Islam doesn’t need a ‘reformation’ to fight the phobists

Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment has a long history in the context of the modern West

Bill Maher, centre, with actor Ben Affleck, left, and Sam Harris, the author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, during Real Time With Bill Maher, in Los Angeles. AP Photo / HBO
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Earlier this week, American talk show host Bill Maher brought several public figures onto his programme, Real Time, and in the midst of the conversation, the subject of extremism and Islam arose.

No real solutions were discussed but, in the process of identifying key issues, Maher fell – wilfully or otherwise – into the trap of generalising about Muslim communities worldwide. His supporter on the panel, writer Sam Harris, also made a variety of oversimplifications about Muslims and their cultural practices. This was no surprise as it was Mr Harris who, in a blog post two years ago, argued: “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.”

It is not the first time that Maher, who is progressive on a number of issues, has exhibited a rather radical right wing notion of what Islam actually is, comparing the religion to a “mafia”. It is also, regrettably, not the first time that discussions around Islam have been conducted without the presence of experts or even any adherents of the faith – something that rarely, if ever happens when discussing Christianity or Judaism.

Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment has a long history in the context of the modern West. For centuries, Muslim countries were the “Other” that many in the European West defined themselves as being against. Contemporary expressions of these kinds of sentiment are ubiquitous. With the spread of social media, it is far easier to promote various narratives about Muslim communities who live among us or live far away.

The most recent instigating factor around these concerns relating to Muslims and Islam has been the rise of ISIL. An extremist movement that is distinctively violent, ISIL has ascended from within radical Islamism and portrays itself now as the “Islamic State” par excellence. Indeed, its very raison d’être, which it continuously promotes, is predicated on the notion that it is a deeply “Islamic” entity.

It is clear that only a tiny minority of the more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide actually accept ISIL’s claim. Nevertheless, it leads to the argument being made: even if Muslims do not flock to ISIL’s banner, how many of them actually sympathise with the root of ISIL’s ideology? In short, are they part of the solution – or are they part of the problem?

It is an insidious claim to deploy because the argument essentially finds Muslims to be guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, more often than not, the implication is that those Muslims who are not religious at all are the “good” Muslims, while those who might adhere to Islam with any degree of seriousness are possibly a problem. As such, the net is cast rather widely – and the solution is typically framed as religious engineering, via reformation or dereligifying. The more devout, the more problematic; the less related to Islam, the better the Muslim, it would appear.

There are two essential problems with this paradigm. The first is that contrary to the predictions of some 20th century thinkers, modernisation in Muslim communities did not lessen how religious they are. Secular societies have, arguably, existed in the Muslim world for centuries, because there has always been a distinction between religious academic institutions and more worldly governing ones. But secularised communities where religion itself is removed from the public space, are rare in the Muslim experience.

If we define the religion itself as the “problem”, we are likely to consider more than a billion people as the “enemy”. Ironically, this “enemy” is far more likely to suffer from the likes of ISIL. More Muslims have suffered than non-Muslims.

Much of this is known. But what is less talked about is the internal contradiction in describing the solution to radical ideology as something like a “reformation”. Such a reformation would seek to redefine Islamic thought, albeit along anti-extremist lines, and radically rethink what Islam, as a religion, has become over the course of its 1,400- year history.

This approach fails to recognise that ISIL itself is the product of a “reformation” exercise – and it was not a pretty one. One cannot describe the roots of ISIL’s ideology without finding at least some of them within the purist Salafism that originated in the movement of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab, in what is now Saudi Arabia, and continues to animate the official religious establishment there.

This kind of radical thought would not have been possible without reformation in the first place. Indeed, it opened the door.

Not for the first time, there is a problem within religious thought in the Muslim world. Historically, those problems have been addressed not by a reform process akin to Protestantism in the Christian world, but by a deepening of religious thought from within, to make it more relevant to the contemporary world. It is unfortunate that over the past 200 years, Muslim communities have had to deal with, simultaneously, the weakening of their religious academic institutions via colonial and postcolonial regimes, and the rise of unorthodox religious extremism on the other.

Their challenge has been to root their faith in its intellectual traditions while still making it relevant to the modern age. The alternative – of trying to socially engineer Islam from the outside for it to become akin to a kind of Enlightenment philosophy – may result in a few lively variants, but history has shown that this more typically leads to groups like ISIL.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer