Thursday, March 26, 2015

What Would an Islam Reformation Mean?

I love Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali Muslim turned western atheist. Her books Nomad and Infidel are breathtaking views into the crisis in Islam. Now she's just out with Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now and proposed to reform Islam, and I'll be out there buying myself a copy. Meanwhile we have the reviewers. Writes Brian Stewart:
The argument in Heretic, Hirsi Ali’s fourth book, is straightforward: Islam is in need of a radical transformation. Islam itself, that is — mainstream Islam, not “radical” Islam. This is a thorny proposition: How to reform a religion whose adherents believe its central text was dictated by Allah Himself? But when the behavior of millions is guided by a religion whose sacred texts frequently justify intolerance and cruelty, something must be done.
But what is to be done?
Hirsi Ali proposes five amendments to Islamic doctrine: dethroning Mohammad as an infallible prophet, and scrapping a literalist reading of the Quran; elevating the rewards of human life over those of eternal life (with the ancillary purpose of delegitimizing martyrdom); replacing the most barbarous parts of Sharia with practical man-made legislation; promoting concerted action to stigmatize those tempted to take religious law into their own hands; and, last, repudiating the theological warrant for jihad.
Yes, but how? Hirsi Ali wants us westerners to ally with so-called "Mecca" Muslims, "pious believers who are not inclined to practice violence but remain at odds with the modern world in crucial ways."

But, of course, what we in the west think and do is rather beside the point. The question is rather, how do Muslims deal with the fact of the modern world? And how do they deal with the fact that their heartlands are racked with war and violence?

The fundamental problem in all "reformations" and "enlightenments" and "revolutions" is that religion and politics are human attempts to stabilize a radically unstable world. They attempt to provide a safe place where humans can live out their lives with some pretense of a "normal life."

But what happens when the objective conditions of life change? What happens is that religious leaders and political leaders push back. The religious leaders mobilize against "heresy" and the political leaders mobilize against "rebels." Very often the heretics are idiots and the rebels are pirates; but not always.

The Reformation in Europe was not merely an argument over religion, it was also an argument over politics and the economy, part of the capitalist and individualist revolution, and it was an internal European thing. The rising bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers started creating remarkable amounts of wealth and their wealth and their culture started to influence the old feudal order in Europe, leading to centuries of religious and dynastic wars, astonishing increases in prosperity and transformation of the way of life of everyone from kings to paupers.

As the European transformation proceeded, it expanded out across the world, creating an enormous challenge to the two great populations and cultures of the world in India and China. For India and China, the challenge was not just an argument within the culture as in Europe, but a dreadful attack from without. India ended up under British rule for a couple of centuries, and China experienced dreadful convulsions for the long century between 1850 and 1980. After emerging from under the western knout they thought to set up the new India and the new China by embracing socialism, obviously the latest and greatest from the west, but found to their cost that socialism was, in fact, a dreadful reaction, an attempt to return to an economic and social Eden that never was. So now they are going capitalist.

But what about Islam in its heartlands from North Africa to the Hindu Kush? Let's be honest. If it weren't for oil, nobody would give a damn. But because of oil we in the west keep meddling in the Middle East to keep the oil flowing cheap and regular. And the wealth from oil has allowed the Middle Eastern religious and political authorities to resist the existential challenges that the rise of the west has posed to Islam.

What should be done, and how? I turn for inspiration to Marxism, which reckons that the productive forces are the foundation and that culture and politics are the superstructure. On this view, like it or not, global individualist capitalism is the productive force on which the whole world is based. Whatever your religion, whatever your politics, you must figure how to connect it with the reality of the modern Great Enrichment, in which peoples that practice capitalism have increased their income by nearly two orders of magnitude in 200-300 years.

When we look at Muslims in their heartland, or Muslims in their great diaspora to Europe and North America, that is the issue. How do these peoples, tossed into the 21st century, create a new superstructure for their culture that will make it possible for them to live a "normal life" again?

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