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Which modernizes first: the religion or the society?

Reader comment on item: Can Islam Be Reformed?

Submitted by Dan Simon (United States), Jul 5, 2013 at 00:56

I agree with your basic premise that Islam could potentially one day follow the path of, say, Christianity, and evolve from an appallingly brutal, totalitarian creed (as Christianity once was, quite uniformly) into a more benign, more spiritual and more democratic belief system. But I question whether that process is likely to be fundamentally an evolution of religious thinking, or whether it will ultimately result from a shift in Islamic (or, more likely, in individual Islamic nations') social orders, to which Islam (or Islam in that country) will inevitably respond and adapt.

To extend your analogy to evolving Christian thought, I would point to places where Christianity itself has only recently liberalized, such as Ireland and Quebec, Canada. In both places, where the Church controlled the education and social welfare systems and its authority on social matters was generally unchallenged through at least 1960, its doctrine during its period of dominance was hardly benign: in both locales, it supported corrupt, authoritarian and quasi-fascist politicians and embraced ethnic and religious chauvinism, while rigorously enforcing ultra-conservative social policies. And to the extent that those regions have modernized since, it has not been through evolving Church doctrine, but rather through general social transformation towards modernity and secularism, with the Church following rather than leading the process. (Indeed, I know of no religious faith which modernized on its own, embracing modern, politically self-constraining ideas in advance of their having already been broadly embraced by its host society. If you can think of any counterexamples, I'd be very interested to learn of them.)

The implications for political Islam are clear: rather than try to persuade Muslims to rethink their religion, those concerned about Islamism should instead work to modernize Muslim societies directly, advocating modernizing and secularizing policies that will ultimately force Islam to adapt to them. To put it another way, the way to secularize, say, Turkey is not to try to persuade Erdogan's followers to abandon Erdogan for a more restrained version of Erdogan, but rather to promote the alternative--Ataturk--in the hope of evincing the inevitable pragmatic response from Erdogan.

Of course, this advice may seem hopeless, given that the Islamist reaction to modern secular movements in the Muslim world seems to be on the march. But we should remember that the blossoming of secularism in places like Ireland and Quebec also followed extended periods of overwhelming dominance by reactionary anti-modernism. Religious believers can't be expected to relinquish their political power voluntarily, after all, any more than secular rulers can--they must have it pried from their hands and be forced to accommodate to living without it. And that battle will inevitably have its back-and-forth shifts of momentum, none of which is necessarily completely conclusive until one side's complete capitulation.

Finally, note that my position represents a kind of middle ground between your "Islam can reform itself" position and the "Islam is inherently evil" stance against which you're primarily arguing. I do believe that Islam can be reformed, but also that it cannot do so --indeed, no religion can do so--purely from within, starting from a pre-modern, religiously powerful status quo. It must first be stripped of its coercive power by a modern, secular-leaning public, after which it will necessarily reform for the sake of its own survival. How long that process will take depends, of course, on many factors. But regardless, it's the process that offers the best hope of successful modernization, and that we should all be working to encourage.


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Daniel Pipes replies:

I agree with your premise and have argued for this reason that Muslims in the West, being free of an authoritarian religious apparatus, have a unique potential to modernize Islam.

As for an example of a church that modernized on its own: various Christian denominations in the United States.

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