One of the hot new trends in religious opinion today is to advocate for an “Islamic reformation.” This past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran two articles on the subject: “Islam’s Improbable Reformer” and “Why Islam Needs a Reformation.” Presumably, the assumption is that an Islamic Reformation would bring about the same beneficial changes as the Protestant Reformation.
As a committed Protestant (Reformed, Evangelical, Southern Baptist) I believe the Reformation was indeed one of the most significant, and largely beneficial, events in world history. But I imagine it must irk my Catholic friends to hear the implied claim that modern radical Jihadism is similar to the Catholic Church of the early Renaissance era. (In an ironic twist, some people claim that, in many ways, ISIS is the Islamic equivalent of Protestant Reformers.)
The reality, though, is that no one calling for an Islamic reformation wants Muslims to become like Calvinists of 16th century Geneva; what they want is for Muslims to be like the Episcopalians of Boston circa 1965. Those calling for reform of Islam want Islam to be like liberal mainline Christianity: all the trappings of the faith without all that pesky doctrine that might stir up trouble.
The problem with this idea—apart from it being tone-deaf and offensive to two world religions—is that it relies on the completely untenable foundation of assuming Islam is similar in relevant ways to Christianity.
The dominance of Christianity in the West has caused it be viewed as the default template for generic “religion.” All genuine religions are assumed to be, at their core, much like Christianity: respectful of the intrinsic dignity of all humans, desirous of individual liberty and global peace, compatible with liberal democracy and pluralism, etc.
This is why people like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York can say that the Islamic State extremists “do not represent genuine Islamic thought” but are “a particularly perverted form of Islam.” Dolan added,
These are not pure, these are not real Muslims. Now what we need and what Pope Francis has led the world in saying, is we need the temperate, moderate, genuine forces of Islam to rise up and say this — they do not represent us. Now, that’s beginning to happen. God can bring good out of evil.
Notice the assumption being made. Temperance, moderation, and nonviolence are what we need, therefore any violence associated with Islam must be blamed on those who are not real Muslims. Cardinal Dolan is both a spiritual leader and a politician (in the best sense of the term). As a politician, this statement makes sense: frame the issue in terms that you find acceptable. But as a matter of historical truth, the idea that Islam is naturally “temperate” and “moderate” is simply not true.
There are indeed temperate, moderate followers of Islam. And we should hope their number increases in proportion to the number who are neither temperate nor moderate. But to claim that moderates alone are “real Muslims” is an act of historical and religious revisionism that is fooling no one—except, perhaps, us Westerners.
Another recent example of this confused thinking about Islam comes from the evangelical theologian Richard Mouw. Writing in First Things, Mouw says:
I read recently that some young Muslims in the United States are complaining that what goes on in their mosques is not “American” enough. They say that the patterns of worship and religious education seem designed to preserve the connections to the countries from which their Muslim communities emigrated, while these young folks want their faith to guide them in their lives in America. Shouldn’t their leaders be doing more, they ask, to help them understand how their faith applies to the country of which they are now citizens?
I say: Good for them. I hope they succeed in getting a positive response from their elders.
Notice how Mouw expects Islamic leaders to tailor faith traditions to fit the sensibilities of an American audience. This is a common, and very Western, way of thinking about religion, and even beliefs in general.
Those of us in the West have a peculiar habit of thinking that because we prefer a certain set of beliefs that all those beliefs must be compatible with each other. For instance, take our belief that women should have the same political rights as men. There is no reason to assume that belief is compatible with the tenets of Islam, a faith that doesn’t separate the political from the religious. But since we have no intention of abandoning our belief in universal suffrage, we expect that Islam either embraces that belief already or will change to accommodate it in the future. The implication is that all religions (and this includes Christianity) are expected to be flexible and change in accordance with whatever “modern,” “progressive,” or “enlightened” views society has decided to embrace.
This idea is embedded in every call for an “Islamic reformation.” The assumption is not only that Islam can change to be made more compatible with our most cherished beliefs, but that in doing so the religion will become more true to it’s nature as a religion.
What undergirds this idea is the belief that Islam is essentially just a heretical form of Christianity. While it can never be changed in a way that brings it within the Christian fold, it can be “reformed” to become more like orthodox Christianity in its embrace of modernism and compatibility with pluralism.
We in the West are constantly shocked that Muslims throughout the non-Western world do not share this eccentric view of Islam as a Christian heresy. We assume they must have some sort of “false consciousness,” for why else would they not want Islam to be more like Christianity? Don’t they understand the nature of religion? Don’t they understand their own religion?
If fact, they do understand their own belief system—much more than we do. Whatever “true” Islam is, it is not another form of Christianity.
We can certainly take sides in the intra-religious debate and champion the Muslims whose views align most closely with our own. But we should not be foolish enough to think that a “reformation” of Islam is necessarily going to make it more compatible with Western ideals. Perhaps instead of expecting Islam to change to suit our preferences, we should be working to provide the world a better alternative. As Daniel Johnson wrote in The New Criterion in 2008,
If Islam is now the problem … then the solution can only be a conservative one. Islam will not overwhelm a society that draws its morality from biblical and its rationality from classical sources. The West does not need an Islamic revolution, but a Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman renaissance.