Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The nature and history of Islam

Our friend and guest blogger Sean Aqui of Midtopia has written an excellent post on Islam's Reformation -- see here. He argues that "what we are seeing today is Islam passing through the same painful adolescence that both Judaism and Christianity endured centuries ago," which is to say, we are witnessing "Islam's bloody transition from its medieval origins to modernity."

Sean's conclusion: "Our job... is to encourage and support the moderate reformers while opposing and undermining the medievalists. It will take patience, money, intellectual firepower and an acknowledgement that it will proceed in fits and starts. But the entire world will benefit from Islam shedding its medieval past. If ever there was a project well worth undertaking, this is it."

It is tempting to view the world-historical event surrounding 9/11 and Iraq in purely Huntingtonian terms, that is, as a clash of civilizations. To an extent, that's right. This isn't just about American bases in Saudi Arabia and the existence of Israel. It's also about jihadism that doesn't stop at Islam's political borders, about a political expression of Islam (both state-oriented and not) that seeks to annihilate its enemies, including Israel. And, of course, it's also about the spread of Western Civilization and the global dominance of American culture. The conflict was brought to American soil, to New York and Washington. The jihadist perpetrators want the U.S. out of the Middle East, off Muslim soil, but they also want America wiped out. This should prompt us not only to fight back but to think about ourselves, our values, our ideas, our culture, our civilization, and the place of all of those things in the world beyond our shores. We must defend ourselves. When necessary, we must attack. But we must also engage in some serious self-reflection. Without in any way justifying the actions of the jihadists, surely we can admit that we aren't perfect.

And yet: There is also a civil war raging within Islam itself. These are religious growing pains akin to what Christianity went through during its own reformation, the Reformation. As with the Christian one, the Islamic Reformation is not without its complexity. There aren't simply the moderates and conservatives, just as there weren't simply the Protestants and Catholics. But Islam must go through this, and it must go through it largely on its own. This is where I part company with Sean. I agree with him that we need to encourage and support Islam's "moderate reformers" and to oppose and undermine its "medievalists". In theory. In practice, how is that to be done? Yes, we need to engage ourselves in the war of ideas in terms of the larger clash of civilizations, but how can we possibly engage ourselves in the war of ideas that is raging within Islam? It simply isn't our place to involve ourselves in Islam's own crisis.

Of course, we may (and should) engage with "moderate reformers" wherever and whenever we can. Perhaps there are some indirect ways to show our support. Opening up dialogue with the reformers in our own countries could help to tilt the balance in their favour. However, it seems to me that any overt engagement will be seen by all sides as interference. And if there's anything that could unite the various elements of Islam, it's opposition to interference from the West. That's part of the problem already: This theological civil war is raging even as a political war is being fought in Iraq, even as the United States and the European Union are contemplating their next move with respect to the Iranian nuclear crisis, even as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on. This is not a call for disengagement. Iraq is what it is, like it or not, something needs to be done about Iran, Israel needs our continued support, rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan need to proceed, and, of course, political and economic engagement with the entire Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, cannot be halted -- indeed, it is surely in our long-term interests to strengthen that engagement. But we must be aware that such political and economic (not to mention military) engagement is not without its consequences. And one of them is that Islam's civil war will continue to be fought out within a context that encompasses more than theological minutiae. If nothing else, we need to be sensitive to that reality.

Such are my thoughts for now.

Make sure to read Sean's post in its entirety. You may or may not agree with him, just as you may or may not agree with my response here, but it's a thoughtful, provocative post. And it's an issue that deserves our serious attention.


Sean also wrote about the recent by-election in Kuwait, the first time women have been allowed to vote in that country -- see here.

Once again, his conclusion gets it right: "Our job now is to support these countries -- using aid and trade agreements to demonstrate the tangible benefits of moving toward democracy and tolerance -- while gently pressing them to adopt true democracy and hold elections for top leadership posts. That approach has risks: the current Western-friendly emirs could be replaced by more hostile radical Islamists, as happened in Palestine. But the Gulf emirates are not Palestine, and if we cannot persuade them to move forward instead of backward, we have lost the war of ideas."

Absolutely. This would be the right kind of engagement. We need to do what we can to steer the Muslim world towards not just democracy but liberal democracy. Simply, this is a war we mustn't lose.

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  • Great analysis both by Sean and by you. It seems to me the issue is no so much religion as it is culture and politics. Obviously, both Judaism and Christianity can be interpreted in quite violent and, by our standards, barbaric ways. However, both religions developed in a cultural and political context that, for the most part and over time, moderated the worst tendencies. Islam has not done this, in part at least because western colonialism impeded the political development of the region. The blessing (or curse) of being oil rich probably also contributed.

    None of the three Middle Eastern religions are inherently peaceful. But there are few Christians or Jews today that want to follow biblical law to any great extent. This is, I think, largely because the cultural and political development of the West pushed people to adopt multiple identities separate from religion. (Although religion is still the center of many fundamentalist Christians' identities.) In the Muslim countries, by contrast, Islam is much more the core of their identity and the intrusions of modernity, whether intentional or inadvertent, seem like attacks on those identities.

    In the long run, I hope that Islam will come to terms with modernity and move away from its more violent elements as did Christianity and Judaism. Unfortunately, in the short term, we have dangerously atavistic regimes that might be getting nuclear weapons (the atavism has not applied to modern technology).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:02 PM  

  • Michael, I appreciate and sympathize with the idea that we have no business interfering in internal debates that we are not naturally party to, and doing so clumsily can do more harm than good -- as happens when pro-western groups in Iran, for instance, don't want anything to do with U.S. funding for fear they will be painted as imperialist stooges.

    That said, I dispute this part of your response:

    How can we possibly engage ourselves in the war of ideas that is raging within Islam? It simply isn't our place to involve ourselves in Islam's own crisis.

    It may not be our place as Christians or agnostics or Jews. But the Western democracies are multireligious and increasingly multicultural. Western Muslims have a right (I'd even go so far as to call it a moral imperative) to engage in that discussion, since they represent some of the most moderate and liberal strains of Islam, the ones who have already made their peace with civil rights and democracy.

    So perhaps the West's policy should be supporting and encouraging Western Muslims as they engage in this Islamwide debate -- and let those Muslims be the ones that reach out to their Middle Eastern bretheren, free (or at least more free) of the stigma of secular American power.

    By Blogger Sean Aqui, at 6:19 PM  

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