The Challenge of an Islamic Reformation

hirsi aliIn the June Quadrant, Daryl McCann provided a thoughtful reflection on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s newly published manifesto, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Fourth Estate, 2015). He drew attention to the divergent reviews it has been getting, from ironical praise to angry condemnation. While generally supportive of her stance, he noted in passing that “in her heart of hearts Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains an apostate and her true sympathies are for those who, like herself, are daring and fortunate enough to escape”. No one reading her book, I believe, could avoid reaching the same conclusion.

Hirsi Ali seeks to appeal to as many Muslims as possible to embrace modernity and tolerance, but what she seeks is not the Reformation. It is the Enlightenment. She evokes Locke and Voltaire, not Luther and Calvin, when she speaks most forthrightly about the principles and values that should prevail.

The crucial issue here, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out, is that we are engaged in a war of ideas and not merely the attempted suppression of a rogue “death cult”. “For years, we have spent trillions on waging war against ‘terror’ and ‘extremism’,” she writes, but “we have not bothered to develop an effective counter narrative, because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam”. The counter narrative she suggests is that the problems we face are rooted in Islam, not in socio-economic conditions, and that Islam needs a fundamental overhaul if it is to live in peace with the modern world. As she points out, there are no Christian terrorists in the Middle East, although the Christians live under the same conditions as the Muslims. Indeed, they are suffering expulsion or suppression by Muslims in many places, even as Muslims demand greater acceptance within the West. There are also no Zoroastrian terrorists in Iran, although their religion has been suppressed by Muslims there for many centuries.

Hirsi Ali, for those who are not as yet acquainted with her life or work, is of Somali Muslim origin. She lived for periods of her childhood and early adolescence in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya, before fleeing the Islam of her family and an arranged marriage and seeking asylum in the Netherlands. To her enormous credit, once given such asylum, she worked her way into literacy and a university education, spoke out against the reactionary practices and intolerant beliefs of Islam, and was elected to the Dutch parliament. Heretic is her fourth book and has been written, like her previous book, Infidel, under the shadow of death threats from Muslim fanatics. She has not been cowed or silenced, but has married the celebrated historian of war and finance Niall Ferguson, moved to America, and continued her campaign for a far-reaching overhaul of Islam globally. Her book merits sympathetic reading on all these counts.

She points out that she has been shunned not only by the Muslim establishment, but by many so-called “liberals” in the West, whose mantra is that criticism of Islam, or any suggestion that it is accountable for the violence perpetrated in its name, constitutes “Islamophobia” and “hate speech” that should not be given a platform. In her own words:

Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace … For expressing the idea that Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself, I have been denounced as a bigot and an “Islamophobe”. I have been silenced, shunned and shamed. In effect, I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.

Her courage and lucidity are to be applauded. Note that she uses the word heretic here less as a label put on her by Muslims than as one attached to her by “liberals” who see her stance as “Islamophobic”—and therefore inadmissible. If we have any sense at all, we will stand with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We will do so, as Bernard-Henri Levy wrote in 2008, because this is the enlightened place to stand—against reactionary religious dogmatism, social oppression and terroristic violence.

A book with a similar outspoken message, Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015) strikes a very similar note—and has suffered a very similar reception. She writes:

There is no sugar-coating it. We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt … Name me an Arab country and I’ll recite a litany of abuses against women occurring in that country, abuses fuelled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.

“Enough, already!” is this brave woman’s outcry. It doesn’t matter what Muhammad thought or wrote or said; we do not live in the seventh century, but in the twenty-first century and it’s time this patriarchal, religiously-enforced culture was brought down and the situation of women in the Muslim world transformed. Who among us could disagree? Yet, of all people, “liberal” feminists and post-colonial leftists seem ready to do so and to distance themselves from such radical stands as “Islamophobic”. How do we move forward under these circumstances?

The story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is instructive in that regard. Instead of being able to participate in a shared critical and free inquiry into the nature of Islam, she finds herself threatened, ostracised and rebuked for even raising certain issues. This has happened, of course, in many other circumstances—in religious controversies in the West, in ideological controversies during the Cold War, and in debates over climate and the environment, among other things. This is precisely why she self-consciously calls herself a heretic. She knows that she has taken a stance that makes very many people uncomfortable. Her point is that this needs to be done and that any emancipated society committed to reason and liberty would accept at the very least her right to articulate such a point of view. She should be defended on this ground alone, quite apart from the merits of the specific arguments she has advanced. My purpose in writing this essay is chiefly to defend her—but to question some of her arguments.

The Netherlands, where she first sought and gained refuge, was the seed-bed less of the Reformation (which it embraced in defiance of the Catholic Habsburg empire) than of the processes of discussion and scholarship that slowly turned the Reformation into the Enlightenment in Europe. It was a drawn-out process, but the critical response to Calvinism as well as to Catholicism slowly generated the stances which became the underpinnings of modern, restrained religion. These were Socinian (rejection of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth) and Deist (distancing of belief in a Deity from belief in the specifically Judeo-Christian one). Dogma was unpicked and rejected piece by piece. The work of Spinoza was a landmark in all this and he was execrated by Catholics, Protestants and orthodox Jews alike. Yet his critique of biblical religion was fundamental to what, over the following century, became the current of Enlightenment across much of Europe.

America, where Hirsi Ali now makes her home, was founded by refugees from religious persecution and grew as a republic in the late eighteenth century as the Enlightenment was gaining ground, and scepticism, Unitarianism (rejection of the Trinity) and Deism were becoming the common religious stance of educated Americans. So much was this so that Thomas Jefferson, in the early nineteenth century, thought that Unitarianism might become the dominant religion in the United States.

What Ayaan Hirsi Ali is seeking in the Islamic world of the twenty-first century is something like that makeover of dogmatic religion in Europe. But those of us who admire her courage and share her basic convictions would do well to remind ourselves that the process in Europe was very protracted, always incomplete and ended (insofar as it has ended) with a great many Europeans still adhering to various Christian beliefs. The matter is magisterially reviewed in J.G.A. Pocock’s six-volume reflection on Edward Gibbon and the Enlightenment, Barbarism and Religion.

Besieged by critics and denounced as an “Islamophobe”, Hirsi Ali declares passionately:

My uncompromising statements on this topic have incited such vehement denunciations that one would think I had committed an act of violence myself. For today, it seems, speaking the truth about Islam is a crime. “Hate speech” is the modern term for heresy. And in the present atmosphere, anything that makes Muslims feel uncomfortable is branded as “hate”.

In these pages it is my intention to make many people—not only Muslims but also Western apologists for Islam—uncomfortable. I am not going to do this by drawing cartoons. Rather, I intend to challenge centuries of religious orthodoxy with ideas and arguments that I am certain will be denounced as heretical … I intend to speak freely in the hope that others will debate equally freely with me on what needs to change in Islamic doctrine, rather than seeking to stifle discussion.

Here the divide yawns wide between those who identify themselves with the Western intellectual tradition and with the Enlightenment, on the one hand, and those who have wandered off into some kind of “postmodern” relativism and spineless capitulationism, or anti-scientific nihilism, on the other. It is a scandal that we should need a Somali woman, taking refuge in the West, to stand up unapologetically for free discussion in the face of “liberal” cant and reactionary religion.

There is a gulf between what Hirsi Ali would like to see and the realities across the Muslim world that we confront. She expresses the belief that the tide is changing in favour of her “Reformation”, but the European Reformation was a long-drawn-out and violent process and did not in itself get Europe to religious toleration and secular peace. What she asks of Muslims is not only very radical, but at the end of the day anti-religious. She is calling for no less than the abandonment by mullahs around the world and their teeming followers of any serious commitment to the Koran or the Prophet on religious and dogmatic grounds. Even in the West, we have only ever gone part of the way down that road and there are still vast numbers of passionate and dogmatic Christians. Hirsi Ali is, in short, very much an infidel in the Muslim world as well as, apparently, a heretic on the Left. She is highly unlikely to see her hopes fulfilled any time soon.

Consider the five most fundamental changes in Islamic belief and practice that she calls for:

• Renunciation of Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Koran, particularly those parts that were attributed to Muhammad’s sojourn in Medina, where he started resorting to violence against unbelievers;

• A shift from investment in an imagined life after death to concentration on life in the actual world, before death;

• Abandonment of sharia law in favour of civil law;

• Abandonment of the practice of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” which empowers families, communities or vigilante gangs to harass others in the name of strict religious codes;

• The radical revision of teachings about jihad, to remove the calls for Islam to be spread by force against infidels.

She is, I believe, absolutely correct that all these changes are needed, but they are not what an Islamic Luther or Calvin would have called for. They are the equivalent of saying to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century that it should renounce the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Petrine magisterium of the Papacy, and the unique authority of the Bible as the revealed word of God; give up an emphasis on the afterlife; meld canon law into civil law; and institute freedom of conscience and religious belief across the board. Far more moderate demands by the likes of Luther and Calvin triggered religious wars and persecutions in Europe.

The only one of those changes that Luther and Calvin brought to the table was the rejection of the Petrine magisterium of the Papacy and the corrupt or fraudulent practices that it had engendered. The changes Hirsi Ali wants to see are what a Locke or Voltaire called for in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: toleration, scepticism and civil authority over religion. She tacitly concedes this by quoting them, not Luther or Calvin, when it comes to toleration, freedom of religious belief and civil law. In short, what she is calling for, in a single bound, is something that took Europe about 250 to 300 years to achieve. And Europe had the enormous advantages of having already gone through the Renaissance, having a pagan intellectual tradition of republican government and independent philosophical reflection to draw upon, and being economically and geopolitically in the ascendant. None of these things apply to Islam now. For all these reasons, the changes she calls for would be difficult to achieve even if there was widespread support for them among both Muslim intellectuals and the Muslim masses. Instead, she is meeting hostility and condescension left and right.

There is, however, an even more fundamental problem for the project she proposes. The very radicals whom she denounces (for very good reasons) are themselves the heroes of the Islamic Reformation. That “Reformation” might be said to have begun with Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, in Saudi Arabia, in the late eighteenth century. The Ottoman caliphate attempted to suppress Wahhab, but his version of Islam predominates in Saudi Arabia now and has been exported by it around the world. The Muslim Brotherhood, from the 1920s, following the downfall of the Ottomans and the end of the caliphate, renewed the call for a Muslim “Reformation”—a return to the “purity” of scripture and the sayings of the Prophet. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s, with his trenchant text Milestones, was a Muslim Calvin in his way. Tariq Ramadan, author of The Messenger, in 2006-07, has actually been hailed (in the Washington Post, no less) as the “Muslim Martin Luther”. In a Western world based on religious dissent, these descriptions read like honorifics, but a revival of “pure” Islam is the last thing anyone should want to see.

Hirsi Ali distinguishes between what she calls Mecca Muslims, Medina Muslims and Modifying Muslims. The Mecca Muslims are those who accept the Koran and the hadith, but do not believe in trying to impose Islam (submission) on infidels by force. They nonetheless practise many things which are, to say the least, open to question; and many of them are susceptible to the call to jihad by radicals. The Medina Muslims are those who take as their exemplar the Muhammad who at Medina began to enforce Islam at the point of the sword. They insist on the imposition of Islam by jihad and denounce the other religions of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, as false religions. Modifying Muslims are those who, like herself, seek to reconcile their broad Islamic cultural heritage with modernity and to leave behind the dogmatism and harshness of traditional Islam. She hopes they can draw the majority of Mecca Muslims to their side and isolate the Medina Muslims. Unfortunately, she undercuts her appeal to Mecca Muslims by basically repudiating Mecca. She leaves herself wide open to the retort that she is seeking to draw Muslims away from their religious traditions altogether, leaving only an empty shell behind as a cultural memory. She would perhaps have done better simply to espouse this goal outright.

Reason, not blind adherence to the Koranic verses or the hadith (the sayings attributed to Muhammad), must guide Muslims to a better way, she insists. Reason is the Devil’s whore, declared Martin Luther, and what is required is unquestioning faith in biblical revelation. Taking free initiatives to enhance well-being and prosperity is what Hirsi Ali would like to see Muslims doing; but Calvin preached predestination and insisted that only the grace of God, not works or freedom of the intellect, could lead to salvation in a “fallen” world. Neither preached or practised religious toleration or freedom of discussion. And the Catholic Church responded to them with the creation of the Roman Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation. The consequences of all this were 150 years of religious war in Europe that tore Christendom apart, climaxing with the Thirty Years War (1618–48). All those trying to think their way through this morass would do well to read Mark Greengrass’s Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517–1648.

We are seeing something like the sixteenth-century wars of religion right now in the Middle East and Africa, not only in the atrocities of ISIS and Boko Haram, but in the regression of Turkey, the theocratic regime in Iran and the growing commitment of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to war against both ISIS and Iran. None of this is progress. All of it bodes ill, both for the Middle East and for the rest of us. Moreover, within Saudi Arabia and such other states as Pakistan, contemporary Islamic practice is intolerant of other religions and repressive of women’s rights just to the extent that it emphasises a return to the Koran and the inerrancy of the Prophet. The cruel practices and repression of religious freedom that are endemic in such countries are rightly abhorrent to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but they are deeply rooted in Islam. Rooting them out will mean rooting Islam up to a very large extent. Pretending that things are otherwise and that Islam is basically a sound and peaceful religion is like pretending that the Chinese Communist Party is liberal and democratic at heart, when plainly it is nothing of the kind. If we are to move forward, we must begin by acknowledging and debating a few inescapable and rather dismal realities.

Hirsi Ali is taking a necessary stand; but she is the same kind of heretic as Walter Kaufmann, a German Jewish émigré, American philosopher and author of The Faith of a Heretic, among many other books. Kaufmann renounced his parents’ Lutheranism at the age of eleven, because he decided he did not believe that Jesus was divine. He practised the Judaism of his grandparents for some years as an adolescent, but decided as a young adult that he did not believe in the existence of the old Deity or the claims of Judaism as a religion. He nonetheless remained interested in and appreciative of the better elements of the Jewish and Christian religions. He wrote fine books on Nietzsche, on the philosophy of religion and on existentialism—as a philosopher in America. Crucially, while he had to flee genocidal mania in Germany, he was free to think and change his opinions in the United States and to write without religious censorship.

Hirsi Ali, like Kaufmann, is not a believer. She is free and liberal-minded, but is able to think, write and speak as she does only because she is not living in a Muslim society. Many of us in Australia are, similarly, able to inquire, write and speak as we see fit because we live in a secular, liberal society and not one dominated by any given religion. The finest and bravest dissidents within Islam or in the Muslim world that she champions should be championed, also, by us; but they are the equivalent of Giordano Bruno or Michael Servetus, rather than Martin Luther or John Calvin. Both were burned at the stake as heretics: Bruno by the Catholic Inquisition in Rome; Servetus by Calvin in Geneva. Bruno was a man of the Renaissance and a forerunner of the Scientific Revolution. Servetus was a pioneer of what came to be called Unitarianism, founded on a repudiation of the divinity of Jesus and an emphasis on Christian ethics in place of theological dogma. There have been comparable figures in the history of the Islamic world, but unlike the West, the world of Islam has remained mired in a theological and dogmatic religion, which has not only failed to come to terms with modernity, but in its “Reformation” versions has decisively turned against it.

Unlike the sixteenth-century Christian reformers, Hirsi Ali does not want to revive “true religion” (Islam, rather than Christianity), but to see Islam reduced to a quiet cultural relic, as Christianity has been in much of Europe; with most of the dogmatism and harshness stripped away. She claims that Muslim Reformation is coming, but it has been upon us for some considerable time. The problem is that we have not been paying close attention. There is enormous ignorance and almost wilful blindness to all this in the West. It will be with us for some time, too, so it’s high time we sat up and paid it more serious—and critical—attention.

We should, as Hirsi Ali urges, support dissidents in the Muslim world as we supported dissidents in the communist bloc during the Cold War. We should have the courage of our convictions and declare that the Prophet was a seventh-century Arabian version of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, with the difference that he spread his religion by the sword across first tribal Arabia and then the declining Roman and Persian empires. Across all those lands it has long since become a cultural and political incubus on the backs of their peoples. Only fundamental change will set them free, and it is opposed by ingrained traditions and prejudices.

In anything but a completely attenuated and nominal form, Islam is not deserving of our sympathy or support. That does not mean, of course, that human beings who happen to have been raised as Muslims should be treated as enemies. The whole project of modernisation entails separating the human being from the believer and setting the human being free to change and grow. We need to reach out less to “moderate Muslims” than to people of a moderate temperament and advance the argument that there are better ways and truer beliefs than old, fanatical religious dogmas. But to do that we need at least a broad consensus about what we stand for in such an exchange. Such a consensus seems to be lacking now in the West, if it ever existed. It would consist, however, of at least a few basic principles of civil government and civil society, as Natan Sharansky argued in The Case for Democracy (2006), and these would include the importance of critical reflection, freedom of expression and the subordination of religion to secular authorities. If we cannot agree on at least those things, we cannot win the war of ideas with the Islam that is stalking the world in our time.

“The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking that I am attempting here,” writes Hirsi Ali:

We who have known what it is to live without freedom watch with incredulity as you who call yourselves liberals—who claim to believe so fervently in individual liberty and minority rights—make common cause with the forces in the world that manifestly pose the greatest threats to that very freedom and those very minorities.

For this reason, she says, “We must no longer accept limitations on criticism of Islam.” In making this declaration, she is breaking with Islam, not simply with its more terroristic off-shoots. We should understand this very clearly, but be prepared for what it will entail. It will entail—it will require—a long and principled campaign not of “intolerance” of Islam, but of the critical appraisal of it and the slow revision of it until it becomes itself tolerant in the way that much of Christianity has slowly become. That does not mean simply ISIS, but the cultures of Islam in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in Iran, in the Gulf States, in Pakistan. Right now, things are going in the opposite direction and the West is giving ground.

“Our civilization,” Hirsi Ali declares—claiming a kind of cultural ownership that only citizenship in a Western liberal democracy could have brought her—“learned, slowly and painfully, not to burn heretics, but to honour them.” True, but we would do well to remember that it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the Catholic Church, for example, announced that the Jews were not collectively culpable for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate; publicly regretted its treatment of Galileo; accepted that Darwin had been on the right track as regards human evolution; and lifted its ban even on the works of the Jesuit visionary Teilhard de Chardin’s works, The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man. Hirsi Ali hopes to see more rapid movement within Islam. It is a brave and bright hope, but the road is likely in fact to be long and painful. It is not a struggle that can be won by force, though the use of force may well be unavoidable in order to constrain at various points the mobilised Islamist forces. But it is a struggle that needs to be undertaken, if ever the mess in the Muslim world is to be sorted out and an attractive order put in place by the peoples of that world for their own sake.

It will be complicated by the divisions within Islam, not only between Mecca Muslims, Medina Muslims and Modifying Muslims, but between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and between rival states in the Islamic world. There are other, more obscure strands of Islam, also; and there will be those who will argue that Islam was once a great civilisation—under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates—and that this alone is grounds enough for being restrained in our criticisms of Islam. There will also be those who will assert that all the trouble in the Middle East is the fault of the West—for its colonialism, its “Orientalism”, its greed for oil, its presumptuous and corrupt secularism, its interventions in Iraq and its inadequate assimilation of Muslims as citizens within Western polities. There is enough truth in this log of claims to make any debate on the subject fractious and acrimonious. But that simply means we need more judicious and fearless inquiry, not a moratorium on criticism of Islam or efforts to constrain violent Islamists. It’s just that there will not be any quick, painless or simple solution in the near future.

Writing all this in the pages of Quadrant, I am conscious of its appointed role in the long and painful struggle against communist totalitarianism. Throughout the Cold War, there were many in the West who took the side of communism and who have never resiled from that stance. They campaigned long and hard to discredit anti-communism and to insist, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, even in the 1970s, that the Soviet Union was the trail-blazer of progress and of a necessary “revolution”. They derided and denounced the Congress for Cultural Freedom as a CIA front organisation and Quadrant as a stalking horse for both the CIA and “reaction”. All the while, of course, many activists on the Left—including, as it turned out, notorious terrorist groups—were taking funding from the KGB. Fortunately, that long struggle was won without triggering thermonuclear war. It was not won “perfectly”, since communist parties held onto power in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba; while the remnants of the KGB took Russia back under Vladimir Putin to establish a dictatorial kleptocracy. But the war of ideas was won—at least until the turn of the century.

The struggle against Islam must also be won, and won, ultimately, like the struggle against communism, on the battlefield of ideas. It might be too much to hope that a new Congress for Cultural Freedom might be convened with the express purpose of providing platforms and funding for organisations and magazines that are dedicated to freedom of expression in the struggle to transform and liberalise the Islamic world; but this would be a far more efficient and less costly investment than wars and attempts at nation-building by occupation. Hirsi Ali herself calls for some such thing. She hails the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its support for “Encounter (UK), Preuves (France) Der Monat (Germany) and Quadrant (Australia)”. Modelled on such efforts, she argues, “there must be a concerted effort to turn people away from fundamentalist Islam”. Just as the West championed dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, it must now champion, support and protect dissidents in the Islamic world. It should provide platforms for the propagation of their names and ideas. It should promote scholarship that probes away at the history of Islam and the claims made in the name of Muhammad and his successors. And it must be prepared to stare down the Muslim equivalent of the Communist Party and its fellow travellers who will denounce all this as “Islamophobia”.

Hirsi Ali names many such dissidents, across a spectrum of opinion from outright apostasy to moderate reform, and spread across the Muslim world from Asia to West Africa. She laments that at present such people are dismissed as “not representative”, by mainstream Mecca (or Muslim Brotherhood) spokespeople and their “liberal” allies in the West. But such individuals are heroic, as she puts it, precisely because they are not “representative”. She has been dismissed on the same grounds; but it is an absurd argument. How “representative” was Socrates? How “representative” was Giordano Bruno? How “representative” was Charles Darwin? For that matter, one might retort to the Muslim Brotherhood and its liberal fellow travellers: How representative was Muhammad in pagan and tribal Arabia? The whole point of dissent and scientific inquiry is that one is breaking ranks with accepted opinion and established authority. The whole value of freedom of expression is that it exposes such opinion and authority to critical revision and challenges people to look at things with fresh eyes.

The individuals Hirsi Ali lauds are rare birds, trail-blazers, heretics and free spirits. She names, in passing, Tawfiq Hamid, Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, Maajid Nawaz, Zuhdi Jasser, Saleem Ahmed, Yunis Qandil, Seyran Ates, Bassam Tibi. She names and gives the background to many others in an Appendix. Mona Eltahawy should be numbered among them. Their names will be largely unfamiliar to most people in the West—rather like the names of similarly repressed and dismissed dissidents in China, under the boot of the Communist Party. Read her book and learn about them. She bravely asserts that they are beginning to turn the tide, but this is more hope than reality. The point is that the tide must be turned and it will only be turned if we lionise such people and support the stands they are taking against violent resistance and repression. They should be celebrated as we celebrate Locke and Voltaire, she writes (not Luther and Calvin, note well). There are many other figures, including religious believers, whom we might also celebrate, but the Enlightenment, which brought articulation of the case for toleration and civil government, has to constitute our common ground; not a “liberalism” which recoils from criticism of Islam on confused and hypocritical grounds.

I was raised as a Catholic but, like Walter Kaufmann, I went my own way philosophically as a young man. I have always retained an appreciation of the Catholic Church and the Christian past, as Kaufmann did of the Christian and Judaic past. I regard much of that past as sublime: the writings of Augustine, Dante and Erasmus; Gregorian chant, Palestrina’s madrigals, Bach and the great requiem masses of Mozart and Verdi. I am, also, aware of the complex history of the Islamic world and of some of the cosmopolitan achievements of scholars and traders in the world of the Arab caliphates between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. I would fully expect that in a modernised Islamic world such historical glories would continue to be cherished. But just as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment brought a sweeping reassessment of the religious tradition of the West and articulated a new basis for civil government in a commercial age, so must a process of enlightenment in the Muslim world bring at last a sweeping reassessment of the claims to “revelation” and “authority” that give Islam its grip on the minds and moral cultures of one and a half billion human beings. We can, we should, and I believe we must, do all we can to encourage and assist that process, while staunchly resisting Islamist violence.

Let me conclude by returning to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s expression of appreciation for the Congress for Cultural Freedom and enlarging upon it. Only a generation after the end of the Cold War and the much-heralded triumph of capitalism and liberal democratic ideas, the West is on the back foot and the liberal international order is under siege by Chinese and Russian authoritarianism and Islamic militancy. We should not want to see these forces gain more ground. Yet they cannot be halted merely by the use of force. Indeed, the capacity and willingness of the West to use force seems to have waned; sapped by the costs of seemingly fruitless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as by the self-inflicted economic disaster of 2007-08.

There is a lot to feel gloomy about. But there is also a great deal to defend and extend. That is a cultural task and a matter of ideas and articulate debate. Neither complacency nor cynicism will serve us. We need, once more, to find the energy and imagination to champion the open society and the scientific enlightenment. We should do so unapologetically and vigorously. If we do not engage in the struggle of ideas of our time in this manner, we could lose—catastrophically. That’s why we need a new Congress for Cultural Freedom, under any other name and however it is funded.

Dr Monk is a partner in Van Gelder and Monk Consultants. His latest books, Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990–2015 and Credo and Twelve Poems: A Cosmological Manifesto, are currently in press and will appear in print by the early spring.


3 thoughts on “The Challenge of an Islamic Reformation

  • says:

    Drawing a parallel between the cold war standoff and the spectre of Islam is very valid indeed, except for one vitally important difference. Western political leadership during the cold war was not at all circumspect about communism. They denounced it in the most definite terms and declared it to be the enemy of freedom in all its aspects. Alas, our current leaders perform the most ridiculous contortions attempting to differentiate between “true Islam” and the crazies murdering one another with the declared intention of coming after us once they finished the pogrom closer to home. Given that absolutely ridiculous attitude, it is impossible to effectively support, let alone lionise, Muslim dissidents, even those living in the west like Hirsi Ali.

    As to the hope, however remote, of the reformation of Islam, that is dead in the water. The doctrine has embedded in it an insurmountable barrier to any meaningful change. It’s foundation is the unchallengeable assertion that it is absolutely perfect. Perfection, by any definition, can not be challenged and most definitely can not be improved. So that’s it. Take it or leave it. In fact, you are not permitted to leave it, except on the pain of death. In the Soviet Union they routinely committed dissenters to mental institutions, the reasoning being that no sane person could oppose communism. Only the most dangerous of the opponents were dealt more harshly and decisively. Under sharia of “true Islam”, there is only one variety at dissenter and one kind of retribution: death.

  • Jack Richards says:

    Islam is the most totalitarian evil ever invented in the mind of a complete psychotic. It is even more insane that Christianity and has nothing to offer but eternal backwardness, ignorance, brutality and barbarism.

    How such nonsense can still exist in the 21st Century is truly a miracle.

    There will never be peace and prosperity in the world until the last Mullah is strangled with the guts of the last Priest.

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