During a discussion period after a recent talk by the outspoken Islam-critic Wafa Sultan, I asked her how she would answer modern defenders of Islam, according to whom all the "bad" phenomena in Islamic societies are just "cultural baggage" and all the "good" ones represent the true intention of the religion. She answered: "How can you attribute "good" intentions to a verse like: 'I have been ordered to fight all men until they say: There is no God but Allah.'" To which I replied: "The Muslim scholars with whom I communicate claim that this, and other aggressive verses of that sort should be interpreted in a narrow local context, applicable to a specific period or specific battle in the life of the Prophet, and were not meant to be universally applicable". Dr. Sultan answered that these are just attempts to redeem an irredeemable religion.
Subsequently to this meeting, an opinion article in the Los Angeles Times by Rabbi Steven Stein (June 25) criticized Dr. Sultan for being insensitive to Muslim feelings and for ignoring genuine attempts by moderate Muslims to interpret their religion in a way that is compatible with progressive, modern norms.
"What if down the street there was a roomful of Muslims listening to a self-loathing Jew," asked Rabbi Stein, "cheering her on as she spoke of the evils inherent in the Torah, in which it is commanded that a child must be stoned to death if he insults his parents, in which Israelites are ordered by God to conquer cities and, in so doing, to kill all women and children' and this imagined Jew completely ignored all of what Judaism teaches afterward?"
Rabbi Stein further praised me for contending that the Koran's verses on war and brutality were "cultural baggage," -- a contention I did not make. The phrase "cultural baggage" is used by modern Muslim scholars (e.g. Tariq Ramadan) to characterize unacceptable modes of behavior, not Koranic verses.
Reacting to Stein's article, Dr, Andrew Bostom has written a scholarly study (Frontpage June 28, 2006) attacking the "cultural baggage" theory. He argues that Jihadist ideology is rooted in the Koranic text and has been part and parcel of mainstream Islam throughout history. He further accuses me of naivete and absurdity for believing otherwise, and for attacking Dr. Sultan, a woman I greatly admire, though I question the practicality of her solution.
Bostom is mistaken on both accounts; I did not apply the "cultural baggage" argument to Koranic verses and I did not attack Dr. Sultan.
First, I do not dispute the centrality of Jihadist ideology in Muslim history, jurisprudence, theology and even modern outlook. As a reader of Bostom's book and articles I am well aware of the large body of evidence supporting his conclusions.
Second, one need not be an Islamic scholar to point out weaknesses in the "cultural baggage" line of defense. Even if it were true that all "bad" patterns of behavior associated with Islamic society (e.g., intolerance of non-believers, contempt of Western values, inequality of women, apostasy and heresy laws, corporal punishments, honor killing) are merely residues of anachronistic cultural influences, the question still remains how a religion that lays claim to universal and perpetual validity could co-habitate with such influences for 1400 years without serious attempts to eject, transform or eradicate those influences. Likewise, the "cultural baggage" theory has hard time explaining why a divine, universal religion did not come equipped with built-in safeguards to protect itself from hijackers who falsify or distort its basic teachings. These questions point to basic weaknesses in either the religion itself or its social organization, questions to which I have not found satisfactory answers in modern Muslim writings.
But the main mistake of Dr. Bostom is the solution that he proposes (by implication) for the problems faced by Islamic society. The notion that 1.3 billion Muslims can and should reject Islam or acknowledge its evil nature, before becoming bona fide members of modern society is many times more illusionary than the belief in the "cultural baggage" theory, however deficient the latter is. For the overwhelming majority of modern Muslims, renouncing the divinity of the Koranic scripture amounts to shattering their personal and collective identity. It is a losing proposition and a physical impossibility.
What hopes does this leave regarding the future of Islam?
I take great hopes from drawing parallels with Jewish history and observing how a conceptual paradigm similar to the "cultural baggage" theory helped usher Judaic thought through centuries of reformation and adaptation.
True, the Torah does not advocate an eternal struggle against non-believers, but the Torah nevertheless contains some fairly embarrassing passages which have undergone drastic re-interpretation before becoming palatable to modern Jews.
Take for example the Mosaic law of "eye for an eye." The Mishna interprets it to mean payment of a fair monetary compensation for a lost organ. But was this the original intention of the law-maker?
Most Biblical scholars would say: No. But to an orthodox Jew, the answer is clearly: Yes -- all rabbinical interpretations are taken to be of divine origin (Halacha Le Moshe Mi Sinai).
The physical interpretation of "eye for an eye" was probably practiced in the days before the first temple (1000 BC) and totally disappeared by the time the Mishna was canonized (3rd century AD). Thus, over a period of approximately 1300 years, Judaism managed to undergo a drastic process of reformation, not by rejecting the divine origin of the scripture, but rather by adopting a flexible belief that the law-maker had the Rabbinical intention all along.
Today, modern Muslims are attempting to usher a similar reformation of Islam by re-interpreting, not rejecting the Holy Koran (many are ready to renounce the Hadith). They call the process "rediscovery", for it is based on the assumption that modern notions of tolerance, liberty and civil rights can be found in the scriptures if searched for by creative minds.
In this process, one tends to downplay bloody verses as narrowly contextualized, and amplify peaceful verses as central and intentional, even if it means working against the traditional Islamic rules of abrogation (i.e., priority setting).
Is this exercise dishonest? To the secularist, perhaps; to the believer, not at all.
Will the process take 1000 years? Not necessarily. Internet speeds can perform miracles if properly applied.
I recently heard Rabbi David Rosen saying (paraphrased): "If we expect moderate Muslims to marginalize their extremists and join the fight against fanaticism, we must assure them that their place under the sun is guaranteed."
The paradigm of "rediscovery" gives them such assurance, the demand to reject Islam does not.
As pragmatists in the fight for a better world we have no choice but to adapt the former.
Judea Pearl is professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation. He is co-editor of the award-winning book "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights, 2004).