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.