? equates moderate with secular or lapsed islam Think-Israel


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by Jason Pappas


Part 1. Moderate Islam and the Modern Revival of Islam

There's a general consensus, across the political spectrum, that Moderate Islam is the only hope for the reform of Islamic societies. With rare exception, this is based on a vast ignorance of Islam -- as a religion and historical force -- coupled with a projection of Western sentiments onto Islamic societies. In a future article, I'll argue that moderate Islam is not a tenable long-term solution. For now, let's focus on, what many consider less likely: the prospects of secularization.

Scholarly journals generally discuss, not fundamentalist Islam, but what they call an Islamic Revival. This suggests that Islam has, to some extent, waned. Indeed, if we go back fifty years, the dominant cultural influences were secular: socialism and nationalism. Islam was disparaged as a force holding back Arab and other nominally-Islamic nations. In each country, the exact relationship of secularism and religion varied. Turkey's secularization came close to Europe's (at least officially). Iran was undergoing a similar secularization process under the Shah. In many Arab countries, Islam was accorded perfunctory respect but privately it was disparaged. In Iraq, according to one source, there were one million Communists in the 1950s -- not exactly a religious friendly movement. In Afghanistan, 5th column communists actually gained power two years before requesting Soviet military intervention. The failure of the collectivist road to secularism was the motivation for the Islam Revival in the last 30 years.

What was the religious practice before the revival? Islam, like Orthodox Christianity, had stagnated for several centuries. Drained of any intellectual innovation, both became heavily ritualistic and rote with faint memories of past glory. An astute social commentator, 80 years ago, compared the practices of the monotheistic religions and saw vast differences between Western Christianity and the Eastern religions of Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity. Islam is declared "dead," "nothing more than a ritual," "offer[s] nothing to the mind," "despiritualized," full of "legal forms and external rule." (Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, p 370, Liberty Classics) Other authors came to similar conclusions.

The center of Islam was the Caliphate in Turkey. Ataturk, transformed Turkey, by blood and iron, into a secular society. By abolishing the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, he brought an end to this 1300 years old institution. This would have been the equivalent of Mussolini closing the Vatican. The other major example of near-complete religious suppression is the Bolshevik elimination of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. In both cases spiritually-dormant religions were pushed aside and discarded. Compare that to the vibrancy of Catholicism in communist Poland!

The revival of Islam started with the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt and an obscure Arabian family who happened to be sitting on top of the world's greatest reserve of oil. After the Brotherhood was driven from Egypt, the Saudi family welcomed them with open arms. Many found gainful employment in Saudi universities. The ideological architect of the Islamic Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, was killed by the Egyptian government but his brother, Mohammad Qutb taught in the university at Medina and his star pupil, Osama bin Laden, put his teachings into practice. The Saudi oil wealth enabled the establishment of a world-wide network of educational institutions. Soon, Muslims everywhere were learning about Islam as Mohammad practiced it -- Salafi or original Islam.

Our ignorance of the practice of Islam leaves us unprepared and the dream of a moderate Islam causes undue hesitation as we seek to avoid offense. We are easily manipulated. At the start of the Afghan campaign, we were warned about dire consequences if we continued the war during Ramadan and seriously considered postponing combat. One such warning came from our "friend" Musharraf. However, as any student of Middle East history can attest, Arabs call the Yom Kippur War the Ramadan War because they initiated aggression against Israel during Ramadan. Incidentally, it was financed by the ultra religious Saudi government. In another recent example, we are told that our disrespect for the Koran has inflamed Muslim hatred. But Mark Steyn explodes that myth (hat tip: Social Sense). Our apologetics plays right into the hands of the Islamists who boast of Islam's power to elicit respect from its enemies. The examples of blunders like this are endless.

Islam is the root cause of the Jihadist's war against America (and against all non-Muslims). Not only do we fail to understand this motivation but we mistakenly praise the religion. In an attempt to encourage a "moderate" Islam we have embarked on a "self-esteem" inducing regimen where we continually praise the "true" Islam that's been "hijacked" by the "evil ones." Similar to the failed "make them feel good first" educational techniques ubiquitous in primary education, our policy is to make them feel good about Islam first in the hopes that they'll invent and practice a "good" Islam later. As we soothingly say "good Muslims," they act out in violent fits. Our co-dependent-like response -- i.e. reassurance that they don't really support those extremists (and here's some more foreign aid) -- only encourages more bad behavior. This is part of the "Oslo Syndrome."

While we've imagined a vigorous and deep-rooted practice far in excess of the reality, the left errs in the opposite direction. Quick to deny the power of religion and to look for economic "root causes," the left has been taken by surprise. Edward Said, Columbia University professor and Palestinian terrorist, wrote the book that changed Middle East Studies in 1978: Orientalism. The eminent scholar, Martin Kramer, explains how Said embarrassingly dismissed, in his usual sarcastic manner, Western writers that see Islam as a potent social force. I say embarrassingly because in 1979, Khomeini rose to power in Iran. However wrong Said and other leftists were, they could deny Islam's power precisely because the revival was building steam under the surface. The secular-nationalist-socialist forces were taken for granted even if they were rotten at the core.

Can Islamic countries become open to a more rational liberal secularism? Yes, I believe so but more importantly, what would it take? Before we consider that we should examine the case for a moderate Islam for comparison as it is the current default in the minds of our policy makers.

Part 2. Moderate Islam is Not the Solution

Is Moderate Islam viable? Or should Muslims seek a secular alternative? Today we are urging Muslims to seek the guidance of their religion in a manner that befits a just and ethical member of the world community. But what if Islam is incurably militant and intolerant? What if Islam can't change? In that case, a viable long-term solution is secularization and reason in human affairs -- which becomes less likely as we push Muslims in the opposite direction.

Let's make this distinction clear. Moderation can be achieved in two ways: lessen the practice of a religion or create a moderate version of the religion. The first is always possible for any religion -- adherents can become lax or mere nominal members of the faith. The second is more problematic. Not every doctrine can admit of a moderate version. To remain honestly devout and embrace modernity, the original doctrines must be devoid of major obstacles and elements antithetical to individual liberty, universal ethical principles, and reason in human affairs.

What are the prospects for a reformed Islam? It is assumed, a priori, that Islam is just like Christianity in its ability to modernize. After all, aren't all religions the same? Of course, the category religion implies something in common. Religious philosophies metaphysically embrace the supernatural and epistemologically uphold faith as grounds for the acceptance of belief. However, beyond the defining element of methodology, religions may differ in content as much as secular ideologies when addressing the issues of what to believe, what is moral, what kind of society is just, etc.

Religions can also differ on the domain of faith and the domain of reason. Faith may apply to the question of God's existence, the afterlife, and cosmological questions of the origin of the universe. Or faith and dogma (ideas accepted on faith unquestionably) may determine every aspect of living this life in minute details. Does faith contradict reason -- and how often? A natural theology may uphold faith in God but believe by using our reason we discover His laws -- in both science and human affairs -- by studying nature. On the other extreme, religion can declare reason impotent and blind faith supreme; and demand submission to dogma as revealed by authorities.

Islam has significant obstacles -- in both ethical content and the scope of faith -- that creates a significantly greater challenge to the creation of a new robust religion that can sustain a liberal order without being undermined by glaring contradictions. Let's examine the reasons.

The differing examples of Jesus and Muhammad

Muhammad preached tolerance as he struggled for acceptance in Mecca. His subsequent rule in Medina, however, is marred with violence. He funded his nascent religion by raiding caravans on route to Mecca even during periods held sacred by regional custom. He encouraged the assassination of his critics, establishing a reign of terror that culminated in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Medina. In general, he conquered and subjugated most of Arabia. In doing so he created a supremacist warrior religion that is imperialist in nature.

Did Jesus create this kind of example? Of course, in the history of Christianity we find figures whose martial exploits were horrific. But Christianity started as a persecuted minority religion until it was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. An old cliché describes Muhammad as Jesus and Constantine combined, reflecting the dichotomous nature of Muhammad's tolerant Meccan period and his role as a political/military leader in Medina. Of course that's just a way of saying that oppressive warrior-like violence is congenital to Islam.

The order of the Holy books and their emphasis

Muhammad's change from Mecca to Medina creates a religion that culminates with a harsh intolerant spirit similar to parts of the Old Testament. This supersedes the early Meccan writings by their temporal sequence and by a formal process of abrogation according to orthodox Islam.

Jesus' teachings tend to have a peaceful aura with an emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. St. Paul furthered this transformation by exempting Christian converts from specifics of Jewish law. Thus, the Old Testament can, if one wishes, be seen as a historical document of Jesus' people, the Jews. Its harsh passages are superseded by the spirit of the New Testament.

The Different Focus of Jesus and Muhammad

Jesus, in his brief four years of itinerant preaching, had a spiritual focus concerning redemption and salvation of the individual soul. There is no worked-out political philosophy. The apostolic Christians expected Jesus' imminent return, making worldly planning virtually irrelevant. In the course of history devout Christians embraced different political doctrines: from those of Rome, the Divine Right of Kings, the liberalism of John Locke, or variants of socialism.

Muhammad, on the other hand, was a political figure that gave a very concrete example of how to live this life and subjugate others. Muhammad embodied a political philosophy leaving little room for variations.

Content vs. methodology

In terms of content, there is far more play in Christianity with regards to the temporal order without extensive logical contortions to the core of the religion's beliefs. Thus, compared to Islam, we see greater variation among Christian sects today and great differences between contemporary Christianity and past variants.

In terms of methodology, Christians have embraced reason in human affairs starting from the time of Aquinas. Christianity has progressed from the Dark Ages with respect of individual liberty and conscience; can Islamic societies do the same?

Islam's achievements are limited

The 1400 years of Islamic history were punctuated by periods of tolerance in which Muslim scholars, with the aid of Christian and Jewish scholars, managed to salvage some of the ancient Roman and Greek wisdom. Under Islamic rule, mathematicians adopted Hindu numerals and advanced algebra. However, the greatest minds of the Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes, were persecuted.

Averroes (ibn Rushd), one of history's preeminent Aristotelian scholars, was banished by the Caliph; his books burned. Aquinas did for Christianity what Averroes couldn't do for Islam: he reconciled Aristotle with Christianity - thus setting the foundation for the secular, rational, scientific (and Hellenic) worldview, with its emphasis on living well in this world, that, with the Renaissance, became the dominant worldview in Europe; and via the Enlightenment, America. Along with the growth of secularism, religion also transformed. The work of Aquinas reformed Catholicism and ultimately set in motion the questioning spirit that led to Protestantism.

Reason and Science in Islam

As historians point out, Islam had a golden age where scientific work was respected. The problem isn't science -- even today's terrorists have scientific degrees in civil engineering and medicine. The problem is applying reason to human affairs: ethics and politics. Do we take heart that Pakistan can develop a nuclear bomb and its lead scientist gives advice to al-Qaeda?

The integration of reason in human affairs and the respect for the reasoning individual to cultivate his ability to act morally in thought and action cannot occur in the straight-jacket of Islam. The logical contortions required to integrate Mohammad's example to the liberal respect for universal rights requires extensive cognitive damage - if one is to remain devout. One can, however, become lax or lapsed to develop a civilized disposition. Many Muslims take this route.

An Example of the Transformation of Islam

The construction of a new Islam that is vigorously religious requires coming to grips with the Koran and Hadith. In Christianity there were several transformations solidified by major theologian -- Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. In Islam the greatest theologian after Muhammad, al-Ghazali, is credited with the establishment of Sufism as a respected option in Islam. Sufism is a mystical practice with an eclectic mixture of Islam and other religions. Some, like Stephen Schwartz, see Sufism as the spiritual alternative: Islam with a heart. But this heart transplant comes at a stiff price. Al-Ghazali had to attack Hellenic rationalism and natural causality to advance his cause and in the process dealt the decisive blow to Islam's openness to reason. You might say that to gain a heart and soul, Islam had to lose its mind.

The question remains: can Islam still be Islam and introduce reason into human affairs?

Jason Pappas lives in New York City. Part 1 appeared on his website June 22, 2005
(http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com) and Part 2 appeared August 8, 2005.


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