We don’t need no reformation.

Anyone who tells you that “Islam needs a reformation” is being polite and saving you time: you know after those words that the rest of their opinions can also be safely ignored. Similarly, the idea that the bombers are going back to the past is at best partially true, in the sense that Goths from Croydon would like to go back to the Dark Ages. The suicide bomber, cloistered in his bedroom and dreaming at the keyboard of a martyrdom on video is an entirely modern or post-modern figure.

There’s a very lucid and thought-provoking piece by Faisal Devji in the FT today, probably paywalled, which makes these points more clearly and with greater authority. Two quotes:

Advances made in countering terrorism have been technical; politically there has been little improvement. After each crisis there is a focus on the Muslim community not doing enough to root out militants, although the families of the terrorists have had no inkling of their doings. Statements are made about multiculturalism preventing the integration of Muslims in the west, although the terrorists are completely integrated in ways such as speaking English and participating in wider British society. Attention is concentrated on mosques and madrassas, although militancy is developed in secular spaces not religious ones. Immigration is seen as a problem, although the terrorists were born in Britain, their immigrant parents being the most law-abiding of citizens.

Immigrant Muslims who attend mosques or madrassas and are not integrated into British society are least likely to become terrorists. The Islam of the suicide bomber is the product of a global modernity, not of some traditional or cloistered society.

In colonial times liberal institutions and education were promoted on the presumption that both were lacking. This presumption no longer holds because the London bombers were not ignorant either of the theory or the practice of liberalism. The government’s breathtaking ambitions to help reform the faith of more than 1bn adherents in Britain and abroad will be frustrated because Sunni Islam has already been reformed.

The London bombers were products of a Sunni reformation that has been fragmenting the structures of religious authority since the 19th century. It is this democratisation of Islam that allows members of the laity – such as Mohammad Sidique Khan, the suspected leader of the bombers – to claim religious authority for their actions. The comparison with Shia Islam is striking, for Shia radicalism has not yet made one attack of the al-Qaeda sort. One can talk to traditionally organised Shia militants, as in Iraq or Lebanon, but with individualised forms of Sunni militancy we are faced with an impossible task – putting Humpty-Dumpty together again.

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1 Response to We don’t need no reformation.

  1. Sirocco says:

    Indeed right on. The key is Salafism, the modern movement to bypass a thousand years of classical jurisprudence through ijtihad (personal extraction of Shari’a from the primary sources, the Qur’an and hadith) and emulate the first three generations of Muslims. Since Sunni Islam has no sacrimental elite — being in that sense quite Protestant at the outset — this is the closest it gets to the priesthood of all believers. Obviously it’s a recipe for doctrinal chaos as laymen struggle with their do-it-yourself Shari’a kits. This by itself does not cause terrorism, but it leads to a certain proliferation of fatwas that can do so. For instance, Jihadi Salafists in the Qutbist mold (al-Qaeda etc.) adopt the radical idea of takfir (unilateral excommunication from the Umma), in whose name they justify revolt against Muslim governments and killing fellow Muslims. That is against the grain of traditional fiqh, according to which you are considered Muslim if you utter the Shahada.

    I do not agree, however, with this generalization: “militancy is developed in secular spaces not religious ones.” That depends on the religious spaces in question. First, the mosque is relatively secluded from secular interference, whether due to language barriers (Europe) or religious taboos on interference (the Middle East). Thus the mosque can absorb and refocus indignation due to secular frustrations, ranging from support for Israel/Bush to perceived repression, discrimination, or whatever. Second, in the Salafist Zeitgeist, charismatic authority counts for a lot. Any schmuck can become Imam at some mosque and deliver fire-and-brimstone sermons touting the jihadi narrative (which can be done without explicitly ‘glorifying terrorism’). Third, it’s in the nature of Reformation that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ spaces is blurred. Now you can listen to hateful sermons on your Ipod (or tape recorder in the ME) and even consult the nutball preacher online. The cartoon lunacy earlier this year was stoked up in large part by Zavahiri, the al-Jazeera televangelist. He is a Muslim Brotherhood-type who opposes terrorism except against Israeli settlers; but even his ilk promote the ‘war on Islam’ narrative.

    Final observation: While the ‘Islam needs a Reformation’ stuff is bunk, a little Enlightenment — challenging Qu’ranic infallibilism, for example — would be a welcome development.

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