Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is an Islamic Reformation Possible?

Towards a Vatican II of Islam
by Ibn Warraq

1. What is a Reformation? Defined from the UDHR 1948 perspective

Since there is no Pope or even, in principle, an organized clergy in Islam, how would we ever know if an Islamic Reformation had taken place? One person’s reformation will be another person’s decadence. My perspective will be from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which many Muslims still do not accept—indeed several Muslim countries got together in 1981 and issued their own Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, where individual freedoms are denied. Muslims were particularly horrified by Article 18 of the UN Declaration which guarantees the right for anyone to change her or his religion. I think those who do accept the United Nations Declaration would agree that a de facto reformation had taken place in Islamic societies, as for example in Pakistan or Egypt, if the tenor of its major articles were respected, especially the rights of women and non-Muslims, and freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and religion, including the right to change one’s religion, and the right not to believe in any deity; if no person is subjected to cruel punishments such as mutilation of limbs for theft or stoning to death for adultery; if copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am not a Muslim are freely available.

2. If human rights are the goal, then rather than pretend that the real Islam is compatible with the UDHR, which leads to dishonest tinkering and spurious re-interpretation of the Koran, it is recommended that the whole debate about human rights be lifted out of the religious sphere altogether.

But how likely is such a reformation in today’s Islamic societies? Can Islam institute such reforms and stay Islam? There are some, I believe, misguided liberal Muslims who want to have their cake and eat it too. These liberals often argue that the real Islam is compatible with human rights, that the real Islam is feminist, that the real Islam is egalitarian, that the real Islam tolerates other religions and beliefs, and so on. They then proceed to some truly creative re-interpretation of the embarrassing, intolerant, bellicose and misogynist verses of the Koran. But intellectual honesty demands that we reject just such dishonest tinkering with the holy text, which, while it may be open to some re-interpretation, is not infinitely elastic. To give you an example of dishonest tinkering, take Sura IV.34: “As for those [women] from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [or beat] them.” This translation comes from a Muslim. Another Muslim translator, Yusuf Ali, clearly disturbed by this verse, adds the word “lightly” in brackets after “beat,” even though there is no “lightly” in the original Arabic. Every Arabic dictionary or lexicon (such as, for example, the famous one by Ibn Manzur compiled in the thirteenth century) has glossed the Arabic verb daraba to mean hit, strike, or beat. Every Muslim translator until 1987 has thus translated daraba to mean hit, beat or strike. However, in 1987 Ahmed Ali translated the above verse as: “As for women you fear are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them), and go to bed with them (when they are willing).” For Ahmed Ali daraba is a euphemism for “to have sexual intercourse.”

As a tactic, this tinkering will simply not work either, because to trade verses with fundamentalists is to do battle on the fanatics’ terms, on the fanatics’ ground. For every text that the liberal Muslims produce, the mullas will adduce dozens of counter examples exegetically, philologically and historically far more legitimate. Reform cannot be achieved on these terms—whatever mental gymnastics the liberal reformists perform, they cannot escape the fact that Orthodox Islam is incompatible with human rights. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. Islam itself is a fascist ideology. There is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. At most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. All the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism are derived from the Koran, the Sunna, the Hadith—Islamic fundamentalism is a totalitarian construct derived by Muslim jurists from the fundamental and defining texts of Islam.

3. The way to arrive at the implementation of the UDHR is to separate mosque and state absolutely, to establish democracy, and improve the economic situation of all citizens regardless of religion and gender.

The only solution is to bring the questions of human rights out of the religious sphere and into the sphere of the civil state—in other words, to separate religion from the state and to promote a secular state where Islam is relegated to the personal and where it would continue to provide consolation, comfort, and meaning to millions of individuals. However, I should like to remark in passing that I believe it is wrong to think that we can neatly avoid the problem of confronting Islam by separating religion and state. Certainly, a strong leader like Bourguiba or Kemal Ataturk could impose a separation from above, but sooner or later one would have to argue positively for a separation, and this would inevitably involve both explicitly and implicitly rejecting the central tenets of the Sharia, Islamic Law. Why have a separation when Islam is such a perfect religion providing answers for even the most mundane of problems? It is true that Islam does not provide answers for all the problems, but why can’t we keep Islamic Law for those areas where it does have solutions and does legislate, for instance, stoning for adultery? In other words, someone at some point will have to suggest that such punishments are barbaric and incompatible with human rights. At some stage, someone will need to argue that the demands of reason and common humanity override the dictates of revelation.

Are Islamic societies secularizable? Yes, there are many reasons for thinking so, for being optimistic. Unfortunately, there also reasons for being pessimistic.

First, the reasons for being optimistic: Since September 11, every journalist has been eager to point out that in Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. Indeed, in Classical Arabic, there is no pair of words corresponding to ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’, or ‘secular’ and ‘religious’. But what these same journalists fail to add is that the doctrinal lack of a separation of mosque and state does not mean that Islamic history is a chronicle of a series of relentless Muslim theocracies. On the contrary, as Carl Brown demonstrated recently, Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious community. Rule was mainly by decree; it was given ex post facto religious sanction by the jurists .

Many modern leaders of culturally Islamic countries were secular in their outlook and approach to the problems of modern industrializing societies, leaders such Muhmmad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, Habid Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, Riza Shah and his son Muhammad Riza Shah, plus Muhammad Musaddiq in Iran and so on. Habib Bourguiba, for example, barely five months after Tunisian independence, pushed through a radical legal reform (August 1956) that outlawed polygamy and made judgment for divorce a prerogative of the court, withdrawing the husband’s exclusive right to divorce his wife. Although fourteen Tunisian religious scholars issued a fatwa denouncing the new law, it was received with enthusiasm by the modernists and met with practically no resistance. Bourguiba had taken on the Muslim official religious class and won. Modernization and secularization of education followed, including the downgrading of the venerable Zaytuna Mosque University which became simply a faculté of religious studies in the University of Tunis. Unfortunately, corruption, nepotism, incompetence, and pandering to the mullas, the obscurantist religious scholars, led to the rising influence of the Islamic fundamentalists, who, sensing that their time had come, demanded a proliferated introduction of Islam in public life.

Other indications that Islamic societies are secularizable come from the Islamic Republic of Iran, of all places! Iran has adopted many institutions from the Western democracies, which have nothing to do with Islam historically or doctrinally, institutions such as popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament, even a constitution inspired by the 1958 French Constitution.

Iran is also the theatre of very optimistic developments. Hashem Aghajari is an Islamic revolutionary-turned-history-professor. He was one of the student activists of 1979 who later fully participated in the brutal repression after Khomeini’s coming to power. He is now challenging the infallibility of the ruling mullahs and calls upon Iranians to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting whatever is preached in Friday sermons, a piece of advice for which he has been sentenced to death. But he is now supported by the students and professors at most of the country’s universities and thousands of ordinary citizens, workers, and cultural leaders.

Where Aghajari wants to reform Islam; the students want a total separation between mosque and state. He wants an Islamic Reformation, but the demonstrators are interested in the creation of a secular civil society. He is a reformer, but they are revolutionaries. Why is the press silent on these developments? More important still, why is the Bush Administration not supporting these courageous students, workers, intellectuals, even soldiers?

Yet there are still reasons for pessimism:

1.With the partial exception of Turkey, there is not a single stable democracy in the Islamic world . It is not surprising that Muslims living under repressive regimes turn to Islamists for support, both moral and economic.

2. The situation in the Middle East as described by Human Rights Watch in its report published 2003 is disheartening. The report finds that Independent civil society institutions were fragile or nonexistent in most countries. Throughout the region, political parties, human rights organizations, and other entities came under attack from the state or were hampered because laws did not permit them to exist legally. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, conservative clerical establishments remained entrenched and powerful, retarding progress and hampering the development of independent and effective national institutions

3. Free and fair elections will not necessarily lead to secular governments, as victories of the Islamists in Algeria, Pakistan and Turkey have shown.

4. On July 2, 2002, The United Nations Development Program released the Arab Human Development Report 2002, which covers not only economic matters but such issues as the lack of freedom and democracy in the Arab world, the high rate of illiteracy, and the position of women. Because it was written by Arab intellectuals and academics, it is a just cause for celebration, for it manifests one of the prerequisites of reforming Islamic society: that is, self-criticism. I shall come back to this later. Unfortunately, the contents of this report make for depressing reading, and can only aggravate the mood of pessimism. In the words of the Middle East Quarterly, “with uncommon candour and a battery of statistics, the report tells a sorry story of two decades of failed planning and developmental decline. One inescapable conclusion emerges from its sober pages of tables and charts: the Arab world is in decline, even relative to the developing world. ‘The report was written by Arabs for Arabs,’ announced a U.N. official. Arabs did read it (it was also released in Arabic), and Arab authorship made its arguments more palatable to Arab intellectuals and policy makers. A columnist in Al-Ahram Weekly urged ‘a serious deep reading’ of the report, since ‘no changes will occur without Arabs facing the facts, however unpalatable they may be. ’”

In the same Arab Human Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Programme, we learn that “the total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated in Spain in one year. Greece, with a population of fewer than 11 million, translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic.”

4. Learning from how secularization took place in the West; encourage secularisation through:

i) Koranic Criticism
ii) secular education encouraging critical thought
iii) religious pluralism by defending non-Muslims in Islamic societies
iv) secular democracies not tyrannies.
v) self-criticism

How did secularization take place in the Christian West? Some of the factors involved in the secularization of the West were: advances in knowledge in general and the sciences in particular meant that the criteria of rationality could be applied to religious dogma with devastating effect; Biblical Criticism, which led to the abandonment of a literal reading of the Bible; and religious tolerance and religious pluralism, which eventually led to tolerance and pluralism tout court. As scholar Owen Chadwick put it, “once concede equality to a distinctive group, you could not confine it to that group. You could not confine it to Protestants; nor, later, to Christians; nor, at last, to believers in God. A free market in some opinions became a free market in all opinions... Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe ‘secular’; that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society... My conscience is my own. ”

What lessons can we learn from this process of secularization of the West? First , we who live in the free West and enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inquiry should encourage a rational look at Islam, should encourage Koranic criticism. Only Koranic criticism can help Muslims to look at their Holy Scripture in a more rational and objective way, and prevent young Muslims from being fanaticized by the Koran’s less tolerant verses. It does not make sense to lament the lack of a Reformation in Islam and at the same time boycott books like, “Why I am Not A Muslim,” or cry, “Islamophobia” every time a critique of Islam is offered. Instead of which, political leaders, journalists and even scholars are bent on protecting the tender sensibilities of the Muslims. We are not doing Islam any favours by protecting it from Enlightenment values.

Second, simply by protecting non-Muslims in Islamic societies, we are encouraging religious pluralism, which in turn can lead to pluralism in general. By insisting on article 18 of the UDHR, which states, “ Everyone has the right to freedom of thought , conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief...” we are loosening the grip of fanatics, we are encouraging, in the words of Owen Chadwick, a free market in all opinions—in other words, democracy.

We can encourage rationality by education, secular education. This will mean the closing of religious madrasas where young children from poor families learn only the Koran by heart, learn the doctrine of Jihad, learn, in short, to be fanatics. The failure of the central government in Pakistan, for example, to provide free schools and economic prosperity for all its citizens has led to the rise of madrasas where poor children are given some schooling and food that their poor parents cannot provide. In Pakistan, it is clear that many of these religious schools are funded by Saudi Arabia. The West must do its utmost to reduce the ideological and financial influence of the Saudis, and instead encourage Pakistan to provide free secular education for all children, boys and girls. The West can give aid with strings attached to this end.

What kind of education? My priority would be the wholesale rewriting of school texts, which at present preach intolerance of non-Muslims, particularly Jews. One hopes that education will encourage critical thinking and rationality. Again, to encourage pluralism, I should like to see the glories of pre-Islamic history to be taught to all children. The banning of all religious education in state schools, as is the case in France where there is a clear constitutional separation of state and religion, is not realistic for the moment in Islamic countries. The best we can hope for is the teaching of comparative religion, which we hope will eventually lead to a lessening of fanatical fevers as Islam is seen as another set of beliefs amongst a host of others. It may surprise some of you to learn that the Islamic fundamentalists fear the humanities, especially history and sociology, more than the exact sciences. Many of the leaders of the various Islamist groups are by training engineers. They do not fear physics; in fact, most of them are convinced that all the modern discoveries of modern nuclear physics are predicted in the Koran. They are wary of history, for it seems this discipline has a tendency to relativise human knowledge. Certainly, a course in the methodology of history and historical research should teach methodological skepticism; as R.G.Collingwood said, the fundamental attribute of the critical historian is skepticism regarding testimony about the past. This skepticism can of course be extended to the early history of Islam.

But education alone cannot solve the problems. Several million young educated people enter the job market only to learn that their education has not opened the doors to economic prosperity they had dreamed of. Education without economic opportunities at the end leads to social frustrations which can only help the fundamentalists.

5. Self-criticism

Islamic countries will never make any progress if they continue to blame all their ills on the West. Whining about US Imperialism will not lead Islamic countries out of the morass of their own making. Such whining is self-pity, and while self-pity is never an attractive quality, it is particularly inappropriate in Islamic societies. Muslim intellectuals who spew forth hatred of the West and indulge in such self-pity are not leading their people to assume responsibility for their own acts. Will Muslims grow up and become men or women capable of taking their destiny in their own hands, or will they continue to wallow in self-pity, dribbling and mumbling about US Imperialism? Islamic countries need charismatic leaders, capable of self-criticism, who can say to their people that “the fault is not in [the] stars [and stripes], but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” nor does the fault lie with some putative Imperialist-Zionist conspiracy, leaders who can lead their people to democracy, who can institute a civil state and a uniform code of civil laws separate from and independent of religious institutions, allowing free choice of religious belief and practice, who can pass legislation to enshrine the rights of all its citizens—men and women , Muslim and non-Muslim—as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various UN Conventions, leaders who institute free secular education for all. The West must review its continuing and unconditional support for Saudi Arabia which is responsible for the spread of radical Islam. Will the West encourage secularism in the Islamic world when two of its leaders, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, have done more than any other leaders in the West since 1945 to introduce more and more religion into the public sphere? May I remind them of the words of James Madison, “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.”

Ibn Warraq is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational and a member of the CFI Collegium.

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