My Take on Islam Redux

I recently came across the following statement on ISIS in an Op-Ed piece by a Muslim commentator in the New York Times:

While it’s wrong to claim that the group’s thinking represents mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes so often do, it’s also wrong to pretend that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam,” as many Islamophobia­-wary Muslims like to say.[1]

This statement emboldens me to make clear my own take on Islamist terrorism.  Lately, I have been feeling that the attitude towards Islam in left-liberal circles is so politically charged, the false narrative that anyone who suggests that Islam may be different from Episcopalianism must be a right-wing Islamophobe being so dominant, that I had given up trying to talk about these ideas in such company.  I have never argued that Islam leads to terrorism.  That is Islamophobia, and I do not believe it.  Rather, I have argued that the current Muslim world is ill-equipped to counter the threat of Islamist fascism unless some radical changes occur. These changes can only be made by Muslims, and until they do so, the Islamist threat will be difficult to mitigate.  Again, I feel emboldened by the liberal Muslim voices that agree with me.

I have argued, as have many others, that there has not been and needs to be a Muslim Reformation, another highly charged statement in today’s political atmosphere leading to hyperbolic accusations of Islamophobia.  It does not mean that there are no Muslim liberals.  It does not mean that there are no Muslim believers whose personal expression of faith does not admit to Quranic literalism.  It does mean that there is little evidence of organized forces within the Islamic community that are fighting for these ideas as there have been in the Christian and Jewish communities.  The victory of those forces in Christianity and Judaism is so complete and far enough in the past that we tend to forget that these ideas were struggled for.  In the Muslim world, this struggle is nascent and inchoate but no less important for that.  The intrusion of a mature modernity into this nascent struggle complicates the matter.  Such Muslim voices tend to be lonely, isolated, largely ignored, and even vilified by Muslim and Arab intellectuals and activists who have other fish to fry.  It is the role of those intellectuals, abetted by the neo-Anarchist left, in isolating and marginalizing these voices that I find so troubling.

The Christian reformation began with Luther’s challenge to papal authority, and the Jewish reformation began with the Bal Shem Tov’s challenge to rabbinic authority, and culminated in the 19th century with the establishment of Reform Judaism.  These reformations led to the idea of secularism which is still missing in Islamic theology.  While, historically, there have been liberalizing movements within Islam, such as Sufism and the Murjia[2] movement, these are largely now considered heretical.  (I will know that a reformation has been successful in the Muslim world when apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy are erased from the penal codes in Muslim-majority nations.)  There is little organized presence within Islam struggling to free Islam from the tyranny of Quranic literalism, and until there is one, Muslim piety will not be a countervailing force to Islamist fascism, nor will Islam be comfortable with liberal ideals.

Asma Uddin, a Muslim human rights lawyer, has pointed out:

Even among individual Muslims, the vast majority of whom are freedom-loving, there are several ingrained misconceptions about human rights. Religious freedom is conflated with anarchy, particularly of the sexual sort -- the misconception being that religious freedom is ultimately about freedom from religion, which for many Muslims is freedom from moral constraints and thus total freedom to succumb to hedonism.[3]

Ms. Uddin is pointing out that within Islam, the general view is that God remains the guarantor of the moral universe and that without the constraints of religion, moral chaos would ensue.  Such an idea was also, formerly, the prevalent idea in Christian communities.  The forces countering this idea were a later consequence of religious reformation.  The 18th century Deists saw God as the guarantor of natural laws and divorced God from the moral universe, to the consternation of many.  Later still, the Transcendentalists found the moral force in nature itself.  As a result of these struggles, we can now conceive of a morally based atheism.  While it is transparently true that there are many Muslims who are perfectly comfortable with liberal ideals, it is also true that a sense of religion in which God remains the guarantor of the moral universe will not be, the predominant sensibility in unreformed religion.  (The argument, made any number of times, that liberal values, such as freedom of conscience, are irrelevant to Muslims because such values are “Eurocentric,” I find insultingly patronizing, and, frankly, racist.)

Arab and Muslim intellectuals, as suggested earlier by Mustafa Aykol, are too preoccupied with countering right-wing Islamophobia to pay much attention to what is happening in their own communities.  While that Islamophobia is nasty stuff, an exclusive focus on that will not allow those intellectuals and activists to lead their community to a useful place or encourage the kind of introspection that is needed.  How many times have we heard Muslims in the West tell us that true Quranic values support the freedom of women?  I have no reason to question their sincerity on this matter.  But if it is true that Muslim values support the freedom of women, why then do we see the almost universal subjugation of women throughout the Muslim world?  I would argue that it is not us non-Muslim Westerners who need to hear this message.  Rather, those who believe that about Quranic values need to take that message back to the Muslim world where the struggle over Quranic values needs to take place. 

In their exclusive focus on the West, Muslim activists and intellectuals are taking their cue from the American neo-Anarchist left.  According to that narrative, the power of the state is essentially evil, while virtue inheres in those who oppose state power or who are victimized by state power.  And so Muslim activists and intellectuals gravitate to those issues which characterize Muslims as the victims of power, primarily Islamophobia and head-scarf bans, in order to assert the moral superiority of Muslims as victims.  I am not arguing that these are inconsequential issues. I agree that head-scarf bans are counter-productive. However, the exclusive focus on these issues reinforces a dominant, if deleterious, left-wing narrative, at the expense of more cogent left-wing narratives, and legitimizes the rhetoric of moral superiority so prevalent among Muslim intellectuals and activists.

This indulgence in the rhetoric of moral superiority likewise causes Muslim activists and their friends in the neo-Anarchist left to discount any issue which challenges the narrative of Muslim as victim.  What other reason would lead those who claim to care about the condition of their fellow Muslims to ignore the festering sore that is the oppression of Muslim women?  George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, has also lamented the American Left’s relegating the oppression of Muslim women to a “third order issue.”[4]  Recognizing Muslims as oppressors of women might interfere with the belief in the inherent moral superiority of Muslims as victims of imperialism.  They neglect this issue to their shame.  Muslim activists in the United States will wear the hijab as a sign of their Muslim identity and defend their decision to do so claiming freedom of choice, and they excoriate Western countries with head-scarf bans for denying freedom of choice to Muslim women.  But where is their defense of freedom of choice for Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries who have no such choice?  Are they willing to put themselves on the line for freedom of choice in Saudi Arabia?  In Iran?  This lack of concern for the majority of Muslim women renders their protest disingenuous. 

This dismissal of the plight of Muslim women is doubly dangerous because it removes a strong weapon that could be used to fight the scourge of Islamist fascism.  Although groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda profess hatred for the West, there is a group they hate even more, women.  ISIS goes so far as to sacralize rape.  The fear and loathing of female sexuality is common in unreformed religion in general and is highly pronounced in Islamism.  A vigorous support for the freedom of Muslim women would undercut the tacit acceptance and support for Islamist radicalism, particularly in those countries professing Wahhabi Islam, where such support is a serious problem.  It would also be a powerful tool for stimulating religious reformation in that world.  But Muslim intellectuals and activists have denied themselves this powerful force by signing on to the rhetoric of moral superiority which discounts the subjugation of women in Islamic countries.

While it is wrong to say that Islam spawns terrorism, we cannot make the same claim for the rhetoric of moral superiority, since moral superiority justifies the rage which culminates in Jihadist fascism.  In the morally superior imagination, the Muslim is always the victim and the West is always the victimizer.  If that is so, then rage is a legitimate response to victimization.  I am not arguing that those activists’ indulgence in the rhetoric of moral superiority has caused terrorism; I am arguing that Muslim intellectuals and activists have defanged themselves in the fight against terrorism.  What have they to say to the young people who feel attracted to the arguments ISIS makes to them which stoke that rage and insist on the moral superiority of Islam itself?  Once you legitimize rage, it does not stop at moderation.  That is why I have called the rhetoric of moral superiority, in Julien Benda’s phrase, la trahison de clercs, Arab style, the treason of the intellectuals against their own community.

While the Christian and Jewish reformations took place hundreds of years ago, it is not unprecedented to have such reformations in the modern era.  Gandhi can be seen as having fomented a reformation in Hinduism, the exile of the Dalai Lama serving the same phenomenon in Buddhism.  Both arose as a response to imperialism, British and Chinese, respectively.  Gandhi understood that imperialism grafts itself onto native autocracies to justify its own, and so he sought to end the autocracy of the caste system in Hinduism so India could free itself from imperialist domination.  The patriarchal subjugation of women and the tyranny of Quranic literalism played a similar role in the Muslim experience of imperialism.  Gandhi wisely rejected rage and moral superiority as legitimate responses to imperialist victimization.  Current Muslim intellectuals and activists have much to learn from Gandhi.

Recently, there was a horrifying incident in Kabul in which a woman was beaten to death and her body burned by a howling mob outside a mosque because she was falsely accused of burning a Quran.  Why has there been no vocal and public outcry from organized Muslim groups against what can only be described as a horrific sexual lynching, as are the myriad honor killings taking place in the Muslim world?  As blacks were lynched in the Jim Crow South to reinforce a racial caste system, this woman was lynched in Kabul to reinforce a sexual caste system. 

Why has there been no vocal and public outcry from organized Muslim groups against the idolatry inherent in Quranic literalism in which a mere object made of paper is considered more sacred than human life because of the words men have printed in it?  The members of that mob were not Islamist terrorists.   They were Muslims who were not able to question the oppression of women or the tyranny of Quranic literalism.  Those missing voices would be the voices of religious reformation which Muslim intellectuals and activists have eschewed.

Islamophobes believe that Islam itself is the cause of terrorism and see the solution to terrorism as isolating Islam and carpet-bombing ISIS.  Aykol’s “islamophobia-wary Muslims” deny any connection between Islam and ISIS.  Ironically, they share with Islamophobes the idea that there are no solutions to Islamist terror to be had within Islam itself.  I am more hopeful than either of these groups.  Islamist fascism can be defeated through a religious reformation that undercuts the underpinnings of Islamism by attacking the oppression of women and the tyranny of Quranic literalism.  I am less sanguine that the Muslim intellectuals and activists needed to mount that reformation can be divorced from the debilitating and destructive rhetoric of moral superiority encouraged by neo-Anarchist ideology.


[1]Mustafa Aykol, “A Medieval Antidote to ISIS.” New York Times, 26 December 2016.

[2] (from the article cited above) The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia,” the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers.” The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, non-coercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism. Unfortunately, they did not have enough influence on the Muslim world. The school of thought disappeared quickly, only to go down in Sunni orthodoxy’s memory as one of the early “heretical sects.”

[3] Asma Uddin, “Islam and Human Rights: Why It's Up to the Muslim Community to Prove Itself.”


[4] George Packer, “Tariq Ramadan Comes to America!” New Yorker, 6 April 2010. Available on-line at Accessed 20 July,2010.