A 21st-Century Islam

By Cohen, Roger | International Herald Tribune, September 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

A 21st-Century Islam


Cohen, Roger, International Herald Tribune


A religion that is also a political movement must accept contestation and ridicule.

The Muslim world cannot have it both ways. It cannot place Islam at the center of political life -- and in extreme cases political violence -- while at the same time declaring that the religion is off-limits to contestation and ridicule.

Islam is one of the world's three great monotheistic religions. Of them it is the youngest by several centuries and, perhaps for that reason, the most fervid and turbulent. It is also, in diverse forms, a political movement, reference and inspiration.

Politics is a rough-and-tumble game. If the emergent Islamic parties of nations in transition -- like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia -- are to honor the terms of democratic governance they will have to concede that they have no monopoly on truth, that the prescriptions of Islam are malleable and debatable, and that significant currents in their societies have different convictions and even faiths.

The past couple of weeks have been discouraging. Nobody expects a U.S. standard of freedom of speech to be adopted -- or even fully understood -- in these societies; they will set their own political and cultural frameworks inspired by a still fervent desire to escape from despotism, whether secular or theocratic, and by the central place of faith.

But the failure in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to control violent mobs of Salafis enraged by mockery in America and Europe of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad suggests an unacceptable ambivalence: The rule of law here on earth must override divine indignation.

The world has tried Islamic republics. It found them oxymoronic. As Iran illustrates, they don't work: Republican institutions, shaped by the wishes of men and women, fall victim to the Islamic superstructure, supposedly shaped by God.

The great challenge of the Arab Spring is to prove that, as in Turkey, parties of Islamic inspiration can embrace a modern pluralism and so usher their societies from a culture of grievance and victimhood to one of creativity and agency.

Just how deep the grievances remain in the Arab world -- over loss of power, economic stagnation, colonial intrusion, Western wars and Israel -- has been clear in the latest eruption. Change will be slow.

But it is coming: These societies will not return to tyranny. The West has an overwhelming strategic interest in supporting transitions that offer the youth of the Arab world opportunity: Egypt now dwarfs Afghanistan in its importance to fighting Islamic extremism.

But the West will not do so by compromising its own values. The porn-grade American movie that started the unrest was pitiful. The murderous violence that followed from Cairo to Benghazi was criminal. …

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