More and more Muslims, especially those in the rising middle class, are going around the mosque and mufti network to take advantage of such choices for engaging with Islam available not only on television and radio but also in cyberspace. It is now possible to get guidance from on-the-air or online clerics and Islamic sages. Fatwas—which are religious decrees that clerics issue to clarify ambiguities in religious practice or to call on Muslims to follow a specific course of action—are a phone call or an email away. Sites such as IslamOnline, eFatwa.com, MuftiSays.com, askimam.com or, for Shias, Sistani.org offer lively discussion groups about such hot-button issues as how Muslims should interpret shariah law, how they ought to behave in the workplace, and whether the jihadist’s call to arms has any religious validity. Such websites command an impressive number of visitors, and this popular engagement is generating a democratization of sorts in Islam comparable to the rise of a more populist, and pious, breed of Christianity in the United States spurred on by the advent of televangelism.
Many of the popular new breed of media-savvy preachers blend tradition with modernity in their style as well as the substance of their messages, wearing Western attire rather than traditional robes, and speaking to their audiences in the personable, folksy manner of so many popular American preachers, making use of anecdotes about life’s daily struggles. That recipe has proven enormously popular. The strong appeal of this blending of modernity and Islam does not mean, however, that there is strong support for reform of Islam itself. The core of the appeal is in reassuring the Muslim masses that a modern way of life—the pursuit of material success, watching television, going out to nightclubs, listening to pop music—is in no way in conflict with Islam. Muslims can enjoy the fruits of modernity, they say, and be good Islamic believers at the same time. They are not, for the most part, championing the kind of more thoroughgoing reform of the faith that many in the West have advocated.
We should not kid ourselves: There is very little in the way of liberalizing reform going on in the Muslim world today. If anything, the phenomenon of rising demand for Islam is disproportionately raising the stock of conservative voices, though there surely are leaders of movements for democracy—and for women’s rights—who are building followings, as we’ll explore shortly. But by and large, while there is a great deal of engagement with new ways of delivering the message of Islam, there is not much interest in changing the message itself. For the most part, changing Islamic law or compromising on Islam’s values and worldview is not in the cards.
The attacks of 9/11 convinced many Americans that the problem with the Muslim world is that it is “unenlightened,” meaning it is pre-Renaissance in its mind-set. To catch up with modernity, Muslims must subject Islam to substantial change—Vatican II at least if not the Reformation tout court. But Westerners who are pinning their hopes for better relations with the region on an Islamic Reformation are going to be let down, at least in the near term. The paradox that can be hard to grasp is that the aspirations of the rising middle class have, by contrast, fueled the embrace of traditionalism—the Islamic world’s version of old-time religion. The prospect of launching oneself, one’s children, and one’s society out into the competitive, globalized economy has increased rather than decreased interest in tradition—religious tradition very much included—because of the belief that enduring sources of standards and values are needed to help navigate the currents of change [and not just among Muslims—J. (emphasis added)]. In time, the embrace of tradition may give way to a broader and more vigorous movement for reform, but Western efforts to promote reformism are unlikely to be the impetus. Indeed, they may be even counterproductive, feeding fears that the West wants to subvert Islam.
Many Western observers do not want to hear this. They remain preoccupied with locating the right Islamic reformer, someone who can slingshot Islam onto the fast track toward Reformation and Enlightenment. Why is such a reformer, like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, not showing up? Is reform only a matter of time, or is the West wrong to assume that the Muslim world will follow the same historical trajectory that unfolded in the West when capitalism and the scientific revolution forced change on Christianity?
Those advocating a Protestant future for Islam dwell little on the facts that early-modern Christian reformers were hardly liberal or tolerant—and that the Reformation unleashed a century and a half of bloody and even cataclysmic warfare. The Reformation in all its manifestations across Europe enforced narrow puritanical views with great violence.
Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a great many other secular “rationalists” also enforced narrow puritanical views with violence far greater than that of any religious leaders in history. Nor was the post-Reformation transition to secular nationalism—especially the racialist nationalism of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan—accomplished without great violence, not just in wars between nations but in warfare and ethnic cleansing within national boundaries. If religious intolerance is the problem, secularist intolerance of religion is not the solution.