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Why calling for an ‘Islamic Reformation’ is lazy and historically illiterate

Martin Luther wasn’t trying to create a more liberal political order. It’s time to talk about what really happened

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

It’s been said for years now: Islam needs its reformation. Some centuries ago, Christianity ditched its theocratic impulse and affirmed modern political values — let Islam do likewise! Let its Luther, who is presumably sulking in the corner of some madrassa, come forward! Islam hath need of him!

This sounds briskly no-nonsense, in its willingness to say that Islam has a problem that needs fixing, and open-minded about religion, in its assumption that religions can change and be compatible with secularism. But it’s actually lazy and historically illiterate. It involves a misreading of how Christianity relates to modernity.

It implies that, once upon a time, Christianity was in conflict with healthy political values, but it learned to change its ways. Maybe it is supposed that Martin Luther was the pioneer of this, that he said something along the lines of: ‘Let’s question what the Pope tells us and adapt our faith so that it accords with humanist morality, equal rights, and the separation of church and state.’

Instead, Luther said something along the lines of: ‘Let’s purify our religion, be more faithful to its essential logic, contained in its founding documents.’ And this reforming movement gradually produced new political realities and ideas. Creating a more liberal political order was not on Luther’s agenda, nor on anyone’s at that time, but it did become a central concern of some Protestants in the next century. The Protestant Reformation was not a matter of Christianity accepting the truth of something else, something beyond itself. And that is what people really want when they say that Islam needs a reformation: they want it to accept the truth of western values, adapt to them.

So the ‘Islam needs its reformation’ line makes this mistake. It supposes that Christianity and Islam are two comparable forms of religion: if Religion A adapted to modernity, Religion B can too. But Religion A didn’t adapt to modernity: it inadvertently made modernity, by trying to be more purely itself.


The game-changing idea that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation can be summed up thus: down with theo-cracy! (Maybe I’m a soppy liberal patriot, but it seems to me that this breakthrough was 90 per cent English.) Let the state no longer enforce religious uniformity, but rather protect people’s freedom to choose how to worship. This revolution in theo-politics was proposed not by atheists but by idealistic Protestants. God wills this new sort of liberty-protecting state, said people like John Milton and John Locke. (Nonbelievers like Spinoza and Voltaire followed in their wake and have received undue credit.)

Why did they think that political liberty was God’s will? They had learned from earlier Protestants like Luther to distrust bossy institutions and religious rules; they now applied this to politics as well as religion. And they pointed to the New Testament, which affirms no theocratic model of politics (unlike the Old Testament, with its holy kings). The whole tradition of coercion in religion is wrong, is at odds with scripture, they said. For example, John Locke, in his ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’, claimed that toleration is ‘the principal mark of the true church’.

Christianity was not suddenly converted to liberty from then on. The big guns, Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, preferred the old theocratic idea, and have taken three centuries to rethink. Though the issue has not been neatly resolved (Christianity inevitably reacts against secular liberal values in certain ways), nor is it dangerously unresolved: almost no Christians want to create some alternative theocratic order, by any means necessary.

Are there are any grounds for thinking that Islam can echo this story? That it can move to seeing its theocratic tendency as erroneous, to seeing coercion in religion as a hideous heresy? I’m sorry to sound gloomy but I’m not sure there are.

The problem is twofold. First, liberal values already exist, and are firmly seen as external, or alien, to Islam. To say that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are central principles of Islam just doesn’t ring true: we all know that they have been most fully formulated and institutionalised, over centuries, in the West.

Second, as Douglas Murray recently outlined in these pages, the founding texts of Islam are ambiguous about violence: the Prophet’s calls to compassion and mercy coexist with his affirmation of the use of force in the name of God. A liberal Muslim can argue, with some reason, that Mohammed put more emphasis on compassion than his contemporaries did, but cannot deny that he affirmed a basically theocratic ideal. By contrast, Christianity’s founding texts do authorise a radical break with theocratic violence. To say that Jesus advocated nonviolence rather than holy war is not just one interpretation. Christianity therefore has an anti-theocratic logic that Islam (and in fact Judaism) lacks.

So what should we do? Regretfully conclude that Islam is unreformable, and treat it as a stubbornly medieval ‘other’? That doesn’t feel like a healthy attitude; it might justify persecution, or at least marginalisation. Instead we should reserve judgment on the ultimate fate of Islam and trust that toleration — confident, hard-headed toleration — is the best medicine for reactionary ideologies. In the past, the British press was full of anguished debates about whether Roman Catholicism should be tolerated. It seemed unreformable in its belief that the Pope’s authority trumped that of the liberal state. Surely these fifth columnists should not be allowed to disseminate their creed, or to start their own schools, said many. But Catholicism was tolerated, and as a result of living under liberalism it gradually liberalised. In the case of Islam, the same thing must be hoped for.

I said that toleration should be confident and hard-headed. Also, odd though it may sound, it should be unashamedly inconsistent. Most of the punditry since the Paris attacks has been too black-and-white. It assumes that we must choose between fully tolerating Islam, meaning never offending Muslims, making them feel entirely comfortable here; and fully affirming secular liberal values, however much it offends them. Of course we must not make such a choice, not ever.

We should not be so tolerant of Muslims that we agree never to mock their religion — but generally we should avoid such offence. Nor should we necessarily tolerate the anti-western venom of many of their preachers — but generally we should, as much as we can bear to. True toleration is necessarily inconsistent. We can only hope that such toleration encourages liberal interpretations of Islam to flourish, but whether these can contribute to a decisive change within Islam, God knows.

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