Monday, January 09, 2006

Islam: Un-Reformable?

President Bush's plan for Iraq has been - to use a word the President doubtless would dislike - keeps evolving. Early on, we were told, he hoped to create a Western style secular democracy that would be friendly to the US, an ally in the war on terrorism and a off permanent base for US troops in the Persian Gulf. To that end, shortly after the fall of Saddam, as if to underscore this vision, the US began building what was designed as the largest US embassy in the world smack in the middle of Baghdad. Two and a half years, 2150+ US lives and $500 billion taxpayer later, the administration merely hopes to ward off civil war. Gone are the visions of a secular democracy. The draft Iraqi constitution makes the new Iraq avowedly an Islamic state. In the recent elections, secularists were so badly trounced by hardcore religious parties that they barely won any seats at all. With the popularity of increasingly fundamentalist Shiite leaders - mostly backed by Iran, which supported the recent election that put those leaders in Iraq's parliament - rising, the idea that a future Iraqi government will be either pro-US or an ally in the war on terror is all but laughable. The idea of a permanent US military base in Iraq isn't even mentioned anymore.

But the heart of the president's foreign policy - the notion of spreading democracy throughout the Islamic world, as a tonic to Islamic fanaticism - is still loudly voiced in Washington. It is as if the neocons believe that all that is needed to turn the Islamic world into a somewhat more colorful version of Minneapolis is the ballot box. As one observer notes, this is ridiculous, based both on the recent evidence from Islamic ballot boxes, and from the very nature of Islam itself. A religion that cannot be reformed into a democracy-compatible form.

Islam is the unexploded bomb of global politics. US foreign policy - the only foreign policy there is, for the United States is the only superpower - proceeds from the hope that a modern and democratic Islam will emerge from the ruins of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Through democratic institutions, Washington believes, the long-marginalized Shi'ites will adapt to religious pluralism. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's Islam, fixed in amber since the High Middle Ages, will metamorphose into something like American mainline Protestantism.

Alas, the available facts suggest that the opposite result will ensue: more freedom equals more fundamentalism. Not the secular Shi'ite parties but the pro-Iranian religious parties dominate the Iraqi polls. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood quadrupled its vote despite heavy-handed measures to intimidate its supporters; Hamas threatens to displace Fatah in the Palestinian elections this month; Hezbollah has become the strongest electoral as well as military force in Lebanon; and, most important of all, Mahmud Ahmadinejad crushed a more pragmatic opponent in last June's Iranian presidential elections.

Islam was founded as a theocracy, such that the Western innovation of church-state separation remains alien to its culture. Is it possible for Islam to reform? A negative answer implies that Ahmadinejad's January 5 call for world domination falls within the Islamic mainstream. He told an audience of religious students, "We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It's a universal ideology that leads the world to justice. We don't shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world. We must prepare ourselves to rule the world."

If any Western leader, religious or political, declared his aspiration to rule the world, it would be front page news, denounced immediately and properly by every commentator and news outlet around the world. But when the Iranian leader declares his intention to have Muslims rule the world, nary a peep is heard from the Western media.

Spengler goes on to claim that Pope Benedict XVI has recently, in private conversation, stated that he believes that Islam cannot reform to permit separation between church and state the way Christianity did because of Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God, not simply the inspired word. Since these comments are related via second-hand sources, it is impossible to determine - in the absence of direct, attributable quotes - whether the pontiff actual said or believes such things. Given the Catholic Church's recent outreach to Muslims, it is doubtful that any such sentiment will flow from an official church document. However, the pope would be hardly the first person to posit the idea. Spengler himself, among many others, has been saying for some time.

I claim no originality whatever in this matter, for I simply follow the leading Muslim authorities, who are unanimous that Islam is in no need of reform. The immutable character of Islamic revelation makes the subject of Koranic criticism into a minefield. It is universally known among scholars that alternative texts of the Koran have been discovered in various archeological sites - something of an embarrassment for the Archangel Gabriel - but the subject has disappeared from the media. [1] When Newsweek in 2004 published a brief mention of the work of the pseudonymous German philologist Christoph Luxenberg, the government of Pakistan seized the entire print run. Luxenberg became famous for re-translating the Koran to read that martyrs would receive raisins in Paradise rather than virgins. One finds nearly 12,000 Google references to Luxenberg but not a single hit on Google News. The subject, once so passionately debated in editorial columns, has vanished from the media in their entirety.

It is dangerous to publish anything that Muslims might interpret as blasphemy, as Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest newspaper, discovered when it published 12 cartoons of Mohammed, some portraying the Prophet in violent acts. Muslim protests and threats caused two of the cartoonists to go into hiding. After Arab foreign ministers condemned Denmark for refusing to act against the newspaper, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered a near-apology in his New Year's address.

Strange as it may seem, the pope must whisper when he wants to state agreement with conventional Muslim opinion, namely that the Koranic prophecy is fixed for all time such that Islam cannot reform itself. If Islam cannot change, then a likely outcome will be civilizational war, something too horrific for US leaders to contemplate. What Benedict XVI thinks about the likelihood of civilizational war I do not know.

If Islam is fundamentally incapable to transforming itself to tolerate modern ideals like democracy and tolerance, then much more is at stake the Mr. Bush's increasingly costly foreign policy. The West itself may be imperiled because it has permitted so many Muslims to take up residence within its borders, sowing the seeds of future calamity.


At 4:46 PM , Blogger Razib said...

nothing about religion is really fundamental. of course, islam has a steeper hillside than roman catholicism, but so did reformed christianity (though perhaps not as steep).


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