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Why ‘Reform’ Islam? – OpEd

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With the world-wide fallout over the Paris attacks and ISIS’ bloody role in them, pundits and journalists have been falling all over themselves opining on how we got here.  There has been no end of breast-beating about Islam: what’s wrong with Islam that it produced such monsters?  Can Islam be reformed?  I think the question is entirely wrong.

How many Islamist extremists do we believe there are in the world?  If we include al Qaeda, ISIS, al-Nusra, Boko Haram and similar groups–Peter Bergen, writing at CNN, estimated in 2014 there are between 85,000-100,000.  How many Muslims are there in the world?  1.6-billion.  That works out to .000625%.  It is true, of course, that it is those willing to be the most violent, most extreme, most outrageous who hijack the world’s attention.  They present the most aggressive, most militant, most visible face of the religion.  So they exert impact far out of proportion to their actual numbers.

But we should remember Bergen’s words on this subject:

By historical standards this is hardly a major threat. At the end of the Cold War, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact countries could muster around 6 million men to fight in a war against the West, a number that is some 60 times greater than the total number of militants estimated to be fighting for jihadist organizations today…

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the threat posed by jihadist organizations around the globe is quite inconsequential when compared with what the West faced in the past century.

But that hasn’t stopped media outlets like the NY Times from weighing in on the subject.  Here is Tim Arango’s introduction to a broad examination of the question of “how to smash” ISIS:

Talking to a diverse group of experts, officials, religious scholars and former jihadis makes clear there is no consensus on a simple strategy to defeat the Islamic State. But there are some themes — like…pushing a broader reformation of Islam — that a range of people who follow the group say must be part of a solution.

Who is the first “expert” he cites?  A former Islamist recruiter who tells him:

“The statement that this has nothing to do with Islam is disingenuous,” said Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for a radical Islamist group who was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 to 2006.

“We need to have a candid conversation about this and recognize that there is a correlation between scripture and this,”

Nawaz of course offers no proof of this correlation, nor does the reporter.  But even if we concede for argument’s sake that there is some correlation, no matter how tenuous, why do we blame an entire religion?  Why do we blame an entire sacred book when a tiny minority of a religion misinterpret it?  Why do we say the religion is at fault rather than the human beings who betray or distort it?

Baruch Goldstein was a mass murderer who killed 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers at a religious shrine.  He did this in the name of his twisted form of Judaism (which I prefer to call settler Judaism to distinguish it from normative Judaism).  Did I hear Tim Arango or anyone else wring their hands about the correlation between Torah and mass murder?  Even if I did, should I have?

There is nothing wrong with Torah.  Just because Jews misread their sacred text, must I blame the text itself?

Next Arango turns to a “former colonel” in Russia’s Federal Security Service.  Given the brutal ways in which Russia has addressed its own homegrown Islamic extremism, I’d question an intelligence agent as a credible source on this subject.  But he does suggest that Wahabism and radical Gulf clerics and others inspire much of Sunni radicalism, of which ISIS is at the heart.  Arguably a reasonable idea.  But then our friendly FSS agent adds this zinger:

“A significant part of the Islamic religion is infected with a tumor that is metastasizing.”

Really?  And we’re supposed to accept the word of a Russian spy who knows next to nothing about Islam as a religion, and who sees Islam as his darkest Satanic enemy to be exterminated (generally the Russian solution to such problems)?  This is the sort of “expert” Arango seeks to offer?

Next, Arango offers this unsupported, overly-broad claim (and note the typical call for a “moderate Islam”):

An ultimate defeat of the group cannot happen without a reformation within Islam, experts say, and that necessitates a recognition that interpretations of Islam are at the core of the problem, and an outreach to moderate Muslims.

This is the very next quotation from a Muslim “expert.”  You’d expect it to support his demand for a Muslim reformation.  Does it?  No:

“Where is the panel this morning on the Sunday talk shows where you have Muslim leaders alongside Western leaders to talk about how they’re going to conquer this problem?” she [Princeton Professor Amaney A. Jamal] asked. “Instead, you’ll get panels of Western leaders and public policy intellectuals telling you what they will do about Muslims, talking at Muslims.”

Not a word from the good professor about reforming her religion or the cancer that is supposedly eating away at it from within.

There is one source Arango quotes who may remotely be construed as addressing the issue of a theological debate within Islam between extremists and more normative Muslims.  He says:

“ISIS is the one that is saying, ‘We have something to offer you: a sense of purpose, a sense of fulfillment.’ That is what is missing,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, a spiritual leader in Virginia.

“We need to have a strong religious identity that calls people to action, but action in a way that is constructive, not destructive, and promotes life, not death,” he said.

But if you examine his view closely you will see there is no call to reform Islam.  He does not say there is anything wrong with Islam.  He says that Muslims must more vigorously espouse their more normative religious beliefs.  That seems almost self-evident and hardly as sweeping as calls for a radical transformation of Islam and a rooting out of bad ideas at its heart, which Arango infers, and whose sources explicitly avow.

So there you have it.  A claim that is supposedly supported by four “experts,” only two of whom are Islamic scholars and only one of whom remotely speaks to the claims Aranago has set forth.  But even if Islam did require reformation, who is Tim Arango to tell it to do so?  Or Pamela Geller?  Or Daniel Pipes?  Isn’t that the job of Muslims if it is the job of anyone?

Al Jazeera America’s Mehdi Hassan thoroughly debunked the notion of Muslim reform propagated by non-Muslims motivated by political, rather than purely spiritual or religious motives (h/t to Yasser Abumuailek):

[What we] don’t need are lazy calls for an Islamic reformation from non-Muslims and ex-Muslims, the repetition of which merely illustrates how shallow and simplistic, how ahistorical and even anti-historical, some of the west’s leading commentators are on this issue. It is much easier for them, it seems, to reduce the complex debate over violent extremism to a series of cliches, slogans and soundbites, rather than examining root causes or historical trends; easier still to champion the most extreme and bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists.

Now let’s turn to coverage of Islam in the world media.  It doesn’t generally happen unless there is a bombing or a war.  Even then, it doesn’t cover the subject well.  The amount of drivel that passes for knowledge in social media tells you how much the average person knows about Islam.

I make no claim to be a scholar of Islam.  But I know my own religion and have a general interest in the broader subject.

So let me ask a few questions: when Israeli settlers murder Palestinian babies how many NY Times reporters ask what’s wrong with Judaism?  How many wonder when or how Judaism will reform itself?  How many ask where the “moderate Jews” are?  And even if reporters like Tim Arango did so, why should a Jew listen or care?  It’s the job of Jews to determine what their religion is.  Not outsiders who have their own agendas having little to do with the religion itself.

Another question: when a white supremacist murders nine African-American churchgoers, how many asked what’s wrong with white people in America?  When Burmese Buddhists commit genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, how many wail about the sickness at the heart of Buddhism?

The biggest problem I have with the way this issue is presented is that it confuses a political, with a religious issue.  Though Islamist extremists claim their motivation springs from Islam, I think it springs from far more secular motives: greed and power.  They aren’t motivated by religion.  They are thugs and malcontents who thrive on a geopolitical vacuum.  They are like soldiers of fortune, supping on the world’s misery.

ISIS is a political movement.  The problems which permitted ISIS to sweep across wide swaths of Iraq and Syria were not religious in nature.  The Iraqi state was, and still is in shambles.  There is no central government.  What little there is of it is corrupt.  The army barely exists.  When it does, it too is corrupt and dysfunctional.  Into this maelström stepped ISIS, eager to advantage.

Why did ISIS find a foothold in Syria?  Because that country too had become a failed state.  There was a vacuüm into which a ragtag gang of looters, criminals, and killers disguised as devout Sunni Muslims rushed.  Politics and nature abhor vacuums.  When they exist, the worst dregs of humanity are more than happy to fill them.

Is any of this the fault of Islam?  I think not.  So let’s stop the hysteria.  That may not be possible.  But let’s do our best to tone it down.

This article was published at Tikun Olam.

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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