Political Revolts and Religious Reform
by G. Murphy Donovan (June 2011)
“Revolution is a transfer of power; reform is the correction of abuses.” – Lytton
Scholars and politicians are still trying to make a case for Muslim “democracy” in the wake of an ongoing viral Arab revolution. These arguments, as they have since the beginning, are underwritten by two grand assumptions; a “moderate” Islamic present and an enlightened Muslim future. If asserted conclusions and wishful thinking were evidence, such speculations might be supportable.
The predicate of “moderation” imagines an Islam that is ecumenical and tolerant; in short, a culture of persuasion, not an imperial political ideology. Such assumptions tend to ignore the realities of global militants, jihad financiers, and aggressive proselytizers.
Fearful politicians and an uncurious Press reserve most of their anguish for relatively minor and geographically remote groups of Muslim radicals such as Arab al Qaeda and the South Asian Taliban. The Pyrrhic victory laps associated with the recent summary execution of Osama bin Laden are symptomatic. Concurrently, the larger international Islamist movement grows apace, largely unexamined and unchecked.
Global terror attacks now number over 50 thousand incidents per annum; and most anti-secular insurgencies worldwide, while nearly exclusively Islamic, are dismissed as unrelated or isolated events with local motives. Islamic terrorist organizations now number in the dozens and more than a few operate globally. Petrodollar financing of mosques, religious schools, and religious cultural centers also operates beneath the radar of international concern. Religious proselytizing organizations such as Hizb al-Ikwan al-Muslimum (Muslim Brotherhood), Hizb ut Tahir (Party of Liberation), and the Tabilighi Jamaat (Society for Faith Propagation) now have a gross membership in the hundreds of millions.
PEW surveys of Arab attitudes towards jihad, terror, Jews, and religious law reveal significant support for the Islamist agenda. In some countries those sentiments exceed fifty percent of the population. The most facile defense of irredentist Arab attitudes are the blanket claims, like those made by White House advisors, that negative sentiments are “unislamic” or fringe phenomena, not representative of true Islam or genuine Arab opinion. Islamic leaders seldom make such fatuous claims about “moderation,” yet factual terror statistics and factual opinion surveys seem to have little impact on non-Islamic apologists.
More than a few militant groups, work several facets of the jihad imperative; violence and good works. Hamas and Hezb’allah (Party of God) are two prominent examples – bloody sedition masked under a burka of community service.
Still, moderation is not a movement. The worrisome crusade within the Ummah today is Islamism; a virulent, exclusive, and often violent variety of religious irredentism. If Islam is to change, the flame of reform must ignite within. Moving forward with a culture where the dominant faction looks backward, or wears blinders, may be impossible.
Nonetheless, the largely unwarranted assumptions about Muslim moderation are not near as troubling as forecasts or wishful thinking about Muslim “democracy.”
It is religious reform and tolerance, not political revolution that makes democracy and republicanism possible. Islam does not recognize a distinction between church and state. Indeed, contemporary Islamic clerics and scholars hold that religious/secular distinctions create a "hideous schizophrenia" in the West - the source of all European and American degeneracy. Such dogma offers few prospects for renewal, internal or external to dar al Islam.
Developed societies do not find the sacred and profane mutually exclusive. For too many Muslims, such enlightened tolerance is neither a virtue nor a likely future.
The Christian Experience
The keystone for secular/religious harmony is the admonition to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" found in the synoptic gospels (Mathew 22:21). Indeed, the early Christian tradition followed a polytheistic Roman model which, short of political revolt, was very tolerant - and at one time, republican. Indeed, the man Christians knew as Saint Paul was in fact, unlike Christ, a literate rabbi and a Roman Citizen. He lived in three worlds and thrived.
Up to the time of Constantine, few people made a distinction between Jews and Christians. A Christian was a kind of reform Jew. Early Christian theologians, and later Enlightenment philosophers, were admirers of Greek and Roman secular notions of democracy and republicanism: Albertus, Augustine, Aquinas, and (especially) Erasmus were prominent.
The seeds of civilization were first embalmed in sectarian amber with Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313 AD); a proclamation whose net effect made Christianity the state religion of a fading Roman Empire. Constantine, weary of internecine wars in Europe moved the Roman capital to the Bosporus where classical civility awaited its fate at the hands of the Ottomans.
The end of the Roman Byzantine epoch was forecast in 1054 AD when the western and eastern rites of the Christian church excommunicated each other – a divide which persists today. By 1453 AD, the lights of Constantinople were dimmed by Mehmed II after a siege that lasted less than 60 days.
If Constantine had the gift of prophesy and could have foreseen the tyranny of Holy Roman Emperors and corrupt Catholic Popes, he might then have given polytheism, and the entire Greek and Latin pantheon, a second look. Monotheism was a hop, skip, and jump from religious monoculture, a straitjacket that was not undone in Europe for a thousand years.
Rome and Constantinople did not perish from a single cause. Indeed, the decline of both was slow enough that Western Europe didn’t rouse itself from the dogmatic stupor of the Dark and Middle Ages until it was too late. The last vestiges of Classical Rome, and many Greek antecedents, were devoured by monotheistic cannibals; Christianity on the north and west and Islam to the east and south. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment barely saved Europe and Christianity from themselves.
Much of the problem with historical religious tyranny is the assumed superiority of monotheism and the infallibility of associated clerics or “prophets.” Orthodox or fundamentalist monocultures are invariably authoritarian and characteristically intolerant. In the modern Arab world, autocratic secularism and religious exclusion often share the same pulpit.
Diversity and pluralism are celebrated as secular virtues, yet somehow these values don’t travel well with doctrinaire monotheists. True cultural diversity would include religious practices, not just racial demographics. Ecumenicism, another value attributed to Islam, is also a one-way street as any non-Muslim pilgrim to Tehran, Riyadh, or Mecca would discover.
A thousand years after the fall of Rome, but mere decades after the fall of Constantinople, the Christian Reformation challenged both an absolute Church and a host of absolute monarchies. Here, many of the key Enlightenment players were clerics. Luther and Erasmus were seminal; two monks ordained into the same Augustinian order. It was Erasmus who most notably disputed Fra Luther's determinism and argued to retain key Catholic ideas of choice and free will.
The American Experience
The ink had hardly dried on Luther and Calvin’s absolutism, notions of predestination and fatalism, when a thousand apostates bloomed. Many Christian free thinkers fled from the intolerance and religious wars of Europe to the relative freedom of the British and French colonies in America. Once there, the Protestant varieties of Christianity continued to multiply, many of them restoring Catholic values that Luther had rejected. Prominent among these were free will, redemption, clergy, and good works.
It was left to Americans to fire the forge of democratic ecumenicism; a furnace where freedom, republicanism, and the best common law traditions of Judaism and Christianity would be alloyed.
Most of the European Enlightenment gloss that was to grace the boilerplate (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) of the American experiment would have been unknown to most citizens of the original colonies. Indeed, the various state assemblies and elected representatives were created a century before the 1776 war against England. The Virginia House of Burgesses first sat in 1619. A “burgess” was a free man.
The 13 American republics were as much a product of secular neglect as religious reform. England cared little about colonial governance as long as imperial commerce and revenues were assured. Indeed, the Church of England had little influence before the Revolution and less after. And the early democratic pretensions of the states were limited; the voting franchise was restricted to property owning, white males.
Nonetheless, the early American republics were unique in two respects. The choice of government, if not governors, was a bottom-up phenomenon. And religious tolerance was not so much a choice, as a necessity. The young American democracy developed in tandem with two religious “awakenings,” in fact an American religious reformation which produced a diversity of Christian sects in America that Luther and Calvin could never have imagined. The spires of Christianity and Mogen Davids of Judaism, the American religious mosaic, are still visible today in every town from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Europe took its “democratic” cues from America from that point forward. Historians seldom note that the US Constitution never mentions democracy. Republican founding fathers had little faith in the wisdom of crowds.
Subsequent, political and commercial success in Europe and America was made possible, not by the decline of religion, but by the rise of reform; republican reforms that released the constructive energies of true political and spiritual diversity.
The Civil War was America’s great secular renovation; it was made possible by diverse religious campaigners that insisted on social justice. The abolitionist movement, Lincoln’s Republican Party, and the Underground Railroad began, and were sustained, by the conscience of congregants.
Europe might well take credit for social “democrats” as these were linear descendents of Luther, Calvin, Marx, and Lenin. Ecumenical Judeo/Christian republicanism, however, was a product of the American experiment, and the wellspring of Yankee exceptionalism.
How the French went wrong, just a few short years after the American Revolution, is another story. The Richelieu precedent and religious homogeneity probably didn’t help - or possibly Voltaire died too soon and Robespierre lived too long. The French Catholic monopoly survived in any case. To the south, in Spain, a stifling secular/religious oligarchy prevailed through a bloody Spanish Civil War and well into the 20th Century.
The Russian Revolution of the early 20th Century was in many ways similar to the French. The Slavic upheaval began with all the usual cant about freedom and democracy, but the face of reality soon became terror and totalitarianism. The great error of Marx and Lenin was to make an enemy of the Church, instead of cultivating and harnessing the energy of congregants, Communists created a massive spiritual fifth column in Eastern Europe. With that, the “revolution without guns” of the late 20th Century became, as George Keenan forecast, inevitable. Ultimately, the old believers of Europe swept the secular atheists of Marxism into “the dustbin of history.” Today, the Russian prime minister wears a crucifix.
Religious contributions to American and European success were not limited to Christians. Jewish gifts to the development of democracies were substantial.
The Jewish Experience
The conflict between theocratic Jews and secular Romans reached a boiling point in the First Century (66 AD), a tipping point during the Second Revolt (132 AD). For most Jews, the Diaspora was an opportunity to turn lemons into sorbet. They did this by adapting themselves to 19 centuries of secularism in exile while retaining local diversity of religious traditions. In spite of, or because of, depredations, Jews made exceptional artistic and scientific contributions to a world of nation states. They "rendered unto Caesar" on a global scale while preserving a unique and, at the same time, a value-added culture. The keys to Jewish success were acceptance, however pragmatic, of secular authority in public affairs – complemented by traditional tolerance of spirituality.
Like the American experience, necessity was the mother of Jewish invention; tactical assimilation served a larger strategic goal of cultural survival. The Jewish Diaspora is the gold standard example of symbiotic secular and religious values in a successful society. Tension between the sacred and the profane is both necessary and sufficient for survival and progress. All success is a product of perseverance, competition, and struggle. Conflict is good – and inevitable. Utopian religious or secular monoculture is not just impractical; it is also impossible.
The great danger of Islamism is not that it might succeed, but the damage it does before it fails. Israel is likely to be the first casualty.
Today, we again hear national politicians and prominent Muslim clerics, reviving a primitive bigotry, as they talk of "wiping Jews off the face of the earth." What are we to think - that such declarations are signs of moderation? No rational world can fail to recognize the historic and global contributions of Jews, the symbolic significance of Israel, and the categorical imperative (to borrow a thought from Emanuel Kant) to defend them both.
The Islamic Experience
Too much of Islam has never evolved or repaired the depredations of orthodoxy. Utopian monocultures, religious or secular, are impossible in this world - and possibly the next. Short of radical reform, Islamism is doomed to ruinous failure.
The sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity were written by many hands; insuring degrees of observance and a rich diversity of interpretations. The holy texts of Islam come from a solitary source – or at least that’s the claim. The genius of Talmudic and New Testament commentary is the daily effort to make them relevant to a developed world. Republican democracy is impossible without such religious pluralism and complementary political diversity.
There are too many examples of sovereign religious and political absolutism in the Arab League, so it is instructive to look elsewhere; examine a nation like Turkey, a NATO member; and every apologist’s favorite Muslim “moderate.”
Turkey is an instructive example of contemporary Islamic backsliding and intolerance. Put aside for a moment the ethnic cleansing of apostate Kurds and infidel Christian Armenians. Put aside also associated genocide denials. Consider instead the erosion of Kamalist secular values and the systematic intimidation of the military since the Islamists came to power in 2002; a military long thought to be the guardian of secular values is now cowed by clerics. Consider also the fate of the Eastern Rite Christian church in Anatolia. The Erdogan government has closed the last Christian Orthodox seminary in Istanbul by fiat; virtually guaranteeing that one of the oldest congregations in Christendom, without clergy, will be suffocated in a generation.
Mehmed II showed more mercy to the Christians of Constantinople in 1453. And the Church of Rome shows as much concern for their Christian brothers in Turkey today as they did in the 15th century. Then as now, Europe may be, as Oriana Fallaci claimed on her death bed, its own worst enemy. Admitting modern Turkey to the European Union makes about as much sense as making Somalia the 51st American state.
Tayyip Recep Erdogan is not just the prime minister; he is also head of Turkey’s largest religious party, a party which garners well over three fourths of the national vote. And Erdogan is Islamism’s most eloquent spokesman on the subject of moderation. The prime minister claims that the adjective “moderate” before the noun “Muslim” is an insult:
“These descriptions are very ugly; it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”
If the Turkish prime minister does not abide the notion of moderation, how arrogant is it for Western journalists, politicians, and academics to insist on perpetuating this myth?
If theocratic monoculture is the price of racial pluralism, then claims about Islamic diversity are a social fraud. And if European and American commercial imperialism was a crime against Muslim history, surely Islamic religious imperialism is a crime against the future. Freedom and democracy have always been impossible without religious reform.
The world is both enriched and bedeviled by spirituality. Religion is a basis for ethics in classical education and an ancient curb-level contributor to common law. Too frequently, Western scholars and politicians are uncomfortable with religion; unable to recognize its potency and unwilling to condemn its excess.
The European and American Enlightenment is a telling example. Academics wax eloquently about the political and scientific contributions of John Locke, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, but few are inclined to value the spiritual reforms of Disiderius Erasmus, Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, John Carroll, or Abraham Geiger.
History is usually written by self-proclaimed agnostics, timid academics with little sympathy for spiritual grass roots, or the people who actually make history. At the same time the academy will defend the moral equivalence of political Islam in the name of ecumenicism; literally defend intolerance in the name of tolerance. The complicity of Islamist right and the secular left is one of the great ciphers of the new century.
For good or ill, political scientists are often too eager to ingratiate themselves to an “ism” or a political fad. The politically correct view of Islam today, now mandated apparently from 10 Downing Street and the White House, is that militant Islam and national security threats are mutually exclusive. The belief that democracy will follow Arab revolts appears to be, like Islamophobia, another neologism.
White House papers insist that the language of national security analysis be altered so that no link between religion and threat can be established or implied. Somehow the religious incantations and the bombs of suicide assassins are unrelated; and now Muslim revolution is inextricably linked to democracy? Such scenarios divorce evidence from reason. Monolithic religion, like totalitarian politics, has always been a threat to civility and human progress. There is little evidence to suggest that contemporary Islamic imperialism is any different.
The “awakenings" of American history were religious reforms. The carnage in the Arab world is a lot of things, but religious reform isn’t one of them. Indeed, the images from Arab television (chanting mobs of burkas, green banners of jihad, and contorted faces of clerics like al Yusuf al Qaradawi); reveal an Arabia that is not so much awakening as sleep walking back through history.
Revolts may change regimes, but only reform will correct historical error.
G. Murphy Donovan is a former Intelligence officer who attended Catholic schools in the Bronx and New Rochelle, New York. He writes frequently about national security.
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