Ideas around Activating Calling for Religious Reform

The call for renewing the religious thought is not a new innovation or a result of new circumstances and developments that took place years ago after 11 September 2001. Bearing in mind the necessity of achieving this difficult task is related to the first unsuccessful attempts to fight Western greed and imperial policies. The comparisons carried out by the renaissance pioneers and reformers between the condition in which the Islamic Nation situations have become and the Western superiority in all fields, made them be certain that the Islamic culture with its sciences, methods and speeches is moving outside the current history. Also, they believed that the progress of a certain nation will not take place through separating it from its cultural roots, demanding it abandon its legacies and religious beliefs, but it will take place through reviewing its cultural legacy, and reestablishing according to the needs of the historic stage and its priorities. Thus, most reformers adopted the reformist method which is based on gradation and the different reviews in their depth and origin, with attempting to continuously consolidate the convictions and positions they reach to give them the necessary religious legitimacy, and prove the innate or personal vitality of Islam.


These efforts took place during a very important period of time, nay it has never stopped. It may become weak, be marginalized, be low-paced, the production of its doers decreases, its effect on the public, elite and ruling regimes may decrease, but the crisis is solved quickly or a dangerous event takes place to remind the parties concerned that one of the main tasks of the improvement stage still waits for those who will finish it and believe that they must care for it, and consider it a strategic, not an accidental, secondary or tactical, task. Many achievements that materialized during the last hundred years wouldn’t have happened continued or resisted to some extent in front of conservative powers, unless these reviews had been done by the Islamic reform movement.


Why Islamic renewal was lame duck

Before mentioning the axes or issues of reform, and suggesting the methods that help spread an enlightened religious culture, we must ask about the caused that made the renewal movement retreat or stumbles in the Arab and Muslim World, without managing until now to achieve the targets that it presented to itself more than 150 years ago. In this context, we can refer to the main factors that contributed to this:


The disengagement that was existing between the components of the progressive project that wasn’t distinguishing between religious reform on the one hand and the social, economic and political reform on the other hand; to the extent that great reformers like Al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdou in the first stages and Khair Ed-Din pasha in Tunisia and others considered that renewing understanding religion is a prelude to reforming the country and society. However, when they got involved in the stage of national liberation led by political parties and leaderships, the interest was concentrated basically on the political struggle. Instead of making the separation between religious and political dimensions a temporary condition imposed by the conditions of resisting colonization, this separation got established after independence, as the political powers that assumed power here and there with wanted and received only loyalty of the traditional religious institutions, and were totally committed to building ” a national country.”

Thus, the gap between the modernist discourse adopted by the ruling elite in more than one Islamic state, and the so called official Islam and also popular religious culture, expanded. The ruling regimes considered that the religious institutions’ loyalty to them and the real or superficial political sympathy of the public with their leaders is enough for giving them the required legitimacy and remaining in power, and they thought that the inert conflict between the popular religious discourse and the aspects of modernism in the country and society will not have any dangerous importance or effects on the political stability which is based on tyranny and authoritarianism.


The national country cared for the education that supplies it with technical cadres and specialists in the various fields it needs. This helped so much in deepening the disengagement mentioned above in the previous paragraph, as graduates of the religious education institutions remained in a state of cognitive alienation or separation between them and the graduates of other educational institutions. But they felt at the same time that they have a literary power that others don’t have, they are more capable of addressing and gain the confidence and loyalty of the broad public opinion, due to their powers of issuing fatwas and religious guidance. Keeping institutions of Islamic education away from the serious reviews of their main curricula and methods and forming their teachers complicated the reform process more, and caused huge difficulties in front of reformers.


The secular movement in Arab and Islamic countries didn’t tackle the issue of religious renewal with a required interest, to the extent that wings from this movement pressed for turning the disengagement to a call for a complete separation between religion and politics, not to help establishing a new democratic state that respects key beliefs and rights and public freedoms of its citizens, but aiming to weaken the role of religion in the society and to confine its effects to a narrow circle. This movement did not consider Islam a component of the national modernist project and, consequently, did not consider its concerned with the issue of renewing the Islamic culture. This accusation may be harsh, and unjust in generalizing it, but the final outcome of the last fifty years confirms that the Arab secular movement contributed- because of its non-democracy, and sometimes its extremism and it’s underestimating the real size of Islam in the battle for modernism- to the ensuing situations of the Nation.


The Islamic movements that have adopted since they emerged a defense discourse based on a feeling that Islam is in danger, and that it faces hostile attacks from outside and inside the Nation. Its role is based on protecting religion and facing criticisms and accusations against the Islamic thought aiming to confirm their superiority over their opponents in all fields based on the slogan “Islam is the solution”. Since we can’t underestimate the importance of what these movements carried out in more than one level, but many of them flawed in not realizing that an important part of the contents of this thought that they defend and shroud with holiness is a human thought, bypassed by incidents and is no longer addressing the problems of the stage and Muslims concerns. Also, most of these movements refused to recognize that they must reconsider understanding reference texts and some religious laws to restore the harmony between Islam purposes and Muslims interests and rights of all people. Therefore, most of these movements clashed with and fought the renewal movement, and exerted great efforts to isolate it and strip it of legitimacy, and directing accusations of Kufr and attack the nationalism of some of its leaders and discredit their patriotism and loyalty to homeland, Ummah and Islam, and considering them enemies who must be avoided and not considering their thought a credited and reliable reference; however, some of their these movements and their leaders have recently begun- due to pressing events and increasing calls for exercising self-criticism- to reconsider the attitude towards some reform leaders, and benefit from their diligence to the extent that some of them is considering himself an extension and continuation of the Arab renaissance stage.


The renewal movement failed to bypass its personal obstacles. Actually, this movement is not harmonious regarding its various components, and it is- in turn- divided into movements and trends that reach limits of conflicting. But what unites them is the belief in the Islam’s role in the cultural structure and social change, and believing that this requires a continuous interpretative action to harmonize between the religion purposes and Muslims’ changing interests. As for the obstacles, they are many, some of them are related to the methods, others are related to priorities or violating the stages and ignoring the issues that concern the Nation. This made this movement isolated from the public, sometimes peaceable with authoritarian governments, separating between democracy and religious reform, and sometimes hesitant in presenting hot issues fearing regimes or avoiding a confrontation with the religious public opinion or Islamic movements.


Priority Issues


The issues of Islamic renewal are ramified and many, and they differ from one stage to another, and all of them aren’t within the interests of the Arab human rights movement represented mainly by “the Cairo Center for human rights studies”. Thus, what is required is defining a number of priorities in light of the current challenges, and the priorities of the human rights movement. This is because what is required in this context is not that the human rights activists become preachers or occupy positions of scholars, but they are invited to contribute to run national discussions around issues related to Islam. In this context, we can suggest focusing on the following issues as they are priority issues in this historical stage:


The relation with the other: this issue has imposed itself again on the Muslims relation with others and the others’ relation with them. This is because the political tensions and inclinations of the Western and US domination contributed to feeding feelings of rejection, injustice and persecution; nevertheless the last years revealed the extension of the classical view towards the world whose proponents believe that the religious affiliation defines the nature of international relations among peoples and nations and even individuals. Contrary to what some believe, this problem is not raised only inside Islamic arenas, as the last incidents revealed that the policies of many Western countries and governments topped by The United States are affected by the historic religious background which is not free of racism, an arrogant look and a tendency towards exclusion and domination. But, on the other hand, this does not justify the view that the international conflicts are religious ones, and that Muslims are in a state of open war with Jews and Christians.


Religion and Politics: the issue of the relation between state and religion still occupying has a centre stage in the intellectual and political polemic going on for more than a century. What concern the human rights movement is the consequences of this relation on the key rights of citizens and public freedoms. Religion in a tyrannical regime turns into an instrument justify repression, fighting thought and preventing diligence and intervening in privacies of individuals.


Diligence and Pluralism: when one single thought dominates, this ensues a black tyranny. Religion and thought aren’t endangered except through “monopolizing” understanding reference texts and claiming to possess the sacred ultimate truth. Thus, it is to the interest of those believing in religious values and human rights to help all people know the richness of the Islamic heritage because of its multiple schools, and its diverse fields and references. When people realize that their ancestors differed on reading reference texts and continued to coexist, they will consider that they should in the first place differ on politics and on their view towards their rulers, as democracy is established when the negative view to right to disagree is abolished.


Freedom of beliefs and freedom of thinking: this is an essential issue in religious and political thought. There is no belief without freedom of choice and freedom of belief. Belief under compulsion is a false belief, and a meaningless religiousness. Truth is relative, and is distributed among all with different amounts.


Jihad and Violence: this issue will remain a hot spot and a threat to innocent lives and democratic gains unless it is settle is in a deepened, quiet and collective way.  Mixing between jihad and violence does not concern only some Islamic extremists, but it is exercised by several parties for many purposes.


There is a vast difference between believing that jihad is a state of defense on homeland and its sanctuaries if a foreign danger that requires a general mobilization occurs. And believing that it is an offensive style, and a tool for spreading Islam and fighting those whose belief is doubted. Islam and Muslims have suffered a lot for this mixing in the past and the present.


Sharia and Law: when Islamic social organization moved from medieval ages to the modern age, there arose a crisis of adaptation that included all fields of life. The most important remains of that stage include the legal side which is still an internal hot spot, and a source of debate and conflict between different political and intellectual movements. On the one hand, the secular modernist movement works on cutting the national sources of legislation through Sharia, considering this a condition for completing the pillars of a modernist country. But the problem arising from this trend is its underestimating the relation between culture and legislation, and its covert or overt belief that the Islamic legislation can’t develop and address principles of freedom and justice.


On the other hand, the Islamic movements or particularly the biggest part of them believe that Islam can’t be incarnated and does not affect and changes reality except through applying Sharia. What those movements oversee is that the biggest ensuing problems of the huge changes since the 15th Century AD, differ in their nature and their problems from what the different juristic schools created they emerged until now. Thus, it is necessary to free the Muslim individual and group from the condition of legal, cultural and social schizophrenia which is sharpened by domestic and international political conflicts, and also the continuous failures of types and options of the social development.


Women and Equality: Although women got involved in the wheel of production since more than half a century and although the contemporary Islamic thought cared for women’s issues from several sides, but the relation with women is still restricted in many cases to a strong conservative inclination. Women are still marginalized, or exposed to marginalization, and there are some who are still working covertly or overtly to subject them to a social ideological type based on a division of work, and make them a subordinate creatures that bear only secondary responsibilities. Thus, the issue of equality is still a main issue that preoccupies the renewing Islamic thought, and solution for it is under search in the cultural system.

These are the most prominent raised issues that require more reviews and discussions. What the human rights library lacks is a series of leaflets that intensively gather the most important solutions reached by the contemporary Islamic thought for these issues.


Methodic Notes

Creating an Islamic discourse that contains modernism acquisitions, and is in harmony with the human rights system, and is respecting diversity, multiplicity and coexistence, is an important step, but it will remain insufficient unless there is a plan and a mechanism that help spread this culture on a large scale. It is a purpose that assumes defining the targeted public, knowing the main channels through which many religious discourses pass. Before defining these channels, we should refer to a number of methodic notes:

-Renewal is a complete, intellectual, social and political state. Because it is an inclination towards activating mind and review, it does not grow, flourish or does its function except in a climate of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of study. Thus, the call for renewing the religious culture and demanding a political reform are inseparable. Consequently, every step towards consolidating democracy is a step towards providing a better climate for creating the required cultural and legislative necessary reviews. Parallel to this, the religious reform is a main condition for supporting democracy and consolidating human rights.


-The authority is a one of the main parties that can help develop the Islamic thought, as it contributed largely to the stagnation of this thought and its alienation, but it isn’t the only party that put conditions or monopolize the initiative in this field. It is demanded to provide a free climate that allows thinking, discussing and reviewing. It is also called on to lift its hand or to limit its monopoly over the public media like radio and television so as to be an effective tool of communication for people. It is also demanded to be an important party in reviewing educational programs, and restructuring mosques.


-As an extension of the previous note, the reformers or callers for reform should be independent from the authority, to keep their credibility and to protect the ideas, opinions and diligence that they reach. There so many important efforts that were lost because of an official use of them and those who did them; because governments mostly search for those who supports it in its political battles or in its social choices, not caring so much for the repercussions of this on the world of ideas and values.

It isn’t a must that reformers agree on a single strategy, but the factor of gradation must be taken into consideration by the human rights movements. The Arab societies differ so much, and dealing with them on the same degree isn’t possible. And the public opinion gain is a very vital issue to achieve gains on the ground.


-Also, clashing with the public opinion, and initiating unstudied battles with broad sections of citizens around issues which don’t have a priority may have negative reflections in the presence of these movements. This does not mean adopting a reconciliation and abandoning legitimate issues, but it is related to methods, pedagogy and drawing ascending priorities .


-Succeeding in showing the originality of the call for renewal, so that it isn’t interpreted as being a submission to US pressures. What politicians and American experts repeat isn’t based on a clear view of the nature of the bet proposed to Muslims. They propose the issue of religious reform within their obscure and trapped battle against the so called “terrorism”.


-Support renewal does not mean contributing to or giving legitimacy to hunting other Islamic movements described as extremist. Human rights activists and enthusiasts for renewal shouldn’t be part of a security uprooting policy that does not distinguish between the ones exercising terrorism and attack civilians and innocents and the ones who exercise their right in a peaceful civil opposition through democratic means.


Fields that must be infiltrated

In light of the previous directions, the human rights movement should find a launching pad inside several key channels, if it wanted to affect and changes these channels:

– The Mosque Channel: the mosque is still playing a leading role in transferring the religious culture and spreading it on a large scale. Also, the Friday prayer preacher and imam have a vital literary authority over worshippers. Consequently, links must be established with them through organizing specialized training courses around human rights issues and that they can be included within the general formation of a religious cadre.


– The Media: the media contributes to forming the popular culture and the culture of the elite. Analyzing the contents of the religious pages gives an idea about the dominant rhetoric. Thus, it will be beneficial to organize meetings with supervisors on religious pages in newspapers or Islamic shows on television and radio, to discuss the better ways for making these platforms realize their enlightening job, and bear an enlightened Islamic culture.


-Educational programs: the battle for reforming education in general and Islamic education in particular, was initiated by reformers more than 150 years ago. So as to make reviews in this field effective and constructive, they should be resulting from a wide consultation, and that they shouldn’t be spontaneous, and to pay attention to link and integrate the content and pedagogical sides. Human Rights Organizations are invited to study carefully this difficult section, but they should be cautious, practical and capable of convince as much as their suggestions are concerned. Experiences proved that spontaneous reforms which haven’t been carefully studied did not live for long, and distanced students and pupils.


– Religious Institutions: this is an important and serious file. The Islamic thought can’t flourish, and the amount of dangers can’t decreases, except after Islamic institutions including universities, centers of graduates of religious cadres and Quran education schools are reviewed as much as their content, curricula and pedagogical methods are concerned. These institutions are backward when compared with their likes in other religions like Christianity and even Judaism. They are even backward when compared to Islamic institutions in the second and third centuries of Hegira. Common thinking committees around the future of these instructions can be established and there should be a search for methods for developing them in a way that serves the human rights movement and supports the democratic direction.


– Islamic movements : regardless of the political purposes of these movements, but they succeeded to be within the parties participating in spreading a kind of religious discourse which some of its parts affected negatively the general Islamic awareness, and involved it in more than one problem. The disagreement with these movements or conflicting with them ideologically and politically does not prevent from taking them into consideration within any comprehensive reformist view. Initiating a dialogue with some of its groups or wings will have many benefits, whether in terms of notifying them and exercising a pressure over them to review some situations or correct some wrong information, to gain them in important battles concerned with a number key rights of citizens.