February 23, 1994
by Paul Marshall
Recent years have witnessed the spectacular resurgence of militant, revivalist and aggressive forms of Islam. The most striking examples are in Iran and Sudan, but they are also powerful in Algeria and Afghanistan, and increasingly so in Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia and throughout the Islamic world. They appear to be, and certainly see themselves, as the wave of the future.
These movements demand strict, universal, and immediate conformity to Sharia (Islamic) law and oppose what they see as the easy compromises of contemporary Islamic countries. They are ever more intolerant of non-Muslims and call for death for those who leave Islam.
The usual Western political policy is to cozy up to violently repressive but Western-friendly (and oil rich) regimes like Saudi Arabia while trying to undercut non-Western-friendly varieties of fundamentalism by cultivating "secular" views. In this context secular means someone who believes that religion should be a purely personal and private matter. Turkey is held up as a positive secular example, no doubt a cruel surprise to Christians and others persecuted in that country.
The choice then offered is fundamentalism versus Westernization, the Islamic way versus the secular way.
There are two problems with this. First, it treats Western secularism as the only model of religious coexistence in the world. But secularism, while certainly more benign than fundamentalism, is no friend to anything other than private religion. It is an affront not only to Islam but to any religion, Christianity included, whose beliefs shape all of human life.
Second, by asserting that one must go outside Islam for any hope of religious openness, it dismisses Muslims who are neither secular nor fundamentalist. It ends up strengthening the fundamentalist claim that they are the only real Muslims.
But Islam is a diverse religion. It covers many continents, has had many political forms, and at times has shown great toleration. In this century acknowledged leaders such as Muhammad Iqbal in India and Muhammad Abduh of Egypt have called for its reconstruction on the basis of the Koran. Scholars such as the Shiite Abdulaziz Sachedina maintain that earlier Islamic teachings are far more open than the later legalisms.
When Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic church at the end of the 15th century (having stayed throughout centuries of Islamic rule) many took refuge in Turkey. In the 16th century European wars of religion, the Calvinists of Hungary and Transylvania preferred the rule of the Turks to that of the Catholic Hapsburgs.
Given this history we cannot simply assume that there is no possibility of change in Islam. Right now prospects look almost unremittingly bleak. Fundamentalists intimidate relatively moderate governments into silence and acquiescence. They threaten reformers with death and push them to the margins of society.
Those Islamic voices that call for religious freedom and other human rights are increasingly confined to the educated elites. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, an Islamic scholar now with Human Rights Watch, describes their efforts as "conceptual rather than practical." Nevertheless, despite thiss o far successful oppression, there are more claimants than the fundamentalists to the mantle of authentic Islam.
The cause of religious freedom in the Islamic world will be stronger the more legitimacy it has in Islamic eyes. Conversely increased openness that can draw on the possibilities of Islam cna make the world better not only for other religions in the Islamic world but also for Muslims themselves.
We need to shake off the reduction of Islam to fundamentalists, World Trade Center bombers, and Salman Rushdie killers. Nor should we seek solace in the wistful dream of an exported secularism. We need to seek out those Muslims who are open to pluralism and freedom. Their chances of success may now look slim. But anything less surrenders the ground to fundamentalism and a reign of hatred and persecution.
Paul Marshall is professor of political theory at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada.
Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.