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February 14th 2015 print

Michael Davis

The Fantasy of an Islamic Reformation

It's an appealing delusion, the notion that the much vaunted, but little seen, Religion of Peace might transform itself from within. Alas, both history and contemporary context say all the West can do is smile at those who would coexist while standing ready to smite those who do not

islam no democIn a generally excellent article in The Spectator Theo Hobson tackled the jarring new tagline of the center-right: “Islam needs a Protestant Reformation.” Hobson is exactly right in pointing out that this narrative “implies that, once upon a time, Christianity was in conflict with healthy political values, but learned to change its ways,” and points out how “Christianity didn’t [in fact] adapt to modernity: it inadvertently made modernity, by trying to purify itself.”

But Mr. Hobson loses the plot when he expresses doubt that Islam could do the same:

… liberal values already exist, and are firmly seen as external, or alien, to Islam. To say that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are central principles of Islam just doesn’t ring true: we all know that they have been most fully formulated and institutionalized, over centuries, in the West.

Now hold on a minute. Are we saying that political liberalism was inherent in Christianity, and only in the process of reformation did that come to the fore? Unlike most American conservatives I don’t use the “L-word” as an insult – a habit I probably picked up in Australia, like wearing sunscreen in the middle of winter. But this reading is inextricably bound up with a Protestant interpretation of Christian history. As an Anglican, that doesn’t particularly irk me. But it doesn’t make for an objective exercise in comparative religions.

What we’re talking about here is the possibility of Islam embracing a sort of tolerant, liberal ethic that Christians have come to embrace. The answer is yes, of course they might – the same way the majority of mainline Protestants in the United States have come to embrace same-sex marriage and abortion: by capitulating, rightly or wrongly, to contemporary secular mores.

This sort of language doesn’t sit well with “progressive Christians”, but there’s no denying that secular society condoned same-sex relationships and abortion before any major Christian denomination. Again, that’s not to say that SSM and abortion are thereby necessarily wrong, but it does mean the liberalization of a religion can be initiated by external considerations. So while the trendy “Reformation” metaphor is misguided, the idea behind it is still completely doable. All it would take is a single generation of war-weary Middle-Eastern Muslims to set aside their painstakingly literalist readings of the Qur’an and say, “We’ve been going at this for centuries with no resolution in sight. We just can’t help but feel this isn’t what Allah wants: for endless generations of His followers to slaughter one another over tedious interpretations and misinterpretations of His holy word.” Call it hermeneutics; call it Cafeteria Islam. Not only is it likely, but as brutal Islamic regimes like ISIS grow both in size and boldness, it seems almost inevitable that the Muslim world must eventually say, “Enough is enough!”

Then again, it might not. The other (equally erroneous) side of the coin is the impulse of Western leaders to make pseudo-jurisprudent declarations that Islam is intrinsically peaceful, and anyone who wages war in its name is perverting Islam. Tony Abbott did it in the wake of the Martin Place siege and slaughter. The Guardian quoted him as saying,

They claim to be acting in the name of God … but there is no serious religious leader who is defending this … and if you take the [ISIL] death cult in the Middle East it has been roundly condemned by leading Sunni scholars … there has been fatwa after fatwa pronounced against it.

Barack Obama practically uses the sentiment to punctuate his sentences, with the most memorable and mind-boggling quote from his second term probably being, “ISIL is not Islamic”:

No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim… ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What both gentlemen forget – or choose not to acknowledge – is that such brutal interpretations of Islam are rife throughout the Muslim world. Owning a Bible is a capital offence in Saudi Arabia. Apostasy is a crime in in Malaysia, as is advocating any faith but Islam.  Work out how many Islamist regimes have governed how many predominantly Muslim countries, either indefinitely (like Pakistan), temporarily (as with the Taliban’s Afghanistan), or relatively briefly (say, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Radical Islam – state-sponsored or jihadist – is either the majority opinion in the Islamosphere or a gigantic, disproportionately powerful minority. If, in “fact”, violent fundamentalism is a perversion of Islam, the global Muslim community should consider dumping their mullahs and ayatollahs and pay closer attention to the enlightened teachings of our Western political class.

Again, none of this is to say Islam “should” be peaceful or violent one way or the other. For what it’s worth, I studied Islamic philosophy with the Sufi mystic Seyyed Hossein Nasr briefly at the George Washington University. I can’t help but feel that an Islam, not liberalized as such, but self-mollified, would prove an invaluable ally to Christendom as we resolve our own civilisation-wide crisis of faith. Sufism’s understanding of “jihad” as a struggle undertaken by the individual believer against his own disobedient nature, together with its mature system of lay devotional asceticism, could prove deeply meaningful to Protestants and Catholics alike.

But to say that Islam is either incapable of such serenity, or that it’s totally bound to be a pacific, “modern” world religion is to totally disregard the agency of Muslims. To toe either line isn’t much more than babying the world’s Muslim population, as though, collectively, they have yet to reach the age of reason. It’s all well and good if Christians have ceased to believe that God calls us to holy war and, recognising a certain kinship to Islam as an Abrahamic religion, feel their God probably wouldn’t either. It’s all well and good, too, if we don’t feel the teachings of Mohammed are as universally compassionate as Christ’s.

But, frankly, no one asked us what we think.

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are going to have to decide amongst themselves whether they believe their religion calls them to exclusion and violence, or whether it can accommodate a certain amount of ecumenical comity.

So it’s time to start treating Muslims like adults, and Islam as a mature religion with the potential for many varied interpretations – some “liberal”, like that of the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and Bashar al-Assad; some tolerantly traditional, like Nasr’s and Averroës’s; and some violently close-minded, like Khomeini and al-Baghdadi’s. The history of Islam is as varied and unpredictable as Christianity’s, and its future is just as subject to the determination of its adherents as ours. All we in the non-Muslim world can do is foster goodwill with those who would coexist with us, and defend ourselves against any who would do us harm – just as we do with every belief system, religious or political or what have you.

This isn’t Islamophobia, nor is it Islamophilia. It’s common sense.

Michael Warren Davis, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, is studying English at the University of Sydney. He edits poetry for the Quarterly Review and is the Australian Monarchist League’s university liaison