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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
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Monday, June 24, 2002
An Islamic Reformation?
Tapped has an item on this Times feature on Paul Kurtz, former TAP editor and perpetual Mickey Kaus obsession.

The story has some interesting material, but our own concern with it is this paragraph, quoted in Tapped, that reflects a standard current meme:

"Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation," he continued. The Islamic system is the product of "a nomadic, agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are trying to apply to the contemporary world."

The popularity of this belief among the punditocracy suggests to me that they should take a break from bemoaning the historical ignorance of the younger generation and take a look at their own. The Reformation did not, directly and in itself, lead to a Christianity or a European culture that was more rational, tolerant, or pluralist, than the medieval version. In the short term, it led mostly to wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War that depopulated large chunks of Germany. Some other highlights include the murder of Thomas More, the Huguenot Massacre of Paris, an increase in public burnings for heresy and witchcraft(Protestants were labelled as witches in Catholic countries and vice versa), and wars in England, France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

The ultimate outcome of the melodrama was religious freedom under Protestantism in England and the Netherlands, and the principal ultimately spread elsewhere. But for that to happen took over a hundred years, as well as the Enlightenment.

The more interesting point these critics are missing is that a Reformation really is going on in Islam. The most fundamental aspect of the Reform in Europe was that Christians were free to read the Bible and create their own interpretations rather than relying on their priests. Previously the scriptures had been unavailable to laymen due to illiteracy, the lack of printing, and the lack of translations.

Once laymen could actually read the Bible, everyone became a theologian. Although Martin Luther, a priest, kicked the movement off, once the gates were open land owners like Oliver Cromwell could become religious leaders.

Something very similar is going on in the Islamic world. Innovation, referred to by Moslems as bida, is considered a grave sin in Islam - a major reason the Islamic world tends to remain stuck in the Middle Ages. One act which until quite recently was forbidden was printing the Quran. As recently as 1967, the Arabist Philip Hitti could say:

Moslem conservatism as it relates to the treatment of the word of God may have retarded the admission of the printing industry; even today the Koran may be handwritten or lithographed but not printed.
-History of the Arabs, 9th ed, p. 747

Availability of inexpensive Qurans, widespread literacy, and increased use of the Quranic classical Arabic as a medium of communication are all relatively recent phenomena that add up to an echo of the European Reformation. Moslems who previously accepted religious rulings from the ulema are now able to make their own interpretations. With the exception of Ayatollah Khomeini, major leaders and propagandists of Islamofascism have not been trained Islamic scholars. Many have had Western educations.

That this is leading in the short term to violent attempts to enforce particular doctrines is not, as I mentioned above, at all unlike the history of the Reformation. Will it lead ultimately to a post-Enlightenment Islam which can live with or even espouse Western values? My guess is that in the long term it will. Barring the real possibility that the current conflict will lead to a sweeping cataclysm that will destroy most of the Islamic world, the emergence of a more humane Islam seems hard to prevent.