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The Islamic Reformation? By: Thomas J. Haidon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 18, 2005


This past year, as Islamist terrorism seemed to turn inward in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, the phrase "Islamic reformation" has become a popular buzz word within the domestic and, to a lesser degree, the global Muslim community. The terrorist atrocities in Madrid and Beslan had a further positive effect on the re-emergence of a reformist discourse that has largely existed throughout pockets of Muslim history in smaller intellectual circles within Muslim communities to the wider Muslim audience. And while the events of September 11 undoubtedly set the initial stage for this discourse, the Islamist terrorist events of 2004, in their individual and collective capacity, have proven to be of an even greater significance to the reformist discussion. The savage and precise nature of these attacks has resulted in the increased non-Muslim scrutiny of Islam.

On a small scale, Muslims are beginning to awaken to the fact that aspects of Islam, whether it be the exegesis of the Qur’an, the validity and application of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, or the Muslim tradition, have played a role in the troubles they face today (which include terrorism, relations with non-Muslims, Islam's relationship with the State, the role of women, and human rights in general).

What does the genuine reformist discourse/movement entail? It is difficult to capture a confining definition, as there is much divergence even within reformist circles. However, there appears to be some agreement among actors that traditional Islam, including the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, is the primary source of the malaise. Several Muslim reformist organizations have used this as a platform, including the Free Muslim Coalition against Terrorism and the opaque Progressive Muslim Union of North America. There is also a small but growing voice within this discourse that genuinely believes that secularism is consistent with Islam. In fact, some Muslim commentators argue that Islam demands secularization. This is perhaps one of the most encouraging aspects of the movement.

To date however, a comprehensive framework for the reformist agenda has not been established by the reformers their organizations, and this is a partial reason for the marginal effect of the discourse. Further compounding the situation is the presence of perceived moderates and reformers who have attempted to divide and destroy this discourse, including such individuals as Tariq Ramadan. These fake reformers and their representative organizations say one thing and mean another.

 

Any genuine movement for Islamic reform must first seek to acknowledge that aspects particular to Islam and our understanding of Islam are problematic, and hence they need critical re-evaluation. And this is where it becomes easy to discern the real reformers from the fake ones.  Real reformers go beyond blanket and general statements. Real reformers take it further to develop theologically based solutions. Now, these real reformists and their organizations must take further steps to eradicate disingenuine reformers from the ranks of their organizations.

 

But really, how significant has this discourse been among the greater Muslim community? Not nearly as significant as it has to be. Perhaps the more important question is: how significant can the reformist discourse be? Can reform be realized? Both Muslims and non-Muslims are skeptical. Islamists themselves and many traditional an "middle of the road" Muslims (I am not trying to equate traditional Muslims with Islamists, because obviously many traditional Muslims are not Islamists) would assert that the entire body of Islam is immutable to change; because it is the essence of perfection: the undisputed word of God, and the comprehensive tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). Many Non-Muslim commentators and scholars who are critical of Islam express their skepticism that Islam cannot be reformed, due to the inviolability of its classical sources, and over fourteen hundred years of history and practice. These non-Muslim commentators are often maligned for merely confirming what Islamist and many traditional Muslims have confirmed innumerable times in tafsir, ta'wil, fatwa and other compendia.

 

The contribution by Western Muslim organizations to this discourse has largely emerged in 2004. Again while the events of September 11, 2001 may have served as a partial catalyst, Muslim action was marginal and it was the inward turn of Islamist terrorism of 2004 that has made the discourse more "urgent" in some Muslim circles.  Notable and genuine contributions to this discourse however, have been the emergence of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism (FMCAT) and to a degree, the emergence of the Progressive Muslim Union, which is largely perceived as a "moderate" reformist organization (although analyst Daniel Pipes and others have provided a different and illuminating characterization), and some notable other organizations and institutes. Refusing to take a meaningful part in this discourse has been the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other mainstream organizations purporting to represent the collective interest of American and Western Muslims.

 

But again, this movement has faced criticism from both Muslims and non-Muslims. As a member of such a "reformist" Muslim organization (FMCAT) and a firm believer that Islam is certainly capable of reform, I am acutely aware that many Muslims are unwilling to change their perspectives on Islam. A commonly held belief by many Muslims is that groups such as FMCAT do not intend to reach out to Muslims. In fact, these Muslims believe that groups like FMCAT exist to simply appease conservative white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are becoming increasingly aware of Islam and Islamism.


To these Muslims, FMCAT is engaged in spreading fitnah; that is treachery and division among Muslims. Why are so many Muslims opposed, particularly in the West, to positive changes in Islam that would bring it towards secularism and modernity? The common denominator has been crystallized by analyst and commentator Robert Spencer whom, while commending the general spirit of the reformist discourse, has legitimately questioned the ability of reformists to implement comprehensive initiatives due to the impediments that the classical sources and methodology of Islam and Muslim tradition present to us. Spencer has rightly argued that until a reformist movement tables coherent and irrefutable evidence that the version of Islam envisioned by reformists is the "correct Islam", then the movement will never have mass appeal in the Ummah. Pre-eminent scholars such as Dr. Khaleel Muhammad, Dr. Ahmed Mansour, and Dr. Kassim Ahmad (the Malaysian who bravely argued to his death that Muslims must turn away from the Muslim tradition) have developed devastatingly effective and cogent arguments in support of a reformist agenda, which are firmly rooted in the Qu'ran. These scholars and others like them such as Abdullahi Na'im, are the real bedrock of the reformation movement. While the reformist movement’s detractors have scoffed at the notion of Islamic reform, these men have provided the proof that Islam is certainly capable of reform. Their materials are readily available on the internet and in non-Muslim scholarly journals. However, these views are largely shunned by the Muslim majority. Reformist Muslim organizations must play a key role, in helping practically implement these teachings to Muslims.

 

And what of the perspectives of non-Muslim analysts, critics and commentators of Islam on the current reformist discourse? Some have been cautiously supportive, and have challenged the reformist movement to develop irrefutable arguments that the reformist vision of Islam is the "real" Islam. Other commentators have been far less constructive, and have instead attempted to undermine legitimate Muslim attempts at reform by attacking Muslim reformers as "stupid,” naïve and useless. One such commentator recently stated, "All the good people of the world must join force and must eradicate Islam. But the major share of this burden is on the shoulders of those Muslims who are still capable of rational thought, in other words the apostates. While legitimate criticism of Islam is absolutely warranted, and necessary, such destructive commentary, without qualification hinders the reformist movement.

 

This dilemma of this opposition cannot be understated as it is already creating a significant "chilling effect" on reform. Reform movements and organizations are not only facing a barrage of opposition from Islamist Muslims, but also from "middle of the road," traditional and conservative Muslims. The latter groups, while purporting to agree with some reforms, have argued that organizations such as FMCAT need to develop a more pluralistic and conciliatory approach towards Muslims who do not necessarily support Islamist ideology, but whom are traditional and conservative and less prone to change. These individuals often argue that a softer approach is required. Also, they say we should soften our stances on specific issues in order to include more Muslims. They raise a point in some respects. Perhaps our organization should develop a more pluralistic approach- one that would result in larger membership. I think this can legitimately be achieved through more strategic initiatives. The reformist agenda must not deliberately alienate "middle of the road" Muslims, as they are key to the battle of ideologies. If we lose this contingency, we lose the war.

 

However, where do we draw the line? Is it possible to be committed to a reformist agenda, while compromising that agenda at the same time? Allowing for even seemingly smaller compromises could lead to a slippery slope where bigger compromises are made.  Reformist movements will fade away into insignificance and obscurity. Simply saying that Islam needs reform without taking adequate steps to do so, out of fear from angering those in the Muslim community, will render any movement utterly spineless.

 

Groups like FMCAT has made some inroads to promote the reformist discourse. The organization has grown to ten active domestic chapters, along with three international chapters in Canada, Egypt and New Zealand. While membership numbers are relatively modest, Muslims have been aligning themselves to the organization at a fairly significant rate as we reach out to local Muslim communities. And to what end is FMCAT contributing intellectually to the reformist movement? The answer is not as much as it can. So far FMCAT and other reformist organizations have failed to develop an effective theological base for reform.  This aspect is now in the infant stages of development as our organization has acquired several Islamic scholars (who are the bedrock of real reform) to help create a plan. While we are building a series of grassroots initiatives designed at presenting aspects of the reformist agenda, the development of the theological reasoning behind our mission will be essential to our survival. We are rising to this challenge. We are beginning to accomplish what so many have told us is impossible.

 

So where do we go from here? Unless reformist organizations develop effective, grass roots strategies to achieve goals that are firmly rooted in theological principles -- i.e. the Qur’an -- the reformist discourse will prove to be nothing but rhetoric. But at the same time, strategies and policies must be developed in such a way that they do not compromise the essence of "reform,” which is the cultivation of a modern and moderate Islam, in order to appease Islamist elements of the Muslim community. Moderate reformist scholars, who have laid the groundwork for this discourse, must also play an active role in the popular, as well as the intellectual, discourse on reform.

 

Thomas Haidon is an advisor to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Khartoum, Sudan in 2003. An American lawyer who was raised in the Catholic faith but converted to Islam, he is a member of the Board of Advisors and President of the New Zealand Chapter of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism.


Thomas Haidon, a commentator on Islamic issues.


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