To the Editor:
Daniel Pipes accurately shows the need for the reform and new development of ossified, rigid Islamic doctrine and law (Sharia), and cites a few signs he finds hopeful ["Can Islam Be Reformed?" July/August]. This is a very important factor that is generally overlooked. But achieving that reform may be more complicated and difficult than Mr. Pipes indicates. Mr. Pipes mentions, hopefully, some modifications of existing Islamic laws, but he does not mention any significant or systemic changes in the principles or organization of the Islamic legal system itself.
Mohammad Moussa Shafiq (1932-1979), Afghan poet and politician.
He had concluded that there were two legal systems that could provide models for such a transformation: one was Anglo-American common law, about which Shafiq knew a good deal from his own training and experience. The other was talmudic law, about which he wished to learn. (When this was greeted with surprise, he remarked that the Arab rejection of Israel was foolish, that Israel could aid the development of the Muslim world, and he hoped to open diplomatic relations.)
He wanted to use these models to set in motion not just a few changes in particular laws but the revival and modernization of the Islamic legal system as a system. Regrettably, Shafiq was overthrown less than a year later by the Soviet-backed 1973 coup, and murdered in the openly Communist 1978 coup. There is a need for others with similar aspirations. The will to change which Mr. Pipes hopes for is of course essential as a first requirement. But if Moussa Shafiq's analysis was correct, it is more complicated than that, and a good deal of sophisticated legal thinking and hard work is needed.
Director, Afghanistan Information Center, Freedom House, 1981-1991; former VP for programs, Afghanistan Relief Committee, 1979 -1996.
New York City
To the Editor:
Daniel Pipes's essay can be defined by Tibullus: "Hope ever urges on, and tells us tomorrow will be better." Sadly, however, Mr. Pipes does what almost every writer on Islamic reform does; he does not quote from the Koran or Sunna. What every Muslim believer knows is that the words of the Koran existed before time, are perfect, are eternal, and cannot be altered. Further, Mohammed was the perfect man and his words and deeds are beyond criticism. Those words and deeds openly encourage violence and forced conformity and discourage reform.
It is certainly conceivable that a religious reformation is possible. Anything is possible. But until we read and hear from al-Azhar in Cairo, from the leading seminaries in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran that Mr. Pipes and his suggested reformers have a valid point of view, I will view the coming hoped-for reformation as one more chimera in the hope that tomorrow will be better.
Harold B. Reisman
To the Editor:
Daniel Pipes offers some viable solutions regarding modern battles within Islam. Pipes notes that some progress has been made, yet Islam has a long way to go before it sheds its supremacist leanings and learns to coexist in peace with other faiths.
Similar to other faiths, Islam has evolved over time but it has been less successful in reining in militant Islam since its founding. In order for a healthy reform movement to take hold within Islam, moderate Muslims must encourage Ijtihad, or independent reasoning. They need to carry out the heavy lifting by delegitimizing the radical elements of political Islam while teaching a respect for non-Muslim cultures.
Transformative ideas will emanate from Western Muslims, while some insights will emerge from Muslim dominant states. It would be helpful if Muslims were less hypersensitive, and more open to constructive criticism from non-Muslims regarding the insidious nature of radical Islam. Moreover, Muslims living in the West could learn how to assimilate into a free society without demanding special rights (stealth jihad).
Some Muslims in the West push for extra rights in tax-subsidized schools and the workplace. If these demands aren't met, they often resort to frivolous litigation. The victims in these lawsuits are the taxpayers, responsible liberty, and the rule of law. However, it's counterproductive to use the benefits of liberty and progress in order to subvert liberty, national security, and the rule of law.
If Muslims want to enjoy Western civil rights, they must stop paying lip service to human virtues and start practicing tolerance toward non-Muslims residing in Muslim states. They could craft democratic institutions and promote free enterprise in states that lack these strong traditions. Meaningful reforms won't occur overnight, but they are feasible. If Muslims take ownership of reformist challenges, Islam might gradually embrace an era of greater liberty, progress, and stability.
Christian P. Milord
To the Editor:
This is the sort of article that delights Islamists. It means that the wool has been pulled over the author's eyes. The fact is, that when you strip away the veneer of religion from Islam, what you have left is a hate-based political ideology that more resembles Nazism than any of the world's major religions. References to radical and moderate Islam would be like saying there were moderate and radical Nazis in the German government seventy years ago. In both cases, you have an absurdity. Until the non-Muslim world can recover from "political correctness" and see this threat for what it really is, the lives of infidels everywhere will remain endangered.
Wool over my eyes?
To the Editor:
Although I agree with the basic premise of the Daniel Pipes's article, I am not as optimistic as he that Islam can be reformed. Perhaps I could share his view only if a real change in the Muslim cultural mindset occurs.
Born in Egypt and raised Jewish, I was educated at a French Catholic School in this Muslim country, attended Hebrew school in the evening and in 1966 my family was purged out of Egypt. Today there are almost no Jews left in Egypt—like other Arab countries and Iran.
My exposure to the Arab Muslim culture allowed me to absorb firsthand an understanding of the Arab mindset during my 18 years in Cairo. I agree with Mr. Pipes that Islam is clearly expanding as a violent force in every corner of the world, and I also hope that the world will not accept this situation much longer.
While it is encouraging that a limited amount of Muslim moderation was noted in the article, there are no guarantees that this positive trend will continue, and I believe it can succeed only if it is focused in the school system starting at the most basic level of education. In Cairo, Arabic teachers had no interest in teaching the historical realities and in particular the Holocaust. Students were taught and believed that the Jews invented the Holocaust to get sympathy from the world. Zionism was viewed as evil and was often interchanged with Judaism. There was also a culture of blaming others in order to make any Arab action justifiable. Historical revisionism was routine.
I am convinced that these teachings continue to have an enormous impact on the Arab Muslim culture that mostly views the West as evil. In addition, it has always been fashionable and widespread to hate Israel so deeply that today it is embedded in the moral Arab fiber.
The Arab states, the Muslim states, and in particular the Palestinians receive large amounts of monetary help from the United Nations, the U.S., other rich Muslim states and the European Union. At a minimum, these generous and naive nations must take some responsibility to monitor the use of this money. We know today that these grants are used to promote propaganda that eventually finds its way into the children's schoolbooks, where misinformation, deception, and vicious hate are being taught. Strong and meaningful conditions must be attached to any money distributed to the Muslim world. Our gradual success in the U.S. could be contagious and spread to the Europeans and hopefully to the UN.
Replacing a culture of hate with a curriculum that includes respect and tolerance to other cultures will have a positive impact on the relationship we have with the Muslim world's future generations.
To the Editor:
Daniel Pipes employs a quasi-highfalutin concept—"essentialism"—and argues that it (along with "history") points to Muslims' ability to reform and modernize Islam in a way that the West can live with. If anything, though, history has shown again and again that whenever Islam "reforms," it does so by looking backward, not forward. That's because, in keeping with its essential nature, it is a religion that claims its doctrines and its founder are, in a word, perfect; that divides the planet into two "worlds," the world of Islam and the world not yet conquered for Islam; and that, at the same time, accepts no division between mosque and state, seeing both as being properly ruled by Islam.
This is not Islamism. It is Islam, pure and simple.
On the subject of Islam and its supposedly rogue aberration, Islamism, Turkey's strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a more reliable authority than is Mr. Pipes. Vis-à-vis Islam's essence, Erdoğan has remarked: "Islam is Islam and that is all." Which is why, pace Mr. Pipes, the future will likely give rise to more reformist movements in keeping with Wahhabism, Khomeinism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also why the possibility of an Islamic equivalent to, say, Judaism's "reform" and "reconstructionist" movements gaining traction in the Muslim world is so remote that it borders on the ridiculous.
Mindy G. Alter
Daniel Pipes writes:
Although the letter writers range between praising my analysis and considering me an Islamist dupe, all concur that I am too optimistic about the chances of Islam being reformed. Granted, in this article I did not discuss the difficulties of achieving reform, for that was not my topic. But I do concur with them that this will be a long, difficult effort with no guarantee of success at the end. In turn, I ask: does the immense challenge of offering a modern, moderate, and good-neighborly form of Islam mean one should give up on it in advance?
In reply to specific letters:
Klass: I am pleased to learn about Mohammad Moussa Shafiq and hope to see more Muslim politicians of his ilk.
Reisman: My article argues that Muslims can interpret Koran and Hadith as they see fit, so I fail to see why should have quoted specifics from these same scriptures. Nor do I see why a retrograde institution such as Al-Azhar should be expected to lead the way on reform any more than it did on Islamism, which it did not.
Milord: I agree that Muslims living in the West, because they enjoy freedoms that do not exist in Muslim-majority countries, have the potential to lead in the reform of Islam; and that they should be less hypersensitive.
Leo: Talking about anti-Islamist Muslims is not like talking about moderate Nazis; it is akin to talking about anti-Nazi Germans. Such Germans not only did exist but they played a vital role in rehabilitating Germany after 1945.
Algazi: I heartily agree that education is crucial and that Western donors should monitor the use of their funds more closely.
Alter: It grieves me to learn that essentialism, the belief that nothing changes over time, is a "quasi-highfalutin concept." And here I had thought it a simple and useful way to term a common, if mistaken attitude. I also find it peculiar that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a leading Islamist, should be deemed a "more reliable authority" than myself to understand Islamism. By extension, he's just declared that Israel was "behind" the Egyptian military's July 2013 coup d'état; does Ms. Alter brush aside my disagreement with him here too and defer to Erdoğan's wisdom?