Jihad and the Conditions for Islamic Reform

This was an interesting exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Maher:

Though I wouldn’t agree with him totally, Greenwald gets at something that frustrates me about attitudes like Maher’s (and Andrew Sullivan, who has been insisting on some kind of unique role for Islam in the Boston marathon bombings).

The case for jihad as some kind of special radicalizing force is rooted in the fact of Islamist terrorism and analysis of the more violent parts of the Koran. I don’t buy this. From my nonbeliever point of view, the major religious traditions have very many potential interpretations, and which ones are dominant depend greatly on the social conditions of the age. Indeed, Razib Khan makes a persuasive case that the content of religious texts is essentially irrelevant: “The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology.”

That may be too strong. But it is surely the case that the social context of a particular religion is enormously influential over which doctrines are expressed in mainstream religious circles and which are forgotten. Who today bothers with Leviticus 19:19, which forbids planting two kinds of seed in the same plot?

In the antebellum south, Biblically-rooted defenses of slavery were common. It’s only within the last half century that a “life begins at conception” view has become evangelical dogma. And suicide is categorically forbidden in Islam.

It does seem that Islam is struggling somewhat with the modern world. Whether that is more due to some inherent doctrinal issue or European colonialism followed by six decades of American meddling and violence preventing the emergence of a modern society is fun to argue about, but basically irrelevant. Muslim theology is up to Muslims. As Noah Millman writes:

There is very, very little that non-Muslims can “encourage” with regard to Muslim interpretation of their sacred texts. We can “encourage” Muslim leaders to silence, jail or kill individuals we consider to be a threat. And by all means, we should ask questions – heck, we should sometimes ask impolite questions if it’s necessary to do so to get real answers. But I think Dreher would be quite offended by the suggestion that the proper role of Muslim leaders is to “encourage” Christians to interpret their own religion in a way that is more congenial to Muslim interests or feelings. Why wouldn’t Muslims feel the same way about Christians “encouraging” them to interpret their holy book the way Christians prefer?

American Christians can never be part of the intra-Muslim theological discussion. What America can do is try to break out of the cycle of violence which has characterized our relationship with the Middle East for the past half century. We keep pursuing our perceived interests, and in the process trampling one country after the next into the dirt and creating yet more pools of angry, brutalized young men.

This isn’t a call to unilaterally disarm; obviously sometimes force is necessary. But even today we seem to be erring far on the side of too much brute force, killing far too many innocent potential allies, which seems likely backfire as it has in the past. There ought to be a way to fight terrorists that doesn’t involve propping up hated dictators or repeatedly laying waste to Muslim countries.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.