Wanted and Needed: A Muslim Enlightenment

Wanted and Needed: A Muslim Enlightenment

Last Wednesday’s terrorist attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left twelve people dead, has inspired much commentary, as would be expected. Many (e.g. Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times) have stressed the need to resist the urge to blame all Muslims for this terrible crime, and, in Mr. Kristof’s words “be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own”. I agree wholeheartedly with such sentiments, but I don’t think that they should prevent us from looking carefully at the problem of Muslim intolerance, fanaticism and resultant terrorism. Are all Muslims fanatical terrorists? Absolutely not, and, just like all people, individual Muslims should be judged on their individual characters, and we should refrain from group blame. Are all terrorists Muslims? Again, of course not. But these facts should not blind us to the fact that the Muslim world has a tendency, in far higher percentages than other religions (not to mention atheists and agnostics) to harbor, engender and excuse intolerance, fanaticism, misogyny, and, yes, terrorism. We should tread carefully to avoid tarring all Muslims with these attributes, but we should not shy away from a careful analysis of the circumstances that has led to this state of affairs and what, if anything, we can and should do about it.
I believe that what the Muslim world has lacked, and sorely needs, is an Enlightenment along the lines of the European Enlightenment that occurred from the mid 17th Century through the end of the 18th Century. It was an era in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, such as the Catholic Church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science, and skepticism. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one’s own intelligence. The Enlightenment was the source of ideas that are critical to western society today, including the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. (Credit to Wikipedia for this concise definition of the Enlightenment). Its influence on the creation of our own republic cannot be overstated. Which is not to say that the West has always lived up to Enlightenment ideals, far from it, but these ideals have shaped us, and for the better.
I do not believe that there is anything inherent in Islam, the Koran, or Muslims themselves that inhibits their ability to act in enlightened ways. While the Koran does contain some nasty stuff about slaying heretics, etc… so does the Old Testament. It is not the specific religion that is the problem here, it is how seriously and literally that the religion is taken by its adherents. One of the important facets of the European Enlightenment was that people stopped taking religion so seriously and literally. This helped to facilitate scientific advancement. Without the Enlightenment, it is doubtful that people would have been as open to Darwin’s revolutionary ideas concerning evolution as they were. After the Enlightenment, European Catholics and Protestants stopped killing each other (at least in such large numbers) and there were no more Crusades to drive the infidels out of the Holy Land. Now look at the Islamic world, especially the Arab world, which is where Islam originated. Before the coming of Islam, the Arab world was a great source of scientific and mathematic knowledge and learning. Remember, the numeric system still in use in the West and elsewhere is made up of Arabic numerals. But since the coming of Islam there has been precious little scientific innovation coming from Arab countries. It is often said that Muslims harbor deep resentment of western domination of the world. But for Muslims, the only way to effectively counter western hegemony is by competing effectively in the marketplace of ideas and innovation. The random killing of western civilians will not win anything for Muslims. They can’t compete if they don’t accept science and reject superstition. They can’t compete if they take half of their brain power (i.e. women) and say that they’re not allowed to be educated. They can’t compete if their schools teach unbending obedience to a book that was written by people who didn’t know that the earth revolves around the sun instead of fostering the scientific method and free inquiry, even if such free inquiry compels them to relinquish some long-held beliefs. In short, the Muslim world needs it’s own enlightenment. And it cannot be imposed from without; it must come from within. It is long past the time that influential Muslim leaders realized this. It is the only way forward for their people.


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