Is Muslim Reform Even Possible?

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Clarion advisory board member Dr. Zudhi Jasser has hit out against critics who claim that Muslim reform movements are bound to fail because they are not accepted within the Muslim community.

He made his comments during an hour- long episode of his podcast Reform This! on The Blaze, titled “Alt-Jihadists: Useful Idiots of the Global Islamist Establishment.”

You can listen to the full episode here:

Jasser named specific figures as “alt-Jihadists:” Stephen Kirby, Diana West, Robert Spencer, John Guandolo, Clare Lopez and Pamela Geller.

Jasser clearly enunciated in his podcast that the debate on whether Islam is compatible with modernity is an important debate that can be had. But he objects to alt-jihadists whom he says “push an extreme singular interpretation of Islam as the only Islam that prevents and dictates to the Muslim world and to Muslims like myself who is and is not a Muslim.” He slams this line of argument as being akin to the takfirism practiced by jihadists who excommunicate those who disagree with their vision of Islam.

“The key to alt-jihadism,” Jasser writes, is the belief that reform is not possible that Islam is etched in stone as being theocratic, as being supremacist and totalitarian and that the sharia state, the Islamic State of Islamic jurisprudence is fascistic and borne out of theocracy and is unreformable.”

Robert Spencer responded to Jasser’s podcast in a lengthy piece on his website Jihad Watch.

Spencer’s argues, “… in the fifteen years since 9/11 it has become clear that supporting Muslim reformers is nice identity politics and makes some people feel as if they’ve headed off charges of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ from the Left, but where are the Muslims who are saying, “I supported the jihad and was about to join ISIS until I heard Dr. Jasser”? There are no such people.”

Spencer later adds, “I’d love to see Islamic reform succeed. I’m just not willing to kid myself or others about its prospects, or pretend that it has a greater standing in Islamic doctrine or tradition than it does.”

These are important questions that must be addressed honestly.

But Spencer misses the point in three key ways:

Firstly, Spencer’s arguments belie the fact that Islam has already changed many times throughout the centuries. It has seen intellectual flourishing, such as in the Abbasid House of Wisdom, and iconoclastic destruction, such as that meted out against Hindu India by the Ghaznavid Empire, or, of course, the contemporary Islamic State (who cited the exploits of Mahmud of Ghazni in the latest issue of their propaganda magazine Rumiyah). Just like Christianity has gone from the charity of St Francis of Assisi to the torture chambers of the Inquisition to fighting for both the abolition of and the maintenance of slavery in the 19th century.

To take but two recent examples: In 2016, the Marrakesh Declaration saw more than 250 scholars from around the Muslim world convene at the request of the King of Morocco (a direct descendant of Muhammed himself and hardly a marginal figure) to “AFFIRM that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”

Closer to America, since 2013 the Muslim Leadership Initiative has seen Muslim leaders from America come to Israel to learn about Jews and Zionism, abandoning the decades long opposition to any interaction at all with the Jewish state within the establishment leadership in the Muslim community. Although this provoked a massive backlash, the fact that it happened at all is monumental in showing that it is possible to have a dialogue and move towards solutions to some of the seemingly intractable inter-communal problems that we face.

Secondly, Spencer does not acknowledge the damage done by rejecting Muslims like Jasser. When Muslims like Jasser are not seen as authentic by non-Muslims, it makes it that much harder for him to pitch to Muslims that his path will lead to acceptance. Fear is an incredibly powerful factor in politics. If Muslim communities fear they will be excluded no matter what, that non-Muslims have no interest in protecting them or their rights and are only interested in them as opponents of jihad, they have little incentive to speak out.

Thirdly, Spencer does not recognize that these things take a long time. Even within living memory, the West has seen monumental cultural shifts, on women’s rights, on gay rights, on race relations. These changes have pushed the contemporary West further in the direction of upholding human freedoms than any other civilization in the history of the world.

But those changes, begun with the French and American revolutions, took a long time. In France, a jealous husband could legally murder a cheating wife and her paramour on the spot (if he caught them in his house), as recently as 1975. Switzerland didn’t give women the right to vote until 1971 in federal elections. The last canton to grant women’s suffrage on local issues did so in 1991. The last state to criminalize marital rape was North Carolina, in 1993. Technically speaking, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is ruled “by the grace of God” by a hereditary monarch who is also the head of the established church and styled “defender of the faith,” the clergy of which sit in the national legislature.

Culture is no excuse for abuse. But equally it is unreasonable to expect monumental societal shifts to take place in a few short years. The Syrian Civil War is still raging, protests across the Muslim world recur frequently. Saudi women now have the right to vote in municipal elections. Prince Alwaleed said they should be permitted to drive. Baby steps yes. But steps nonetheless.

Muslim Reform is happening. Just slower and more quietly than Robert Spencer would like.

Do you agree or disagree? Join the conversation on Twitter using #AltJihad or write to us at [email protected]

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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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