The following guest-essay by Plum McCauley takes a look at the old debate about an Islamic “reformation” from a slightly different angle. Her local paper frostily turned down this essay. Imagine that.
Muslims Need an Enlightenment, Not a New Head of “Church”
by Plum McCauley
Many years ago Jonah Goldberg, in one of his columns for National Review Online, offered an interesting response to those in Islamic studies who opined in academic discussions that what that religion needed was a Martin Luther. His opinion was that on the contrary, Islam doesn’t need a Luther, it needs a Pope.
Now Catholics could reasonably object to the implication that the Pope — any Pope — lacks the religious fervor that was certainly the defining characteristic of Luther. But, like it or not, Goldberg’s conclusion expresses the reality that since the Reformation there has been a spectrum of ardor in Christianity ranging from tranquil devotion to fanaticism. And I think it’s safe to say that for him, having a Pope means eschewing the latter.
Because Luther inspired the revolt of so many Catholics from Rome’s domination and spurred them to independent interpretations of the Bible — resulting in a multitude of Protestant sects throughout Europe — his work appears in retrospect to have been a laudable attack against a monopoly over religious thought and practice. And there’s nothing the Western mind loves more than a rebel.
But that aftermath tends to obscure the fact that Luther’s ambition was reform — a “back-to-basics” approach to worship that was a fundamental rebuke to the Church’s licentiousness. His work may have functionally been a defiance of Church authority, but it was impelled by a desire to tighten up what he saw as moral laxity. And 16th-century Europeans were primed and ready to take up the cause of religious purification. The fact that his ideas resulted in so many unintended consequences (including peasant revolts, which took him completely by surprise) is an accident of history.
Considered in this light, Goldberg’s position makes sense. A “back-to-basics” reformist is indeed the last thing that the Muslim world needs. History has shown us that every time a Muslim country is overtaken by a spirit of religious reform that society takes several steps backward. The Iranian revolution provides a glaring example. The theocratic Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini became a drastically different place than that of the relentlessly modernizing Shah. One of the lesser-noted impacts of the Iranian revolution was the almost instant brain-drain caused by the hasty exodus of so many of its educated citizens who had the foresight to see what was coming.
Another example is that of the Taliban’s self-appointed role as Afghanistan’s religious conscience. Before the Taliban’s swift rise to power, Kabul was a relatively different place for women, before their freedoms were so violently curtailed. And consider Turkey. Under Erdogan, Turkey has undergone a political regression unthinkable a few decades ago when it wasn’t that distinguishable from the countries that formed the European block. Ultimately, all of these instances of “reform” for an Islam that has “lost its way” wind up being diametrically opposed to the advancement of human liberty.
One obvious reason is the inextricable link between church and state that prevails in Islamic countries, and until that Gordian knot is severed there will be nothing but social and political oppression. What the Muslim world needs, then, is not a Luther or a Pope but rather a period of enlightenment similar to Europe’s of the 18th century. Of course, The Enlightenment was the culmination of centuries of work, centuries of Europeans questioning authority or even completely upending it. But a significant component that enabled the Enlightenment was the earlier Humanist tradition which placed man in a position where he mattered.
It is precisely this that is lacking in the Muslim world, for how else could a book that commands wholesale death and slaughter be followed so unquestioningly? Are there really so few Muslims who object to these acts of atrocious cruelty? Most importantly, do Muslims really think that the choice to ameliorate mankind’s suffering instead of augmenting it is impious?
Armed with what the evidence tells us are the answers to these questions, I am hard-pressed to believe that there are so few Muslims who have the imagination to envision what that great, world-wide Caliphate will actually be like if they were to achieve it.
Perhaps Muslims should consider Kant’s advice when he said, “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Until they do, Islam will be nothing but a misery-producing yoke driving its adherents mindlessly like cattle.
For more on the writings of Plum McCauley, see Plum’s Projects.