The Reform Islam Needs
January 26, 2003
By James Q. Wilson
We are engaged in a struggle to defeat terrorism. I have no advice on how to win that struggle, but I have some thoughts as to why it exists. It is not, I think, because Islam is at war with the West or because Palestinians are trying to displace Israelis. The struggle exists, I think, because the West has mastered the problem of reconciling religion and freedom, while several Middle Eastern nations have not.
Reconciling religion and freedom has been the most difficult political task most nations have faced. It is not hard to see why. People who believe that there is one set of moral rules superior to all others, laid down by God and sometimes enforced by the fear of eternal punishment, will understandably expect their nation to observe and impose these rules; to do otherwise would be to repudiate deeply held convictions, offend a divine being and corrupt society. This is the view of many Muslims; it was also the view of Pope Leo XIII--who said in 1888 that men find freedom in obedience to the authority of God.
In furtherance of these views, Queen Mary executed 300 Protestants, England and France expelled Jews, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled from Spain both Moors and Jews, the Spanish Inquisition tortured and executed a few thousand alleged heretics, and books were destroyed and scholars threatened for advancing theologically incorrect theories.
During this time, Islam was a vast empire stretching from western Africa into India--an empire that valued learning, prized scholars, maintained great libraries, and preserved the works of many ancient writers. But within three centuries, this greatest civilization on the face of the earth was in retreat, and the West was rising to produce a civilization renowned for its commitment to personal liberty, scientific expertise, political democracy and free markets.
Freedom of conscience has made the difference. The central question is not why freedom of conscience failed to come to much of Islam but why it came at all to the West. What made religious toleration and later freedom of conscience possible in England was political necessity. It was necessary, first in England and later in America and much of Europe, because rulers trying to govern nations could not do so without granting freedom to people of different faiths.
Here lay the chief difference between Islam and the West: Islam was a land of one religion and few states, while the West was a land of many states that were acquiring many religions. In the 16th century, people in England thought of themselves chiefly as Englishmen before they thought of themselves as Protestants, and those in France saw themselves as Frenchmen before they saw themselves as Catholics. In most of Islam--in Arabia and northern Africa, certainly--people saw themselves as Muslims before they thought of themselves as members of any state; indeed, states hardly existed in this world until European colonial powers created them.
The Muslim faith was divided into the Sunni and the Shiite; but Christianity was soon divided into four branches. The Protestant Reformation created not only Lutheranism but its archrival, Calvinism, which now joined the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.
Lutherans, like Catholics, were governed by a priesthood, but Calvinists were ruled by congregations, and so they proclaimed not only a sterner faith but a distinctive political philosophy. The followers of Luther and Calvin had little interest in religious liberty; they wanted to replace a church they detested with one that they admired. But in doing so, they helped bring about religious wars. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg settled the religious wars briefly with the phrase "cuius regio, eius religio"--meaning that people in each state or principality would have the religion of their ruler.
But the problem grew worse as more dissident groups appeared. To the quarrels between Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans were added challenges from Anabaptists, Quakers, and Unitarians. These sects had their own passionate defenders, and they helped start many struggles. And so wars broke out again.
When the Peace of Westphalia settled the wars of the 16th century in 1648, it reaffirmed the old doctrine of following the religion of your ruler, but added an odd new doctrine that required some liberty of conscience. As C. V. Wedgwood put it, men had begun to grasp "the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword."
In England, Parliament passed the Toleration Act, allowing dissident Protestant sects to practice their religion. Their members still could not hold government office, but at least they would not be hanged. The idea of a free conscience did not advance very much; after all, "toleration" meant that a preferred or established religion, out of its own kindness, allowed other religions to exist--but not to do much more.
The Toleration Act began a slow process of moderating the political impact of organized religion. Half a century before it was passed, Galileo, tried by the Roman Inquisition for believing that Earth moved around the Sun, was sentenced to house arrest. But less than a century after the law was adopted, Adam Smith wrote a much praised book on morality that scarcely mentioned God, and less than a century after that, Charles Darwin published books that denied God a role in human evolution, a claim that profoundly disturbed his religious critics but didn't prevent his books from being wildly popular.
Toleration in the American colonies began slowly but accelerated rapidly when our country had to form a nation out of diverse states. The migration of religious sects to America made the colonies a natural breeding ground for religious freedom, but only up to a point. Six colonies required their voters to be Protestants, four asked citizens to believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, one required belief in the Trinity and two in heaven and hell, and five had an officially established church.
America in the 17th and 18th centuries had many religions and some tolerance for dissenting views, but not until the colonists tried to form a national union did they squarely face the problem of religious freedom. The 13 colonies, in order to become a nation, had to decide how to manage the extraordinary diversity of the country. The colonists did so largely by writing a constitution that was silent on the question of religion, except to ban any "religious test" as a requirement for holding federal office.
When the first Congress adopted the Bill of Rights, it included the odd and much disputed ban on passing a law "respecting an establishment of religion." The meaning of that phrase is a matter of scholarly speculation. James Madison's original proposal was that the First Amendment ban "any national religion," and in their first drafts the House and Senate agreed. But when the two branches of Congress turned over their slightly different language to a conference committee, its members, for reasons that no one has satisfactorily explained, chose to ban Congress from passing a law "respecting" a religion.
The wall between church and state, as Jefferson called it in a letter he wrote many years later, turned out to be controversial and porous. But it did guarantee that in time American politics would largely become a secular matter. And that is the essence of the issue. Politics made it necessary to establish free consciences in America, just as it had in England.
There is no similar story to be told in the Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world. With the exception of Turkey (and, for a while, Lebanon), every country there has been ruled either by a radical Islamic sect (as with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran) or by an autocrat who uses military power to enforce his authority. And the failure to make a theocracy work is evident in the vast popular resistance to the Taliban and the Iranian mullahs.
But where Muslims have had to end colonial rule and build their own nation, national identity has trumped religious uniformity. When the Indonesians threw off Dutch rule and later struggled to end communist influence, they did so in a way that made the creation and maintenance of an Indonesian nation more important than religious or political identity. India, home to more Muslims than much of the Middle East, also relied on nationalism and overcoming British rule to insist on the creation of one nation. Its constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and promises the free exercise of religious belief.
In the Middle East, nations are either of recent origin or uncertain boundaries. Iraq, once the center of great ancient civilizations, was conquered by the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks, then occupied by the British during the First World War, became a League of Nations protectorate, was convulsed by internal wars with the Kurds, torn apart by military coups, and immersed in a long war with Iran. Syria, a land with often-changing borders, was occupied by an endless series of other powers--the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the French. After Syria became a self-governing nation in 1944, it was, like Iraq, preoccupied with a series of military coups, repeated wars with Israel, and then, in 1991, with Iraq. Meanwhile, Lebanon, once part of Syria, became an independent nation, though it later fell again under Syrian domination.
These countries today are about where England was in the 11th century, lacking much in the way of a clear national history or stable government. To manage religion and freedom, they have yet to acquire regimes in which one set of leaders could be replaced in an orderly fashion with a new set, an accomplishment that in the West required almost a millennium.
Moreover, the Muslim religion is quite different from Christianity. The Quran and the hadith contain a vast collection of sacred laws, which Muslims call shari'a, that regulates many details of the public as well as private lives of believers. It sets down rules governing charity, marriage, orphans, fasting, gambling, vanity, pilgrimages, infidelity, polygamy, incest, divorce, modesty, inheritances, prostitution, alcohol consumption, collecting interest, and female dress.
By contrast, the Christian New Testament has rather few secular rules, and these are best remembered as a reaffirmation of the Ten Commandments as modified by the Sermon on the Mount. One can grasp the whole of Jesus' moral teachings by recalling only two things: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
As Bernard Lewis pointed out, the differences between the teachings of the two religions may have derived from, and were reinforced by, the differences between Muhammad and Jesus. Muhammad was invited to rule Medina and then, after a failed effort to conquer Mecca, finally entered that city as its ruler. He was not only a prophet but also a soldier, judge and governor. Jesus was an outsider, who neither conquered nor governed anyone, and who was put to death by Roman rulers. Christianity was not recognized until Emperor Constantine adopted it, but Muhammad, in Lewis's words, was his own Constantine.
Jesus asked Christians to distinguish between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. Islam made no such distinction; to it, Allah prescribed the rules for all of life, encompassing what we now call the religious and the secular spheres. If a Christian nation fails, we look to its political and economic system for an explanation, but when a Muslim state fails, it is only because, as V. S. Naipaul put it, "men had failed the faith." Disaster in a Christian nation leads to a search for a new political form; disaster in a Muslim one leads to a reinvigoration of the faith.
Judaism differs from Christianity in that it supplies its followers with a religious doctrine replete with secular rules. In the first five books of the Bible and in the Talmud, many of these rules are set forth as part of a desire, as stated in Exodus, to create "a holy nation" based on a "kingdom of priests." In the five books of Moses and the Talmud are rules governing slavery, diet, bribery, incest, marriage, hygiene, and crime and punishment. And many of the earliest Jewish leaders, like Muhammad later, were political and military leaders. But as Daniel Pipes has noted, for two millennia Jews had no country to rule and hence no place in which to let religion govern the state. And by the time Israel was created, the secular rules of the Old Testament and the desire to create "a holy nation" had lost their appeal to most Jews; for them, politics had simply become a matter of survival. Jews may once have been attracted to theocracy, but they learned from experience that powerful states were dangerous ones.
Until the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism, there were efforts by many scholars to modernize the Quran by emphasizing its broadest themes more than its narrow rules. Fazlur Rahman, a leading Islamic scholar, sought in the late 1970s and early 1980s to establish a view of the Quran based on Muhammad's teaching that "differences among my community are a source of blessing."
The basic requirement of the Quran, Rahman wrote, is the establishment of a social order on a moral foundation that would aim at the realization of egalitarian values. And there is much in the Quran to support this view: It constrained the rules permitting polygamy, moderated slavery, banned infanticide, required fair shares for wives and daughters in bequests, and allowed slaves to buy their freedom--all this in the name of the central Islamic rule: command good and forbid evil.
But many traditional Islamic scholars insist that only the shari'a can govern men, even though it is impossible to manage a modern economy and sustain scientific development on the basis of principles set down in the 7th century. Bernard Lewis tells the story of a Muslim, Mirza Abu Talib, who traveled to England in the late 18th century. When he visited the House of Commons, he was astonished to discover that it debated and promulgated laws and set the penalties for criminals. He wrote back to his Muslim brethren that the English, not having accepted the divine law, had to make their own.
Of course, Muslim nations do legislate, but in many of them it is done furtively, with jurists describing their decisions as "customs," "regulations," or "interpretations." And in other nations, the legislature is but an amplification of the orders of a military autocrat, whose power, though often defended in religious terms, comes more from the barrel of a gun than from the teachings of the prophet.
All this makes even more remarkable the extraordinary transformation of Turkey from the headquarters of the Ottoman Empire to the place where Muslims are governed by Western law. Mustafa Kemal, now known as Atatürk, came to power after the First World War. For years, he had been sympathetic to the pro-Western views of many friends; when he became leader of the country, he argued that it could not duplicate the success of the West simply by buying Western arms and machines. The nation had to become Western itself.
Over the course of a decade or so, Atatürk proclaimed a new constitution, created a national legislature, abolished the sultan and caliph, required Muslims to pray in Turkish and not Arabic, urged the study of science, created a secular public education system, abolished religious courts, imposed the Latin alphabet, ended the practice of allowing divorce simply at the husband's request, gave women the vote, adopted the Christian calendar, did away with the University of Istanbul's theology faculty, created commercial legal codes by copying German and Swiss models, stated that every person was free to choose his own religion, authorized the erection of statues with human likenesses, ended the ban on alcohol (Atatürk liked to drink), converted the mosque of Hagia Sophia into a secular museum, authorized the election of the first Turkish beauty queen, and banned the wearing of the fez.
You may imagine that this last decision was over a trivial matter, but you would be wrong. The fez, the red cap worn by many Turks, conveyed social standing and, because it lacked a brim, made it possible for its wearer to touch the ground with his forehead when saying prayers.
Western hats, equipped with brims, made this impossible. When the ban on the fez was announced, riots erupted in many Turkish cities, and some 20 leaders were executed.
Atatürk created the machinery (though not the fact) of democracy and made it clear that he wanted a thoroughly secular state. After his death, real democratic politics began to be practiced, as a result of which some of the anti-Islam laws were modified. Even so, no other Middle Eastern Muslim nation has undergone as dramatic a change.
On occasion, a fundamentalist Islamic regime comes to power, as happened in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. But these regimes have failed, ousted from Afghanistan by Western military power and declining in Iran and Sudan owing to economic incompetence and cultural rigidity.
The touchstones for Western success in reconciling religion and freedom were nationalism and Christianity, two doctrines that today many sophisticated people either ignore or distrust. But then they did not have to spend four centuries establishing freedom of conscience. We are being optimistic if we think that, absent a unique ruler such as Atatürk and a rare opportunity such as a world war, the Middle East will be able to accomplish this much faster.
Both the West and Islam face major challenges that emerge from their ruling principles.
When the West reconciled religion and freedom, made the individual the focus of society, and the price it has paid has been individualism run rampant, in the form of weak marriages, high rates of crime and alienated personalities.
When Islam kept religion at the expense of freedom, it made the individual subordinate to society, and the price it has paid has been autocratic governments, religious intolerance, and little personal freedom.
I believe that in time Islam will become modern, because without religious freedom, modern government is impossible.
I hope that in time the West will reaffirm social contracts, because without them a decent life is impossible. But in the near term, Islam will be on the defensive culturally--which means it will be on the offensive politically. And the West will be on the offensive culturally, which I suspect means it will be on the defensive morally.
If the Mideast is to encounter and not merely resist modernity, it would be best if it did this before it runs out of oil.
James Q. Wilson is the author of The Marriage Problem and many other books. This commentary was adapted from an essay published by City Journal.
©2003 Chicago Sun-Times