Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Islam doesn't need a Reformation - it needs an Enlightenment 

A few weekends ago I had the pleasure of finally meeting Sophie Masson and her husband, David. Sophie is a prolific author, as well as a regular visitor and even occasional guest blogger at Chrenkoff (too occasional; how about another piece, Sophie?), and over some coffee on a hot Sunday afternoon in Brisbane we got to discussing, among other things, the current condition of Islam. Sophie, like Mrs Chrenkoff, was born in Indonesia, which prompted her to note that Indonesia, even though still one of the most moderate Muslim societies in the world, has over the past twenty or so years become noticeably less easy-going and more conservative a society (something she has written about here).

At which point the concept of the Reformation popped into our conversation. Many observers, particularly since September 11 had irrevocably thrust the question of Islam into the public debate throughout the Western world, have argued that what the Muslim world badly needs is a movement akin to the Protestant Reformation, to bring Islam out of its current "Middle Ages" and help the Islamic society become more like, well, us. But what if, Sophie suggested - in an ironic case of "beware what you wish for" - the Reformation is already taking place throughout the Islamic world - and its name is Bin Ladenism?

The debate about the need for a Muslim Reformation suffers from misunderstanding of how the Christian Reformation came about and how it contributed to shaping of both the modern Christianity and the modern West. When we say that the present-day American, British and Australian societies owe much to their Protestant heritage, and therefore to the Reformation, we tend to forget that the Protestantism we are familiar with today has itself evolved as much as its host societies over the last five centuries. The relationship between religion and other aspects of human activity is not as simple as Max Weber with his "Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" would suggest; Protestantism undoubtedly changed our Anglo-Saxon societies, but our societies in turn changed Protestantism.

When we talk about the "Protestant West" as the embodiment of democratic and liberal traditions as well as the spirit of tolerance and openness, we tend to forget that merely replacing Catholicism with Protestantism in the first half of the sixteenth century was only one element of the transformation from medievality to modernity. Our "end of history" societies are just as much the legatees of the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolution, deestablishment of state churches, rationalism and general secularization - all trends with a complex and often uneasy relationship with religious faith.

Which brings me back to the problem of the Christian Reformation as a blueprint for modernizing Islam of today. Protestantism itself is a term dangerously broad, embracing as it does anything from the High Church Anglicanism, which can be easily oversimplified as Catholicism without the Pope; through the somber established creeds like Lutheranism and Calvinism; all the way to radical sects like Anabaptists or Shakers. Protestantism today also spans the broad spectrum from the Establishment Episcopalianism to evangelical, charismatic, "new-born" congregations. The common denominator of the original Reformation push was the desire to take the faith from the hands of what was perceived to be a corrupt, rigid, ossified, worldly establishment and return it to the people - in a form purified, simplified and stripped of heretical or at least questionable overgrowths. Where the various sects and denominations differed was the intensity of that desire and the lengths they were prepared to shake their earthly societies in order to achieve their heavenly ends.

Historical analogies tend to imperfect because times and circumstances change - for one, there is no such thing as the "Muslim Church" akin to the medieval Catholic superstructure - but arguably the movement that Bin Laden represents has similar aims to Christian reformers of the sixteenth century: in his case, to cleanse the faith that has been corrupted by the embrace of the modern Muslim state, and to restore Islam to its earlier, pre-modern, austere, unworldly form. That's why Al Qaeda targets the "corrupt" and "heretical" Muslim regimes as much as the decadent, infidel West. That's why the first adjective that often comes to mind to describe the Wahabbis is "Puritanical."

The Reformation is not - or at least not always - a peaceful and orderly process. As I said before, all too often we forget when looking at our present-day societies that it took us half a millennium to get here. And along the way we had to go through the wars of religion which for century and a half tore Europe apart, the madness of witch-hunts and persecutions, and tremendous political and social upheavals and dislocations. Sometimes, the Protestantism took relatively mild forms (for example Anglicanism in England), but just as easily some of the earlier Protestant communities - such as Calvin's Geneva, the Puritans' Commonwealth, or several of the early American colonies - were very far removed from the open, tolerant and liberal Protestant societies we cherish today.

To point this out is not to engage in Protestant-bashing, or to try to refight the Protestant-Catholic wars, but merely to remind that, just like everything else, Protestantism has evolved over the centuries of interaction with material forces and other ideologies and creeds. I welcome a vigorous discussion and debate of the above ideas, but please remember that everything I wrote is in the spirit of good-will towards both Protestantism and Islam. I'm certainly not arguing the favorite left-wing canard that "Islamic fundamentalists = Christian fundamentalists" or that Bin Laden is a spiritual heir to Luther. I'm merely trying to point out that there is nothing clear-cut about the reformist impulse and that the reform itself is not always a peaceful and orderly process.

Thus, the Muslim Reformation can just as easily result - at least in short to medium term - in more violence, more radicalism, more anti-American and anti-Western sentiment (a point made by
Reuel Marc Gerecht in his recent discussion of the prospects of Muslim democracy). What Islam really needs to in order to modernize is an Enlightenment, which would bring the separation of the church and state, democratization, liberalization and the acceptance of principles and practices of tolerance, openness, innovation and progress. Yes, in many ways the Enlightenment was a child of the Reformation, but the Western world had to go through two centuries of conflict and upheaval to get there. Today, we don't have that much time to wait until the Muslim world truly embraces modernity. We can only hope that just as everything in our world today seems to move faster, so will the political, social and religious trends.

In this context, Iran might ironically be our greatest hope and a harbinger of things to come. Iranian society had undergone its very own Reformation experience as a result of the Khomeininst revolution of 1979. Today, following the experiences of the past quarter of a century, Iran is, at the grass-roots level, arguably the most pro-American and pro-Western society in the region, and one most ready to embrace the future.

Many might wish for a Muslim Reformation. Whether or not that's a good thing, we might still get it. The good news is that we might not have to wait too long afterwards (although these intermediate years might be very bloody and tumultuous indeed) for the true reform within the Muslim world.


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