The Right Time for An Islamic Reformation
When Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, admitted that "our own children" had perpetrated the July 7 London bombings, it was the first time in my memory that a British Muslim had accepted his community's responsibility for outrages committed by its members. Instead of blaming U.S. foreign policy or "Islamophobia," Sacranie described the bombings as a "profound challenge" for the Muslim community. However, this is the same Sacranie who, in 1989, said that "Death is perhaps too easy" for the author of "The Satanic Verses." Tony Blair's decision to knight him and treat him as the acceptable face of "moderate," "traditional" Islam is either a sign of his government's penchant for religious appeasement or a demonstration of how limited Blair's options really are.
Sacranie is a strong advocate of Blair's much-criticized new religious-hatred bill, which will make it harder to criticize religion, and he actually expects the new law to outlaw references to Islamic terrorism. He said as recently as Jan. 13, "There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered [i.e., banned] by this provision." Two weeks later his organization boycotted a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in London commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 60 years ago. If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem.
The Sacranie case illustrates the weakness of the Blair government's strategy of relying on traditional, essentially orthodox Muslims to help eradicate Islamist radicalism. Traditional Islam is a broad church that certainly includes millions of tolerant, civilized men and women but also encompasses many whose views on women's rights are antediluvian, who think of homosexuality as ungodly, who have little time for real freedom of expression, who routinely express anti-Semitic views and who, in the case of the Muslim diaspora, are -- it has to be said -- in many ways at odds with the Christian, Hindu, non-believing or Jewish cultures among which they live.
In Leeds, from which several of the London bombers came, many traditional Muslims lead inward-turned lives of near-segregation from the wider population. From such defensive, separated worlds some youngsters have indefensibly stepped across a moral line and taken up their lethal rucksacks.
The deeper alienations that lead to terrorism may have their roots in these young men's objections to events in Iraq or elsewhere, but the closed communities of some traditional Western Muslims are places in which young men's alienations can easily deepen. What is needed is a move beyond tradition -- nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air.
It would be good to see governments and community leaders inside the Muslim world as well as outside it throwing their weight behind this idea, because creating and sustaining such a reform movement will require above all a new educational impetus whose results may take a generation to be felt, a new scholarship to replace the literalist diktats and narrow dogmatisms that plague present-day Muslim thinking. It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it.
It should be a matter of intense interest to all Muslims that Islam is the only religion whose origins were recorded historically and thus are grounded not in legend but in fact. The Koran was revealed at a time of great change in the Arab world, the seventh-century shift from a matriarchal nomadic culture to an urban patriarchal system. Muhammad, as an orphan, personally suffered the difficulties of this transformation, and it is possible to read the Koran as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world, a conservative plea that became revolutionary because of its appeal to all those whom the new system disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless and, yes, the orphans.
Muhammad was also a successful merchant and heard, on his travels, the Nestorian Christians' desert versions of Bible stories that the Koran mirrors closely (Christ, in the Koran, is born in an oasis, under a palm tree). It ought to be fascinating to Muslims everywhere to see how deeply their beloved book is a product of its place and time, and in how many ways it reflects the Prophet's own experiences.
However, few Muslims have been permitted to study their religious book in this way. The insistence that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical, scholarly discourse all but impossible. Why would God be influenced by the socioeconomics of seventh-century Arabia, after all? Why would the Messenger's personal circumstances have anything to do with the Message?
The traditionalists' refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages. Laws made in the seventh century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st. The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities.
Broad-mindedness is related to tolerance; open-mindedness is the sibling of peace. This is how to take up the "profound challenge" of the bombers. Will Sir Iqbal Sacranie and his ilk agree that Islam must be modernized? That would make them part of the solution. Otherwise, they're just the "traditional" part of the problem.
The writer is a novelist and essayist whose works include "The Satanic Verses."