On Point: An Islamic Reformation

by Austin Bay
Sep 18, 2002

"Islam needs its own Martin Luther," a Turkish professor friend of mine 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 heardmy friend -- and other Muslims -- make that or similar statements, usuallyhunched over a cup of coffee in a small Middle Eastern cafe, the speaker'seyes lowered, the phrase muttered with an odd sense of resignation.

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

Well, he actually said a secular Muslim state. That's where ourdiscussion turned to debate of the proposition, "Can a 'secular Muslimstate' exist?" It's an old debate, one where weapons all too often supersedewords. Between us, however, it was a discussion over strong coffee. From itsinception, Christianity recognizes rendering unto Caesar, the secular powerdistinct from the faith. Islam has no notion of separation of mosque andstate.

At least the Muslim world didn't have a working model untilAtaturk arrived. Ataturk, as part of a program to replace Ottoman politicalstructures and modernize Turkey, ended the Islamic caliphate in 1924 andcreated 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 alonger struggle, the Islamic world coming to terms with modernity -- amodernity largely the creation of "Christendom."

A substantial majority of Muslims -- not just politicalradicals -- compare the West's advances to the Islamic world's slowfossilization. Eight hundred years ago, the Muslim world stood at the globalpinnacle of scientific, cultural and social achievement.

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

Lewis suggests, as have many others, that freedom -- fromtyranny, oppression and corruption -- is the way for the Muslim world to putit right. "But," he notes, "the road to democracy as the Western experienceamply 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 Catholicsand Catholics returning the favor. The Thirty Years War devastated Europe."The Troubles" in Northern Ireland still feature Protestants and Catholicsblowing one another to pieces.

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

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

Eliminating terrorists ultimately reduces the daily fearexperienced by political moderates -- men and women who vastly outnumber theextremists but live, literally, under the gun. These moderates are the"reformationists" in their own lands, the entrepreneurs who can expandwealth and the political activists able to adapt democracy to localconditions.

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

Like it or not, Sept. 11 made encouraging and enablingdemocratic reform in Middle Eastern Muslim nations an American strategictask. No, democracy doesn't come easy, but it's the only real reform thatwill thwart the fanatics.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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