Few public figures have done more to earn our sympathy than the Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fugitive from her native Somalia, and now a virtual exile from her adopted country, the Netherlands. Under constant threat since the 2004 murder by an Islamist of her collaborator, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Hirsi Ali warns the West that Islam presents a mortal threat to its freedoms.

America took her in last year when the Dutch government connived to remove her refugee status, but she remains something of an embarrassment to the George W. Bush administration. This autumn the Dutch government removed her security detail, and the Americans have taken no steps to protect her. That is a stain on the honor of both countries.

Although she has the credibility of a witness as well as the moral standing of a victim, Hirsi Ali remains a bystander civilian in the great war of our times, whose broadest front is in the global South. That is, she proclaims herself to be an atheist. Millions of Muslims reportedly convert to Christianity each year, mainly in Africa. Islam is stagnant in Asia while tens of millions become Christian. Yet all the Muslim apostates whose voices we hear are atheists – not only Hirsi Ali, but also Salman Rushdie, the celebrated author of The Satanic Verses, the Syrian poet Adonis, and the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq, author of Why I am not a Muslim and several compendia of Koranic criticism.

Why do Muslim apostates gravitate towards atheism? That is not true of other religions. Many Jewish converts achieved prominence in 20th-century Christianity – for example, the recently deceased Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the martyred Carmelite nun Edith Stein (now canonized), and the great Protestant theologian Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy. But the name of no prominent Muslim convert to Christianity (much less to Judaism) comes to mind.

It is easy to change what we think, but very hard to change how we think. Contrary to superficial impressions, Islam is much closer in character to atheism than to Christianity or Judaism. Although the “what” of Muslim and atheistic thinking of course are very different, I shall endeavor below to prove that the “how” is very similar.

Hirsi Ali states that the West is at war with Islam, not with “terrorism,” “Islamism,” “radical Islam,” or “Islamo-fascism.” Here is a snippet from her November exchange with Reason [1]:

Reason: The Polish Catholic Church helped defeat the [Wojciech] Jaruzelski puppet regime [1990]. Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?

Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

Nonetheless Hirsi Ali has no clear idea how a war with Islam might proceed. Again, from the Reason interview:

Hirsi Ali: Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

The implication that the West will crush Islam by force borders on the absurd. Western armies, to be sure, could make short work of the military forces of any Muslim country, but what would they do then? Would they order Muslims to abandon their spiritual life in favor of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, the heroes of Hirsi Ali? The West cannot stop Muslims from burning in effigy the editors of a Danish newspaper in their own countries.

Secular liberalism, the official ideology of almost all the nations of Western Europe, offers hedonism, sexual license, anomie, demoralization and gradual depopulation. Muslims do not want this. In Africa, Christian missionaries go to Muslims and offer them God’s love and the hope of eternal life. But I am aware of no Christian missionaries active in the Muslim banlieue (outskirts) of the Paris suburbs or the Turkish quarters of Berlin.

By contrast, there is indeed a war with Islam, and it is being won in parts of the world where Christians wage it on spiritual grounds. No Christian army has had to march in its support. Europe, meanwhile, is losing ground to Islam because it declines to fight.

Hirsi Ali, to be sure, sympathizes with Judaism and Christianity, and allows that the two sister religions might be instrumental in countering Islam – but only because they are compatible with secular liberalism. As she told the London Spectator on November 28:

Christianity is different from Islam because it allows you to question it. It probably wasn’t different in the past, but it is now. Christians – at least Christians in a liberal democracy – have accepted, after Thomas Hobbes, that they must obey the secular rule of law; that there must be a separation of church and state. In Islamic doctrine such a separation has not occurred yet. This is what makes it dangerous!

I remember Hobbes as a hard-handed apologist for Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship rather than as a liberal democrat, but that is a quibble. The pressing question is why Muslim apostates cling to the secular liberalism that has failed so thoroughly in Western Europe. The trouble is that old habits of mind die slowly. That is not only true of Muslims. The sort of Eastern European Jews who hailed the false messiahs of the 17th century, for example, were attracted to the messianism of Karl Marx. Marxist intellectuals found it easy to convert to the so-called neo-Thomism colored by the Enlightenment rationalism of Francisco Suarez. Bolshevik brawlers in Germany in the 1930s often crossed the line from Red to Brown. And Muslims find it easier to be atheists than to be Christians or Jews.

Allah, as I have argued in this venue elsewhere, is a very different sort of god than YHWH and Jesus. As Benedict XVI explained in his September 2006 Regensburg address:

For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here [Professor Theodore] Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that “nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice” idolatry.

What does it mean for God to be “absolutely transcendent”? In the normative doctrine of the 11th-century Muslim sage Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Allah does not limit himself by ordering the world through natural law, for natural laws would impinge on his absolute freedom of action.

There are no intermediate causes, in the sense of laws of nature. Mars traverses an ellipse around the sun not because God has instituted laws of motion that require Mars to traverse an ellipse, but because Allah at every instant directs the angular velocity of Mars. Today, Allah happens to feel like pushing Mars about in an ellipse; tomorrow he might just as well do figure-eights.

Allah is everywhere doing everything at all times. He sets the spin on every electron, measures the jump of every flea, the frequency of every sneeze. That notion of a god who accepts no limitation, not even the limit of laws of nature that he created, characterizes mainstream Muslim thought since the 11th century. St Thomas Aquinas wrote of its deficiency, drawing on the critique of the 12th-century Jewish theologian and philosopher Moses Maimonides.

A century ago, the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig summarized the problem as follows (my translation):

This has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. The whole impact of divine creative power crashes into every individual thing at every single moment. It is not so much that every thing is “renewed” at every moment; rather, it is “created” with hide and hair. Nothing can save itself from Allah’s frightful, infinitesimally-split providence. The idea of “renewal” of the world [in Christian thought] maintains the connection between the individual thing and the one creation, and thereby with the unity of existence, precisely because it comprehends it within the whole, and thus grounds providence within creation.

But this [Islamic] interpretation of providence as constant interference on the part of the creator destroys any possibility of such a connection. In the first case, Providence seen as the renewal of the act of creation through events is the fulfillment of what essentially is set into creation; in this [Islamic] case, providence – despite its intrinsic interference into creation at every moment and in every case – is a permanent competition between acts of creating and the unity of creation, in fact, a competition between God the Ruler of the World, and God the Creator. It is magic, not a sign made by God the World Ruler for God the Creator. Despite its vehement and haughtily carried-forward idea of the unity of God, Islam slides into a monistic paganism, if one might use that expression; God competes with God at every moment, as if it were the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled into one (emphasis added).

Allah is no more subject to laws of nature than the nature-spirits of the pagan world who infest every tree, rock and stream, and make magic according to their own whimsy. The “carried-forward idea of the unity of God” to which Rosenzweig refers, of course, is the monotheism carried forward in outward form from Judaism, but dashed to pieces against the competing notion of absolute transcendence.

As Rosenzweig observes, “An atheist can say, ‘There is no God but God’.” If God is everywhere and in all things, he is nowhere and in nothing. If there are no natural laws, there need be no law-giver, and the world is an arbitrary and desolate place, a Hobbesian war of each aspect of nature against all. Contemplation of nature in Islam is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It is not surprising that Islamic science died out a generation or two after al-Ghazali.

It is a commonplace observation that Islam is “fatalistic.” Muslims typically conclude any statement about the future, eg, “I’ll see you at work tomorrow morning,” with the qualifier, “Insha’Allah,” “God willing.” Because God is everywhere and in every action, acting without intermediate causes, the Judeo-Christian concept of divine providence is inconceivable in Muslim terms. If Allah refuses to be entangled by intermediate causes, no divine plan could possibly exist that humankind cannot understand directly, but works itself out through God’s intermediaries. Rather than providence, Islam believes in the old pagan fate, the summation of the innumerable capricious acts that Allah in his absolute transcendence performs at every instant.

Allah is everywhere, which is to say that Allah is nowhere in particular. Allah’s world is indistinguishable from the primeval world of paganism, in which the “colorfully contending pantheon” of nature-gods arranges a chaotic and incomprehensible show at every moment. The world without Allah would look not much different; if Allah acts in a whimsical manner without the constraint of laws of nature, we cannot tell the difference between Allah’s actions and chaos.

It would be misguided to file this away as a curious relic of Medieval theology without direct bearing on the spiritual character of Islam. On the contrary, the absolute transcendence of Allah in the physical world is the cognate of his despotic character as a spiritual ruler, who demands submission and service from his creatures. The Judeo-Christian God loves his creatures and as an act of love makes them free. Humankind only can be free if nature is rational, that is, if God places self-appointed limits on his own sphere of action. In a world ordered by natural law, humankind through its faculty of reason can learn these laws and act freely. In the alternative case, the absolute freedom of Allah crowds out all human freedom of action, leaving nothing but the tyranny of caprice and fate.

The empty and arbitrary world of atheism is far closer to the Muslim universe than the Biblical world, in which God orders the world out of love for humankind, so that we may in freedom return the love that our creator bears for us. Atheism is an alternative to Islam closer to Muslim habits of mind than the love-centered world of Judaism and Christianity.

Hirsi Ali has my unqualified admiration. The courage which guided her journey from Somalia to the Netherlands still prompts her to warn of the dangers before the West at great risk to her own life. I have a similar admiration for Orhan Pamuk, now in virtual exile from his native Turkey, and Rushdie, who remains in danger of a Muslim death warrant, and other Muslim apostates who refuse to be intimidated. Courage, Winston Churchill said, is the first of the virtues, for without it, one does not have the opportunity to exercise the others. Yet it is not the only virtue, and I hope that Hirsi Ali’s journey takes her further, beyond atheism.

1. The Trouble Is the West, Reasononline, November 2007.