The Islamic Reformation

The Islamic Reformation

The movements in the Middle East have a long way to go before they reach true democracy.

Rarely has an important newspaper displayed such fearfulness—or artificial “balance”—as did The Times of London last Saturday (April 2). And this, in a way, was echoed more widely in the press treatment this weekend of the Afghan riots, triggered by the burning of the Koran in Florida, that resulted in some two dozen deaths. The target of the ire of various newspapermen and spokesmen was not the murderous mobs in Mazar e-Sharif and Kandahar who did to death relief-bestowing UN representatives, but the American pastor Terry Jones who had burned a copy of the Muslims' sacred text. Yet the burning of Bibles around the Islamic world—in Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq—is an almost daily occurrence and goes unremarked, and in these parts it is often accompanied by the arson of churches and the murder of parishioners. And these acts never trigger murderous responses by Christians thousands of miles away. And few will publicly and explicitly utter in this connection that awful phrase and truth, “clash of civilizations.”

The Times that day ran a brace of articles on the nature of Islam. One was a lengthy interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the courageous Somali-born writer and activist who has pinpointed Islam as the problem; the other was an editorial, “Islam and Democracy,” which flatly and explicitly dismissed what Ali was saying. I can't remember encountering a newspaper formally, officially and forcefully repudiating the same day something, albeit controversial, carried prominently two pages on. As if fearing that liberals, snapping at its heels, would level a charge of political incorrectness. Or, probably more to the point, fearing that a Muslim mob might descend on Thomas More Square (Thomas More, no less!) and torch The Times’s offices and behead its editors. Or maybe the editors really believed what they were saying.

The full-length first leader stated: “There is a widespread view that Islam, owing to its absolutist demands, is incompatible with democracy . . . [Ali also] maintains that Islam is incompatible with the rule of law.” Ali's views, the editorial argued, were “inevitably color[ed by her] experiences [growing up in Muslim societies],” where she was subjected as a youngster to genital mutilation, violent inculcation of Islamic dogma, sexual discrimination, and an (abortive) forced marriage. But, stated The Times , her views about Islam “are mistaken.” The newspaper pointed to the (admittedly “imperfect”) democracies in Turkey and Malaysia and to the uprisings currently sweeping across the Arab world. And added, for good measure, some self-flagellation: “Over the centuries, religious persecution has . . . been rarer and less intense [in the Muslim world] than in Christendom.”

This historical observation at very least is moot. Surely, it is common knowledge that the world Islam conquered in the seventh and eighth centuries, largely inhabited by Christians, is today almost bereft of Christians, they having over the centuries been massacred, expelled or forcibly converted to Islam (processes still ongoing in places like Iraq, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, and Pakistan)? Surely the editors of The Times know that since the seventh century, non-Muslims have not been allowed to enter the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, whereas Muslims have freely accessed and lived in, and still live in, the holy sites of Christendom (and Judaism)? Which religion really has been more intolerant through the ages? (Which is infinitely more intolerant today is not, I think, seriously in dispute.) It is true that the Holocaust occurred in the lands of Christendom (though it was not carried out in the name of Christianity)—and that no Holocaust has (yet) overtaken the lands of Islam (though all in effect in the twentieth century expelled their Jewish communities). But anti-Semitism is rampant, and growing, and state-sponsored in many Muslim countries.

But back to the central issue, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's editorially repudiated interview. In it she said: “Islam is incompatible with the rule of law because it says only Allah is the law and not human beings.” She charged that the West was engaged in appeasing Muslims. She denied that to call for an end to forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honor killings and a life of submission to males or Islam was a form of “racism” (the word commonly hurled at anyone berating prominent facets of Muslim culture and praxis). Surely, that's not “what you want for your own little girl,” she told her sometime disdainful, politically correct interviewer, Janice Turner. Ali pointed out that Saudi Arabia's 13.5 million women live under virtual house arrest and Iran's 34 million women can be married off at the age of nine or be stoned for adultery.

She charged that Islam was always an “expansionist” religion. Genital mutilation, practiced in pre-Islamic Egypt, was then exported by the conquering Muslims to sites as far afield as Indonesia, “which had no history of female genital mutilation.” “It’s very, very important not only to condemn the practise itself but to get to the bottom of it: That this is done in the name of Islam.”

Ali insists that Islam must undergo a reformation or enlightenment, as did Christianity, and that Muslims must come to accept that the Koran is “the work of man, written in the particular circumstance of 7 th century Arabia, not the unchallengeable, universal word of God.” As it stands, the Koran posits the right of men to beat women.

To all this, The Times “responded” with a robust peroration about the great strides democracy is making in the Muslim world and an assertion that “the enemy of liberty is not Islam: it is absolutism.” But is not that absolutism embedded in Muslim scripture and its interpretations? (Ali lives in the shadow of a fatwa enjoining her death because she helped produce a movie, Submission, depicting Muslim violence toward women (Islam means submission.) Her partner, the film's director, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death a few years ago in an Amsterdam street by a Muslim fundamentalist. That assassination and, in some ways, the manner in which it has since been portrayed, have been symptomatic of our world in these dark times.

About where the riots—the word “revolution” is, I'm afraid, a bit premature (need one recall that Chou En-Lai, when asked about the consequences of the French Revolution, replied: “It is still too early to tell”?)—in the Middle East are taking that region we shall have to wait and see. What is certain is that its most vicious (and anti-Western) regimes, in Tripoli, Damascus, Teheran, Khartoum, remain in place. Sure, a couple of tired, old dictators have been sent packing, and a few more may follow them into history's dust bin. But, so far, no Muslim Arab country has turned into something that can accurately be called a democracy (Hezbollah runs Lebanon; the army runs Egypt, etc). Meanwhile, Ali lives under a death sentence for telling the truth—and is repudiated by the Thunderer.


Image by Steve Jurvetson