The Islamic Reformation & the role of Muslim communities in the West

Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan
Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan

Indeed, no modern reformation can be said to be the real thing unless it tackled the thorny issue of holy texts and infallible figures, and came to terms at one point with their historicity and fallibility. Presently, there are only few works by Muslim authors that have gone down that road, which is why we need to examine the Islamic Reformation as a phenomenon that is still in its preliminary phase.

This state of affairs should not be too surprising really, for bold heretical stands – the kind that embraces critical thinking and the unknown it brings rather than surrender to atavistic longings – come only after long periods of gestation and fermentation. They cannot be rushed, and they don’t happen on cue. Moreover, sweeping accusations, finger-pointing, shaming and downright expressions of hate are not going to hasten their appearance. On the contrary, creating such a hostile environment only nourishes apologetic and extremist tendencies while making the job of reformers and renewalists much harder. The processes of reformation, modernization and democratization in many Muslim-majority states are unfolding in tandem and in the face of all different challenges and manipulations. By their nature, they are generational processes, and we cannot expect to see their real fruit on the short run, even, if not exactly because, the stakes are so high for all involved: Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Muslims living in Western society might indeed be able to play a more positive role in shaping these processes, but that requires the adoption of a more nuanced approach both on their part and on the part of those seeking to encourage them to take a firm stand on the issues. Castigations finger-pointing on the one side can only inspire more defensiveness and apologetics on the other. This self-feeding cycle needs to be broken.

One of the major problems confronting Muslims in the West is the quality of organizations that currently speak for them at this stage. Indeed, most of these organizations is dominated by troubled and troubling figures who engage in dissimulation and apologetics, have little tolerance for new ideas, and seem more beholden to sponsors abroad, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar, or ideological movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahria, than their local Muslim constituencies. Certain nationalist Arab and Iranian organizations exhibit the same problem as well. Muslims interested in reform cannot work through organizations run by this lot, and needs to create alternatives to better represent them and their reformist views.

So, and rather than criticize Muslims in general, Bill Maher and others interested in pushing for a more liberal Islam should focus their energies on examining the work of various Islamic organizations, raising the profile of those pushing for reformist agendas, and running programs to combat extremism, empower youth and women and increase integration, while exposing those that seem more interested in apologetics, and defending external agendas.

However, this is not to say that non-Muslims cannot or should not criticize Islam; Islam is a missionary faith and should be open to criticism, even to ridicule if necessary, which is, in effect, just a radical form of criticism, irrespective of what its followers think. The laws are meant to protect people’s rights not their feelings. So let Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Pam Geller and Michelle Bachman say what they want, and let Reza Aslan, Dean Obeidalla and even Ben Affleck, among others, stand up to them in their different ways, but let’s not be blinded by this necessary defensive task to the real task that we have to deal with: the task of reform and renewal. Such task cannot be advanced by exposing others’ bigotry and shortcomings, but by exposing our own, than doing something about it. The real debate in which we desperately need to engage is not about the true nature and interpretation of the faith, we can never agree on that. It’s against human nature to reach unanimous agreements on such issues as faith. The debate should rather center on best actions, practices and ways needed to protect the basic rights of all, be it in Western societies or in Muslim-majority countries and across the world. We should debate the very issues that other people are debating, in order to become part of the global conversation and allow for our input to influence the outcome. For the only legitimate answer on the global level is the one that is open to input from all. By taking part in the conversation on a scale commensurate with our demographic size and potential, we become part of the solution, and no amount of hate and bigotry can take that away from us.

There will, of course, be always those who will exclude themselves willingly from the debate, because they hold themselves above it thinking that their views are sacrosanct and not subject to debate. These are the extremists, and they come in different guises. Some of them, however, would prefer to renounce the world and exclude themselves from it physically as well as intellectually making themselves marginal and harmless. But there will always be those who would seek to impose their ways by force, leaving us little choice but to combat them. Albeit, we still have some choice in regard to the means and venues of the struggle.