The Modernist Reformation & the Price of Heresy in Muslim Societies

Syrian philosopher and intellectual, Sadiq J. Al-Azm, (left) is seen here giving a lecture at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities, July 3, 2012.
Syrian philosopher and intellectual, Sadiq J. Al-Azm, (left) is seen here giving a lecture at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities, July 3, 2012.

Why only a handful of Muslims seem willing to speak out in a clear and unapologetic manner against extremism, for reform of their faith, and in defense of the right to free speech and expression of figures deemed controversial on account of some of their intellectual output or public views?

Or, as my Facebook and real life friend, the brave journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain, recently wrote in a public Facebook post:

In this diverse group of 1.6 billion Muslims, there was no person of significant weight, group or government that stepped forward to express support of freedom of expression. There was no Muslim person or group that defended the rights of Salman Rushdie, Ayan Hirsi Ali, or the Danish Cartoonists against death threats. There were no petitions or rallies to allow South Park to depict Mohamed, forcing Comedy Central to censor the show. No matter how diverse Muslims are, they seem in consensus over muting whatever it is that they don’t like. It is not what Muslims are doing that is bothering Bill Maher and Sam Harris because every group has its fringe and wackos. It is what the mainstream Muslims are not doing that might be bothering these two.

So, the question is how to explain the seeming apathy of mainstream Muslims in the face of rising extremism being expressed and perpetrated in their name. Here is my attempt at an answer:

Within Arab intellectual circles, the Syrian thinker, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who is definitely considered as a person of moral significance and weight, did come out strongly and unreservedly in defense of Salman Rushdie and his work. But, and this where the real story is buried, as a result of his public defense of Rushdie, Sadiq came under heavy criticism not only from Islamist scholars, but also from the political establishment in Syria, for all its alleged secularity, and from the “secular” Arab intellectual establishment, which was and continues to be dominated by socialist and communist figures. The fact that Sadiq is a Marxist thinker did not save him or give him the chance to be discussed rationally and objectively.

So, the problem is not only with Islamist figures, nor only with governments and regimes that derive their legitimacy from appeals to Islam and Sharia, but also with political regimes and the intellectual elite that have set themselves as aggressive and unabashed modernizers. How come?

Most Muslim-majority states adopt nondemocratic systems of governance, with some justifying their leadership style by appeals to Islam and Sharia. Even those that are currently experimenting with democracy seem to still be of two minds about it, and most of their intellectual elite, including staunch secular figures, are for the most part anti-Western, and have consistently viewed any criticism of Islamic culture coming from the West, even if done by figures of a Muslim backgro0und, as part of a conspiracy against the culture that they themselves will otherwise  be willing to vilify in their works — publicly when they are given the chance, but mostly privately and in their small circles. Anti-Westernism, in part as a reaction to the colonial legacy, leftwing ideologies, and good old xenophobia are very much at play here. But intellectual apathy, for the lack of a better term, seems to be at work as well. With few exceptions, most of our secular intellectuals want to reject to Islam and introduce a new philosophy of life, based on uninspiring interpretations of socialism and/or communism or through a downright cut-and-paste technique of the “teachings” of Marx and Lenin, without trying to pave the grounds for that through any serious analysis and criticism of the prevailing local cultural system. The fact that socialism and communism are themselves products of Western culture did not matter much here, because they were seen as “rejectionist” in nature, that is, they came as expressions of Western thinkers rejecting their heritage of racism, colonialism and exclusivism, paving the way for the establishment of a truly universalist system. So, by accepting socialism and communism uncritically, our intellectuals were in a sense simply “converting” to a new faith system,” one that embraced modernity while, allegedly, rejecting colonialism and racism.

Democracy was not a major concern for our intellectuals at the time, as most of them subscribed to the notion that modernization required a heavy hand and centralized processes. But this position of theirs only served to alienate them, in time, from the “masses” in whose name they spoke, and, as such they lost the ability to lead popular challenges to the regime. The religious establishment, and even, certain independent religious movements and figures did not suffer from such a handicap. This reality gave most “secular” ruling regimes in Muslim-majority countries ample reasons to be more wary of, and, therefore, more willing to accommodate the interests of the religious establishment and other religious movements and institutions than they were of those of the secular intellectuals. For this, with few notable exceptions (Turkey, for instance), they avoided pushing the boundaries of certain modernization efforts.

Faced with this situation, many secular intellectual figures still hoping to challenge the ruling regimes’ hold on power, came to the conclusion that they needed to reach out to Islamist movements and figures, and avoid tackling certain issues that would have further discredited them in the eyes of their people. This is why they could not afford to defend figures like Salman Rushdie, Ayan Hirsi Ali and the Danish Cartoonists, and why many went even further, and joined the chorus of denunciation.


But this tactic has only served to weaken the secular intellectuals even further. By failing to distinguish themselves from Islamists on variety of issues, and that made them appear weak and confused to those who believed in traditional Islamic values, and as weak and opportunistic to those segments of the population who, for a variety of reasons, came to embrace secular values.

The point: criticizing traditional Islamic teachings and values in a methodical manner, and standing in defense of the rights if not always the works of people like Salman Rushdie, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Theo Van Ghogh and the Danish cartoonists [why not always the works? Because intellectual and artistic works are meant to be assessed on their own merits, not on the basis of the political views of their auteurs] is something that flies in the face of the political, religious and intellectual establishment currently dominating and shaping the public sphere in most if not all Muslim-majority states. In a sense, such a stand constitutes both political and religious heresy, and the price of such heresy has always been high. This is why we have so few Sadiq Al-Azms, and this is why a successful Islamic reformation, the kind that produces greater adherence to the values of modernity and human rights and development, is part and parcel of the ongoing processes of democratization and modernization.

The complexity involved in these processes is immense by itself, but it is made even more daunting when we add in the geopolitical complications of the current power play involving Russia, Europe, China, and the United States, and the aspirations of rising powers such as India, South Africa, Australia and Brazil. All these supposedly external actors have interests, often clashing, in the outcome of the current transition in Muslim-majority states, on the short, intermediate and long runs. As a result, all these countries tend to “dabble” in the evolving situations, overtly, covertly, diplomatically, politically, economically, and/or military, irrespective of what their propaganda machines tell us. There are no bystanders here, and no innocent parties. All are involved, to varying degrees.

Taking all this under consideration, the facile manner with which Bill Maher, Sam Harris and others deal with Islam fails to shed any lights on this situation, as far as their audiences are concerned, and is bound to fuel prejudice, if not inspire hate crimes, down the road rather than serious debate. Faced with this, Muslims living in Western societies are naturally bound to react with more apologetics, rather than thoughtful analysis. A few, more than would normally be expected has the environment been less hostile, are also bound to embrace extremism.

Still, the open letter that Canadian Pakistani writer Ali Rizvi penned recently to “moderate Muslims” make excellent points that need to be seriously addressed. The analysis presented above was simply made to explain the complexity of situation, as this irreverent heretic and apostate see it, not to justify and/or inspire further apologetics.

Note: The Modernist Reformation 

For those who still some difficulties understanding how complex the situation is, and how complex people’s relationship is with their faith can be, just think of the Protestant Reformation, and all the macabre developments, massacres, wars, and political intrigue that took place all over Europe as it unfolded. One figure comes to mind, if only because I have finally decided to watch the Showtime series, The Tudors, namely: Sir Thomas More, the noted Catholic anti-war humanist who, for all his humanism, couldn’t prevent himself from enthusiastically burning Protestant heretics at the stick when he became Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII.

When people perceive an existential threat to their cherished way of life, they go to irrational extremes in their defense of it. And reformations, with all the heresies, intrigues and violence they bring, do certainly pose an existential threat to the traditions that they challenge. Modernity does indeed pose an existential threat to all traditional faiths, and not only Islam. But modernity came a bit late to Muslim -majority societies, among others, which is the Islam’s Modernist Reformation is unfolding now. But, and if we looked carefully, we will find out that the Modernist Reformation is also happening in other traditional societies. It’s the spread of Islam across continents, and issues like energy politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict that help make the situation in the so-called Muslim World more noticeable.

Articles on Subject

Reza Aslan (Interview with Salon, Op-Ed in NYTimes, Statement to CBS)
Fareed Zakaria: Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now
Dean Obeidalla: After Maher-Affleck, We Need an Honest—and Calm—Dialogue on Islam
Kevin Drum: We Have a Saudi Arabia Problem, Not an Islam Problem
Myriam Francois-Cerrah: Bill Maher’s horrible excuse: Why his defense of Islamophobia just doesn’t make any sense