When a militant Islamist shouts “God is greatest!” in Arabic while murdering civilians, I tend to take the fella at his word. To the militant Islamist, it is exactly about religion, and his religion is Islam. Bill de Blasio and others who say that these kinds of terrorist attacks are “not about religion” are talking foolishness (yes, I just heard de Blasio say it’s “not about religion” on MSNBC). Last year, Graeme Wood wrote a stellar piece about what ISIS really wants. To boil down thousands of words to their essence, they want an Islamic theocracy. If a non-Muslim wants to stay in this Islamic paradise, the options are simple: Convert, pay a tax, or die. It’s all about their religion.
I’ll go one further. In this century, Islam is the Religion of Violence and Intolerance. In the fifteen largest ongoing armed conflicts (more than 1,000 casualties this year and last), thirteen involve militant Islamists on one side or the other. Without militant Islamism, the world would truly be at peace.
Another thing. In the 49 Muslim-majority nations on the planet (roughly 1.2 billion Muslims), only two (Senegal and Tunisia) are free in terms of civil liberties and political rights, and the overall trend is toward less freedom. In this I agree with Mr. Aykol: Islam needs a Muslim John Locke instead of a Muslim Martin Luther.
And that is also why there are people today, especially in the West, who think that “a Muslim Martin Luther” is desperately needed. Yet as good-willed as they may be, they are wrong. Because while Luther’s main legacy was the breakup of the Catholic Church’s monopoly over Western Christianity, Islam has no such monopoly that needs to be challenged. There is simply no “Muslim Pope,” or a central organization like the Catholic hierarchy, whose suffocating authority needs to be broken. Quite the contrary, the Muslim world—at least the Sunni Muslim world, which constitutes its overwhelming majority—has no central authority at all, especially since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 by Republican Turkey. The ensuing chaos in itself seems be a part of “the problem.”
In fact, if the Muslim world of today resembles any period in Christian history, it is not the pre-Reformation but rather the post-Reformation era. The latter was a time when not just Catholics and Protestants but also different varieties of the latter were at each other’s throats, self-righteously claiming to be the true believers while condemning others as heretics. It was a time of religious wars and the suppression of theological minorities. It would be a big exaggeration to say that the whole Muslim world is now going through such bloody sectarian strife, but some parts of it—such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—undoubtedly are.
Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was supposed to be an Islamic reformation, and we see how that’s working out.
That is why those who hope to see a more tolerant, free, and open Muslim world should seek the equivalent not of the Protestant Reformation but of the next great paradigm in Western history: the Enlightenment. The contemporary Muslim world needs not a Martin Luther but a John Locke, whose arguments for freedom of conscience and religious toleration planted the seeds of liberalism. In particular, the more religion-friendly British Enlightenment, rather than the French one, can serve as a constructive model. (And, as I argued elsewhere, special attention should also be given to the Jewish Enlightenment, also called Haskalah, and its pioneers such as Moses Mendelssohn. Islam, as a legalist religion, has more commonalities with Judaism than with Christianity.)
I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not optimistic that a Muslim John Locke is possible. Why is that? Because Islam differs from Christianity in a fundamental way. Where Jesus told the Pharisees to “give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his” (Message version), there is no equivalent in the Quran and hadiths. The following is a typical point of view.
So how are Muslims to approach the modern trend of separation of religion from the state? The basic stance in Islam is that the Quran is one hundred percent the Words of Allah, and that the Sunnah was also a result of the guidance of Allah to the Prophet œ.
The blessings of Islam cannot flourish in a Muslim society when moral values and practices of Prayer, Charity and Fasting are separated from the state because the total package of Islam guides us through every principle of running the state and thus the principles of bringing true goodness into our lives. Muslims have no choice but to reject secularism for it excludes the framework for implementing the life-giving Law of Allah.
Muhammed was both a spiritual and political leader. Going back to Mr. Aykol, his reformation prescription is curious, which is basically more state control, citing the benevolent despotism taking place in Morocco and Jordan. Maybe he’s right, but King Husseins are in short supply. The best we can do, in my opinion, is to call it out–there is never a bad time to speak truth to power or bad behavior–and confront militant Islamism everywhere. Maybe the bad press is why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced the pursuit of “moderate Islam”. We’ll see what kind of moderation actually occurs, but at least women can now drive a car on their own without getting smacked around by the religious police.