December 10, 2008
Every sailor knows the real danger an from iceberg comes from what you can’t see. Further, if you don’t understand how important what you can’t see is, a collision is inevitable. In trying to understand how important reform is to the Islamic world, we must examine what it is we do not see.
Notwithstanding media portrayals and ‘talking heads,’ if we are to really understand Islam and Islamic reform, we must come to understand the players. Islam is no more a more a monolithic faith than is any other religion.
There are violent fundamentalists, literalists (who are non violent fundamentalists. Sometimes they are referred to as Scriptutalists. A good example for the puposes of comparison are Seventh Day Adventists), conservative tradionalists, reformist traditionalists, modernists and finally, secularists. In other words, the Islamic world is not more easily defined than the Christian or Jewish world.
It is also true that Muslims of all stripes are less likely to have divergent and differing views. Clearly, there is an anti western bend to what is Islam today. This is not the direct result of the nature of the faith, but rather, because of indoctrination and manipulation of the religion to fit a particular agenda. As we have noted before, there has longed ceased to be an independent religious voice in Islam. Virtually every religious leader is a vocal supporter and proponent of the regime that pays him. For example, there are no doubt plenty of Muslim scholars that are appalled at the treatment of Copts in Egypt or the violence perpetrated against Christians at worship in Pakistan. Those religious leaders however, are not free to speak out and their views and beliefs are excluded from public debate. Islam answers to ideology- not God.
The impact of this manipulation of religion runs deep in Islamic society. Hatred of the west and freedom abounds (as the west and freedom advocate personal empowerment and thus loss of control), so much so, that some of the most popular secularist movements are Marxist. Notwithstanding the proved failure of Marxism and it’s rejection by states formerly held hostage, many Muslims continue to be fervent believers (another reason may also have to do with the notion of ‘equality’ with the west. Ironically, that was what drew so many Jews to Communism- they were finally equals, ‘comrades’. In 1948, the first nation to recognize Israel as an independent state was the Soviet Union. They thought that because so many former Socialists and Communists were in power, Israel would be a Soviet satellite.
Save for the insulated kibbutz movement, when given the choice, the Israelis chose freedom. In contrast, the Palestinians chose Arafat’s Marxism. The rest is history.
The only viable example of functional Islamic secularism can be found in Turkey. Even there, however, there are current pressures exerted to lead that country in a more fundamental direction. That pressure originates with the momentum of current Islamic thought. Both violent and non violent fundamentalists reject freedom and the west because of the potential of democracy. The fear of losing power and influence- and empowering the individual- is so great that to many (state funded and state supported) religious scholars, democracy is considered ‘haram’- forbidden.
Notwithstanding that these ideologies (flogged around the world in Saudi funded mosques) originate amongst the literalist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, pragmatism precedes faith. In need of western protection and acceptance, they are not openly hostile to hated western countries. They believe the charade is not understood for what it is.
Conservative tradionalists are more interesting- and relevant to understanding the Muslim mindset. They are not instinctively hostile to western beliefs or political ideologies. They do not see democracy as evil- just the opposite, really. They take issue with western values, not unlike conservative Christians. Of course, it isn’t that simple, or easy to decipher. They also share many values with fundamentalists (though usually not as extreme)- sort of like Catholics fundamentalists on steroids. They view Sharia Law as fundamental, they oppose women’s rights as we know them (for the most part, they are nowhere near as cruel to women as the literalists), and they believe that the mosque is not only a place of worship, but a source of political indoctrination as well. Notably, while conservative tradionalists do not condone terrorism, they seem to be unable or unwilling to condemn it.
The reforming tradionalists, like all religious reformers, are at once tradionalists and modernists. Their numbers are small, but their influence is greater than is acknowledged. They are academics or come from the ranks of the well educated. In Islamic countries, their views are discussed quietly. In the west, their views are debated more openly. As the numbers of well educated Muslims in the west increases, the voices of the reforming tradionalists will gain greater traction.
There are even fewer Islamic secularists. They are marginalized to a degree, not so much because of what they believe, but rather, because Muslims have a hard time identifying with them (Irshad Manji is a good example). They are to be found, scattered about, in the west.
The battle lines have been drawn and the objectives are clear: The reformers want to modernize Islam and move their religion into the 21st century. The radical Islamists wish to Islamicize modernity and the 21st century by moving it back a thousand years.
The conflict, as it is being played out, is not a new one. It is another story of the leader’s will being forced onto a population versus the ascendency of individual freedom. Islamic leaders say individual freedoms lead to the abandonment of God. Those who believe in the freedom of the individual say that faith becomes stronger when accepted willingly and not imposed.
The conversation would be more interesting (and credible) if the Islamic leaders actually spoke of faith and not politics (The Imams are supposed to be religious figures only. It is the Caliphs that are endowed with political leadership).
Currently, it is only the reformers that see the importance and strength of an individual’s freedom to express his thoughts and ideas. For the rest of the ummah, there is a false perception that the need for ‘unity’ (whatever the political incarnation du jour might be), trumps any and all expressions of freedom. The State knows best what is right. It is that ideology, heavily reinforced with religious indoctrination, that has hampered even political reform.
The Arab world never accepted any Golden Age, other than their own. The legacy of the Enlightenmment, that extinguished the Dark Ages and medieval stagnation, never reached the Arab world. Instead, their leaders, out of fear, instructed them to look back and not ahead. For a thousand years, ‘Retreat! Retreat!’ has been the mantra.
The reformists understand that the confrontation with the west is a direct result of Islamic political obstinacy. The Islamic political and religious expression is authoritarian by nature. “Our way is best. Our interpretation is correct. You must accept that God sees things our way only” and so on.
It because of thinking like that there has been so much murder and mayhem in the Islamic world. It is because of that kind of thinking that political and religious disagreements end with calls to violence and cries of ‘DEATH TO…’ All the while, the average Muslim wants to go to work, take care of his family and do right by his kids- ad neither the politcal or religious leadership give a damn about him, his family or his dreams.
The Judeo-Christian ethic understands what freedom really means. We have accepted freedom and democracy as a way of life. In fact, free societies not only exist, but they prosper and progress as well. If there were no free societies and democracies, our world would look exactly like much of the Islamic world today- torn apart by internal strife and political mayhem, with almost a billion people languishing in a netherworld, where their only purpose is to serve the needs and whims of a regime that cares nothing for them and attaches no value to their life.
It is by living in a free and tolerant society that we have created a culture of progress and the fruits that bears.
Our hospitals are among the best in the world because our universities accept the best students, regardless of color, creed or religion. Our research facilities are color blind too, and amazingly, there seems to be a never ending supply of brilliant minds and briliant ideas- home grown and from those who want to come here. In rejecting freedom, Islamic societies reject even the capability to measure up to the west. Rejecting freedom is a deliberate choice to fail. Victims who choose their fate are not the sympathetic figures they believe they are.
Muslims have a choice. They can create that same kind of society for themselves, with Islamic values, or they can keep looking backwards.
The task Muslims face in reforming Islam (less a religious reform, really, and more of an internal political reform) won’t be easy- they will stumble, fall and have to dust themselves off and try again, over and over. In the end, they will have built something of value, and something worth defending.
One way or the other, we will move ahead.
Portions of this post have been previously published.