What will it take to get Islam to reform itself? Will last Friday’s cold-blooded slaughter of 305 Egyptian Muslims at prayer in their mosque finally be the tipping point?
While aggressive government and military action against Islamist killers are certainly necessary for the short term, in the long-term, only true religious reform within Islam can end the bloodshed.
Other major world religions have found it necessary to undertake internal reform in order to evolve to live in the modern world. Despite theological disagreements, other major world religions reexamined their own doctrines - particularly religious doctrines that foster hostility to difference - and replaced them with doctrines of tolerance.
The Catholic Church is a good example. Its long history includes bloody Crusades and later, horrible Inquisitions, which continued through the 19th century. The last victim of the Spanish Inquisition was a schoolteacher named Cayetano Ripolli, who was hanged in 1826 for the heresy of teaching Deism, the idea that belief in God should come from reason and observation, not just blind faith.
Catholic history and texts notwithstanding, in 1962 the Second Vatican Council convened to address relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. It produced the document “Nostra aetate (Latin for In our Time), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” a platform for deep and ongoing reform of certain once-fundamental Catholic positions.
Islam needs to undertake similar reform, if only for the sake of Muslims themselves. Even before last Friday’s latest and largest horrific massacre, Muslims were the primary and most frequent victims of Islamist terrorism.
A 2014 Pew Research Center Survey of 14 countries with significant Muslim populations found high and increasing levels of concern about Islamic extremism. Popular support for violence against civilians has declined over the years (perhaps because Muslims have become the chief targets of that violence). A decade ago, 41% of Pakistani Muslims said attacks on civilians were justified, but that has fallen to just 3% today.
Nevertheless, despite the significant decline in numbers, substantial minorities in some countries continue to agree that violence against civilians is often or sometimes justified in “defense of Islam,” including 46% of respondents in the Palestinian territories, 29% in Lebanon, 47% in Bangladesh, and 24% in Egypt.
There is still a long way to go.
But there is movement in the right direction, and an increasing number of voices calling for reform. There is a small Muslim Reform Movement in the United States. Muslim reformers can be found in every other Western country, as well. Ayan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia and raised in Islam, documents the work of reformers and dissidents in her most recent book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now.”
There are citizen reformers and even clergy reformers, in Muslim majority countries as well as in the West. Clergy with vision are those who not only reject violence in the short term, but who also recognize the need for reinterpretation of the Islamic ideas that are used to justify oppression and violence.
Finally, there are political voices. Tunisia’s President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi has called for religious reform in his country. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for religious reforms in a 2015 speech at Cairo’s Islamic University. Speaking to an audience of Muslim scholars from Al-Azhar, the prestigious center of Sunni Muslim learning, he urged rethinking religious discourse. He called for a “religious revolution.”
There is much to criticize about Al Sisi’s harsh methods of governing Egypt, but he is a deeply religious Muslim himself, and the sincerity of his call for religious reform is unmistakable. He said, “You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting. The entire world is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart.”
Let’s hope they – and others - will soon listen.