A Muslim Reformation

The popular belief that Islam condemns freedom and political, social and economic progress is a myth.
02/27/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2017
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

On February 24, 2017, the NYT reported that during an NSC meeting General McMaster, the newly-appointed National Security Advisor, told the staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion and that radical Islamic terrorism was not a helpful label because terrorists are in fact ‘un-Islamic.’ At last a ray of hope, a senior White House official with knowledge of Islam and a sense of history taking a small step toward erasing misconceptions of Islam and referring to Muslim terrorists as ‘un-Islamic’ terrorists. But to have any chance of success—to establish flourishing Muslim societies, to eradicate the scourge of terrorism and to bring harmony between the Muslim and non-Muslim world— it is Muslims who must go down the perilous path of taking back their religion from a whole cadre of dictators, opportunists and charlatans and initiating change and reform.

While non-Muslims are woefully ignorant of Islam and its teachings, Muslims, over many centuries, have become increasingly uninformed about the essential meaning and practice of their own religion. Yes, nearly all Muslims follow the Five Pillars of Islam, but there is so much more to Islam. Islam is a religion of unity, peace, compassion, justice and freedom. It is a religion of rules and institutions that advocates freedom, education, equal opportunity, hard work, free markets, sound management, sharing, modest lifestyles, poverty eradication and representative governance. But frankly, these are not values that are normally associated with Islam today. A cursory glance would indicate that most liberal non-Muslim countries reflect these values more than do Muslim countries, an assertion confirmed by Islamicity Indices.

Most of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims live in countries that are autocratic, unjust and corrupt, and that afford little opportunity for advancement. Muslim rulers have used religion to control; and they and their cronies live in opulence while average Muslims struggle. It is not only in Muslim countries that Muslims feel disenfranchised. Many Muslim immigrants are confronted by hopelessness in their adopted lands and are discriminated against. While nothing could ever justify terrorism, oppression and the absence of any hope for a brighter future encourages some to join terrorist groups that promise a path, albeit a false and divisive path, to a better world where a false version of Islam rules supreme or where they believe a welcoming heaven will await them. It is in this setting that terrorists have found an opening to preach their message of hate and of killing innocent people in the name of God. If we allow the spread of terrorism to be framed as an inter-faith struggle, we will usher unimaginable global conflict, because Christians and Muslims make up over half the population of our planet. The two faiths have much in common, and must not allow opportunists to divide them and to frame terrorism as a Christian-Muslim struggle.

The drift toward a Christian-Muslim or a West-East struggle is in large part fueled by Islamophobia but can be reversed by Muslims taking back their religion, reformation in the Muslim World, non-Muslims enhancing their understanding of the message of Islam and shedding Islamophobic tendencies, and the great powers ending their support for autocratic Muslim rulers.

Muslims, Take Back Your Religion

The popular belief that Islam condemns freedom and political, social and economic progress is a myth. God, the all powerful, could have made humanity perfect with no freedom to choose, but doing so would have rendered human dignity meaningless. Freedom is a divine gift. The Quran and the life of the prophet Mohammad stress the love of God for His creation, the unity of creation, and the need for justice and rules (effective institutions) for a thriving society. Today, most Muslim societies do not reflect the important benchmarks of Islam, instead they provide breeding grounds for anger, frustration, desperation and violence. No Muslim country would even come close to countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand in terms of how they reflect the teachings of Islam. The prophet Mohammad stressed the importance of practicing the teachings of Islam when he said: “Three (behavioral traits) if found in a person, then he is a hypocrite even if he fasts, prays, performs bigger and small pilgrimages, and says ‘I am a Muslim’: when he speaks, he lies; when he promises, he breeches; and when trusted, he betrays;” and: “Faith without commensurate action is like a body without a head;” and “The most virtuous jihad is when one speaks a word of truth before an unjust ruler.”

To take back the helm of their religion from corrupt rulers and clerics, Muslims must begin by studying the Quran, consulting learned teachers as needed, and asking how they can apply and practice the teachings of the Quran in their time. In this quest, Muslims have little choice but to peacefully demand change in their countries. They must demand representative governance as recommended in Islam. This may be easy for us to advocate when we are not living in a country where we could be jailed for asking questions about Islamic teachings and discussing its practice, but Muslims in most Muslim countries have to risk their safety to peacefully confront oppressive regimes. In the absence of such political participation, Muslim societies will not progress. Moreover, Muslims must denounce and confront the false message of jihadists who are murdering innocent people around the world and sowing the seeds for an East-West confrontation. While extremists are the most visible danger to Islam and the world, there are other purveyors of division.

Today, most Muslim societies do not reflect the important benchmarks of Islam, instead they provide breeding grounds for anger, frustration, desperation and violence.

There are academics who attack a fictitious Islam that they have created to appeal to all those who see Islam as the enemy, as well as to Muslims who have not studied the Quran. These purveyors of falsehood are often referred to as Orientalists and Neo-Orientalists and they use a variety of misrepresentations to denigrate Islam. They frighten Westerners by saying that Muslims want to force ‘Shariah’ as the legal system wherever they go. They use a variety of terms—‘Shariah,’ ‘Islamic Jurisprudence,’ and ‘Muslim Law’ interchangeably—and conflate them with Islam. But this law that they refer to is not stated in the Quran, which Muslims believe is the Word of God. What they refer to is a body of law derived and put together by men (no female participation) many centuries ago with the ever-present agenda of rulers. Originally, the law derived from the Quran might have been helpful, but today Muslim clerics and autocratic rulers use it as an instrument of control. Neo-Orientalists intentionally manipulate Islamic teachings to sway their uninformed Western readers, with one of their goals being the creation of ground support in the eventuality that military action is exercised, as, for example, was the case in the 2003 Iraq War.

Another group that has promoted inter-Muslim conflict is foreign powers. Examples of this are everywhere: the US calls one group of Muslims (the Muslim Brotherhood) a terrorist organization in support of one of its Muslim client countries; Washington does little to prevent Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain in support of the Bahraini ruler’s crimes against humanity and ignores Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen, but condemns Iran’s alleged intervention in Bahrain and its limited intervention in Yemen. Today, the US may favor and support one Muslim country against another, but Muslims should be aware of the seeds of division and should realize that these alliances may be reversed to serve changed US interests tomorrow.

A Muslim Reformation

While Muslims believe that the Quran represents the word of God, this does not mean that they should live the same way as Muslims did at the time of the prophet Mohammad. Islam preaches the importance of progress, education, healthcare, science and technology, effective economic management and governance and economic prosperity. As we have said before, Islamicity Indices afford a concise and summary benchmark to serve as a guide to peacefully challenge rulers for positive change.

What could be the essential elements of a Muslim reformation?

As a prerequisite, Muslims around the world must study the Quran, come together and take the helm of Islam away from clerics and rulers. Islam does not need anyone at its helm. Muslims should make their peaceful demands for change known internationally to unite Muslims and to garner support from non-Muslims. While this process may start in one Muslim country, it would advance rapidly if Muslims coordinated their vision and activities.

Muslims should demand a modern-day government with elected officials that are answerable to the electorate and with a constitution that serves as the bedrock of a flourishing society where justice, the rule of law, human rights and dignity, freedom and equality of opportunity are held sacred; a constitution that the community approves and that is subject to amendments as needed; a constitution that incorporates Islam’s institutional recommendations that are very much in line with Adam Smith’s vision but that contain a heavier dose of morality.

Terrorism will not be vanquished by sanctions or by wars. Ignorance and Islamophobia will only embolden terrorists and fuel the fires of division and conflict. Muslim anger will not dissipate by wishful thinking. Eradicating terrorism, dissipating Muslim anger and closing the East-West chasm requires Muslims taking back their religion from self-appointed clerics, rulers and jihadists, Muslim reformation, and the progressive and unselfish support of global powers.

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