An Islamic Reformation is the world’s best chance for peace
If a young woman, before her marriage or after it, is found to have had sexual relations with another man not her betrothed, she is sentenced to be stoned to death. By contrast, a man who rapes or seduces a young girl usually must pay a fine to her father, and offer to marry her himself.
This punishment, ordained by God, is not confined to the ideologues of Islamic State. It is to be found in the holiest books of Jews and Christians: in a part of the Jewish Torah, known to Christians as Old Testament’s book of Deuteronomy.
The Jewish literary critic Adam Kirsch writes that ‘in Deuteronomy, we find the same kind of panic about female sexuality, the same need to control women’s feelings and behaviour…(while) under Talmudic law, (a woman) is not a legally competent individual, but the responsibility of a man.’
The Talmud is a compendium of centuries of Jewish thought and commentary on the Torah.
Why, then, should those born within the cultures of the two older monotheistic faiths — Judaism, the oldest, and Christianity — recoil in horror from the obedience of some Muslims to these commands of God, since our cultures contain the same observances and our cultures’ holy figures approved them?
Because both Christianity and Judaism were profoundly changed by the Reformation and the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment’s apostles included large figures from the Christian tradition — David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes; and from the Jewish, in Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelsohn. They, and a legion of others, thought ‘freedom and toleration were … essential to the pursuit of enquiry, both religious and secular.’ Their belief became, especially in France, a cause, a militant proclamation of freedom of thought and of publication, a definition of the rights of man.
‘Man’ to a degree meant also ‘woman’ — but far from completely. The idea of male supremacy continues worldwide. Only under the influence of liberal and socialist reformers, emancipatory movements and feminism did (some) cultures recognise real, substantial equality of the sexes — rarely completely.
Islam did not join the renaissance, the rebirth, of Judaic and Christian cultures that began at the end of the 1500s and then evolved over centuries. Islam has within it millions of devotees who are liberal in their thoughts and actions, and who believe that nations should be secular, tolerating all religions and those with none. But the religion and the commentators on it do not lend them support: the religion still, in theory and in much of its practice, aspires to be the spine to a nation’s politics, the guide for its judiciary.
Last month, two powerful voices — one Jewish, one a Muslim breakaway — have been raised to give voice to the same belief: that until Islam undergoes its own rebirth, in which its divine commands are generally allowed to give way to secular, enlightenment practices, the majority of Muslim moderates will be held hostage by the minority of Muslim extremists.
Benny Morris is professor of history at the University of the Negev: he is the most prominent member of the revisionist historians of the 1980s who broke with Zionist orthodoxy and who wrote a searing, detailed book about the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. An ardent leftist, he became a much more conservative figure, seeing in the failure of the negotiations in the early 2000s between Israel and the Palestinian leadership proof that the Palestinians would never agree to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
At a talk in London, Morris poured scorn on those Western leaders – As President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron — who argued the attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January had ‘nothing to do with the true religion of Islam.’
Islamist violence, Morris said, is perpetrated in the name of Islam. Denying it doesn’t promote good community relations. It obscures a real problem that must be faced.
Morris’ other view — that all Muslims, militant or moderate, ‘hated’ the West — seems to me to be wrong. I asked him if he thought the Palestinian Israelis were biding their time before turning on their Jewish fellow citizens? He replied that the Israeli government’s demonizing of them was wrong. Instead, the government must do all in its powers to bring Israeli Arabs into full citizenship.
Yet if they are suffused with hatred, how would that help?
The ‘renegade’ Muslim I spoke of earlier is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her journey began with escape a forced marriage in Somalia, through the Netherlands and to the United States, where she now lives. She has also travelled from being a devout Muslim to a challenger of Islam’s basic precepts. She has been the subject of powerful memoirs, such as The Caged Virgin and Nomad and has been forced to live behind armed protection. Last month, she wrote that ‘the theological warrant for intolerance and violence is embedded in (Muslims’) own religious texts. It simply will not do for Moslems to claim that their religion has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. The killers of Islamic state and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct.’
Judaism and Christianity, she writes “gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past” so that extremism in both is confined to the fringes. ‘Regrettably in Islam it is the other way around: it is those seeking religious reform who are the fringe element.’
Hirsi Ali is a woman of notable bravery; one who cares deeply about the religion she felt forced to leave. She ardently wishes to engage those whom she calls ‘Mecca Muslims’ — devout and peaceful men and women, ‘the majority from Casablanca to Jakarta’ in ‘a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith.” The reformation of Islam, she writes, would benefit not only the faithful: Westerners, too, ‘have an enormous stake in how the struggle over Islam plays out.’
An Islamic reformation would be painful, surely internally violent — as reformation’s various phases were in Christianity. It would mean the sharp diminution of the power of the Imams; frontal challenges to the moral framework of millions, and to the power of religiously based dynasties, like the House of Saud. But if reform, and opening a space for free, unafraid debate, is to move from the fringes to the centre and allow the majority to encompass both secular citizenship and devout practice, this hard transition is necessary — especially for Muslims themselves, the first and most numerous victims of extremism.