10 April 2010

Democratization vs. Secularization

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3149-85:
More and more Muslims, especially those in the rising middle class, are going around the mosque and mufti network to take advantage of such choices for engaging with Islam available not only on television and radio but also in cyberspace. It is now possible to get guidance from on-the-air or online clerics and Islamic sages. Fatwas—which are religious decrees that clerics issue to clarify ambiguities in religious practice or to call on Muslims to follow a specific course of action—are a phone call or an email away. Sites such as IslamOnline, eFatwa.com, MuftiSays.com, askimam.com or, for Shias, Sistani.org offer lively discussion groups about such hot-button issues as how Muslims should interpret shariah law, how they ought to behave in the workplace, and whether the jihadist’s call to arms has any religious validity. Such websites command an impressive number of visitors, and this popular engagement is generating a democratization of sorts in Islam comparable to the rise of a more populist, and pious, breed of Christianity in the United States spurred on by the advent of televangelism.

Many of the popular new breed of media-savvy preachers blend tradition with modernity in their style as well as the substance of their messages, wearing Western attire rather than traditional robes, and speaking to their audiences in the personable, folksy manner of so many popular American preachers, making use of anecdotes about life’s daily struggles. That recipe has proven enormously popular. The strong appeal of this blending of modernity and Islam does not mean, however, that there is strong support for reform of Islam itself. The core of the appeal is in reassuring the Muslim masses that a modern way of life—the pursuit of material success, watching television, going out to nightclubs, listening to pop music—is in no way in conflict with Islam. Muslims can enjoy the fruits of modernity, they say, and be good Islamic believers at the same time. They are not, for the most part, championing the kind of more thoroughgoing reform of the faith that many in the West have advocated.

We should not kid ourselves: There is very little in the way of liberalizing reform going on in the Muslim world today. If anything, the phenomenon of rising demand for Islam is disproportionately raising the stock of conservative voices, though there surely are leaders of movements for democracy—and for women’s rights—who are building followings, as we’ll explore shortly. But by and large, while there is a great deal of engagement with new ways of delivering the message of Islam, there is not much interest in changing the message itself. For the most part, changing Islamic law or compromising on Islam’s values and worldview is not in the cards.

The attacks of 9/11 convinced many Americans that the problem with the Muslim world is that it is “unenlightened,” meaning it is pre-Renaissance in its mind-set. To catch up with modernity, Muslims must subject Islam to substantial change—Vatican II at least if not the Reformation tout court. But Westerners who are pinning their hopes for better relations with the region on an Islamic Reformation are going to be let down, at least in the near term. The paradox that can be hard to grasp is that the aspirations of the rising middle class have, by contrast, fueled the embrace of traditionalism—the Islamic world’s version of old-time religion. The prospect of launching oneself, one’s children, and one’s society out into the competitive, globalized economy has increased rather than decreased interest in tradition—religious tradition very much included—because of the belief that enduring sources of standards and values are needed to help navigate the currents of change [and not just among Muslims—J. (emphasis added)]. In time, the embrace of tradition may give way to a broader and more vigorous movement for reform, but Western efforts to promote reformism are unlikely to be the impetus. Indeed, they may be even counterproductive, feeding fears that the West wants to subvert Islam.

Many Western observers do not want to hear this. They remain preoccupied with locating the right Islamic reformer, someone who can slingshot Islam onto the fast track toward Reformation and Enlightenment. Why is such a reformer, like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, not showing up? Is reform only a matter of time, or is the West wrong to assume that the Muslim world will follow the same historical trajectory that unfolded in the West when capitalism and the scientific revolution forced change on Christianity?

Those advocating a Protestant future for Islam dwell little on the facts that early-modern Christian reformers were hardly liberal or tolerant—and that the Reformation unleashed a century and a half of bloody and even cataclysmic warfare. The Reformation in all its manifestations across Europe enforced narrow puritanical views with great violence.
Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a great many other secular "rationalists" also enforced narrow puritanical views with violence far greater than that of any religious leaders in history. Nor was the post-Reformation transition to secular nationalism—especially the racialist nationalism of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan—accomplished without great violence, not just in wars between nations but in warfare and ethnic cleansing within national boundaries. If religious intolerance is the problem, secularist intolerance of religion is not the solution.

6 comments:

Randy said...

Are you thinking of Stalinist massacres and deportations, here?

Joel said...

And the civil war and the Terror, when any actual, potential, or imaginary opponent was fair game, with no recourse for the victims.

bulbul said...

The funny thing is that to those who call for a Reformation or Second-Vatican-Councilization of Islam, these are merely codewords for liberalization and even secularization (as in diminished role of religion in politics). Consider the accusations they throw at Islam - the (mis)treatment of women (and yes, even homosexuals), the treatment of non-believers and apostates, religiously-sanctioned violence etc. etc. But if we really want to use the comparison, then we have to realize that Reformation did not do away with any of those, nor did it change the role of the religion in public life much - European religious wars are a testament to that. What it did, however, was to reduce the power of the Catholic Church and lay foundations for the fractioning of Christianity, both in terms of theology (starting with exegesis and moving from there) as well as organizational structure. How anything like that could happen in Islam, which was never organized and centralized in the same way Christianity was before Reformation, is beyond me. One could even argue that a reformation of sorts has already taken place in Islam, either with the rise of kalam, or with al-Ghazzali's rejection thereof or with the spread of Islam to all corners of the world.
So if we want to bring this line of thinking to its logical (based on the analogy between the West and Islam) conclusion, Islam doesn't need reformation, but rather an equivalent of French Revolution - a political and social upheaval of enormous proportions with a strong atheistic bend. In short, Muslims - at least according to those critics who call for Reformation - need to stop their religion and their religious leaders less seriously and Islam as a religion must be relegated to the private sphere. To what extent is this possible and how does this square with American fundamentalism and revivalism, well, that's another question. And even if something like that happened (which I consider - barring a major catastrophe - highly unlikely), Nasr's point is still a fitting one - we are not dealing with an old religion never reformed, we are dealing with a return to old-time religion, however unlike the original old-time religion it is. And that's something we, the atheistic Westerners, have trouble dealing with.
Two more points: I have to laugh at the calls for Vatican II in Islam, which seems to be made by people who have no idea what Vatican II was all about. First, the comparison is entirely flawed for reasons given above (the structure of the Catholic church as compared to Islam). And second, even if it weren't, for an average Catholic such as myself, the reforms of Vatican II brought a number of major changes, but those were almost entirely (notable exception being the Christian-Jewish reconciliation) confined to matters of theology and liturgy, i.e. internal matters. I fail to see how a comparable change in Islam - say, a reform in zakat and sawm or permission to study the Quran and pray in local languages - would do away with the Islamic threat.

bulbul said...

If religious intolerance is the problem, secularist intolerance of religion is not the solution.
Pardon me, but that doesn't make sense. Perhaps you're using "secularist" as a synonym of "atheist", especially of Hitchensian/Dawkinsian persuasion, in which case I have to object. As far as I can tell, "secularism" is still designates the idea that government has no business in religion and vice-versa. Consequently, I consider myself both a Christian and a secularist and as the latter, I do not harbor any intolerance towards any religion. I just think that it my government should not be based on one.

Joel said...

Nasr explores the tensions between the many "secularist" regimes in the Muslim world that have wavered between various degrees of tolerance of some religious organizations and outright banning of them. So "secularist" in that context does not mean neutral with respect to religion in the public sphere, but antithetical to free expression of religion, like the governments that ban headscarves, minarets, or religiously based political parties. In fact, Nasr draws implicit parallels between Kemalists in Turkey and secularist elites in the West who are antithetical to religion in the public sphere, whether or not they profess to be atheists.

I think Nasr identifies some valid parallels between secularist elites in the West who have no use for religion (nor do I) and majorities who cling to religious traditions scorned by those elites (except, Nasr omits to mention, when the latter run for political office). However, Nasr seems to assume that his audience is irreligious Westerners (like me). But the vast majority of citizens in the Americas, if not Europe, remain religious.

My point is that "we, the atheistic Westerners" have as many problems respecting the religious majorities among our citizens, *and earning their respect in turn,* as do the secularist elites in Muslim societies.

Randy said...

My point is that "we, the atheistic Westerners" have as many problems respecting the religious majorities among our citizens, *and earning their respect in turn,* as do the secularist elites in Muslim societies.

How does less than 10% of the American population dominate the country to such a degree? The United States is a much more socially and politically pluralistic country than even Turkey--how can American Christians share the experiences of Turkish Muslims? The Democratic Party hasn't governed the country with the help of the ideologically sympathetic military ...