Liberal Islamic Reform And The Prospect For An Islamic Reformation

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We seem to be witnessing, at the present time, the emergence of a Liberal Islamic Reform Movement that could eventually lead to an Islamic Reformation.  Liberal Islam stands in direct contrast to Islamism, and an Islamist propaganda effort is undoubtedly already underway to ensure that such a reformation never succeeds.  The main strategy to achieve that seems to be a general attack on the principle of freedom of expression that had traditionally been enjoyed across the Western world and which makes dissent against established dogma possible.

The Wikipedia entry for ‘Liberal movements within Islam’ identifies a number of characteristics which include embracing the concept of ijtihad, separation of mosque and state, opposition to political Islam, commitment to human rights, equality, and democracy, an outlook of tolerance and non-violence, and reliance on secular scholarship.  While basing their views on the early days of Islam the liberals, in contrast to the Islamists, adopt an interpretation that is flexible and progressive rather than inflexible and conservative.

Although there is no priesthood in Islam, human beings have made choices for the faithful following the death of Mohammad.  For instance hundreds of years ago the Ulama took it upon themselves to close the gates of ijtihad.  Whether the reason for this was one of protecting their own political power is a matter for debate, though it did have the effect of shutting down debate.  In this regard there are perhaps parallels between the closure of the gates of ijtihad and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to end freedom of expression in the world today.  If human agency can close the gates of ijtihad then surely it can reopen them?

Many liberal Muslims believe that individuals are empowered to interpret the Koran, an approach which plays a similar, though not the same, role in Islamic reform as the concept of a priesthood of all believers played in the Reformation in Europe that gave ordinary Christians a direct relationship with God.  They achieve this via the mechanism of a liberal interpretation of Ijtihad.  They believe that this allows a symbolic rather than a literal interpretation of verses of the Koran that are out of step with the principles of modern society.  Indeed many liberals argue that the Koran was revealed to deal specifically with the conditions prevailing at the time of revelation in 7th century Arabia which were dramatically different from the modern context.  This would mean that as society changed so should the way the Koran is interpreted.  Of course many orthodox Muslims would undoubtedly disagree with this and Islamic extremists may even regard Muslims who believed it as apostates.  However, the fact remains that many liberals do believe it.  Such a philosophy could possibly become the basis of an Islamic reformation that would be as fundamental and historically significant as that that took place in Europe in the 16th century and which launched it on the road to modernity.

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The emergence of a modern Liberal Islamic Reform Movement suggests that an Islamic Reformation may already be in its very early stages, though it is nowhere near completion and success is by no means guaranteed.  The environment for such a spiritual reassessment is ripe, just as it was in 16th century Europe.  Just as the printing press influenced the Reformation in Europe, the Internet will undoubtedly play a role and be a key tool of Liberal Islamic Reformers.  The move to using the vernacular languages of Europe played a role in the past because they were different from the Latin of the religious elite.  Those same languages are now the languages of Muslims who have migrated to the West and who are therefore less influenced by their religious elites in the Islamic world.

By escaping the strictures and conventions of conservative Islamic societies, those in more open societies have the opportunity to reopen the gates of Ijtihad which the conservatives would otherwise have suppressed.  In addition migrants have benefitted from education systems that achieve much higher levels of literacy.  Again there are parallels with the improvements in literacy evident during the period of the European Reformation.  Perhaps an Islamic Reformation would result in improved literacy rates in the Islamic world with all the consequences that would have for material, personal, and societal improvement.

Many commentators today suggest that the European Renaissance was made possible because of the flow of lost ancient knowledge from the Islamic world into Europe.  Now we see a reverse of such a process as that ancient knowledge, preserved, nurtured and significantly developed and improved upon by the West enters the Islamic world – knowledge of course changes societies.  It must be remembered that the Renaissance was followed by and therefore may have had an influence on the Reformation.

The changes that the Renaissance and Reformation caused for Christianity were as radical to many Christians of that period as the Islamic Reformation currently is for many of the world’s Muslims.  During the Reformation in Western Europe, the deeply held beliefs of a great many people were overturned, and no doubt a great deal of offense was caused.  But in the end it is quite clear that the entire process of the Reformation eventually improved tolerance within Christianity and transformed Christendom into modern Europe.

The current efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to prevent criticism of what they regard as the principles of their religion and perhaps the basis of the power of elites in the Islamic world seem to be similar to those of Popes and the religious elite during the Reformation who were also determined to maintain their power and influence.  By participating in the Istanbul Process, Western governments are encouraging Islamists and are effectively bringing the Islamic Renaissance to a grinding and perhaps permanent halt.  Will that ultimately mean that the Islamic world will not progress and that this will also cause the Western world to regress back into the superstition and darkness that it was freed from by the Renaissance and Reformation?

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There are a growing number of what can be described (at least as far as the opinion of the author of this essay is concerned) as liberal Islamic reformers who, rather than take Islam back to the 7th century, want to bring it into the 21st.  Such an approach is consistent with the values and aims of Western Civilisation and democracy.  Of course it is very easy for anyone to claim to be a moderate Muslim and it is much easier to ‘talk the talk’ than it is to ‘walk the walk’.  However genuine liberal Islamic reformers certainly deserve to be regarded as moderate Muslims and their efforts should be applauded unreservadly.  Their courage is an inspiration and by even getting their message into the public domain they have achieved a degree of success.  However, the scope for their success is limited by the approach of policymakers in the West and by attitudes within orthodox Islam that appear to remain in thrall of Islamism and its message.

The American Islamic Leadership Coalition seems to provide good leadership in the field of liberal Islamic reform.  On its website (at the time of publication of this essay) it declares:

“The American Islamic Leadership Coalition (AILC) is a diverse coalition of liberty-minded, North American Muslim leaders and organizations. AILC’s mission advocates for defending the US Constitution, upholding religious pluralism, protecting American security and cherishing genuine diversity in the faith and practice of Islam. AILC provides a stark alternative to the Islamist organizations that claim to speak for what are diverse American Muslim communities. For more information on AILC, please visit our website at http://americanislamicleadership.org/.”

Liberal reformers even reach out to non-Muslims in the Western world.  Tawfik Hamid, puts forward a plan to end what has become known as ‘Islamophobia’:

“To bring an end to Islamophobia, we must employ a holistic approach that treats the core of the disease. It will not suffice to merely suppress the symptoms. It is imperative to adopt new Islamic teachings that do not allow killing apostates (Redda Law). Islamic authorities must provide mainstream Islamic books that forbid polygamy and beating women. Accepted Islamic doctrine should take a strong stand against slavery and the raping of female war prisoners, as happens in Darfur under the explicit canons of Shariah (“Ma Malakat Aimanikum”). Muslims should teach, everywhere and universally, that a woman’s testimony in court counts as much as a man’s, that women should not be punished if they marry whom they please or dress as they wish.” “How to End ‘Islamophobia'” – By Tawfik Hamid Source: Wall Street Journal , quoted from http://www.wluml.org/ru/node/3741

The tenets of orthodox Islam criticised in the above quote clearly demonstrates the direction that policymakers should be taking when developing initiatives and legislation.  Governments have been unwilling to embrace realities, preferring to pretend that these issues do not exist and should not be spoken of aloud.  They prefer to undermine the very values, such as freedom of expression, that are critical to dispel fears and misunderstandings.  It seems that many people in positions of power actually want to raise tensions and undermine community cohesion.  Governments show willingness to empower and legitimise the self-appointed representatives of the Muslim community, rather than liberal reformers who are willing to address fundamental issues.  It is no wonder that this policy has failed to end radicalisation and the growing support for the Islamist message.

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As a reformer Tawfik Hamid takes responsibility for ending Islamophobia onto his own shoulders and recommends that the Muslim community as a whole adopt the same approach.  He expresses concern about the method, currently in wide usage, which involves demonising those who criticise aspects of Islamic teaching:

“It is well past time that Muslims cease using the charge of “Islamophobia” as a tool to intimidate and blackmail those who speak up against suspicious passengers and against those who rightly criticize current Islamic practices and preachings. Instead, Muslims must engage in honest and humble introspection. Muslims should–must–develop strategies to rescue our religion by combating the tyranny of Salafi Islam and its dreadful consequences.

Islamophobia could end when masses of Muslims demonstrate in the streets against videos displaying innocent people being beheaded with the same vigor we employ against airlines, Israel and cartoons of Muhammad. It might cease when Muslims unambiguously and publicly insist that Shariah law should have no binding legal status in free, democratic societies.” “How to End ‘Islamophobia'” – By Tawfik Hamid Source: Wall Street Journal , quoted from http://www.wluml.org/ru/node/3741

It seems to be a common trait amongst liberal reformers to take personal responsibility for criticising Islamism in order to marginalise it and clearly demonstrate that many of its attributes have no place in a democratic society.  Rather than wallowing in self pity, making excuses, and alleging marginalisation at the hands of non-Muslim society, they address the issues and the facts directly.  Such reformers see a clear separation between political and non-political Islam and tend to see its political form as the source of the discord visible in the world today.  Another liberal reformer, M Zuhdi Jasser, addresses this issue as follows:

“Sadly, many of my co-religionists called on by media to speak for American Muslims too often wallow in denial simply deflecting any responsibility by distancing themselves from radicals or myopically equating Muslim radicals to those of other faiths. They willfully ignore the main ideological conveyor belt towards radicalism – political Islam.

We need to take the offense in ending the ideas of jihad, the “ummah” as nation, and the “salafi” dream of returning everything to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Until we Muslims take on the responsibility of separating history from religion and mosque from state, the threat will not dissipate.” What the Muslims in America can do by M. Zuhdi Jasser Des Moines Register October 6, 2010

Also, like other liberal reformers he makes suggestions that could inform and enhance the policy-making process.

“We believe that the only way to defeat Islamism is by Muslims advocating for the reforms necessary to separate mosque and state.

While this effort is often criticized as Islamophobic and I am routinely labelled an Uncle Tom or traitor to Muslims by those who adhere to the ideology of political Islam, I have taken the Islamic tradition of ijtihad (modern, critical interpretation of scripture and tradition) to heart as a personal responsibility as an American Muslim as it should be for every Muslim.”  M. Zuhdi Jasser, The Center for American Progress Fear, Inc. Report, Family Security Matters November 16, 2011

The more liberal view of Ijtihad sees it as a non-legal principle and that it can be undertaken by any Muslim.  In its more traditional context it is part of the Islamic legal milieu, but nevertheless provides a specific area where real dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim communities can take place.  In this way it is possible that it represents a credible tool for Muslims to make efforts towards community cohesion on their own cultural terms.  An interesting article on ijtihad by Claude Salhani can be found HERE.

M Zuhdi Jasser goes on to say:

“I believe we American Muslims have a major crisis in leadership with most organizations in the United States coming out of the Muslim Brotherhood legacy tree and ideology.” M. Zuhdi Jasser, The Center for American Progress Fear, Inc. Report, Family Security Matters – November 16, 2011

The same could probably also be said of other countries around the world.  Again, there are many things that Western governments can do on a policy making level to ensure that Islam in Western countries get the leadership that it needs and deserves for the 21st century.  This means that Government needs to support the genuine progressives and disassociate themselves from non-progressive individuals and groups.

If governments back these liberal reformers rather than the more ‘orthodox’ groups, then progress could be made towards a successful Islamic Reformation. As things stand Western governments are assisting with the Islamist agenda.  Erosion of freedom of expression, the very freedom that guarantees all other freedoms, and censorship of those who talk critically about Islam provides a victory to Islamism and this success perhaps encourages even more radicalisation.

It is vital that those who are concerned about the rise of Islamism warmly embrace these liberal reformers.  Such reformers are courageous, as they can find themselves victimised by Islamic radicals who want to maintain the ‘purity’ of their doctrine.   This growing group of Muslim progressives are not practicing taqiyya, though many Muslims who just pay lip service to challenging Islamism probably do so regularly as a way to push forward their ambitions for political dominance.  There are many Muslims who certainly seem to play the ‘taqiyya game’ and that is certainly something that it is vital to be vigilant about.

It is not necessarily inconsistent for a Muslim to be a liberal Islamic reformer and devout.  Being devout within this context does not make a person extreme if they are genuinely opposed Islamism and its illiberal agenda.  Moderate Muslims can therefore be devout Muslims, even though they repudiate sharia-based forms of government.

A recent example of the clash between Islamism and liberal Islam was visible at the Amsterdam book launch of Allah, Liberty & Love by Irshad Manji which was disrupted by Islamists.  The author of that book has provided a report about the incident on her website where she states the following:

“In Amsterdam, 22 jihadis stormed my book launch, ordered my execution and threatened to break my neck. Police arrested two men and found a third with a loaded machine gun at home.”

The sickening scenes can be seen in a video clip HERE.

This shows the kind of intimidation that any perceived opponent of Islamic orthodoxy receives when they speak out.  Would Irshad Manji be accused of ‘defamation of religion’ under proposals from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that will be discussed as part of the ‘Istanbul Process’?  The Islamist aggression at the book launch not only demonstrates their opposition to freedom of expression, but also clearly shows their opposition to freedom of religion.  Which high priests of righteousness get to decide what ‘defamation of religion’ actually is – the leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?  Is the Organization of Isalmic Cooperation’s motivation with regard to defamation of religion motivated by a sincere belief in protecting religious freedom or is it a means to protect religious dogma?  The plight of minority religious opinion in Oraganization of Islamic Cooperation member states perhaps is an indication that the motivation is the latter.

Governments of Western nations urgently need to radically reform their policy making with regard to Islamism.  They need to engage with real moderates – the Liberal Islamic Reformer Movement referred to in this essay, they need to rigorously oppose political Islam, they need to reverse the entrenchment of sharia principles in Western societies, and they need to look to ijtihad as a possible way to engage with the Islamic community in order to generate meaningful community cohesion.  They also need to resist the cynical efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to bring down the one thing that allows proper dialogue between all people – freedom of expression.

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