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Waiting for an Islamic reformation

Will the Muslim world follow the same historical arc as the West?

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • July 29, 2014
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The eyes of many are focused on the unspeakable brutality and pointlessness of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. But alongside this event, minds and hearts across the world are assailed daily by barbarism across the Middle East and in different parts of Asia.

It's the paradox of liberalism that pluralistic secular democracies such as in Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and other parts of Asia afford citizens far greater freedoms than some of its citizens would be ready to concede if they were in charge. Authorities in those countries readily approve the right of Muslims to build mosques, get government subsidies for their schools and dress as they wish.

Not so for Christians in parts of the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Iran and a dozen other countries where churches are outlawed and Christians are persecuted, even condemned to death if they convert from Islam. In states where the mullahs govern and sharia law prevails, there is no margin for the concessions freely granted in secular, pluralistic democracies.

Some societies in Asia and elsewhere have received Muslims as workers or refugees. But these countries also have Islamic citizens who would welcome the day that sharia law trumps the hard won victory of an independent judiciary, the rule of law and the weighty tradition of the secular, democratic processes.

The flashpoint that shows all the signs of a new- and world-endangering totalitarianism is the collapse underway in Iraq. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the greatest dislocation is occurring in Iraq where Sunni forces operating for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are cutting a swathe through northern Iraq, adding on a daily basis to the 1.2 million internally displaced people there, including 500,000 displaced coming from one province alone since January.

ISIS forces are targeting Christians in particular, with Christians fleeing parts of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, staying outside UNHCR camps and general facilities like schools and municipal buildings. Churches and monasteries are bombed by the Sunni insurgents of ISIS, along with religious shrines of their Muslim opponents, the Shia.

These expulsions are occurring in parts of Syria and Iraq where there have been Christian communities for more than one and a half millennia.  

But the sharp rise in brutal intolerance doesn't stop in the Middle East. Add to the Iraq catastrophe the pointless war between the Palestinians and the Israelis, violent tactics of the Chinese military toward large Christian communities around the city of Wenzhou and elsewhere and the abusive treatment of Rohingya Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar all suggest that humanity is in the midst of a powerful outbreak of violent intolerance not seen since the days of carnage in Rwanda 20 years ago.

What are we to make of this mayhem? Reactions across the world vary from the impotent outrage to the nonchalance of secularists who just murmur, “I told you so. Religion brings nothing but trouble”.

But these reactions -- often felt and uttered by Europeans and Americans -- need to keep in mind that for many hundreds of years, Europeans indulged in such exercises in intolerance and brutality, costing countless millions of lives. The mere mention of the wars of religion (16th to 17th centuries) that followed the Protestant Reformation, and proved to be the most costly in history for the human lives it claimed relative to the population of Europe at the time, should give anyone from the West pause before denigrating Muslims.

The whole sorry history of the two world wars of the 20th century is testimony to how little we humans learn from our experience. And this apparently never ending catastrophe begs the question of how we humans can live together peacefully, tolerating our differences and each other's peculiarities?

While the West has little to boast about in its record, there is something that Europe, the US, Australia and all countries described as secular states have in common. And the course of its development is the subject of one of the most significant books of the last decade - A Secular Age, by the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.

A monumental work of almost 800 pages, Taylor's thesis is rather simple: where the marriage of altar and throne kept Western society relatively well regulated during the reign of Christendom, the Protestant Reformation broke the political consensus and the controlling devices holding Europe together; it broke up and Europeans behaved badly; eventually they came to recognize that civilized life meant self-control, the rule of law and the resolution of disputes in a rational way was the only way for humanity to thrive.

As Europe unraveled, the Church lost its role as the moral regulator, kings and queens lost their all-controlling rule by divine right, the voice of democratic change became heard through parliaments and assemblies and the function of an independent judiciary was progressively defined.

Islam had its reformation very soon after the prophet's death when the basic division between Shias and Sunnis occurred. But there has never been any equivalent of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution or the US Declaration of Independence that shaped what rationally operating Western political states inherited.

What there has been over the last century is the growing oil wealth of many Islamic states able to finance the opportunism of fanatics along with poor diplomacy by Western states beginning with the way the Middle East was divided up and then dealt with.

Many will be the calls for external intervention to bring hordes of marauding militias to heel. Many will be the expressions of despair over the international community's impotence before this and other offences to our shared humanity and sense of what civilized humanity requires.

Europe and the US became civilized, started to develop and respect the rule of law and saw better ways of resolving disputes than killing opponents the hard way. Let's hope that Islam can learn the same lesson fast, separate religion and law, learn how intellectually unsustainable and practically destructive it is to read a literal truth into a 1,500-year-old document (Qu'ran) and join the post-modern world.

If the Islamic world can learn the lesson, the world will be a better place. 

Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly is executive director of ucanews.com

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