Islam Confronts Its Demons; Religion, Reform and Terrorism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Islam Confronts Its Demons; Religion, Reform and Terrorism


Byline: Tony Blankley, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Looking at today's Islam, a growing number of Western long-chinned pundits have been suggesting that what Islam needs is reform - much as Christianity and Judaism have reformed over the past 500 years. Christian reform, driven by the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, brought itself into comfortable compatibility with modernity. But what if, in the context of Islamic history, for today's Islam, bin Ladenism is the reform? That is one of the startling suggestions of a deeply informing article by Max Rodenbeck in this month's New York Review of Books, titled "Islam confronts its demons."

While that journal is almost always filled with high-toned and scholarly anti-Bush hysteria, Mr. Rodenbeck's article, free from partisan cant and scholarly ax-grinding, should be required reading for thoughtful supporters of President Bush - as well as his opponents. In four long pages of small type, the author discusses nine recently published books on the subject of whither Islam in the current maelstrom. The authors range from French Muslims to former CIA agents to British scholars. (Admission: I have ordered all the books from Amazon, but have not yet read them - when I have, I will report back to you. But just the review article, itself, gives one much to contemplate.)

Since September 11, Americans have started reading and thinking more about Islam. Much of that debate has focused on the nature of historic Islam. The advantage of this review is that it is assessing not what we Westerners think about Islam, but what Muslims themselves are thinking and arguing about today. No American or Western strategy intended to deal with the terrorism that is inspired by parts of today's Islam can afford to misunderstand the nature of Islam today - the good, the bad and the likely path of its current rapid change.

As Mr. Rodenbeck reviews 14 centuries of Islamic reform history, he explains that there have been some reform efforts aimed at modernism and enlightened manners, which tried to break free from Koranic textual literalism. But that "more often than not, 'reform' in Islam has pushed in the other direction, toward the reassertion of the primacy of founding texts, using the double-barreled power of the sword and the book to launch jihad-minded movements."

In that context he places Osama bin Laden in that long line of successful "reformists": "It may sound odd to classify a terrorist group as reformist, but a radical remake of the faith is indeed the underlying intentions of bin Laden." He notes: "This 'reform' agenda has met with a certain amount of success. Yet in places where their fighting message has run its course, recruitment has fallen off rapidly, both in response to the ugliness of their methods and, ultimately, to the radical utopianism of their aims. …

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Islam Confronts Its Demons; Religion, Reform and Terrorism
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