An Islamic Reformation?

The existential clash between radical Islam and the West has several possible outcomes.   The West might win, defeating Islamist ideologues and their terror warriors through an exercise of will, military power, economic coercion, and moral suasion.  Or the West might lose and submit to Islam.  Quite likely, the two sides will continue in an indefinite twilight war, similar to the Cold War, but bloodier.  But there is another way: an Islamic reformation that sees Islam shed its radical outliers and its political will to power, that reaches a peaceful accommodation with the West.

Were such a movement to arise, it would have to be very different from the reformation of Christianity in the 16th century.  Sixteenth-century Christianity and modern Sunni Islam (9 out of 10 Muslims are Sunnii) have some things in common, but many differences.  The Christian church that prompted Luther’s revolt was a powerful, entrenched, hierarchical, and centralized institution – a top-down organization in the truest sense.  Luther was a lowly monk, a minor servant of the vast institution.  His revolution was a bottom-up affair all the way.

By contrast, Sunni Islam today is a highly decentralized religion.  Counter-intuitively, it got that way because Islam began in a highly centralized way, initially under Mohammed and later under the first caliphs, who were both the political and ecclesiastical leaders of the umma.  But once the caliphates broke apart, so too did religious authority.  That authority became fragmented into myriad Islamic kingdoms and principalities, without any centralized religious authority to guide the umma

Without a centralized authority to say who can speak for the religion and who cannot, Sunni Islam developed more like reform Protestantism than traditional Catholicism.  Pretty much any Muslim with a Koran can claim to be an imam, and pretty much any room can serve as a mosque.   

Today, 1.2 billion Muslims are spread across nearly two hundred nations.  Any one of them might propound a convincing idea of “what true Islam says,” but none of it, at least in Sunni Islam, is truly authoritative.  This is why various internet and street-corner imams, spouting whatever extreme interpretation of the Koran they want, are able to attract young impressionable followers, who then proceed to go out and blow themselves up and/or murder people.  But this is not to say that these extreme interpretations of Islamic belief are wrong.  There is no authority to say so, one way or the other.  This makes the Obama administration’s proclamations about what and what is not representative of the religion all the more nonsensical.  Essentially, Obama is just another street-corner imam giving his interpretation of Islam’s holy book, and his opinion carries just as much weight as an imam pontificating from a park bench, if even that – since Obama maintains that he is not even a Muslim.

An Islamic reformation, if it comes, will have to occur in a manner very different from Christianityʼs.  It will have to come from the top down, and it will have to come from the political leaders of Islamic states, since there is no overarching ecclesiastical authority.  That is why Egyptian President Abdel- Fattah al-Sisi’s recent call for reform is so significant.  His ideas, and his leadership, are exactly what Sunni Islam needs if it is to reform itself into modernity. 

The United States ought to encourage this idea by supporting President Sisi and urging other moderate Muslim leaders to seize the moment to orient Islam away from radicalism and toward a modernist reform of the religion.  The United States should launch a concerted effort not only to back Sisi’s efforts in Egypt, but to convince other leaders, such as King Abdullah of Jordan or the relatively moderate governments in places like Morocco, Tunisia, the UAE, and Indonesia, to support a reform movement.  We should push for a modern-day Islamic “Council of Trent” (when the Catholic Church attempted to initiate reforms prompted by Luther’s revolt).

Predictably, President Obama has done just the opposite.  He has sought to undermine Egypt’s government and cut aid because Sisi and the army overturned radical Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt.  Obama has done nothing to urge other moderate Muslim countries to follow Sisi’s lead, with the result that the Jordanian regime, which might have been counted on as a partner in reform, has already come out with a statement condemning disrespectful images of Mohammed.  King Abdullah II of Jordan, like his father and grandfather a cautious man, is unlikely to move toward reform if he believes that the American administration will not back him.  Indeed, by condemning disrespect of Mohammed, King Abdullah is merely catching up to Obama, who is already on record on that score.    

Likewise, another administration might have encouraged the government of Turkey to lead an Islamic reform movement.  Turkey more than any other country is positioned to lead the way, as a NATO ally and the only avowedly secular Muslim country in the world.  But Turkey is currently dominated by an Islamist regime that the Obama administration supports.  The current Islamist leader of Turkey is commonly cited as Obama’s best friend among foreign leaders. 

Pakistan ought to be pressured to support an Islamic reform movement, especially in light of the recent horrendous Islamist terror attack on a high school that killed well over 100 children.  That country, long in a push-pull struggle with radical Islamist ideology, is particularly primed at the moment to join Egypt in an Islamic reformation.  But, typically, Obama let the opportunity to encourage Pakistan slip, declaring the attack school attack “heinous” but otherwise failing to identify the attackers as anything other than “terrorists” and their motivation “extremism.”  If the American president won’t identify the terrorists as radical Islamists, he can’t promote reform against Islamic radicals in a country like Pakistan with any hope of success, assuming he would even try. 

Saudi Arabia, while a nominal U.S. ally, and a foe of some radical Islamist movements that it perceives threaten its interests, can’t be part of the solution unless it undergoes some type of internal reform, whether from some enlightened members of the coterie of ruling princes or from the bottom up.  As the “guardians” of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi involvement in a Muslim reform movement would be very desirable, but its own Wahhabi creed is as harsh and reactionary as anything espoused by ISIS or al-Qaeda.  Again, the U.S. has numerous means to influence the Saudis, though bowing to the Saudi king is not one of them.   

The leaders of “moderate” Muslim nations cannot reform Islam on their own (assuming that they want to).  Ultimately, they must convince or cow the masses.  But as most Muslims are already moderate in outlook, and many people in Muslim lands instinctively look to authority, it seems to be the place to start.  The United States ought to be encouraging this movement, rather than pretending that there is no problem with Islam.  Anyway, no thoughtful person, Muslim or not, is going to take instruction from America’s president as to what Islam means.  In Sunni lands, that must come from responsible Muslim leaders, supported or coerced, as needs be.

i This essay addresses reform only in Sunni Islam.  Shia Islam, which constitutes about ten percent of the Islamic faith, is organized differently from decentralized Sunni Islam and mostly operates from the top down authority (e.g., ayatollahs).  Reform there most likely must come from bottom up.  Sufism (a type of Islamic mysticism) is a third Islamic creed that, while influential, is practiced by only a small fraction of Muslims.

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