Looking at today's Islam, a growing number of Western long-chinned pundits have been suggesting that what Islam needs is reform -- much as Christianity and Judaism have reformed over the past 500 years. Christian reform, driven by the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, brought itself into comfortable compatibility with modernity. But what if, in the context of Islamic history, for today's Islam, Bin Ladenism is the reform? That is one of the startling suggestions of a deeply informing article by Max Rodenbeck in this month's New York Review of Books, titled "Islam confronts its demons."
While that journal is almost always filled with high-toned and scholarly anti-Bush hysteria, Mr. Rodenbeck's article, free from partisan cant and scholarly axe-grinding, should be required reading for thoughtful supporters of President Bush -- as well as his opponents. In four long pages of small type, the author discusses nine recently published books on the subject of whither Islam in the current maelstrom. The authors range from French Muslims to former CIA agents to British scholars. (Admission: I have ordered all the books from Amazon but have not yet read them -- when I have, I will report back to you. But just the review article, itself, gives one much to contemplate.)
Since September 11, Americans have started reading and thinking more about Islam. Much of that debate has focused on the nature of historic Islam. The advantage of this review is that it is assessing not what we Westerners think about Islam, but what Muslims themselves are thinking and arguing about today. No American or Western strategy intended to deal with the terrorism that is inspired by parts of today's Islam can afford to misunderstand the nature of Islam today -- the good, the bad and the likely path of its current rapid change.
As Mr. Rodenbeck reviews 14 centuries of Islamic reform history, he explains that there have been some reform efforts aimed at modernism and enlightened manners, which tried to break free from Koranic textual literalism. But that "more often than not, 'reform' in Islam has pushed in the other direction, toward the reassertion of the primacy of founding text ... using the double-barreled power of the sword and the book ... to launch jihad-minded movements."
In that context he places Bin Laden in that long line of successful "reformists": "It may sound odd to classify a terrorist group as reformist, but a radical remake of the faith is indeed the underlying intention of Bin Laden." He notes that: "This 'reform' agenda has met with a certain amount of success ... Yet in places where their fighting message has run its course, recruitment has fallen off rapidly, both in response to the ugliness of their methods and, ultimately, to the radical utopianism of their aims. Countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria and Egypt have already passed, with varying degrees of pain, through the historical gauntlet of extremist militancy."
Understanding both the potency, and the limitations, of the Bin Laden message permits us to begin to calibrate our responses rationally -- avoiding both the fatalism that an exaggerated estimate of his movement may induce and an insufficient effort that minimizing his influence may induce.
Of course, the anticipated reform (or more neutrally expressed: change) of Islam is closely related to the political perception of the Bush Administration and its theoreticians in and out of government who see the Middle East as sick and dysfunctional. They see democracy, free markets and prosperity as the cure. I have supported that theory of success -- and continue to. If some form of self-government that respects fundamental rights can be instituted in Iraq, we would be a measurable distance down the path toward a safer world.
To that end we should persevere in Iraq with as many resources and force as necessary. The Democracy project is difficult, but not without support amongst some Muslim reformists. The Dutch historian Rudolph Peters is quoted in the article contrasting the two competing impulses of reform as: "those who would subordinate Islam to progress and those who would subordinate progress to Islam."
They both have authentic sources in the history of Islam. We have a powerful interest in encouraging the progress wing of Islamic reform -- and not just in Iraq. As American policy makers -- and the informed public -- gain a better understanding of the complexities of the current Islamic religious and intellectual ferment, we are less likely to merely project ham-handedly our Western definitions into that culture.
With understanding and care, we can seek out and support those authentic parts of Islam that are compatible with peaceable relations. Importantly, we need to constantly re-check our assumptions about what is culturally possible against the changing realities of today's Islam. If democracy turns out to be not possible, other benign forms of governance should be considered. We are not nearly at that point yet, though.
As our young soldiers fight and die in Iraq -- a heartbreakingly necessary part of this struggle against terrorism -- we must vindicate their sacrifice and match their courage with an applied wisdom as we engage the better lights of Islam.