Geneive Abdo pans the Secular Islamic Summit in WoPo

Don’t know how I missed this when it came out, but I just came across an article by Genieve Abdo in The Washington Post on the recent "Secular Islam" gathering the credibility of which I ("New from Monty Python: the Ministry of Silly Islamic Activists" and others  (e.g., alt.muslim, have challenged.   Not surprisingly, she seems to share our scepticism about their claim to being reformers, much less their ability to deliver the goods.

Geneive Abdo – A More Islamic Islam –

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A small group of self-proclaimed secular Muslims from North America and elsewhere gathered in St. Petersburg recently for what they billed as a new global movement to correct the assumed wrongs of Islam and call for an Islamic Reformation.

Across the state in Fort Lauderdale, Muslim leaders from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Washington-based advocacy group whose members the "secular" Muslims claim are radicals, denounced any notion of a Reformation as another attempt by the West to impose its history and philosophy on the Islamic world.

The self-proclaimed secularists represent only a small minority of Muslims. The views among religious Muslims from CAIR more closely reflect the views of the majority, not only in the United States but worldwide. Yet Western media, governments and neoconservative pundits pay more attention to the secular minority.

I agree with her points here, but I wish she’d given a more space to just how the secular "reformation" being advocated by this group and its friends in Washington runs afoul of understandable, deep-seated religious sensitivies on the part of Muslims and is thus inevitably a nonstarter.  She hints at it by pointing out that Muslims object, understandably, to outside intervention in their religious tradition, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For one thing, these constant analogies to the Protestant Reformation are completely out of place.

The "reformation" of Islam being proposed by secular polemicists such as these bears almost no resemblance to the change in Western religious thought that was sparked by Martin Luther in 1517.  Luther spoke out against the sale of papal indulgences as a staunchly traditional Christian believer and a supporter of the Church

Luther did not attack Christian faith, nor did he reject the place of Christian values and laws in his society.  He did not hurl invective at the God or founder of Christianity, nor did treat the Church and its tradition as enemies that must be stamped out for the sake of progress.  To the contrary, his quarrel with the Catholic Church concerned a small number of important but narrow theological matters.  Far from rejecting his tradition’s sacred texts, Luther re-affirmed their centrality by virtue of being divinely inspired.  Hence his famous maxim of Sola scriptura or "By scripture alone". 

By today’s standards, Martin Luther was not less religiously orthodox or conservative than the church clerical establishment that he (eventually) turned on, and a new, equally religiously-conservative church quickly sprang up in the lands where his reforms prevailed. 

Thus to compare the "reforms" advocated by these anti-Islamic crusaders and often avowed atheists to the Protestant Reformation betrays gross ignorance of Western religious history.  It’s a fundamentally ahistorical and misleading analogy, but it’s inexplicably precisely what the MSM is peddling constantly, implying that Muslims by not embracing these declared enemies of themselves and their faith are resisting the example of progress exemplified by the Protestant Reformation.  Even though– far from being kindred spirits of the so-called Secular Islam Summit–Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other leaders of that movement would’ve cheerfully burnt these characters at the stake.

Abdo also makes a very important point when she says that CAIR is far more representative of Muslim public opinion than the Summit.  This is something Washington needs to understand.  Whatever you think of CAIR–and I think they for the most part do good, important civil rights work that would go undone otherwise–that’s the reality.  There are things one can disagree with CAIR on, but on the issues for which they get incessantly smeared as extremist or "Wahhabi" by Islamophobes, CAIR consistently represents the overwhelming consensus among Muslims.

This is another discussion, but I think the fact that CAIR gets hounded for advocating views that are commonplace among normal Muslims shows how little room there is in the American political system today for Muslims, or real dissent on W ashington’s misguided Mideast policies.

The least Islamophobes could do is to cease their charade of claiming to only oppose "Islamic extremism" when their strident attacks on CAIR for the commonplace of positions among Muslims reveals that their real target is the Muslim community at large.  They insist on having their cake and eating it, too–smearing the whole Muslim community for legitimate political dissent while they piously decry any intention to stereotype Muslims.

  • George Carty

    Isn’t Wahhabism/Salafism the real Islamic Reformation?
    Taking the analogy with European Christian history further, do you think that the US hawks are deliberately fomenting a Sunni/Shi’a bloodbath in Iraq in the hope of discrediting Islamism in both communities, just as the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War helped to discredit the politicization of Christianity and thus lead the way to a secular Europe?

  • NoPCThoughts

    Islamic “reform” hits the problem that there is not a central authority that can implement reforms, even if it wanted to.
    In Catholic Christianity, the Pope was the sole arbiter on religious thought, so you could “reform” the papacy, and thus reform the church. Noticebly the Orthodox Christians were already decentralised, so no “reformation” was possible in their creeds. This Orthodox decentralistion has some similarities with Islam.
    Since the end of the Caliphate, there has been no recognised central Islamic authority in either the Sunni or Shia strands, with each Iman his own church (if you pardon the analogy).
    Also, the Islamic split into two streams (Shia and Sunni) was at a very early stage, when the creed was not fully formed. It has since split into sects such as Sufi mysticism, Wahhabis, Ismailis, Kahrijites, Alawis, Druze and Baha’i. Many have doctrinal difference with each other.
    A lot of these sects have a somewhat problematic relationship with the two mainstream schools of Islam and all of them distrust each other.
    Martin Luther would have found if diffcult to be heard, if the Orthodox and Catholics had been at each others throats at the time. Only when a religion is unthreatened is it free to gaze at its own naval.
    Radical violent Islam has stirred up the waters of what was a placid pond in the 50′s & 60′s and this means that any “reform” movement is declared as Un-Islamic and stifled (often with violence).
    The Islamic world perceives itself under attack (wrongly, most of the world would rather religious dissension and expansion was going away, not growing again) from the “West”.
    In reality I would guess that whilst “reform” is off the agenda, Iraq could be the birth of another bout of Sunni and Shia religious warfare.

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    Nice post, Svend.
    NoPC: Sufism, for one, is not a separate “sect” of Islam. When people say that, to me it shows a big misunderstanding of what tasawwuf is. And Druize and Baha’i are totally separate religions. True, their founders may have come from an Islamic background, but they are not Muslims and do not consider themselves so.

  • Abdul-Quddus

    As-salaamu ‘alaykum Svend. Ultimately, any reformation must come from within, and not without, the Muslim community. Ibn Warraq’s ideal of a Secular Islam simply does not float.

  • abusinan

    Sufis are indeed considered Sunni. Like the Sunni world, Sufis have no one leader and within themselves have a large difference of opinion on a whole range of matters.
    Some of these beliefs within some groups of Sufis give other Muslims cause for concern.
    Some of those concerns are that some groups of Sufis elevate Mohammad almost to the point of diety, way above the fact that he was a mortal human being, a Prophet of God, but a human being none the less.
    Some Sufi groups do not strictly adhere to the requirements made upon Muslims, namely in prayer. But on the other hand, some groups of Sufis are known for being very strict on their implementation of these acts.
    Some Sufi groups will spend far too much time and money on Mawlid celebrations and traveling to do pilgrimages that they actually do not do Hajj because of it.
    Some Sufis will pray to “Saints” which is something that is not sanctioned by Islam. God alone is to be prayed to. Others will raise their Sufi leaders to the point where they are considered “Saints”.
    There is also the issue where some people think you can actually become “one with God” which is certainly out of bounds.
    But again, Sufism, like the whole Sunni world, is a wide tent with many beliefs. You can not make one blanket statement about all Sufis because they have no one leader and their beliefs differ widely from one group to the next.
    Historically Sufis have played a huge rule in the spreading of Islam around the world, and for that all Muslims owe them a debt.

  • relievedebtor

    I appreciate the post. It is probably true, and I have done this myself, that westerners use their frame of reference (the Reformation) and impose it on the current situation in Islam. This article and the comments have shed some light on the differences between the two situations. Do you feel that nothing is necessary, or just that the term Reformation is problematic?
    One point to consider. While I, even as future Lutheran clergy, see the importance of Luther in the Reformation, it was not accomplished by him alone. Indeed without princes suceeding from Rome, it would have been killed rather easily. Also, it was probably inevitable among these politicians. Luther just gave them the excuse.

  • TM Lutas

    If Islam is looking to Christianity, I would hope that Luther and Calvin would be more of a floor rather than a model. The blood baths of the religious wars are something to be avoided. After so many centuries, couldn’t you do better?
    A factual note, Orthodoxy can change, can reform. It just takes an ecumenical council. If the Pope and the Patriarchs ever get their act together and bury the hatchet, we would probably see those start to happen.

  • svend

    George: There are some similarities between early Wahhabism and the Protestant Reformation (especially the emphasis on scripture alone, the hostility to the existing religious establishment and the sense that idolatry had become rampant), but I must admit that I don’t think Wahhabism merits this comparison. Muhammad ibn Wahhab, in my opinion, didn’t have the depth or erudition in their own traditions comparable to that of Martin Luther and other key Protestant leaders. He was widely denounced by Muslim scholars in his day for lacking both credentials and sound understanding of the essentials of Islam. I don’t say that to offend anybody–it’s just my sense of the facts.
    No I don’t think that’s the plan in Iraq. I don’t think there’s any coherent vision behind our policies towards Muslims at all, unless you count prostituting yourself special interests a policy. Far too many people at the helm are either Keystone Cops who don’t understand what they’re doing, or extremists with an agenda that predisposes them against policies that are fair or even sustainable vis-a-vis the Muslim world.
    NoPCThoughts: If you consider the Reformation’s primary historical consequence in the short term to be decentralizing power, then Islam isn’t in need of a Reformation. (I might be oversimplifying, but my impression is that Luther and other leaders of the Reformation had little if any interest in individual rights own sake–these political and social developments–which took generations–were unintended byproducts of the Reformation. )
    relieveddebtor: I most certainly think reforms of a host of reforms are necessary, but like Luther I don’t the big issues to be political but rather methodological and spiritual. And reform can’t be decreed by outsiders, and certainly shouldn’t be focused on the decontextualized moountains-made-of-moe-hills that Islamophobes often cite to prove the innate barbarity of Islam. Many of our problems are the result of a vicious circle of Muslim neglect of Islam’s real ideals and destabilizing meddling by outsiders (noone ever reforms themselves in the middle of a war).
    That’s a good point about the importance of political support. Whether he was right or not, Luther’s message would probably never have had a broader impact had Friedrich of Saxony not championed and protected him. There’s a tendency to naively assume that truth always prevails in the history of ideas when the reality is much messier.
    TM: That’s an excellent poitna bout the carnage that long was a major legacy of the Protestant Reformation. You seem to have read my mind, as I was actually thinking this afternoon of following up with a similar observation.
    The key, I think, is to realize that the positive fruits of the PM took centuries to emerge and were not the result of government policies. Policymakers who think they can decree that Muslims become modern Westerners over night need to look at how long and painful the process was for Westerners.
    Finally, I think our greatest enemy is the slogan. You can’t say anythying meaningful about complex issues with slogans, which are inherently reactionary (reinforcing prejudices and the accepted wisdom) and misleading.
    If the West wants a Reformation it should start with its own often destabilizing and self-defeating involvement in the Muslim world. Both because it is a very serious contributing factor to these problems and because it’s probably the only thing the West *can* effectively change.
    Reform can’t happen while we’re locked in a battle to the death.