Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Do you want an "Islamic Reformation"? Are you sure?

Josh Marshall, an American political commentator who runs Talking Points Memo, says something that I've often thought the last few years, exposing one of many shallow statements made by "serious thinkers" in recent times, based no doubt on shadowy memories of Western Civ surveys they took as undergraduates, which told them the Reformation was all about the freedom of conscience:

As I have, you've probably read a hundred times from this and that pundit that what Islam needs is its own Reformation along the lines of the Reformation in Europe that took up, in one sense or another, the better part of two centuries.

But if what you care about is geopolitical stability, less religious extremism in the political realm, or just fewer people being sawed in half or burned alive, then you can really only say this if you know little or nothing about what the Reformation actually was. Or, perhaps better to say, that it was actually a pretty rough ride for something like 150 years.

In the Muslim world, we don't have the break out of an entirely novel schism in the dominant religious culture. But in other respects, let's go down the list: renewal of eschatalogical enthusiasm, check; heightened sectarian identification and inter-sectarian violence, check; breakdown of established mechanisms of state and social authority, check. I'd say we, or rather they, may be about set to have their Reformation. Or they may already be in thick of it.

Not to worry, though. By 2146 or so, after a century or so of bloodletting, there may be a broad political and ideological consensus in favor or relegating religion to the private sphere and leaving the whole thing to personal conscience.

The image is an illustration of the "Defenestration of Prague," a piece of terrorism that helped usher in the Thirty Years War. Let's hope the Middle East isn't about to re-experience that horror.

(P.S. I'm not so sure that Salafism, e.g., isn't a pretty "novel schism in the dominant culture.")


Anonymous Nathaniel said...

Re: Salafism as "novel schism in the dominant culture", Natana Delong-Bas made a book-length argument similar to that but concerning Wahhabi Islam ("Abd al-Wahhab was like Martin Luther").

Also, I wish I hadn't missed your ROM talk this fall (it was this fall, right, since searching my inbox I see that you had something at the ROM in March also?). Coming to Toronto in a similar capacity any time soon? (Speaking as a UofT Medieval Studies and German student and MEDIEV-L subscriber).

9:57 PM  

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