The United States leaned hard on the Turks to allow 40,000 to 60,000 American troops onto Turkish soil to push into Iraq from the North. And the new government did ultimately put the necessary but highly unpopular legislation before Turkey’s parliament, which balked. Despite public words to the effect that they respected Turkish democracy, the Bush administration’s anger was obvious. Since then, tempers have cooled. Most recently, the Turkish government responded positively to the U.S. request for 10,000 peace keepers in Iraq and gained approval from parliament. The United States, however, promptly disinvited the troops under pressure from various Iraqi groups leading to a visit by Erdogan to the White House in January. In what little publicity this visit received, it was billed as “fence-mending.”
Such lack of media interest is a shame. As the Muslim leader of a real democracy, Erdogan is potentially a figure of historic significance. The Bush administration says that democracy is the juju which will fix the Middle East. Yet the steady progress of Ayatollah Sistani toward center stage in Iraq illustrates how difficult it is to implant democracy without the backing of Islam. Whether Sistani is a devoted democrat or a sly defender of his religious faction in Iraq remains to be seen. What’s clear is that positive change in the lands of Islam is far more likely to occur if Islam itself becomes a party to these changes rather than an obstacle. Prime Minister Erdogan is a pious Muslim who also believes in democracy and human rights, including gender equality. Terrorism cannot be Islamic, he says, because “Islam never supports terrorism.” But the practice is supported by at least some self-described Muslims. If Erdogan can win his fellow Muslims over to his view of Islam, there is a real chance for democracy to flourish and terrorism to decline throughout the Muslim world. The aim of U.S. policy must, therefore, be to find ways to help Erdogan–and people like him–acquire the stature that they need to be persuasive. Given a powerful advocate, history suggests that changing how Muslims view their religion is not a hopeless task.
Today we take it for granted that the Christian societies of medieval Western Europe have developed into the modern world. Their Jewish citizens contributed to this development once emancipation gave them the opportunity to do so, not least by founding the state of Israel as a modern, liberal democracy. But modernity is not an obvious product of Christianity or Judaism. It is, rather, derived from the ideas of individual Christians and Jews, ideas which have slowly become accepted by the majority of their co-religionists. Galileo, remember, narrowly avoided the fiery death of a heretic. Only later did Christians decide that a heliocentric universe was consistent with their faith.
For the past 400 years, most Christians have chosen to change their beliefs and adapt to modernity rather than reject it. The Jews who have left the Orthodox synagogue for the Reform and Conservative movements have made similar choices. Christianity and Judaism manage to co-exist with modernity because their believers have chosen doctrinal evolution. Although modernity is itself a slippery concept, in broad terms we can say that most modern societies join America’s founding fathers in holding certain truths to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And the term “men” has evolved, too. Today, modern nations grant citizenship and equal rights–at least in principle–to women and minorities, as well. Add to political liberty the protection of property rights and you have the essence of “The West,” though this is no longer exclusively Western: Japan, the only historically non-Christian society to be unambiguously part of the First World, has largely adopted these same beliefs, albeit within the context of a strikingly different culture. Aspirant nations such as South Korea and Singapore are steadily moving in the same direction.
More than anything else, modernity is a belief system. Founded on a bedrock of respect for individuals and their rights, it embraces change and scientific reasoning, but does not necessarily reject religion. Modern societies not only adopt new technologies, they also create them. Merely using the Internet or cell phones does not make a society modern. Having a mindset that stimulates the creation of such things does. And, though not identical, the quality which all modern societies have in common is that they work–and are widely seen to do so. The modern societies of Western Europe and the United States are inundated with economic and political migrants precisely because these societies offer their citizens–and would-be citizens–security and the prospect of prosperity and personal fulfillment. Nowhere outside the charmed modern circle are such things on offer to the same extent.
The first step in Christianity’s evolution was Europe’s Protestant Reformation. Prior to the middle of the 16th century, the Pope’s authority in Western Europe was unchallenged, at least in principle. Dissent was actively discouraged, heretics burned. Then, in the space of a hundred years, many Christians chose to believe something different. Whether the beliefs of these Protestants were in some dispassionate, academic sense the proper interpretation of Christ’s message, or even whether they were easier to justify than the doctrines of Rome, is not important. What counted was that those rallying to the new Protestant churches had made a conscious choice to reject their former beliefs and embrace new ones. And yet, they insisted, they remained good Christians–better Christians, in fact, than their Catholic coreligionists.
But it was not theology alone that made the Reformation significant. In short order, the technical and commercial center of Europe moved decisively North. The newly Protestant societies of England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Northern Germany started to become rich. And wealth made them influential. Following on from the Reformation came the Enlightenment, which encompassed the long retreat of organized religion in the face of rational scientific argument, not to mention the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, as well as the founding of the United States. Organized Christianity however, did not create these revolutionary changes. That was the work of individual Christians. Christianity merely adapted.
Judaism evolved, too. Almost immediately after the emancipation of the Jews, the second decade of the 19th century saw the establishment of the first reformed synagogues. Like Martin Luther, they introduced the vernacular into religious services. Other reforms followed; only traditions “adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization,” as the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 put it, were to be retained. It was because such adaptations continued that modern Israel came to be founded.
Religious evolution is what has permitted Christianity and Judaism to co-exist with the modern world. In both traditions, change has been proposed by individuals but ratified by their coreligionists. What has permitted the proponents of change to function is that both the Bible and the Torah are long on inspiration but short on clarity. They are open to reinterpretation. Most believers, however, are not equipped to deal with theological niceties or much interested in them. The rank and file are utilitarians. They adopt proposals that offer a better way of living with both God and Mammon. In religious and biological evolution, successful innovations share one characteristic: They work.
The basic preconditions that have permitted Christianity and Judaism to evolve are also present in Islam. Muslims ultimately derive the law, as well as broad ethical principles, from two sources: the Quran and the Hadiths, anecdotes concerning the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Three things about these sources are important. First, there is considerable latitude for interpretation of the texts, forcing believers to emphasize certain ideas or beliefs over others. Second, the Quran and Hadiths are not necessarily of uniform weight. The whole Quran is rated above the Hadiths, though some Quranic verses are held to have been abrogated by later ones, while some among the Hadith are better authenticated than others. Third, neither text explicitly deals with complications arising from new technology, such as whether women should be allowed to drive cars.
Hence, the development of legal and ethical codes to govern everyday life required human reasoning. During the first two centuries of Muslim rule (8th and 9th centuries C.E.), such reasoning, known as “Ijtihad,” was quite wide-ranging. What we know today as doctrinal Islam developed largely during this period. As in Western Europe during the Reformation, Muslim thinkers pondered deeply how much weight they should give to the conclusions of earlier scholars–that is, whether to favor precedent or original thinking. On one side of the debate were the Mu’tazilites, a theological school, influenced by the Greek philosophers, which favored a more humanistic–that is, “modern”–approach to Islam. But those who believed that human reason had little or no place in religion won out. Precedent triumphed over reasoning and progressively restricted the purview of Ijtihad. In common parlance, the “Gates of Ijtihad” closed, and over the years Islam became ossified. There are exceptions, however. And their existence tells us that Islam retains the capacity to evolve.
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab lived in Arabia during the 18th century. He objected to practices which had been absorbed into Islam and become traditional, such as making pilgrimages to saints’ tombs. This, he argued, was polytheistic since it amounted to worshipping the saint rather than God. The answer was a return to the austere and simple religion–as he imagined it–of Muhammad, his companions, and the first few generations of Muslims. Any practice not found in either the Quran or Hadiths was to be forbidden as innovation . Any Muslim who indulged in such practices was to be denounced as an infidel and killed. Ironically, this was itself somewhat of an innovation. Unlike many Christian sects, Muslims had hitherto not been enthusiastic about branding others as heretics.
Having been expelled by a number of rulers at the behest of the religious establishment, al-Wahhab was finally taken in by Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud, a local potentate who declared holy war on those who would not subscribe to al-Wahhab’s teaching. In 1773, the two conquered the principality of Riyadh. The House of Sa’ud rules there today and remains firmly allied with al-Wahhab’s religious successors. Fueled by Saudi oil money, the Wahhabi have become the missionaries of the Muslim world. In the 200 years since al-Wahhab’s death however, time has stood still for his followers. Insulated at first by the Arabian desert, and later by a flood of petrodollars, the Wahhabi have built nothing on the intellectual foundations laid by their founder. Ironically, they have fallen under the spell of tradition and precedent, albeit not the same traditions al-Wahhab inveighed against. Many of Wahhab’s puritan teachings bore certain similarities to those of Cromwell’s 17th century supporters in England and their cousins in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But by contrast with Wahhab’s descendants, Christian puritans on both sides of the Atlantic rapidly reached an accommodation with modernity.
Muhammad Abduh was born in Eypt in the mid-19th century. Confronted by the reality of British imperial power, he sought to forge a new compact between Islam and the modern world. Educated at al-Azhar–then, as now, the most respected institute of learning in the Muslim world–Abduh rejected mere pan-Islamic solidarity as a response to colonialism, believing that solidarity itself was insufficient unless Islam forged a new relationship with modernity. Abduh wanted to equip Muslims to take their place in the modern world and yet retain their core beliefs. As God had created man with the ability to reason, he believed, the product of reason must therefore be consistent with revelation. It is a conclusion that most post-Enlightenment Christians would endorse for their own religion, yet Abduh reached it as a Muslim theologian and legal expert. Indeed, he rose to be rector of al-Azhar for the last six years of his life, a period during which he became friendly with the British proconsul and effective ruler of Egypt, Lord Cromer. But Abduh’s friendship with Cromer had the effect of discrediting him and his ideas in the eyes of the nationalist movements which arrived on the scene after his death.
More recently, the most politically influential Muslim theologian has been Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. His contribution was a doctrine called “the rule of the religiously learned.” A proper Muslim society, Khomeini held, should conduct itself in line with God’s will as expressed in the Quran and the Hadith. But since only the religiously learned could be trusted to interpret these correctly, only they should rule. The success of the Islamic revolution he fathered made him the face of Islam for much of the West–oddly so, for his thinking departed from Muslim tradition, which has generally separated the ruler from the religiously learned. Khomeini, however, triumphed not because he won the theological argument, but because he offered Iran’s disillusioned proletariat and frustrated middle class a way forward: An end to the Shah’s despotic, corrupt, and pro-American regime. More recently, however, the pendulum has swung back. Iranian President Muhammad Khatami and even Khomeini’s grandson, Ahmad, have mounted strong theological arguments against religious rule. More importantly, Khomeini’s version of Islam has failed at a practical level. Iran’s economy has stagnated, its youth are unemployed and frustrated. Khomeini’s ideas have failed the key evolutionary test: They do not work.
Islam, then, like Christianity and Judaism, possesses evolutionary mechanisms. It also appears that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are drawn to what works. Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia’s religion today because the Sa’ud family and its followers rode it to success. If it had failed before the gates of Riyadh in 1773, it would have relapsed into obscurity. (One wonders how it would have survived without the oil money that has hitherto masked Saudi Arabia’s economic sterility.) Khomeini’s ideas succeeded in the first place because they offered the chance to get rid of the Shah. Abduh, by contrast, showed no sign of being able to kick out the British.
Wahhab and Khomeini, of course, offered their prescriptions as a reaction against modernity rather than an adaptation to it. But this is not unique to Islam. America’s Christian evangelical movement is strikingly similar, with its call for a literalist interpretation of the Bible and rejection of modern, post-’60s mores; the Reverend Pat Robertson and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab would have much to talk about. Some of Israel’s religious extremists are not so very different in approach.
The theological legacy of Muhammad Abduh, however, has not proven entirely barren. There are Muslim theologians today who believe that the “Gates of Ijtihad” are emphatically not closed, that Ijtihad is not only a practical response to the challenges of modernity, but also a religious obligation. Some live in Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world, but many are Muslims who have taken up residence in the United States and Western Europe. The hope of creating modern democratic governments in the Muslim world rests more with these scholars than those who seek to transplant political democracy without addressing Islam.
Traditional Muslim scholars rely chiefly on two sorts of analysis of the Quran and the Hadith in reasoning about religion. The first is trying to understand which Hadith are more authoritative, essentially by evaluating the chain of transmission between the Prophet and the scholar who originally decided that the Hadith was genuine. Failing an authenticated Hadith which bears on the issue, the second tool, analogy, is then brought into play. They also consider important the consensus of the first Muslims and the need to respect the opinions of earlier adepts.
Modernist scholars do not reject these tools, but they make two emendations. First, they do not accept that a consensus of the first believers is necessarily more significant than a consensus among today’s Muslims, especially where the early consensus is only related to today’s issues by analogy. Second, they emphasize a form of contextual analysis , which, though traditional, has never been widely practiced. Such analysis evaluates whether an interpretation of a Quranic verse or Hadith is consistent with the whole corpus of Islam. So, for example, some scholars might argue that an important theme running through both the Quran and ahadith is “Justice” and the overriding need to behave justly, even towards unbelievers. Since it cannot be just to treat women as second-class citizens, it follows that gender equality is consistent with Islam. This is no doubt a simplistic summary of a complex process of reasoning, and indeed, the fact that contextual analysis lends itself so easily to simplistic logic is why tradition has restricted its use so severely. The point is that some Muslim scholars are now using the traditional tools of their trade to develop some very untraditional approaches to their religion.
Just as importantly, these theologians have their practical champions. Prominent among them is Turkey’s present government, led by Erdogan. Some Turks think that the Justice and Development Party’s true aim is to undermine their secular state and replace it with an Islamist one. Erdogan and his colleagues, however, say they are “conservative democrats” who happen to be Muslims. At the recent Organization of Islamic States Conference, Abdullah Gl, Turkey’s foreign minister and a pious Muslim, said “I decline to see Islam and modernization as competing concepts.” The evidence to date strongly suggests that Erdogan and Gl mean what they say. If so, they are the first Muslim government in the last 500 years to seek a radically new compact between their religion and the demands of modernity.
It is now a clich to say that we face a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West–that is, the Judeo-Christian West. Yet this fails the first test of a clich: It is simply not true. The clash we risk is between the Muslim world and a modernity with which Judaism and Christianity have already made their peace. The question of our time is whether Islam will do likewise.
If Islam can be led to adapt to modernity, its extremists–today’s terrorists–will be obliged to become peaceful, just like believers on all but the wildest fringes of Christianity and Judaism. If the Islamists remain violent, they will become isolated, and isolation means ideological death. Neither Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, nor Paul Hill, the Christian minister executed in the United States for the murder of an abortion doctor and his driver, excite much sympathy even among their fellow extremists, let alone mainstream Jews or Christians. By contrast, Osama bin Laden is widely admired among ordinary Muslims, though the vast majority of them were appalled by the events of September 11.
But as unbelievers, Western governments and citizens lack standing to argue in favor of Islam making its peace with modernity. The solution is not so much to embrace Muslims like Tayyip Erdogan–too close an embrace will discredit those we seek as allies. It is, rather, to help them become successful. Only when they have provided their people with prosperity and security, validating reformist Islam, will they have the standing to move the Muslim world. (Who would listen to Warren Buffet’s folksy wisdom if he was poor?) Like ordinary Christians and Jews before them, most Muslims have little interest in abstract argument. Show them a new theology that works, however, and they will pay attention.
What the West can do to help Erdogan deliver prosperity to his people is to shepherd Turkey’s entrance into the European Union. And the hardest part of getting Turkey into the European Union will be creating a lasting peace settlement in northern Cyprus, which Turkey’s troops have occupied since 1974, after a Greek-inspired coup and in direct contravention of U.N. resolutions. Fortunately, under Erdogan, the Turkish government is cooperating as never before to bring a peace settlement to Cyprus, the two sides on the island have finally agreed to a plan put forth by the U.N. If the Bush administration can help bring this peace deal to fruition, it will be doing more to aid Muslim reform and promote democracy than anything we have yet accomplished in Iraq.
But to help Erdogan and his like succeed, America will have to learn to postpone gratification. The Muslim modernists are not on “our side”; they have their own agenda, and, therefore, they will not support the United States in everything we wish to do. Indeed, their domestic politics may oblige them to oppose America’s wishes on occasion. In the long run, though, their success in the struggle for the soul of Islam is the only thing that will enable us all to live together.
Grenville Byford conducts research on Turkey as an affiliate of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.