Can Islam Be Reformed? A Response Essay To Daniel Pipes

In a past article, I already discussed some issues of Islamic civilization which we are apt to neglect in our analysis of the current situation in the Middle East. Obviously, the potential force of democracy to conquer once primitive countries has been greatly overestimated; nobody will disagree anymore on that count. However, the explanations for this failure of democracy vary a lot, and quite independent of the political alignment of the commentators: it appears that all shades of opinion are quite confused by what is happening in countries recently “liberated” by the Arab Spring. The main reason for this confusion, as I stated before, is that most people in the west do not understand the wider civilizational questions involved: first, can we equate any popular uprising with an ideologically inspired revolution, but second, and most importantly, can revolutions in the Islamic world ever resemble those in the West and why are we so sure that the Islamic pattern of history must correspond to the earlier Western? The first point has been conceded by many observers, albeit implicitly and not in wider historical context, since today the dominant opinion is that these countries were not “ripe” for democracy and that popular rule does not necessarily imply democracy as we understand it in the west. The second point requires more insight, and is not even addressed by most commentators or journalists, although in fact to pose the question of essential differences in culture is not at all new; indeed, it only implies further investigation of the popular thesis Samuel Huntington developed about the “clash of civilizations”. But since western nations have lived in peace for over sixty years now, and we tend to believe that the whole world potentially is a prosperous and peaceful place like the western nation states, the concept of wholly different civilizations has become quite incomprehensible to most opinion makers. Nevertheless, we shall see it is essential to understand the ordeal the Muslim world is currently going through. 

A few days ago Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote an article, “Can Islam be reformed?”. As a good neoconservative, Pipes believes that Islamic culture will ultimately be able to adapt to western standards and that a reformed, reinterpreted version of Islam will emerge from the contacts with western democratic influences. In his article, he expressly  shows Islamic civilization in a very un-civilizational light: the issues in Islamic history are made to appear a variation on what happened in the history of other cultures, namely an endless sequence of wars and political upheavals, according to the classical pattern of rise and fall: the extremism that plagues the Islamic world is in fact a reaction to the decline of Islam since its golden age, and will wither away once a democratic, economically successful alternative has been offered; in this sense, the Islamist movement is not unlike communism and fascism, both ideologies cashing in on political and economic hardship. Moreover, Islam is not all that different from Judaism and Christianity: both religions have in the past embraced views we would now find unacceptable: Islam can adapt to modernity like other religions have. Pipes concedes that Islam today poses many problems and not all of its tenets are very humane, but he believes that Islam could be, as it were, absorbed by the west. In his most recent commentary on the military coup in Egypt, he reiterated his view that Islamism is just an extremist political fraction vying for influence among the electorate, and that the majority of the population are moderate Muslims desperately in search of answers to the crisis of modernity. 

It is surprising that a man who is so knowledgeable on Islamic and Arab history, really thinks the Islamic world could be reformed. This is especially surprising, since in fact democracy and rule of law have hardly taken root in the rest of the non-western countries, and it remains to be seen whether the experiment will be viable in the long run, especially as western values are receding in the West itself at least since the first world war. Western self-confidence is at an historical low, so the first question is: why is there anything necessary about Muslims taking over western values and political institutions? I argued earlier that Islamic culture itself is not heading for a particularly happy future, but neither is the west, and if Islam does not take over Europe, it will still probably remain the same ossified theocratic system it has always been in the Muslim world itself. Besides, Pipes’ constant reference to the Islamic golden age, as if it were some shining example of human achievement and a tolerant, open-minded era, is disturbing to say the least: by now we should know that the power of Islam in this period was only brought about by brute military conquest, that its famous cultural achievements were largely the work of Christian and Jewish dhimmis, and that the Islamic world controlled so many material and cultural resources simply because it had invaded the lands of other cultures and withheld the benefits of trade from the Christian world. And of course, Pipes does not mention that this was not a “golden age” at all for many people, such as religious minorities, Hindus, and women. The reason it was called a “golden age” by Muslims is because it was a golden age for the Islamic conception of life, but not for humanity. So, on closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that Islam was always rigorous and it has not known any more humane periods or ups and downs like other civilizations, except in the military sense. The proper question that would invalidate Pipes’ designation of Islamism as a totalitarian doctrine on the pattern of fascism and communism, is: would the average Muslim throughout history have considered the deeds and beliefs of today’s Islamists and Islamic terrorists unjustified? Does the average Muslim today even see anything inherently inhumane or un-Islamic in the deeds of terrorists? I think Pipes knows the answer to these questions as well as most of us do. 

Pipes warns us for adopting an excessively “essentialist” view of Islam, which means relying solely on Islamic scripture and doctrine in explaining Islamic history and the actions of Muslims; however, it seems Pipes should watch out not to adopt the absurdly empiricist view that is also held by many political correct pundits, and which implies that the deeds of Muslims only have general “human” motives, and religion is simply a justification of these universal motives. It is all very well that Pipes himself can provide his own moderate interpretation of Islam and sees history in the light of this interpretation, but in the end it is the Muslims who decide how to interpret their religion, not western academics. As Bill Warner put it, we can only understand the actions of Muslims and Islamic history by first understanding Islam and what it actually is, not the other way around. Otherwise we would just be fooling ourselves and evading the main question. 

In the past I stated that Islam was not really a civilization at all, and this was not meant as a counterjihadist canard. There is a theory,- which could very well be true- developed by Robert Spencer among others, that the prophet Mohamed did not exist. Now, as is the case with investigations into the origins of other religions, new findings in that field do not change anything about the religion itself, because after time the origins of a religion become irrelevant to the people who practice it; by then it has evolved into an ethical system and a way of life. But new discoveries and alternative views on the origins of a religion can clarify certain aspects of that religion: in the thesis of Spencer, the Arab conquests of the seventh century were simply barbarian invasions like those of the Huns before them and the Vikings and Mongols after them, and Islam was probably invented by Arab rulers after those conquests to ensure the coherence of their empire and confer a degree of legitimacy on their rule. In this aspect, the Arab conquests differ from other barbarian conquests in a crucial way: while the latter always integrated in the societies they overran and adapted to foreign cultures, the Arab tribes developed a system that gave them enough self-confidence to uphold their old tribal structure and mode of thought. Indeed, Islam has many of the characteristics of a huge tribe, as Israeli professor David Bukay explains in a recent article: on closer examination, Islamic scriptures seem to above all to concentrate on the distinction between Muslims and “the others”, which is characteristic of all tribal peoples. The tribal ethics are collectivist in the extreme: there are no human rights, no human dignity outside the tribe, and the only goal its members know is the expansion and prolongation of the tribe. Superficial studies suggest a parallel between the “conservatism” of Islam, and traditional Christianity, but this is to miss a crucial point. In Islam, there is no concept of universal ethics: ethics apply very stringently to fellow Muslims, but what Christians would call the deadly sins are not at all forbidden to Muslims. On the contrary they can be freely practiced among non-believers: murder, (sex) slavery, extortion, theft, are all permitted if the victims are non-Muslims. Not a universal conception of human dignity is the concern of Islam, but the strength of the tribe, the umma. Thus, Islam is a unique phenomenon in world history: it is a tribe of civilizational proportions, and its viciousness is to be explained by the tribal mentality that still utterly dominates its adherents. 

A point that is often stressed but the implications of which are never fully understood, is that in Islamic culture there is no division between religion and state. This in fact means that Islam is to Islamic civilization what rational thought, individualism, and its products, the nation state and human rights, are to western civilization: its essence. The Muslim mindset is determined by the convergence of the temporal and eternal order: it does not even know of any distinction between the two. The origins of Islam and Christianity could not be more different, and reveal why it is nonsense to speak of “monotheistic religions”: Christianity offered hope of a better afterlife and spiritual comfort within a degenerating pagan political order; Islam originated in the desire of the Arab tribes for a justification of their tribal feeling of superiority, and as a tool to consolidate their power and conquests. 

Pipes is right when says that Islamism shares many characteristics with fascism and communism, but what they do not share are their origins and their place within the civilizations where they were born, and this is the crucial point in the debate. Communism was a product of the western world- view: it fitted exactly into the theological pattern of Christianity. First there is a period of unbelief and darkness, classical antiquity, then comes the establishment of the true faith, Christianity (the Middle Ages); what comes after that, is essentially the pursuance of the heavenly vision. After the stabilization of the Middle Ages, western culture lost its guidance, as individuals and currents of thought followed their own ways to reach their goals. One of the consequences of the increasing diversity of western culture and the decline of the authority of the church was the birth of utopianism, the idea that all human problems can be solved not in heaven but on earth – in other words, the Christian paradise transferred to earth. However, as it became clear these utopian visions resulted in mass destruction and it could be proven they would never wield the promised results, they collapsed, as communism did (and as, one day, cultural Marxism will too); there was simply no reason left to adhere to them.

The totalitarianism of Islam is similar in structure, but the big difference is that Islamic culture has never known anything else than this utopian vision, that the ideal way of life can be imposed by religious order in this world. Islamic theology, unlike Christian theology, divides history in only two periods: the period of unbelief and the establishment of the true faith and thus of the ideal human condition, which in Christianity is only found in the afterlife (or in a very distant future). That the Islamic vision of heaven is quite irrelevant to Islam as a whole, attests to this truth: the Islamic heaven is useful as a promise to self-sacrificing warriors and therefore is very materialistic; it is in no way comparable to the Christian version of the afterlife.  To understand Islam, one should imagine a Soviet Union where communism was not some modern experiment, but had been the dominant political system for ages, moreover divinely justified, and where consequently people would not know of any alternative, even if the totalitarian system is manifestly not working. The French political scientist Marcel Gauchet once said that while Christianity is the religion of the departure from religion, Islam is the religion of the return to religion. This sums it up perfectly.

The above should also make clear that the nineteenth and twentieth century in the Muslim world do not in any way prove that Islamism is an aberration or a reaction to western imperialism just like other reactions in colonized areas: what is called “Islamism” is simply true Islam reappearing at the surface after a period of humiliation – the Islam that has been practiced throughout the ages. The secularized version of Islamic society, represented by Kemalism, Baathism and Nasserism, was in fact the real aberration in Islamic history. The fact that Muslim elites were willing to modernize up to a certain point, and Muslim societies did not produce terrorists and such aggressive critics of the west as today, does not constitute proof that Islam was so much more tolerant back then: it was simply weaker, economically as well as demographically, while the west was relatively stronger than it is today, certainly in terms of self-confidence. Islam simply did not have bargaining power; it had to be submissive. As this culture regained its demographic and financial strength, its elites prepared for Islam to assert itself on the world stage as it had always done: through Jihad, open or by stealth. Even the supposed weakness of Islam during the period of western imperialism is partly a myth. While elites modernized and proclaimed as national ideology a mixture of nationalism, socialism, and whatever sort of populist attitudes were in vogue in western progressive circles at the time, the majority of the people never abandoned “true Islam”. And this, not western intervention, economic troubles, etc., is the reason for the rise of “Islamism” in the twenty-first century: Islamic civilization claiming back its old form of political organization. That Pipes cites the example of Ataturk is symptomatic of his confusion: in what way did Ataturk’s ideas have anything to do with Islam? Ataturk advocated separation of church and state on the secular French model, himself acting as though Islam were similar to Christianity. The necessity of maintaining power by military means made clear that the deeply pious Muslim population did not think alike. Indeed, what is left of Islam without it having power of the state? By definition, it cannot be called Islam anymore at that point. It is telling that all the really Muslim reformers (i.e. who were not later branded as apostates) of the colonial period were only concerned with taking over some practical political institutions of the west, but never really thought of rejecting the literal interpretation of the Islamic scriptures. And a really secular and democratic strain of thought of course never actually developed within Islamic intellectual circles.

Western values are simply utterly alien to Islamic culture, so it is difficult to see how Muslims will readily embrace them, let alone understand their real meaning. These values are the product of the long and arduous development of the West, and cannot just be replicated in or transferred to other cultures. Modernization posed enough problems during the period of western dominance and self-confidence, when other cultures feverishly tried to imitate the west. It also poses more than enough problems in the Orthodox countries like Russia and Ukraine, whose cultures share much of our Christian civilizational outlook. So why should it work with a culture so large and by its own nature so arrogant and isolated as Islamic culture? There is no doubt that if the Islamic world would ever attain the level of the West, Islam would have to go. Totalitarian systems either conquer the world or collapse, but never reform: otherwise they would not be totalitarian in the first place. And there is also much truth in the belief of neoconservatives that “we should reform them, or they will destroy us”. But that Islam and the Islamic world-view could miraculously disappear, is almost impossible, certainly in the light of the current fragmented situation in the Muslim world. Perhaps we should learn to accept that western values are unique to the western world, and stop ascribing our own motives and thoughts to people in other parts of the world. We should ponder Revel’s rhetorical question “And if the Occident was simply an accident?”- and defend that accidental highest achievement of mankind in our own countries, and improve our cultural self-defenses, instead of hoping in vain that the rest of the world will civilize and attain our standards. 


I am an admirer of Daniel Pipes.  However, there is nothing in what he writes that suggests to me that reform is possible in the frozen mentality of Muslims today.  Whatever was possible hundreds of years ago was killed and today's universal belief in Islamic supremacism at all costs is what we are dealing with.  Huntington was right:  There is an unresolvable conflict.  Best for the West to stay as far away from the Muslim world as possible.  Trouble is the Muslim immigrants won't go back.  The welfare system is too good.  Therefore, requirements for continued welfare need to be imposed:  Learning the native language and showing progression is one such measure.  Others need to be adopted.  Those who truly assimlate will realize the errors of their ways.  And, of course, criminals and their families, as in Switzerland, should be sent packing.  Tolerance has gone too far with honor killings and female mutaliation practiced on non-Muslim soil.  We need leaders who will stand up for what is left of western values and not only turn back the barbarianism but restore the virtues and morals that made us the civilized society we were.