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On Point

An Islamic Reformation

by Austin Bay
Sep 18, 2002

mused. That was 1992, as we watched an Ayatollah Khomeini-inspired demonstration in front of the University of Istanbul -- the demonstrators young women behind veils, young men with clenched fists, thick beards and brand-new bullhorns.

The hope "for a Luther," a grand reformer, wasn't new. I'd heard my friend -- and other Muslims -- make that or similar statements, usually hunched over a cup of coffee in a small Middle Eastern cafe, the speaker's eyes lowered, the phrase muttered with an odd sense of resignation.

"Islam needs a future," is another version. When the professor said that, he was once again addressing the virulent brand of political Islamism espoused by Iran's ruling clerics. He thought "The Ayatollah's Future" was another form of fossilization. A dedicated Kemalist (follower of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic), he was committed to a secular state.

Well, he actually said a secular Muslim state. That's where our discussion turned to debate of the proposition, "Can a 'secular Muslim state' exist?" It's an old debate, one where weapons all too often supersede words. Between us, however, it was a discussion over strong coffee. From its inception, Christianity recognizes rendering unto Caesar, the secular power distinct from the faith. Islam has no notion of separation of mosque and state.

At least the Muslim world didn't have a working model until Ataturk arrived. Ataturk, as part of a program to replace Ottoman political structures and modernize Turkey, ended the Islamic caliphate in 1924 and created a secular state with an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Last year, Osama bin Laden complained of the terrible "80 years" of Muslim indignation and suffering since the end of the Islamic caliphate.

Looking back at Sept. 11, 2001, we witness an American tragedy. It was also our introduction to an Islamic civil war, a small part of a longer struggle, the Islamic world coming to terms with modernity -- a modernity largely the creation of "Christendom."

A substantial majority of Muslims -- not just political radicals -- compare the West's advances to the Islamic world's slow fossilization. Eight hundred years ago, the Muslim world stood at the global pinnacle of scientific, cultural and social achievement.

Bernard Lewis in his book "What Went Wrong" observes that, for Muslims, "asking the question, 'Who did this to us?' has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other questions -- 'What did we do wrong?' -- has led naturally to a second question 'How do we put it right?' In that question ... lie the best hopes for the future."

Lewis suggests, as have many others, that freedom -- from tyranny, oppression and corruption -- is the way for the Muslim world to put it right. "But," he notes, "the road to democracy as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles."

The professor seeking a Muslim Martin Luther knew "Christendom" fought a bloody series of religious wars, with Protestants hacking Catholics and Catholics returning the favor. The Thirty Years War devastated Europe. "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland still feature Protestants and Catholics blowing one another to pieces.

Last fall, I heard an American Muslim cleric say he felt that Islam had been hijacked by extremists. Political fanatics, he said, had hijacked his religion. He felt the fanatics denigrated his faith.

In some places, the hijacking is literal. In several Middle Eastern Muslim nations, voices of moderation are silenced by threat of assassination -- or actual assassination. Muslims in those hard corners don't need a mullah Martin Luther, they need freedom from fear.

Eliminating terrorists ultimately reduces the daily fear experienced by political moderates -- men and women who vastly outnumber the extremists but live, literally, under the gun. These moderates are the "reformationists" in their own lands, the entrepreneurs who can expand wealth and the political activists able to adapt democracy to local conditions.

That's a long, hard task, one Kemal Ataturk began and Turkey's secularists continue, through occasional coup d'etats, states of emergency and bouts of military rule.

Like it or not, Sept. 11 made encouraging and enabling democratic reform in Middle Eastern Muslim nations an American strategic task. No, democracy doesn't come easy, but it's the only real reform that will thwart the fanatics.

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