Will an “Islamic Reformation” Ever Come?

Will an “Islamic Reformation” Ever Come?

First of all, I want to say thank you to Michael van der Galien for inviting me to contribute a guest post to this excellent new blog. A few words about myself and what I do: I’m the director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-DC based nonprofit that examines how the U.S. can more effectively support democracy and democrats in the Middle East. You can see my bio here. My blogging home is Democracy Arsenal, a progressive group-blog on foreign affairs. Check it out!

Anyway, there has been an interesting discussion in the blogosphere recently on “moderate Muslims” and the broader issue of whether there is or will be a “Muslim reformation” (see here, here, here, as well as Matthew Yglesias’s response here). Often, the conversation takes on a patronizing tone. What’s up with these Muslims, and why can’t they get their act together? It is a bit ironic that it’s those on the American Right (and far-right) – the very people who have so indulged Christian fundamentalism – who seem to think that Ataturk-style secularism should be the ultimate end-point for Muslim civilization.

So what is meant by this so-called “Islamic reformation”? If Western observers would like to see Muslims declare that they no longer believe the Quran is the exact word of God, then they are likely to be disappointed. To be a Muslim, theologically-speaking, you have to believe that every letter of the Quran is from God. This is Islam 101, and that part of it is non-negotiable. I kind of thought this was common knowledge, but apparently it’s not. What is negotiable, however, is the matter of how to interpret the Quran (ijtihad), of whether to emphasize the spirit of the law (maqasid al-shariah), or the strict letter of the law. Is the Quran to be contextualized and understand as a reflection of a particular set of historical circumstances, or is it to be seen as something that must be copied-and-pasted onto our present reality without any attention to how the modern period requires a different approach to religion than, say, the 7th or 8th century? These questions are already being vigorously debated by a whole host of scholars (among them Khaled abou el Fadl, Abdul Karim el-Soroush, Tariq el-Bishri, Abdel Wahab el-Messiri, Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, Heba Raouf Ezzat, Abdullah an-Naim).

This is why it’s quite frankly mind-boggling that people like AEI fellow and former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali are treated in some quarters as the second-comings of Martin Luther. This is pretty stupid when you think about it. Hirsi Ali isn’t even Muslim. She renounced her faith and, by her own admission, is an atheist. Not to mention the fact that she recently declared war on Islam. Anointing Hirsi Ali as the next great Islamic reformer is sort of like inviting Christopher Hitchens to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. She’s a bit of an outlier though. Even if you think the U.S. should be aiding “moderate” secularists in the Middle East, again, you’re likely to be disappointed. Secularism is more or less dead in the Middle East. If those are your “allies,” than you won’t have any. But, then again, some people are much more interested in making enemies than finding friends.

Now, the other question is how this state of affairs came to be. Why has religion in the Middle East become so dominant, particularly in its more politicized forms? It’s weird to read these posts on The Corner, where Jonah Goldberg, Lisa Schiffren and others seem to be genuinely baffled as to why the Muslim world has gotten wrapped up in literalism, fundamentalism, and jihadism. Rarely is there any mention of the effects of U.S. policy, as if America has been a helpless bystander over the last several decades. People who talk about the Muslim reformation are getting the direction of causality wrong. What we’re facing in the Middle East today is not a religious problem, but a political one. As Lisa Schiffren says, “I, like many who went to college in the 70s and 80s, knew plenty of moderate Muslims back then. The Arab, Pakistani, and Turkish women I went to school with at Bryn Mawr were about as moderate as you could imagine.” Yes, back then, secularism was still the dominant ideology in the Muslim world. But something changed.

This “secularism,” we should note, wasn’t particularly liberal. It was authoritarian, exclusivist, and, sometimes, quite brutal. It was top-down modernization without the consent of the people, who had to suffer as this process unfolded. We were fine with this, of course, and we did very little, at that stage, to promote democracy in the region. The rise of political Islam was, in part, a reaction to this sad state of affairs. Arab nationalism was perceived as having failed (it was a failure). And so people started looking for alternatives. The other thing to keep in mind is that intellectual pluralism, religious tolerance, and liberalism, rarely prosper under authoritarian regimes. For liberalism to prosper, you need open societies and a free press, where intellectual inquiry is encouraged, rather than punished. On the other hand, where the marketplace of ideas is restricted, it is much easier for extremists to gain the upper hand, and for moderates to be sidelined, and this is gradually what would happen in the Middle East. The elites were schooled in Western secularism, but no one else was. After all, there wasn’t much civil society to speak of. There weren’t political parties. And the authoritarian structure at the governmental level was replicated on the local and familial levels.

This is where American policy comes in. The U.S., sadly, has rather consistently supported autocracy in the Middle East. There was the CIA-sponsored coup in 1953, where we helped overthrow a democratically-elected prime minister in Iran. Who replaced him? The “moderate” Shah, the same Shah who would preside over one of the most brutal regimes the region had yet seen. Which led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. Actions have consequences. Exhibit #2: Everyone complains about Saudi Arabia. And they’re right. The Saudis have exported their extreme ideology throughout the Muslim world with their endless petro-dollars. But, of course, successive U.S. administrations have been strong supporters of the al-Saud family. Saudi Arabia, quite literally, has gotten away with murder. (For more on this, see a recent article I co-wrote for The New Republic).

The list goes on. People often bring up Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a terrorist group that knows few competitors. But it’s not like the GIA rose to prominence out of nowhere. Until 1991, Algeria had been home to the Arab world’s most promising democratic experiment. But, then, the U.S. and France tacitly (and actively) supported the military coup that annulled the results of what was, up until then, the most freest parliamentary elections the Arab world had seen for quite some time. Canceling elections when you don’t like results in a time-tested way to start a civil war, and Algeria was no exception. Out of the ashes of democracy, the GIA would come to be.

Let us look go further and take a closer look at the roots of today’s jihadism. Central to Islamic extremism is the idea of takfir– the act of declaring a Muslim to be an infidel, which then legitimates the shedding of his or her blood. Takfir, in its modern form, was born in the prisons of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sayyid Qutb, who many consider to be the intellectual godfather of jihadism, was radicalized in prison. He was brutally tortured by prison guards, while many of his associates were executed (this would eventually be his fate as well). For Qutb, this introduced an element of cognitive dissonance. How could his fellow Muslims be doing such things, resorting to such brutality? This demanded some kind of rationalization. His answer was that his tormentors were not and could not be Muslims. They came to be seen as part of a world separate from Islam. These were kafirs, people who had renounced their Islam and chosen the path of jahilayya (ignorance). This is – waterboarding enthusiasts take note – what torture can do. For more on the torture-terror link, see Lawrence Wright’s seminal article on the evolution Ayman al-Zawahiri. He wasn’t always a full-blown terrorist, but he became one. The question is how and why?

In short, the Muslim world has become a tragic, dangerous place. This much we can agree on. But it’s much important to understand how this came to be. What is, in essence, a political problem demands political solutions, not unrealistic talk about an “Islamic reformation” that will likely never come, at least not in the way we envision it.