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Rethinking Islamic Reform: Finding Tough Answers the Hard Way

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From face veils in France to wannabe terrorists in Times Square, the question of how to "fix Islam" has become a normal but urgent question these days. The same question reigns in Muslim majority countries, where cultural forces clash between the hyper secular and the religiously retrograde. Today, Oxford University weighs in on the issue with its headline event, Rethinking Islamic Reform. The event hosts a conversation between the infamous Tariq Ramadan and the less controversial but equally influential Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson. What distinguishes both the event and the speakers is not the topic of conversation, but its quality, content, and soberness in an age of hyperbole.

The fact is that on the question of Islam, the media thunderdome has been dominated by two extremes. In one corner, self-styled Muslim critics demand that the Islamic tradition secularize along the same course as western society. In the other corner, are the radically marginal pathologists like Revolution Muslim and Anwar al-Awlaki. In the vast middle lays the conservative silent majority of Muslims, devoted to their religion, distraught with global affairs, and perplexed on how to proceed.

But this polarization and misplaced energy is not just a media problem. The intellectual debate is caught in the same trap. For example, it has become a common choir on the American academic scene to host conversations between renegade clerics and ivory tower philosophers on the question of Islamic reform. They typically unfold with panelists praising the reemergence of Islam's "rationalist" theological school (Mu'tazilism), deriding the medieval implementation of Shariah law, and triumphantly calling for a philosophical overhaul in Muslim societies that will most certainly overcome the day's crisis.

Ironically, the problem here isn't just idealism or naïveté, but more that the conversation isn't exactly a new one. Since at least the mid 19th century, Muslim modernist reformers such as Sir Seyyed Ahmad Khan in India (d. 1898) and activist pan-Islamists like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1898) have promoted free thinking and reason in the development of a viable Islam for the modern age.

The reasons why the exhausted attempts at Islamic reform have not altered the cultural logic of Muslim society writ large isn't because the religion is inherently incompatible with the modern era or that its religious elites are hiding their heads in the sand. It is because the route of reform in Islam has until now has been incorrectly targeted, ill-conceived, and often tainted with imperialist pretensions. Thankfully, Oxford's conversation between Tariq Ramadan and Hamza Yusuf's is one of the first major steps taken by a western institution to move beyond the stagnant dichotomies that have dominated the perennial "clash of civilizations" issue.

What both scholars possess that so many others wish they did is an aura of authenticity in Muslim circles. The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, Tariq Ramadan is not only widely respected, but expertly versed of the limits and possibilities of the Islamic legal and theological traditions. Acutely aware of the political sensitivities of Muslims both in western societies and Muslim majority countries, he is uncompromising in his moral certitude and commitment to pragmatism. In the age of Nidal Hassans and Faisal Shahzads, Ramadan represents a viable non-violent outlet for the politically disenfranchised and disillusioned Muslim masses.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson likewise enjoys the popular support of Muslim youth around the world, and especially so in the west. Trained in the centuries old tradition of Muslim scholarship in West Africa and the Middle East, Hanson is an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and the mystical sciences. His speeches never allow an empty seat and his education programs out of the Zaytuna Institute have offered American Muslims an alternative to the Wahhabi petro-dollar paradigm. He is the organic intellectual par excellence to the mainstream Muslim world.

Rethinking Islamic Reform also marks a growing realization that genuine and viable change in Muslim society will not emerge from goodhearted liberals or renegade clerics who would like to revive the spirit of dead poets and sages of centuries of Muslim past to save the day. Instead, it will grow out of a natural conversation between the traditionally trained scholars of Islam (ulama) and the activist minded modern intellectuals (mufakkirun) that places Muslim pragmatism and Islamic viability at the center. There are cadres of scholars and institutions already undertaking this work, the question remains as to whether or not the powers that be will let it unfold naturally.

Today's event is a step in the right direction, but the fact that it is taking place at the Oxford Divinity School instead of al-Azhar in Cairo or the Qom seminary in Iran, may be a bad omen. Remember, the Muslim audiences that need to be reached are viscerally averse to foreign meddling in their religion. They are also deeply, deeply conservative. They make the Vatican look like--well--the Huffington Post. So as long as we set aside our fantasies of a Muslim Martin Luther (and King Jr.) rising from the ashes to rescue us, we might just be on the right track.