The Urgency of Inventing a Democratic Islam
By Akbar Ganji
27 March, 2015
The growth of Islamic terrorist groups and the ongoing carnage in many Islamic countries have attracted worldwide attention. Many view Islam as a religion that condones violence. Undoubtedly, the Holy Quran contains verses that authorize use of violence. Although such verses were specific to the era of Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago, their abuse in the 21st century represent gross violations of human rights. There are also some states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf that present themselves as Islamic states, but are only dictatorial regimes.
Such state of affairs has given rise to all sorts of claims about Islam, such as "Islam cannot be reformed," or "Islam and respect for human rights are incompatible," or "the Quran is a manifesto for violence," and "Islam and the radical Islamic terrorist groups are one and the same and there is no hope for an enlightened Islam."
Let us suppose that all the claims against Islam -- not what is done in Islam's name -- are actually true. Then, the question is, what can we do? What political strategy should be followed in order to improve the situation?
The Structural Limitations on Political and Moral Decision Making
The aforementioned questions would have been easy to address, had we been dealing with only several thousand terrorists. But, the reality is that there are 1.6 billion Muslims who make up the majority in 49 countries. Even in Europe, Muslims represent about 6 percent of the population, a significant number. To them, Islam is still part of their identity. So, what can be done about such a huge number of Muslims and large number of Islamic nations?
Rational people do not pursue impossible dreams. Thus, consider what is impossible:
First, it is impossible to eliminate Islam. Any religion that addresses human beings' existential questions and gives them identity cannot be eliminated.
Second, it is impossible to convert all Muslims to non-Muslims, because they are mostly born in Islamic countries, and live and pass away there.
Third, it is impossible to kill all Muslims.
Fourth, it is impossible to be in a permanent state of war with Muslim nations.
Fifth, it is also impossible to cut off all relations with Muslim countries.
Peaceful existence is a universal ideal. But, even if "national interests" and "free market" are the only ideals of Western nations, they cannot be materialized without peace and stability. Only the military-industrial complex benefits from war and destruction, for which the price is murdering millions of innocent people and creating a huge refugee problem. Thus, we should search for solutions that lead us to peace and respectful co-existence of all nations. To achieve such a goal, several facts must be understood:
First, Islam and Muslims do not represent a monolith entity. Throughout history the vast majority of Muslims have been moderate. They also do not have the same interpretations of the Islamic teachings, nor do they practice their religion to the same degree.
Second, Islam does not make up the complete identity of any Muslim, because there is no singular identity for all, and people's identity is a product of many different factors.
Third, the United States and its allies have played a leading role in creating the jihadist groups in Afghanistan, and creating conditions in Iraq, Libya and Syria that gave rise to such terrorist groups and, thus, must accept responsibility for them. General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of U.S. European command, has said "our allies created the Islamic State [also known as the ISIS or ISIL] to confront the Lebanese Hezbollah." Most importantly, in an interview on March 17 President Obama acknowledged the role of the United States in creating the ISIS, saying, "ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences, which is why we should generally aim before we shoot." But, in a previous article by this author it was argued that the current situation in Iraq cannot really be considered as an "unintended" consequence of invading Iraq, as many senior U.S. officials had actually predicted the current conditions.
Fourth, without understanding Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia we cannot gain a better and deeper understanding of the Islamic State. Wahhabism has a tight relation with Islamic terrorism. But, this is willfully ignored by Western powers because of Saudi Arabia's importance.
Fifth, we must pay particular attention to the social environment and background, such as poverty, discrimination, dictatorship, corruption, vast unemployment, and feeling of social humiliation and insult, which give rise to radical Islamic groups.
Sixth, we must reject the notion that Islam cannot be reformed. No religion is the same as the one preached by its original prophet.
Why Should Democratic Islam Be Invented?
Even atheists and Islamophobes cannot escape the aforementioned realities. Thus, they must ponder them and decide what their social responsibilities are, and which worldwide strategy can lead not only to peace, but also cultural pluralism.
All religions are the product of their societies in which they rose, and all have undergone changes throughout history that are directly related to the social changes in their regions. Their evolution will continue. Every religion has several "languages" -- tools for various interpretations of its teachings -- some of which favor peace, while others advocate war. Thus, even if "democratic Islam" has not been "invented" yet, we must do it.
British historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that traditions have been invented. Religions too represent inventions. Thus, inventing a democratic Islam that is compatible with respect for human rights and pluralism, and an Islam that considers all citizens as equal is not only possible, but also imperative and desirable. Islamic nations and Muslims need a democratic Islam that would help them get rid of their dictatorial regimes and social inequalities, and allow them to live freely under secular democratic regimes.
And, if the West and Westerners desire peaceful co-existence with the Islamic world, they must also help invention of democratic Islam.
We cannot reduce Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Quran to violence and war. We cannot extend a religious order or verdict that was issued fourteen centuries ago to the present era, and believe falsely that if they were executed then, they can be implemented forever, and have as much validity in our era as they did over a thousand years ago. The Quran speaks, for example, about slavery but, except for such terrorist groups as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, no Muslim accepts slavery. The most comprehensive slavery system was in the United States, but that too was abolished in the 19th century.
My Main Claims are That
First, similar to the Bible and the Old Testament, Quran has multiple voices.
Second, History has shown that Islam can be reformed.
Third, the Quran has been and will be a manifesto for Muslim pacifists.
Fourth, the Quran is a book of blessing and dignity.
Fifth, Islam has never proposed any guideline for an "Islamic government" and, thus,it is a secular religion. If we recognized this, we have taken a serious step toward laying the foundation for democratic and anti-discrimination governments in Islamic states.
Sixth, there are interpretations of the Islamic teachings that are completely compatible with respect for human rights.
These concepts have been invented and developed by enlightened and modern Muslims. Those that are opposed to Islam might argue that a democratic Islam will not be a genuine Islam, and will have no relation with the original one. But, if this is true, it should also be true about Christianity and Judaism, because 2,000 or 4,000 years ago there was no concept of democracy or respect for human rights; they were invented and developed by modern human beings.
History indicates that, as societies developed, Jews and Christians developed religions that are compatible with democracy and respect for human rights. The Old Testament declares,
"When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them-the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites- as the Lord your God has commanded you."( Deutoronomy 20:10-17).
Jesus, the prophet of peace and mercy, declared,
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Or, I have come to turn "'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me." (Matthew, chapter 10, verses 34-48).
The understanding of the Christians of the Crusade era of such verses was vastly different from our current one. When President Obama spoke about this fact, he wascriticized harshly by some, but only because he had spoken the truth.
Thus, just as Jews and Christians did not stop being Jew and Christian by setting aside and rejecting the verses in their holy books that espouse violence, Muslims will also not leave Islam if they do the same. Putting a stop to calls for violence must be a fundamental pillar of inventing a democratic Islam.
As another example, consider the Old Testament's position regarding homosexuality:
"If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."( Leviticus 18:22).
On the other hand, the Quran recommends no punishment for homosexuality. If Jews and Christians do not execute the Old Testament's order regarding homosexuals, why would Muslims become non-Muslims if they accept the order?
Saying no to inventing and developing democratic Islam will only spread Islamophobia that presents Islam as a religion of violence that cannot be reformed, which will not only be incompatible with peace and harmony, but will also provide the background for permanent war and destruction. In that case, the only "viable" way would be to murder all Muslims, or occupy the Islamic nations forever.
Anyone and any group, whether religious, secular or atheist, that accepts peace and respect for human rights as humane ideals must support the invention and development of democratic Islam. Those who advocate violence will pursue war, treating Islam like a cancerous tumor that must be removed. That will only lead to further bloodshed.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.