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Evaluating Islamic Reform Very Closely

Since 2001, calls for “Islamic reform” have been central to almost any discussion of Islam. In this conversation, three distinct groups have emerged. The first group denies that Islam can reform, calling it barbaric, savage, and anachronistic. The second group, … Read More

By / October 25, 2007

Since 2001, calls for “Islamic reform” have been central to almost any discussion of Islam. In this conversation, three distinct groups have emerged.

The first group denies that Islam can reform, calling it barbaric, savage, and anachronistic.

The second group, on the other extreme, says that that the idea of what Islam should look like sits exclusively with Muslims and non-Muslims are merely spectators.

A third group, composed of a large majority of people, says that Islamic reform is possible, we just have to figure out how. When asked to show how, these groups point to people as varied as Tariq Ramadan, Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The problem with each of these views is that they put the emphasis on “Islam” instead of “reform.”  This has the deleterious effect of turning practical, real world, questions about liberty, rule of law, gender-equality, and non-violence, into arcane theological and academic disputations about a religion. When that happens, the question ceases to be “how to reform” and becomes one of “who will lead the way.” The fight becomes over who it is that does – and should – speak for Islam, and its forgotten how human dignity, sovereignty and autonomy are to be ensured in the real-world. This is tragic.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this tragedy than the intellectual fisticuffs hurled in a massive debate on Islamic reform at German Sign and Sight magazine. One side, composed of Ian Buruma and Guardian’s Timothy Garton Ash, argued that Tariq Ramadan is the most appropriate representative of Islamic reform, largely because he knows how to sweet-talk Muslims. The other side, composed of Pascal Bruckner and others argued that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the more appropriate figure to support because she is fearless and talks down to Muslims. Yet, preference for Ramadan and Hirsi Ali was not based on any empirical success attained by either, but was merely a consequence of whose personality was more marketable.

Drowned out in these (merely) entertaining discussions is the fate of people like my friend’s 43 year old Egyptian maid. She is married to a deadbeat husband who is so jealous that he barely permits her to see her family. He insists on her bearing children for him even though she is beyond reproductive age. She has asked him for a divorce many times, but he refuses to let her go, and also won’t leave her. The maid says that it is impossible for a woman of her social class to get a khul’ – a woman initiated divorce – even though under Egyptian law such a divorce is available. She doesn’t go through with a khul’ because she fears that he will kill her in retribution.

Suddenly, the entire obsession with “Islamic reform” begins to sound like hubris. Perhaps its time we recognized that Islamic reform is a label; nothing more. It won’t give voiceless Muslims hope; nor assure security for Western targets; nor reduce jihadist forces; nor lead to the end of stoning. What can Ramadan do for my friend’s maid? His reach, like so many Philosopher professors, is in the realm of religious ethics. Perhaps he can track down a few texts in the Islamic past where some forgotten scholar extolled Muslim men to be nice to women. What can Hirsi Ali do for this maid? At best, exhort her to reject Islam? This is hardly the kind of work that will address the structural injustices strewn about the Muslim world.

The reality is that for the beleagured Egyptian woman both Ramadan and Hirsi Ali are moot. She needs only one thing: a way to engage in autonomous decision-making without fear of reprisal. That’s a question that has little to do with Islam, and more with the efficacy of law enforcement in her country. If she trusts the Egyptian police, she will go for the divorce; if she doesn’t, she’ll stay married to the dead-beat.

It is, of course, great if Muftis and Imams, helped along by the humane religious people in the world (or pissed off at being outed by women like Hirsi Ali), extol gentler behavior towards women. But the real area where change is desperately required is one of regulations and enforcement –things which are connected to economics, education, training, and political appointees, not to Quran, hadith, or fatwa. These are discussions that fall in the ambit of journalists; not those of religious personalities as we have so heavingly focused.

It is, of course, understandable why after 2001 we put so much emphasis on religious Muslim personalities. We figured – incorrectly – that that the source of Bin laden’s power was his fatwa, long beard and religious persona. To counter that, we went on our own search for “moderate” and “reformist” Muslims with similar religious personas. We hoped they would be the opposite of Bin Laden. What we overlooked was that Bin Laden’s power was not that he was a religious personality, but that he was not bound by the same legal and political constraints as everyone else.

But that assumption about the power of Muslim with religious personas is erroneous and its what led to our fixation with Islamic reform. It is one that we should rectify.

The only time it matters what a Muslim leader thinks is if he has infiltrated the political process and had his opinion enthroned as law. However, even in that case, though, the response isn’t to challenge him on the basis of Islam – and try to “reform” him – but on the basis of politics.

This means that we cannot bring about liberal changes in the Muslim world merely by looking at what theologians and religious books are saying. Muslim liberals have to take political context into their calculations – and also be able to manipulate it in their favor. Unless they can do that, liberal reforms will not happen.

An example involving Islam in Pakistan demonstrates how what we call Islamic reform is really a political matter.

In 1986, hardline Muslim leaders made a deal with the dictator Zia ul Haq. They promised to maintain their support for him if he would take a colonial blasphemy law from 1927 and modify it to target Pakistan’s Christian and Ahmadi communities, as well as non-conforming Muslims. One of the draconian elements of the law was that it took the testimony of just one Muslim to prosecute someone for blasphemy. The implementation of the law led to numerous people being persecuted. In 1994, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made a bid to change the law, by releasing any accused persons until their case had first been investigated. But, a subsequent Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who won the elections via the support of religious fundamentalists, reversed Bhutto’s ruling. In 2006, a Parliamentary effort to repeal the Blasphemy law failed.

Fans of Islamic reform — especially in the West — will say that the way to remove the blasphemy law is to educate Muslims until they vote for new “softer” Muslim leaders. Or, the more impatient group will say that we must enthrone forthright critics like Hirsi Ali to the fore in order to give the Muslims a good kick in the rear.

Yet, there is an altogether different alternative. Perhaps we can recognize that the excesses and theocracy of the Muslim right can be contained using political means. Some of those means will be at the international level — isolation, sanction, diplomacy, political engagement. While a vast majority of these will be at the local level, specifically, through the ascendancy of the Muslim Left.

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