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Islamists Know a Western Civilization Secret: ‘Progress’ Makes Religion Decline

The motive to reform Islam from within is weaker than the motive of those like Martin Luther, as Islamists can point to the decline of Christian belief and assume the same would happen to Islam.

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

November 30, 2010 - 12:00 am
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The answer is that it is far less strong than outside observers may think. The year is 2010, not 1517 when Martin Luther proclaimed his revolt against the Catholic Church and could in full confidence believe his reform would strengthen Christianity, as it arguably did for several centuries. Can Muslims believe the equivalent of that idea today?

It is 2010, not the 1820s or 1830s when Strauss and Paulus could believe that a thorough critical inquiry into Christianity would preserve its hegemony in European society. Can Muslims believe the equivalent of that idea today?

Islam suffers not due to any military or economic aggression of the West, but from the pervasiveness of apparently Western — but really more generically modern — ideas. For the great majority of believing Muslims, any serious reform of their religion is risky, probably too risky, to undertake and still expect the patient will survive.

While one can argue that certain internal structures and basic beliefs of Islam block reform, a fourteenth-century observer could have made such a case for Christianity as well. Based on a contemporary reading of the scriptures and holy books, my Medieval predecessor could have argued that it was impossible for any believing Christian to accept a dramatic shift in his religion, including a tolerance toward political and cultural secularism.

Yes, it happened. But it happened at a time and in a context when the clergy and the pious could often believe that modernization and reform would in no way undermine their institutions and faith. That is not possible for Islam in the twenty-first century when we have all seen the example of the West.

To refer to a totally different analogy for the moment, consider the fate of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, as the country’s leader, tried to reform Communism in order, he thought, to save it. Instead, the USSR fell apart. The Russian people (and certainly Moscow’s former subject nations) are better off, but try telling that to a convinced Communist who enjoyed power and privileges under the old system.

Here, then, is the paradox. Only massive social change, secularizing intellectuals, open debate, a critical examination of the most basic religious beliefs, a transformation of the role of women, and similar things can open up a modern society in Muslim-majority societies. Yet it is understandable that the 2010 Muslim would see as suicide what the 1517 or 1835 Christian saw as a glorious future in which science and religion would be mutually reinforcing.

Conversely, to dig in, kill the critics, raise the walls higher, try to shut out (or severely constrain) modernity, and demagogically stoke the fires of jihad really is a logical response for those who want to preserve their religion and society as it has existed for centuries.

Perhaps they will fail due to opposition or to historical inevitability, but such forces carried on the battle for centuries in the West, arguably with fascism (which of course had its neo-pagan side) being the last effort. There are many in the Muslim-majority world ready to die trying, and there’s no reason they can’t draw the process out for centuries of time and make it wade through rivers of blood to get to the other side.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition, Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth about Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.
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