on the imminent danger of jihad, ignoring the fact that for most Muslims, the wider meaning of jihad is to engage in inner struggle against their baser instincts.
When ‘jihad’ lost some of its sting through hype and overuse, she published “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” in 2016. The focus was on giving Islam a makeover to make it ‘consistent’ with modernity. The ‘reformation’ she prescribed was a rehash of the ideas other non-Muslim pundits have been trotting out with predictable frequency, particularly after 9/11: women empowerment, reason over faith, secular over sacred, and so on.
There was and remains little mention in her writing of young Muslim thinkers who have been calling out the hypocrisy, the corruption and the misogyny (among other vices) in Muslim countries. Such voices have gone so far as to identify practical steps for transformation through new interpretations of divine words while rejecting the literalist and puritanical interpretation of extremist sects.
In today’s fast-paced world, however, even a provocative idea like ‘reformation’ quickly becomes stale, and an angry ideologue like Hirsi Ali must pick some other threat to ensure her relevance.
With the publication of “The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It,” Hirsi Ali has found her idea du jour: ‘Dawa.’
The Arabic word ‘Dawa’ means ‘invitation.’ Put simply, it means to invite others to understand Islam. To Hirsi Ali, however, ‘Dawa’ is far more dangerous than jihad because it is subtle and insidious. While jihad is an open call for war against ‘infidels,’ according to Ali, ‘Dawa,’ as practiced by Islamists, “is a process of methodical indoctrination, brainwashing, that rejects assimilation and places people in opposition to Western civic ideals. If the indoctrination is severe enough, Dawa activities can place individuals on the path to militant jihad.”
That summary took my breath away, not because it reflected reality but because of its absurd and flimsy foundation.
Let me shed some light on the practice of ‘Dawa’ in America, based on my observation spanning three decades.
At the Evergreen Islamic Center that I am affiliated with, we get visitors from other mosques - typically once every two months or so - to engage in ‘Dawa.’ (This is how it works in most mosques in America.) Our interaction with the visitors occur for about fifteen minutes or so, usually after one of the five daily prayers.
At the risk of sounding uncharitable, two things define these ‘Dawa’ sessions: bad English and cliches. Our earnest guests are masters of the obvious (be regular in your prayers, read the Quran, be kind, etc). But the most interesting fact is that the ‘Dawa’ is targeted at us Muslims! It is preaching to the converted.
Does that mean that ‘Dawa’ as a proselytizing tool is not used in America? Some conversions occur in prisons, for example, but these often involve inmates desperate for a support system that offers them a chance to get back on their feet, spiritually or otherwise.
It is a another story in the slums of Paris, Brussels and London where fiery Imams lure young impressionable Muslims into becoming foot soldiers for ISIS and al-Qaida, even though increased surveillance and scrutiny are putting a clamp on their activities. But it is different here. In fact, many of the Muslim-Americans who joined ISIS did so because the Imams in their local mosques did not have any time for them. In other words, they needed ‘Dawa’ but none was forthcoming!
We Muslim-Americans are painfully aware of the problems that afflict us. Along with many others, I have written on some of these problems (here and here) that include religious chauvinism, relying more on doctrine and less on practices that emphasize our shared values, too much deference toward ‘scholars’ who have nothing meaningful to say other than the obvious (one reason why millennial Muslims are so turned off), and so on.
But attempting to impose shariah or to convert others to Islam are not among them. As American citizens, we take our responsibility to protect and defend our country seriously. By the same token, when we are unjustly attacked and stereotyped, Americans of all persuasions stand by us, as evidenced by the enormous outpouring of support when a hate mail arrived at our center last Thanksgiving about the ‘new sheriff in town (Donald Trump) who would do to us what Hitler did to the Jews.’
Hirsi Ali may think of herself as a modern-day Cassandra but as a prisoner of her past, her alarmist messages echoing extreme right-wing ideology only promote Islamophobia and give a platform to those who harbor irrational hatred for Islam and Muslims.
Should Hirsi Ali want to put her ideas to the test by visiting a mosque in the Bay Area (incognito, of course), she may be surprised to discover that the unidirectional ‘Dawa’ that frightens her so much is actually a bidirectional flow. Within that flow, Americans drop by our mosques during Friday congregational prayers to invite us to synagogues, churches and community centers, and to discuss how we can work together for kindness, decency, gender equality, peace and justice.