Those who are calling for a ‘Muslim Martin Luther’ should be careful what they wish for
Martersteig’s depiction of Martin Luther burning the papal bull with 41 theses issued against him.
Martersteig’s depiction of German religious reformer Martin Luther burning the papal bull containing 41 theses issued against him.
In recent months, cliched calls for reform of Islam, a 1,400-year-old faith, have intensified. “We need a Muslim reformation,” announced Newsweek. “Islam needs reformation from within,” said the Huffington Post. Following January’s massacre in Paris, the Financial Times nodded to those in the west who believe the secular Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “could emerge as the Martin Luther of the Muslim world”. (That might be difficult, given Sisi, in the words of Human Rights Watch, approved “premeditated lethal attacks” on largely unarmed protesters which could amount to “crimes against humanity”.)
Then there is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born author, atheist and ex-Muslim has a new book called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She’s been popping up in TV studios and on op-ed pages to urge Muslims, both liberal and conservative, to abandon some of their core religious beliefs while uniting behind a Muslim Luther. Whether or not mainstream Muslims will respond positively to a call for reform from a woman who has described their faith as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that should be “crushed”, and suggested Benjamin Netanyahu be given the Nobel peace prize, is another matter.
This narrative isn’t new. The New York Times’s celebrity columnist Thomas Friedman called for an Islamic reformation back in 2002; US academics Charles Kurzer and Michaelle Browers traced the origins of this “Reformation analogy” to the early 20th century, noting that “conservative journalists have been as eager as liberal academics to search for Muslim Luthers”.
‘Islam isn’t Christianity. They are are not analogous, and it is deeply ignorant to pretend otherwise
Apparently anyone who wants to win the war against violent extremism and save the soul of Islam, not to mention transform a stagnant Middle East, should be in favour of this process. After all, Christianity had the Reformation, so goes the argument, which was followed by the Enlightenment; by secularism, liberalism and modern European democracy. So why can’t Islam do the same? And shouldn’t the west be offering to help?
Yet the reality is that talk of a Christian-style reformation for Islam is so much cant. Let’s consider this idea of a “Muslim Luther”. Luther did not merely nail 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, denouncing clerical abuses within the Catholic church. He also demanded that German peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be “struck dead”, comparing them to “mad dogs”, and authored On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, in which he referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues. As the US sociologist and Holocaust scholar Ronald Berger has observed, Luther helped establish antisemitism as “a key element of German culture and national identity”. Hardly a poster boy for reform and modernity for Muslims in 2015.
The Protestant Reformation also opened the door to blood-letting on an unprecedented, continent-wide scale. Have we forgotten the French wars of religion? Or the English civil war? Tens of millions of innocents died in Europe; up to 40% of Germany’s population is believed to have been killed in the thirty years’ war. Is this what we want a Muslim-majority world already plagued by sectarian conflicts, foreign occupations and the bitter legacy of colonialism to now endure, all in the name of reform, progress and even liberalism?
Islam isn’t Christianity. The two faiths aren’t analogous, and it is deeply ignorant, not to mention patronising, to pretend otherwise – or to try and impose a neatly linear, Eurocentric view of history on diverse Muslim-majority countries in Asia or Africa. Each religion has its own traditions and texts; each religion’s followers have been affected by geopolitics and socio-economic processes in a myriad of ways. The theologies of Islam and Christianity, in particular, are worlds apart: the former, for instance, has never had a Catholic-style clerical class answering to a divinely appointed pope. So against whom will the “Islamic reformation” be targeted? To whose door will the 95 fatwas be nailed?
The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation of sorts, in the sense of a stripping of cultural accretions and a process of supposed “purification”. And it didn’t produce a tolerant, pluralistic, multifaith utopia, a Scandinavia-on-the-Euphrates. Instead, it produced … the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Wasn’t reform exactly what was offered to the masses of the Hijaz by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the mid-18th century itinerant preacher who allied with the House of Saud? He offered an austere Islam cleansed of what he believed to be innovations, which eschewed centuries of mainstream scholarship and commentary, and rejected the authority of the traditional ulema, or religious authorities.
Some might argue that if anyone deserves the title of a Muslim Luther, it is Ibn Abdul Wahhab who, in the eyes of his critics, combined Luther’s puritanism with the German monk’s antipathy towards the Jews. Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s controversial stance on Muslim theology, writes his biographer Michael Crawford, “made him condemn much of the Islam of his own time” and led to him being dismissed as a heretic by his own family.
Don’t get me wrong. Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too. Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect – embodied in, say, the Prophet’s letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery, or the “convivencia” (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.
“If we are to fight extremism we must bring people together, not silence and ban them”,
What they don’t need are lazy calls for an Islamic reformation from non-Muslims and ex-Muslims, the repetition of which merely illustrates how shallow and simplistic, how ahistorical and even anti-historical, some of the west’s leading commentators are on this issue. It is much easier for them, it seems, to reduce the complex debate over violent extremism to a series of cliches, slogans and soundbites, rather than examining root causes or historical trends; easier still to champion the most extreme and bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists.
Hirsi Ali, for instance, was treated to a series of encomiums and softball questions in her blizzard of US media interviews, from the New York Times to Fox News. (“A hero of our time,” read one gushing headline on Politico.) Frustratingly, only comedian Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, was willing to point out to Hirsi Ali that her reformist hero wanted a “purer form of Christianity” and helped create “a hundred years of violence and mayhem”.
With apologies to Luther, if anyone wants to do the same to the religion of Islam today, it is Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to rape and pillage in the name of a “purer form” of Islam – and who isn’t, incidentally, a fan of the Jews either. Those who cry so simplistically, and not a little inanely, for an Islamic reformation, should be careful what they wish for.
•Mehdi Hasan is a presenter on Al-Jazeera English. The views expressed here are his own
It’s been said for years now: Islam needs its reformation. Some centuries ago, Christianity ditched its theocratic impulse and affirmed modern political values — let Islam do likewise! Let its Luther, who is presumably sulking in the corner of some madrassa, come forward! Islam hath need of him!
This sounds briskly no-nonsense, in its willingness to say that Islam has a problem that needs fixing, and open-minded about religion, in its assumption that religions can change and be compatible with secularism. But it’s actually lazy and historically illiterate. It involves a misreading of how Christianity relates to modernity.
It implies that, once upon a time, Christianity was in conflict with healthy political values, but it learned to change its ways. Maybe it is supposed that Martin Luther was the pioneer of this, that he said something along the lines of: ‘Let’s question what the Pope tells us and adapt our faith so that it accords with humanist morality, equal rights, and the separation of church and state.’
Instead, Luther said something along the lines of: ‘Let’s purify our religion, be more faithful to its essential logic, contained in its founding documents.’ And this reforming movement gradually produced new political realities and ideas. Creating a more liberal political order was not on Luther’s agenda, nor on anyone’s at that time, but it did become a central concern of some Protestants in the next century. The Protestant Reformation was not a matter of Christianity accepting the truth of something else, something beyond itself. And that is what people really want when they say that Islam needs a reformation: they want it to accept the truth of western values, adapt to them.
So the ‘Islam needs its reformation’ line makes this mistake. It supposes that Christianity and Islam are two comparable forms of religion: if Religion A adapted to modernity, Religion B can too. But Religion A didn’t adapt to modernity: it inadvertently made modernity, by trying to be more purely itself.
The game-changing idea that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation can be summed up thus: down with theo-cracy! (Maybe I’m a soppy liberal patriot, but it seems to me that this breakthrough was 90 per cent English.) Let the state no longer enforce religious uniformity, but rather protect people’s freedom to choose how to worship. This revolution in theo-politics was proposed not by atheists but by idealistic Protestants. God wills this new sort of liberty-protecting state, said people like John Milton and John Locke. (Nonbelievers like Spinoza and Voltaire followed in their wake and have received undue credit.)
Why did they think that political liberty was God’s will? They had learned from earlier Protestants like Luther to distrust bossy institutions and religious rules; they now applied this to politics as well as religion. And they pointed to the New Testament, which affirms no theocratic model of politics (unlike the Old Testament, with its holy kings). The whole tradition of coercion in religion is wrong, is at odds with scripture, they said. For example, John Locke, in his ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’, claimed that toleration is ‘the principal mark of the true church’.
Christianity was not suddenly converted to liberty from then on. The big guns, Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, preferred the old theocratic idea, and have taken three centuries to rethink. Though the issue has not been neatly resolved (Christianity inevitably reacts against secular liberal values in certain ways), nor is it dangerously unresolved: almost no Christians want to create some alternative theocratic order, by any means necessary.
Are there are any grounds for thinking that Islam can echo this story? That it can move to seeing its theocratic tendency as erroneous, to seeing coercion in religion as a hideous heresy? I’m sorry to sound gloomy but I’m not sure there are.
The problem is twofold. First, liberal values already exist, and are firmly seen as external, or alien, to Islam. To say that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are central principles of Islam just doesn’t ring true: we all know that they have been most fully formulated and institutionalised, over centuries, in the West.
Second, as Douglas Murray recently outlined in these pages, the founding texts of Islam are ambiguous about violence: the Prophet’s calls to compassion and mercy coexist with his affirmation of the use of force in the name of God. A liberal Muslim can argue, with some reason, that Mohammed put more emphasis on compassion than his contemporaries did, but cannot deny that he affirmed a basically theocratic ideal. By contrast, Christianity’s founding texts do authorise a radical break with theocratic violence. To say that Jesus advocated nonviolence rather than holy war is not just one interpretation. Christianity therefore has an anti-theocratic logic that Islam (and in fact Judaism) lacks.
So what should we do? Regretfully conclude that Islam is unreformable, and treat it as a stubbornly medieval ‘other’? That doesn’t feel like a healthy attitude; it might justify persecution, or at least marginalisation. Instead we should reserve judgment on the ultimate fate of Islam and trust that toleration — confident, hard-headed toleration — is the best medicine for reactionary ideologies. In the past, the British press was full of anguished debates about whether Roman Catholicism should be tolerated. It seemed unreformable in its belief that the Pope’s authority trumped that of the liberal state. Surely these fifth columnists should not be allowed to disseminate their creed, or to start their own schools, said many. But Catholicism was tolerated, and as a result of living under liberalism it gradually liberalised. In the case of Islam, the same thing must be hoped for.
I said that toleration should be confident and hard-headed. Also, odd though it may sound, it should be unashamedly inconsistent. Most of the punditry since the Paris attacks has been too black-and-white. It assumes that we must choose between fully tolerating Islam, meaning never offending Muslims, making them feel entirely comfortable here; and fully affirming secular liberal values, however much it offends them. Of course we must not make such a choice, not ever.
We should not be so tolerant of Muslims that we agree never to mock their religion — but generally we should avoid such offence. Nor should we necessarily tolerate the anti-western venom of many of their preachers — but generally we should, as much as we can bear to. True toleration is necessarily inconsistent. We can only hope that such toleration encourages liberal interpretations of Islam to flourish, but whether these can contribute to a decisive change within Islam, God knows.