Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Islamic Reformation

With their mass executions of prisoners, enslavement of women, threats of genocide against non-Muslims and webcast beheadings of hostages, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply the Islamic State as it now styles itself, has established a new benchmark for savagery. These people are, as I heard it put, cartoonishly evil.

It is difficult to imagine what the ISIS leadership thinks it is accomplishing with its provocations; they have already succeeded in prodding a reluctant American administration into military action. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on New York in 2001 hardened western attitudes toward Islam and provoked a reaction that killed thousands of Muslims and radically destabilized the Middle East. ISIS appears to have concluded that another round of violent Western intervention is a good thing. Sober judgment does not appear to be a notable characteristic of jihadists.

There are many difficult calls to make in judging a proper response to ISIS. First, of course, it’s necessary to determine how great a danger it actually poses. Columnist Steven Chapman says action against ISIS will be “another unnecessary war against an overblown foe.” ISIS has established a solid base in northern Syria and swept aside feeble opposition in northern Iraq, but the question for Western leaders is how durable its reign of terror will be and to what extent it can export its violence.

Prudence would seem to dictate that the threat of murderous attacks exported from an ISIS statelet be taken seriously. Survivors in New York, London and Madrid can attest to the lethality of jihadist plots. Some kind of concerted action on the part of the civilized world is certainly warranted; Barack Obama’s attempt to organize a broad-based coalition including Arab as well as Western governments seems a sound approach. A military campaign to reverse ISIS’s territorial gains and degrade its capabilities seems achievable.

But the military effort is only the start. The long-term struggle is to win the cultural war, to defuse the appeal of jihadist ideology in a deeply unsettled world. In the West, opinion seems to gravitate toward either of two competing factions, one claiming that Islam itself is at the heart of the problem, the other apparently desperate to avoid offending Muslims by recognizing any religious element. (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.)

Of course they are Muslims, and the fact is significant. But it is also true that the latest ISIS outrages have sparked a backlash in the Muslim world, with religious leaders denouncing the group and ordinary Muslims defiantly burning the black ISIS flag on YouTube. ISIS is clearly Islamic, but that does not mean that ISIS is Islam.

The truth is that ISIS, or more generally jihadism, is the latest incarnation of utopian totalitarianism, an ideological virus that may go dormant but never dies. It just mutates and looks for a likely host.

The twentieth century saw the rise and defeat, at great cost, of two totalitarian ideologies. Fascism, a nationalist strain, was destroyed in the Second World War, and Communism, an internationalist variant, expired as a viable system at the end of the Cold War. But the totalitarian temptation is always with us, and now, in the 21st century, it comes linked to a world religion with a billion and a half adherents.

There are reasons for that, and it’s important to understand them. It’s not an adequate response merely to say, “They are not Muslims” for fear of offending constituents. Though jihadism does not invalidate Islam, the Islamic element of jihadism is not an accident.

In Europe, the idea that church and state are best separated, with religion left to the individual conscience, was a hard-won consequence of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. The religious fanaticism and brutal theocracies we see now in the Muslim world would have looked familiar to any European five hundred years ago. Religious wars laid waste to Europe and religious persecution chased whole communities to a different continent before a consensus for the secular state became one of the foundations of modernity.

Islam never underwent a Reformation; the Muslim world has never internalized any concept of separation of mosque and state. “Islam is a nation,” I was told by a Palestinian friend once, an educated, tolerant, forward-looking Muslim who worked as an interpreter at a U.S. embassy. I have no doubt that he is horrified by ISIS. But the idea that Islam is a nation is a pre-modern idea, and if Muslims are to attain modernity they are going to have to find a new way to think about their faith.

That need not mean rejecting their faith; I have known enough Muslims whose integrity is obviously derived from their religious beliefs to know that Islam itself is not the enemy. But I think it’s time for the Reformation; I believe that the Muslim equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War has begun. I only hope, fervently, that it doesn’t take thirty years.

Meanwhile, jihadism attracts the same type of wayward and vicious young male that was attracted to the fascist gangs in Italy and Germany and the Bolshevik shock troops in Russia. Society always throws up a certain number of thugs, and some of them are happy to find a justification for their thuggery. Ideology has the power to make even decent people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and when combined with a native penchant for violence it produces the type of man who cheerfully slits another man’s throat on camera.

These are our enemies, and they have to be fought. They will have to be defeated militarily, but just as important they will have to be discredited ideologically. And that will involve making distinctions about Islam, respecting the Islam embraced in good faith by peaceable millions while emphatically rejecting its totalitarian variety and insisting on a debate about the role of Islam in society. Modernity will come to the Islamic world; how soon and how thoroughly is yet to be determined.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

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