Commentary Magazine

Islam's Future

To the Editor:

Daniel Pipes accurately shows the need for the reform of ossified Islamic doctrine and law (Sharia), and cites a few signs he finds hopeful [“Can Islam Be Reformed?” July/August]. The potential for reform is a very important factor that is generally overlooked. But achieving that reform may be more complicated and difficult than Mr. Pipes indicates. He mentions, hopefully, some modifications of existing Islamic laws, but he does not mention any significant or systemic changes in the principles or organization of the Islamic legal system itself.

In late 1972, in a private conversation, the then Afghan foreign minister Mohammad Moussa Shafiq, in New York for the UN General Assembly, discussed exactly this problem of reforming Muslim law. He was about to become the fifth—and unfortunately the last—prime minister in Afghanistan’s decade of modernization as a democratic constitutional monarchy. Shafiq, a lawyer by training, had studied Islamic law at al-Azhar in Cairo and international law at Columbia and Harvard, and had been the primary author of the modernizing Afghan reform constitution of 1964. He remarked on the technical problems presented by the Islamic legal system: “About 500 years ago, Islamic legal techniques for interpreting law hit a stone wall, and Islamic law was frozen. We are still stuck back there in the 15th century. We don’t have any way to break loose. We don’t have a system or a legal structure that can change and grow to meet changing needs.”

He had concluded that there were two legal systems that could provide models for such a transformation: one was Anglo-American common law, about which Shafiq knew a good deal from his own training and experience. The other was Talmudic law, about which he wished to learn. (When this was greeted with surprise, he remarked that the Arab rejection of Israel was foolish, that Israel could aid the development of the Muslim world, and that he hoped to open diplomatic relations.)

He wanted to use these models to set in motion not just a few changes in particular laws but the revival and modernization of the Islamic legal system as a system. Regrettably, Shafiq was overthrown less than a year later by the Soviet-backed 1973 coup, and murdered in the openly Communist 1978 coup. There is a need for others with similar aspirations. The will to change, which Mr. Pipes hopes for, is of course essential as a first requirement. But if Moussa Shafiq’s analysis was correct, it is more complicated than that, and a good deal of sophisticated legal thinking and hard work is needed.

Rosanne Klass
Director, Afghanistan Information Center, Freedom House, 1981–91;
former vice president for programs,
Afghanistan Relief Committee, 1979–96,
New York City

To the Editor:

Daniel Pipes’s essay can be accurately characterized by Tibullus: “Hope ever urges on, and tells us tomorrow will be better.” Sadly, however, Mr. Pipes does what almost every writer on Islamic reform does; he does not quote from the Koran or Sunna. What every Muslim believer knows is that the words of the Koran existed before time, are perfect, eternal, and cannot be altered. Further, Muhammad was the perfect man and his words and deeds are beyond criticism. Those words and deeds openly encourage violence and forced conformity and discourage reform.

It is certainly conceivable that a religious reformation is possible. Anything is possible. But until we read and hear from al-Azhar in Cairo, from the leading seminaries in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran that Mr. Pipes and his suggested reformers have a valid point of view, I will view the coming reformation as one more chimera emblematic of the hope that tomorrow will be better.

Harold B. Reisman
Carlsbad, California

 To the Editor:

Daniel Pipes offers some viable solutions regarding modern battles within Islam. He notes that some progress has been made toward reform, yet Islam has a long way to go before it sheds its supremacist leanings and learns to coexist in peace with other faiths.

There are some additional things to consider in the case of Islam. In order for a healthy reform movement to take hold, moderate Muslims must encourage ijtihad, or independent reasoning. They need to carry out the heavy lifting by delegitimizing the radical elements of political Islam while teaching a respect for non-Muslim cultures.

Transformative ideas will emanate from Western Muslims, while some insights will emerge from predominantly Muslim states. It would be helpful if Muslims were less hypersensitive, and more open to constructive criticism from non-Muslims regarding the insidious nature of radical Islam. Moreover, Muslims living in the West could learn how to assimilate into a free society without demanding special rights (stealth jihad).

Some Muslims in the West push for extra rights in tax-subsidized schools and the workplace. If these demands aren’t met, provocateurs often resort to frivolous litigation. The victims in these lawsuits are liberty, the rule of law, and taxpayers.

If Muslims want to enjoy Western civil rights, they must stop paying lip service to human virtues and start practicing tolerance toward non-Muslims, especially those residing in Muslim states. They could craft democratic institutions and promote free enterprise in states that lack these strong traditions. Meaningful reforms won’t occur overnight, but they are feasible. If Muslims take ownership of reformist challenges, Islam might gradually embrace an era of greater liberty, progress, and stability.

Christian P. Milord
Fullerton, California


To the Editor:

Daniel Pipes’s essay is the sort that delights Islamists. The wool has been pulled over the author’s eyes. The fact is, when you strip away the veneer of religion from Islam, what you have left is a hate-based political ideology that more resembles Nazism than any of the world’s major religions. References to radical and moderate Islam are based in fictions, as would be references to moderate and radical Nazism. Such terms are absurd. Until the non-Muslim world can recover from political correctness and see this threat for what it really is, the lives of infidels everywhere will remain endangered.

John Leo
Address withheld

 To the Editor:

Although I agree with the basic premise of Daniel Pipes’s article, I am not as optimistic as he that Islam can be reformed. Perhaps I could share his view if only a real change in the Muslim cultural mind-set occurs.

I was born and raised in Egypt as a Jew. I was educated at a French Catholic school and attended Hebrew school in the evening. But in 1966 my family was purged from the country. Today there are almost no Jews left in Egypt—as is the case in many other Arab countries and Iran.

My 18 years in Cairo allowed me to see the Arab mind-set firsthand. I agree with Mr. Pipes that Islam is clearly expanding as a violent force in every corner of the world, and I also hope that the world will not accept this situation much longer.

While it is encouraging that Mr. Pipes notes some Muslim moderation, there are no guarantees that this positive trend will continue. I believe it can succeed only if it is focused in the school system and starts at the most basic level. In Cairo, Arabic teachers had no interest in teaching the historical realities and in particular the Holocaust. Students were taught—and they believed—that the Jews invented the Holocaust to get sympathy from the world. Zionism was viewed as evil and was often interchanged with the concept of Judaism. There existed a pervasive culture of blaming others in order to justify any Arab action. Revisionism was routine.

These teachings continue to have an enormous impact on the Arab Muslim culture that mostly views the West as evil. It has always been fashionable and commonplace to hate Israel deeply, and today that hatred is embedded in the Arab moral fiber.

Arab and Muslim states receive large amounts of monetary help from the UN, the U.S., other Muslim states, and the European Union. At a minimum, these generous or naive nations must take some responsibility and monitor the use of this money. We know that these sums are used to promote propaganda that finds its way into schoolbooks, where misinformation, deception, and hatred are being taught. Strong and meaningful conditions must be attached to any money distributed to the Muslim world.

Replacing a culture of hate with a curriculum that includes respect and tolerance for other cultures will have a positive impact on the relationship we have with the Muslim world’s future generations.

Albert Algazi
Yardley, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

Daniel Pipes employs a quasi-highfalutin concept—”essentialism”—and argues that it (along with history) points to Muslims’ ability to reform and modernize Islam in a way that the West can live with. If anything, though, history has shown again and again that whenever Islam “reforms,” it does so by looking backward, not forward. That’s because, in keeping with its essential nature, it is a religion that claims its doctrines and its founder are perfect. It divides the planet into two worlds, the world of Islam and the world not yet conquered for Islam. At the same time, the religion accepts no division between mosque and state.

This is not Islamism. It is Islam, pure and simple.

On the subject of Islam and its supposedly rogue aberration, Islamism, Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a more reliable authority than is Mr. Pipes. Vis-a-vis Islam’s essence, Erdogan has remarked: “Islam is Islam and that is all.” Which is why, pace Mr. Pipes, the future will likely give rise to more reformist movements in keeping with Wahhabism, Khomeinism, and the religious thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also why the possibility that an Islamic equivalent to, say, Judaism’s reform and reconstructionist movements will gain traction in the Muslim world is so remote as to be nearly ridiculous.

Mindy G. Alter
Toronto, Canada

Daniel Pipes writes:

Although the letter writers range between praising my analysis and considering me an Islamist dupe, all concur that I am too optimistic about the chances of Islam’s being reformed. Granted, in this article I did not discuss the difficulties of achieving reform, for that was not my topic. But I do concur with them that this will be a long, difficult effort with no guarantee of success at the end. In turn, I ask: Does the immense challenge of offering a modern, moderate, and good-neighborly form of Islam mean one should give up on it in advance?

In response to Rosanne Klass, I am pleased to learn about Mohammad Moussa Shafiq and hope to see more Muslim politicians of his ilk. To Harold B. Reisman’s view of Islamic reform as chimerical, I would note that my article argues that Muslims can interpret Koran and Hadith as they see fit, so I fail to see why I should have quoted specifics from these same scriptures. Nor do I see why a retrograde institution such as al-Azhar should be expected to lead the way on reform any more than it did on Islamism, which it did not.

I agree with Christian P. Milord that Muslims living in the West, because they enjoy freedoms that do not exist in Muslim-majority countries, have the potential to lead in the reform of Islam; and that they should be less hypersensitive.

John Leo is wrong to compare talking about anti-Islamist Muslims and talking about moderate Nazis; discussion of the former is akin to talking about anti-Nazi Germans. Such Germans not only did exist but also played a vital role in rehabilitating Germany after 1945. I heartily agree with Albert Algazi that education is crucial and that Western donors should monitor the use of their funds more closely.

It grieves me to learn that essentialism, the belief that nothing changes over time, is a “quasi-highfalutin concept,” as Mindy G. Alter tells us. And here I had thought it a simple and useful way to term a common, if mistaken, attitude. I also find it peculiar that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a leading Islamist, should be deemed a “more reliable authority” than myself to understand Islamism. By extension, he’s just declared that Israel was “behind” the Egyptian military’s July 2013 coup d’état; does Ms. Alter brush aside my disagreement with him here too and defer to Erdogan’s wisdom?

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