Reforming Islam

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Extremism in European Islam owes much to globalization, in the sense of new media, wider access to news and information, and much greater opportunities to travel and communicate, to explore alternative ideas.

Yet exactly the same forces have inspired Muslim reformers, who see heady prospects in Europe's intellectual freedom and whose ideas are transmitted back to the Muslim nations.

Europe serves for the Muslim world the same role that the Netherlands did for Europe's Christian societies during the Enlightenment. In the century after 1660, the Netherlands represented liberated space where exiles could take refuge, where truly radical ideas could be explored, and books of virtually any intellectual content could be safely published before being exported across the continent. It was the sort of society in which a radical Jewish skeptic like Baruch Spinoza could write without being executed.

Today, Europe provides territory in which scholars, Islamic and others, can perform on the Quran the same task of scholarly criticism and analysis that their predecessors did on Jewish and Christian scriptures. Many scholars accept that the Quran, like the Christian Bible, is a text formed over a long historical period and drawing on diverse sources and influences: variant readings competed for authority until one final text achieved canonized form. Such an approach directly challenges the common view of a perfect Quran directly dictated to the prophet in the seventh century a.d. One scholarly pioneer is Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, whose innovative Quranic studies led to his life being threatened in Egypt. He fled to the Netherlands, where he teaches at Utrecht and Leiden. France is the base for Syrian-born scholar Bassam Tahhan, who seeks a progressive and individualistic "Protestant Islam." He argues that to read the Koran rationally is to accept that the Koran is open [to interpretation] and has many meanings. The tradition regards the Koran as one-dimensional and fixed. This approach is not rationalist. To be a rationalist is to accept that each era, with its [particular] methods and discoveries, presents its own reading of the Koran, and this is the way it will be until the end of days. ... In the year 901—an unfortunate year for Muslims—a Muslim qadi named Ibn Mujahid canonized [one version of] the Koran. Before that, there were many different versions of the Koran, and this did not upset the good Muslims!

Radical scholarly findings about the early history of Islam are popularized in books such as The Rock, a novel written in his London exile by Iraqi Kanan Makiya. The book reconstructs a time in the seventh century when Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were virtually branches of one common faith. In this view, "Islam" as known by scholars through the centuries was invented long after Muhammad's time, and Muhammad's life and work were constructed retroactively. In the words of a British observer, the book is an attempt to smuggle the latest research on the Prophet Mohammed to an Arab audience. Censorship and the appeasing of Islamic fundamental ism means that historians tend to hide their work in obscure academic journals for fear of receiving the Rushdie treatment. Makiya believes their conclusions deserve a wider readership.

And that goal can best be achieved from a European base. Though it might take decades for the results of such scholarship to have their full impact upon ordinary believers, work of this kind should in the long run have an enormous impact on Muslim belief, and particularly the nature of scriptural authority.38

Another central question is that of citizenship and national loyalty. Since earliest times, Muslim thinkers have assumed that the normal state of affairs for Muslims involves living in a society dominated by Islamic government and law, and radicals dream of returning to such conditions. Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an important if controversial thinker, wrote a book with the loaded title On Law and the Jurisprudence of Muslim Minorities: The Life of Muslims in Other Societies. By implication, one either lives as a Muslim in a Muslim society or as a transient resident in an Other and presumably hostile community. From their experience in Europe, though, other thinkers ask what it means to live in a pluralist multifaith society in which the government shows preference to no religion, treating all equally. In that case, Muslims must accept a secular notion of citizenship, and in fact, must learn to separate religious and secular loyalties, to recognize a firm distinction between mosque and state.39

Europe now provides a base for several leading reformers who are exploring the implications for Islam in living in an advanced Western society. Bassam Tibi, for instance, urges Muslims to accept what he terms the Leitkultur (the leading or guiding culture), which in the European context means the Enlightenment-derived idea of the dignity and freedom of the individual. For Tibi, this idea is based on the foundation of a democratic community whose members are bound together through a collective identity as citizens of that community. Such a collective identity—in the sense of the French citoyenite (citizenship)—stands above religious identity. Religion may, of course, be practiced privately, but in public only citizenship counts. Such a concept would unite Muslims with non-Muslims.

Once European Muslims accept this core value, he suggests, other conflicts—for instance over free speech issues—can be resolved through debate and compromise.40

Similar ideas are explored by Tariq Ramadan, who in recent years has been widely seen as the prophet of a new Euro-Islam. Time magazine has named him one of the "hundred most important intellectuals of the 21st century," while the Washington Post calls him a "Muslim Martin Luther." Ramadan is a controversial figure. His critics portray him as a sinister ally of the hard-line extremists, who has nevertheless succeeded in winning the favor of gullible Westerners. The hard-line connections can in fact be traced quite easily, though it is an open question whether they detract from the content of his message.41

Tariq Ramadan's family origins give him immense prestige among traditional and conservative Muslims. His grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, actually founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and his father, Said Ramadan, carried the organization's activities into Europe, establishing the Munich mosque that would become a center of Islamist radicalism in Germany. (Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this mosque in the early 1960s. Among the bewildering network of clandestine forces involved, we find the intelligence agencies of several Western countries as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and cliques of ex-Nazi Muslims.) Said Ramadan founded the Islamic Society of Germany (Islamische Gemeinschaft Deutschland), and was associated with the Saudi-funded World Muslim League. Tariq himself was born in Switzerland in 1962, and he came to prominence in the mid-1990s. According to critics like terrorism expert Antoine Sfeir, he personified the Muslim Brotherhood strategy to gain influence in Europe. Within France, the militant and anti-assimilationist tone of his preaching won him an enthusiastic following among radical young Muslims in the banlieues. Sfeir directly linked his influence in Lyon to the radicalization of young men from the region, many of whom pursued careers in jihad.42

For Sfeir and other critics, Tariq Ramadan's writings and public pronouncements almost have to be decoded, since he uses such different approaches for different audiences. To Westerners, he sounds like a breath of liberalizing fresh air; to Muslim audiences, though, he presents a more familiar Brotherhood message. Critics accuse him of adopting the strategy of taqiya, dissembling, or double-talk for infidels. Ramadan remains close to the extreme and confrontational al-Qaradawi and has written favorable introductions for his books. His reputation in France suffered in 2002 during a controversy that began when his brother publicly supported the stoning of adulterous women. When asked about this in a televised debate with political leader Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan himself refused to denounce the penalty outright, suggesting only a moratorium on the practice.

Having said this, Ramadan has in recent years called explicitly for fundamental revisions of Muslim political and social assumptions, putting forth ideas that will find a large audience precisely because of his traditionalist credentials, and he describes his own ideological stance as Salafist reformism. This initially sounds as if he is aligning himself with the most committed extremists and fundamentalists but rather implies a stripping away of the doctrines that have surrounded Islamic teaching since the time of Muhammad. A Christian equivalent might be the social progressive who claims to be a fundamentalist in the sense of returning to the pure words of Jesus, minus later accretions.43

Whatever the label, Ramadan, like Tibi, explores questions of identity and loyalty in a quite innovative way, arguing that Western Muslims "are at home, and should not only say so but feel so." Muslims should feel comfortable being citizens of their particular nations: "Muslim identity is a response to the question 'Why' while national identity is a response to the question 'How?' and it would be absurd and stupid to expect geographical attachment to resolve the question of being." Ramadan himself has written that "In my memories, I'm Egyptian; in my citizenship, I'm Swiss; in my belief, I'm Muslim." Critically, he feels that Muslims must abandon the ancient division between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb, the world of Islam and the world of war. Instead, the non-Muslim world should be seen as the dar al-da'wa, the world of proclamation or of calling to God, in which Muslims should seek to spread their teachings by example. And once they do spread their views, the results would by no means involve a denial of Europe's Enlightenment tradition. After all, "in medieval Europe, Islam contributed significantly to the formation of rationalist, secular and modern thought." Taken together, this looks like a recipe for a new pluralistic European Islam that fully acknowledges the realities of living in the contemporary multifaith West.44

Though Ramadan's thought is nuanced, he offers consistent responses to the catechism he regularly receives in interviews:

Does a Muslim have to heed the constitution?


No exceptions?

No, because the right to practice a religion is guaranteed in all European constitutions.

And if the headscarf is forbidden in schools, as is the case in France?

The law must be respected, even if it is bad.

Does a Muslim woman have the right not to wear a headscarf?

Yes, she has the right to a free choice.

Do Muslim women have the same rights as their husbands?

Yes, there can be no discrimination against women.

What would you do if your son were homosexual?

He would still be my son and I would still respect him.

Can a Muslim change his or her belief ?


Can a Muslim woman marry a man of another religion?


Ramadan argues further that this quest for a reconstructed identity represents a powerful new movement in the Muslim world:

More and more young people and intellectuals are actively looking for a way to live in harmony with their faith while participating in the societies that are their societies, whether they like it or not. . . . Far from media attention, going through the risks of a process of maturation that is necessarily slow, they are drawing the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies. This grassroots movement will soon exert considerable influence over worldwide Islam: in view of globalization and the Westernization of the world, these are the same questions as those already being raised from Morocco to Indonesia.46

Even if we hold the darkest views of Ramadan's secret intentions, the mass circulation of his ideas cannot fail to generate debate about how the children of immigrants can live authentically Muslim lives in a secular West.

Other thinkers are more aggressively reformist or secular minded, while remaining within the fold of Islam. Turkish-German writer Zafer Senocak complains about how much Islam has lost over the centuries, not least in the twentieth century. Turkey's last caliph was a caliph that painted extremely beautiful pictures, including nudes; a caliph that was further along in the debate at the start of the last century than we are today. And he was more liberal. . . . Naturally, I have no sympathy with people who want to reduce this fantastic culture to dogmas.

Senocak publicly defended Salman Rushdie's right to blaspheme, and he denounces honor killings and gender inequality.47 Such thinkers have not historically organized into political movements, precisely because they are uncomfortable accepting the religious label as their primary identifier. They have rather affiliated to mainstream secular parties, generally on the left, which means that most self-identified Muslim organizations are conservative, and often extremist. To counter the idea that Islam necessarily implies Islamism, some liberals have now organized into avowedly reformist movements, like Denmark's Democratic Muslims, founded by a Syrian-born member of that country's parliament. Though such movements are presently sparse, they have a substantial potential for future growth.

Far from remaining in the world of academic theory, liberal ideas have been popularized by leading clergy, who have a potent influence over the Muslim community. One of France's best-known Muslim leaders is Soheib Bencheikh of Marseille, who praises secularism as a means of defending the rights of all minorities, including his own faith: "Due to secularism, Islam can stand equally with Catholics in rights and duties. . . . We can interact with the French culture that has a background of Catholicism, while holding on to our own spirituality and Islamic values." But far from being simply defensive in character, he believes, secularism actually benefits Muslims:

The separation between religion and politics will clarify Islam as a divine spiritual doctrine, not as an instrument which (can) be misused to gain power. Moreover, due to that, Islam can return its original formulation, meaning it will return as the promoted teaching not as a forced teaching—

as the Koran affirms—"Anyone who will believe may believe, and anyone who will be an infidel may be an infidel!"

For Muslims to accept these principles in France would mark a milestone; applying them to many Muslim nations would constitute a revolution.48

The same media that allow the propagation of extremist doctrines also spread more innovative ideas. One vital figure in contemporary Islam is Amr Khaled, an Egyptian preacher whose whole style and presentation powerfully recall Christian televangelists, and who has an enormous following among Muslims in Europe as well as the Middle East. His image is thoroughly modern and progressive, and he makes quite as much use of contemporary media and technology—the Internet, as well as satellite television—as does a Christian like Matthew Ashimolowo. Khaled's website is the third most popular Arabic website in the world (Al Jazeera's is the top). Wherever he travels, his avid followers fill stadiums to hear him. He encourages his listeners to accept Islamic principles not on the basis of traditional authority, but on the principles they discover through their own inward journeys: in the words of Samantha Shapiro, he "blends Islam with the feel-good optimism of Western management literature." Like Ramadan, Amr Khaled has been accused of clandestine ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other hard-line organizations, while his glitzy presentation often accompanies a conservative theological message. But he too proclaims the need for a thorough renaissance, a nahda, which would free the Muslim world of its backwardness: "It wasn't my principal plan to make the people become religious. My plan was the nahda. This was my plan all along." Increasing his potential impact in Europe itself, Khaled has relocated his main base of operations to Birmingham, in England.49

The case of Amr Khaled prevents us from drawing too sharp a contrast between Islam in Europe, supposedly progressive and modern, and the hidebound societies of north Africa or south Asia. However many radicals despise the jahili (pagan) West and dream of its apocalyptic fall, at least some theological conservatives have grasped the idea that an agonizingly poor Islamic world might learn much from Western ways. At the start of this chapter, I quoted the remarks of Hassan al-Turabi of the Sudan, long notorious as a violent Islamist radical, who in the early 1990s gave refuge to Osama bin Laden. In 2006, however, he gave an interview that was breathtaking in its willingness to contemplate reform, especially in matters of gender and sex roles. Forcing his new perception was an awareness of the economic and social gulf that separated the Islamic world from the West and the crying need to narrow the gap. Also in 2006, a glittering array of the world's leading

Sunni clergy and theologians meeting in Istanbul issued a statement of principles that was sensational in its condemnation of violence and terrorism ("a cancer"), and specifically denounced suicide bombings. Among the most daring presenters was Tariq Ramadan, who used this venue to criticize domestic violence, forced marriages, gender inequality, and brutal legal punishments. If Muslims did not act on such matters, he said, then Europeans would be right to fear their influence.50

Globalization can contribute to the spread of extremism—we recall the very rapid spread of protests against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad—but it also promotes awareness of progressive alternatives. When Libya decided to make its peace with the international community in 2003, one powerful factor was the growing awareness among ordinary Libyans of just how badly they had fallen behind the Western world, a knowledge spread by the Internet and satellite television. Across north Africa, satellite dishes, paraboliques, are everywhere, and so potent is their influence on traditional mores and beliefs that conservatives denounce them as paradiaboliques. Middle Eastern migrants in London or Amsterdam watch al-Jazeera or the still more radical al-Manar, but their relatives at home might be tuning to CNN or the BBC. Add to that the influence of migrants returning home from Europe, who are appalled by the poverty and restraint they see all around them, and the pressures for social and cultural change become overwhelming.

Muslim governments, too, have a vested interest in promoting quite radical reforms within their religious structures in order to combat the rival appeal of Islamism. When radicals take refuge in London or Rome in order to mount propaganda against their home countries, they cannot be killed or imprisoned, but must rather be confronted ideologically. We see this process in Morocco, which for a decade has faced a terrorist challenge from the extremist GICM (Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, or Moroccan Islamic Combat Group). In 2003 a dozen suicide bombers attacked five Casablanca sites chosen for their Jewish associations, leaving forty dead.

Recognizing the extent of the religious and ideological crisis, the Moroccan government made a systematic attempt to promote moderate forms of Islam. A new mudawana (family code) issued in 2003 expanded women's legal rights. In 2006, the authorities commissioned fifty women as religious teachers, granting them diplomas of murshid (religious guides). While these women would not have the full status of imams, community leaders, this is still a major step in incorporating female participation. And the close link between Morocco and Europe's Muslim communities means that this decision will assuredly have international implications. In Paris, the Algerian-sponsored Great Mosque now operates a theological school that trains young women as spiritual counselors for hospitals and prisons. The fact of having women clergy or chaplains in itself says nothing about the content of the message they present, but in the context of changing women's roles in Europe, it poses a real challenge to ultraconservatives.51

No one can underestimate the severity of the struggle currently in progress for control of the religious structures of European Islam, the "battle for the soul of Islam" that has become a journalistic cliché. Undeniably, the public voices of Europe's Muslim communities are often shrill, and some leaders assuredly are extremist, militant, and in some cases, actively subversive. In many countries too, Muslim populations seem deeply alienated from mainstream society, and some ordinary Muslims appear willing to follow the extremists. Yet the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militants flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the historical forces working against extremism.

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