Politics & Policy

How to Reform Islam

Self-criticism is the key.

I have often argued that one of the redemptive graces of Western civilization is self-criticism, a deeply ingrained habit that has enabled Western man to reflect, to adjust, to improve his beliefs, to correct and change his situation — in short, to reform. The West has been able to submit even its most cherished beliefs to scrutiny. By contrast, self-criticism remains an elusive goal in modern Islamic cultures. David Pryce-Jones argues that the “acquisition of honour, pride, dignity, respect and the converse avoidance of shame, disgrace, and humiliation are keys to Arab motivation, clarifying and illuminating behaviour in the past as well as in the present.” The codes of honor and shame “enforce identity and conformity of behaviour.” In such a system of values, it is impossible to admit publicly that one is wrong, for that would bring shame on the individual, the family, the country, or even one’s religion. Western-style satire would be very difficult in Arabic society, for that would risk the humiliation of one’s own culture.

#ad#However, there are signs of change. First came the Arab Human Development Report of 2003, in which leading Arab intellectuals lamented the poor state of the Arab Muslim world in every field of endeavor — from the scientific to the cultural. Then, in October 2010, came “The Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights,” a document published by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy urging governments and activists across the Middle East to continue working toward democratic reforms. It is the result of a conference organized by the Arab Human Rights Movement.

The Casablanca Call must be seen against the background of past Arab Human Rights Movement conferences. The group’s first international conference, “Prospects for the Future,” took place in Casablanca, Morocco, in April 1999, and was organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) with the collaboration of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. That the conference took place in Morocco is significant, since Morocco has made considerable efforts to improve its human-rights record.

The Casablanca Call is a remarkable document for many reasons. It calls for separation of powers and endorses the principle of the sovereignty of the people — a truly democratic demand, since, in an Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to God and His Law. It also calls for:

[an] independent judiciary as a prerequisite for the protection of human rights and freedoms, and as the guarantor for the supremacy of the rule of law and state institutions; the immediate release of all political prisoners — numbering in the thousands in various Arab prisons — and putting an end to political trials of any kind, torture of political opponents, and the practice of kidnapping; enabling and encouraging political parties and trade unions to engage in their right to organize freely, use all available media outlets, take advantage of public funding, and be free of any interference of the state apparatus in their affairs; acknowledgment of the right of civil society organizations to perform their advocacy roles freely and effectively, having their independence and privacy duly respected, their internal affairs not disrupted, and their sources of financial support kept open and active.

Regarding freedom of speech, the Casablanca Call advocates:

free access of the media and journalists to information and news sources; the respect for the independence of journalists’ syndicates and allowing them to disseminate information and opinion without censorship, and undue administrative, or judicial pressures, and the abolishment of the imprisonment penalty in cases against journalists.

Amongst the other Casablanca Call demands is the “summoning of the private sector to play its role in the contribution to political reforms.” And no declaration from the Islamic world could possibly leave out the religious factor; the authors reaffirm the “interconnectedness of political reform with the renewal of religious thought, which requires support for, and expansion of, the practice of ijtihad [that is, independent reasoning] in a climate of complete freedom of thought, under democratic systems of government.”

Finally, the authors of the declaration “support the dialogue that began several years ago between Islamists and secularists at the local and regional levels and emphasize the importance of continuing such endeavors in order to provide solid ground for the protection of democracy and human rights from any political or ideological setbacks.”

There have been several similar declarations in recent years, but as the authors of the Casablanca Call themselves confess, there has been scant progress in many areas of political and civil life.

One wonders if there will ever be real progress without someone, somewhere, beginning the necessary critique of Islam and its scriptures. As Jonathan Israel showed in his two monumental studies of the European Enlightenment — the process that radically changed European and American society forever, the process that gave us the egalitarian and democratic core values and ideals of the modern world — it began with one man, and one book: Baruch Spinoza and his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, first published in Amsterdam in 1670. That was the beginning of Biblical criticism and the modern world; but where is the Koranic criticism that alone can unshackle people’s minds?

— Ibn Warraq is a visiting fellow at the Center for Law and Counterterrorism, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; an independent scholar; and the author of five books on Islam and Koranic criticism  Why I Am Not a Muslim; The Origins of the Koran; What the Koran Really SaysVirgins? What Virgins? And Other Essays; and Which Koran?

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