February 8, 2020
“I always look at the Middle East and think, you know, in America, we think that the default position is peace. And we go to war, we have a war, somebody wins, somebody loses, we finish, we have a peace agreement, we go back to our lives. The Middle East, they’ve been fighting for 4,000 years. It’s been an ethno-sectarian battle and psychodrama, and they’ve been killing each other for millennia. Their normal state of condition is war, and the peace is when they have pause, regroup, fight again.”
These words were not fired off by some ignorant passer-by after being surprised on the street by a roving news reporter. No, these remarks were made by Kathleen Troia (“K. T.”) McFarland, a former deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration, during a Fox News interview in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. Her remark that the peoples of the region have been “killing each other for millennia” is a familiar refrain in the media — right- and left-wing, though more on the right — when reporting on conflict within and among Muslim majority nations, and on Islam.
Another familiar refrain is one we frequently heard from McFarland’s former superior at the National Security Council, Michael Flynn, who praised efforts in Egypt that he thought were aimed at “a reformation of the Islamic religion” as a way of addressing internecine violence. Other radical right-wing websites laud “reformers” like the Australian Mohamed Tawhdi, much for the same reason. Others have recently proposed more reasons for wanting an “Islamic reformation” — including bringing Israel and Arab states closer together, and counteracting Muslim extremists.
The word “reform” has several unfortunate connotations, however, when it comes to how different states engage with Islam. Many of the world’s most intense expressions of Islamophobia, it’s claimed — China’s infamous “re-education” camps, for instance — are apparently also there to “reform” Muslims.
Whenever the topic of “reform” emerges, an underlying assumption is never far behind: that there is a peculiar problem with Islam, and it needs to undergo its own “reformation.” Some even insist that the problem with Islam goes so deep that an extremist group like Islamic State is, in fact, “very Islamic” — also a claim made by Michael Flynn. But when calls are made for an “Islamic Reformation,” it’s unclear that the proponents understand what they are asking for, let alone what assumptions they are making. Indeed, if their arguments were taken seriously by policy makers, issues in the wider Arab world would likely get worse.
On the political level, the problems of the region have little to do with the lack of an “Islamic Reformation” or, indeed, with Islam itself. Take, for example, the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict — a conflict fuelled less by religious hatred than by decades of occupation and marginalisation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. If a genuine peace process was underway, that would be quite a separate matter to religious developments within the Muslim community. As matters currently stand, there is little movement toward something like normalisation between Israel and the broader Arab world, and that has to do with political opposition to Israeli policies — not the lack of an “Islamic Reformation.” Indeed, such opposition is grounded in international law, not prejudice from Muslims.
When it comes to violence, Muslim majority countries worldwide, not least in the broader Arab world, are hardly more turbulent historically than other nations. Recall that former US president Jimmy Carter recently pointed out that the United States “has been at peace for only 16 of its 242 years as a nation,” and that it is “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” By contrast, the Muslim-American scholar Imam Zaid Shakir has debunked the idea that Islamic law calls for “perpetual warfare.” In practice, moreover, the great wars of the world were instigated and led by non-Muslim powers — from the Holocaust in Europe and the Belgian-led genocide in the Congo, to the mass killings under Stalin. Indeed, it is difficult to find an atrocity carried out by Muslims that comes close to these horrors.
Perhaps the most commonly heard argument in favour of an “Islamic Reformation,” however, relates to the need to somehow “immunise” Muslims from extremism. The logic is fairly straightforward: “Islam” per se lends itself far too easily to being utilised and weaponised as justification for extremist violence — thus the claim that “Islamic State” is, in fact, “very Islamic.” Some then blame the existence of anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia precisely on the claimed ‘saliency’ of normative Islamic ideas with regards to violence.
This is a peculiar argument, however. If Islam really is that easily given over to producing extremism, then one should consider — would that not make the preponderance of extremism among Muslims far greater than it currently is? According to the most recent figures, nearly one quarter of all human beings (or 23.2 percent) is Muslim — that is, more than 1.7 billion people. One can certainly argue there are too many Muslim extremists in the world, but even an aggregate number of all known radical groups among Muslims wouldn’t make up 0.001% of the global Muslim population. If Islam is purportedly such a violent religion, then surely it would be more effective in producing extremist violence.
There’s an unavoidable irony at work in this argument: an “Islamic Reformation” has already taken place, and it didn’t work out too well. Islam doesn’t admit a hierarchical ecclesiastical authority like that of the Catholic Church, and thus the use of the frame of an “Islamic Reformation” is a rather peculiar one, because it implies the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism.
But even putting that poor analogy aside, for argument’s sake, the closest equivalent to an “Islamic Reformation” was the purist Salafi — some call it, pejoratively, “Wahhabi” — movement that arose in the eighteenth century. This movement was condemned by the vast majority of the Muslim mainstream scholarly establishment for its theological and ethical excesses, and the effects of the rise of that movement continue to have negative repercussions to this day. Indeed, certain contemporary radical interpretations of Salafism — though not necessarily the movement itself — intermingled with modern political ideologies to produce the likes of al-Qa’eda.
There are certainly problems in Muslim majority states, as there are in non-Muslim majority states. In the Arab world — which represents, as a matter of fact, a small minority of the Muslim world — the predominant issues have to do with a lack of good governance and the failure to uphold fundamental rights. That explains far more of the phenomena of internecine violence and civil conflict in the wider Arab world than the absence of an “Islamic Reformation” — but acknowledging this would mean taking seriously the needs of Arab citizens in terms of fundamental structural reforms in their states, as well as upholding their rights. How often do we hear proponents of an “Islamic Reformation” arguing about that? Indeed, many Muslim scholars also fail on this count — though, in this instance, perhaps it is less due to an ideological blind-spot than out of concern that they might become the tyrant’s next victim.
Al-Qa’eda itself, it should be stressed, is a “reform” movement in progress. Surely that’s not what proponents of an “Islamic Reformation” — or even outright Islamophobes — are after. If anything, we’d be well advised to encourage a process of “counter-reformation” — the kind of movement that encouraged the reinforcement of classical Islamic learning and produced the likes of Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (Averroës), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Rumi or Ibn Khaldun. Now that’s something to hope and work for — but whatever else it is, it’s no “Reformation.”
Source: ABC Religion & Ethics