10/11/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

How to Stop Religious Warfare

In the past few weeks, militants have tried to spark religious warfare around the world. In the United States, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, made and posted on YouTube a crude video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. In Libya, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, an Egyptian national with ties to al Qaeda, helped orchestrate the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Many Americans have emphasized that the U.S. is committed to the ideal of mutual respect among existential faiths (along with the right to free speech), and many Libyans have let the world know that those who attacked the U.S. embassy do not represent their country or Islam. And yet many people suspect that militants are planning further episodes to incite hatred and violence.

What can history teach us about stopping religious warfare?

Steven's death calls to mind a pivotal event in European history: the Defenestration of Prague. In 1618, Protestant aristocrats threw Catholic diplomats out a window, and by the time the Thirty Years War had ended, 20 percent of the population of the Holy Roman Empire had been killed.

For the next two centuries, the political philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to develop a political order that would end sectarian violence. Radicals such as Baruch Spinoza argued for a secular politics and culture. Moderates such as John Locke argued that believers needed to reinterpret, not abandon, their religion. Radicals sparked the debates, but moderates enacted the lasting changes, including providing the intellectual foundation for the US Constitution.

Two lessons from the Enlightenment remain timely.

First, radicals play an important role in criticizing the ideologies of those who promote violence in the name of God. This position, importantly, is compatible with respecting Islam and Muslims. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Muslim scholar and professor of law at Emory University, has called upon Muslims to contest intolerance, violence and the oppression of women. In Islam and the Secular State, An-Na'im argues that Muslims need to challenge Islamism -- the doctrine that the Quran and the Prophetic tradition are sufficient for modern political life -- and work for democracy, citizenship and human rights. An-Na'im has traveled around the world promoting his message, but the doctrine of secularism is a hard sell today in Muslim countries.

The second lesson, then, is that radicals need the help of moderates to convince religious believers to support political reform. One such moderate, I contend, is Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. In his academic books, Ramadan examines Islamic resources -- such as the Prophetic narrative, the Islamic legal tradition and the work of modernists such as Muhammad Iqbal -- to help generate an intellectual rebirth (tajdid) among Muslim intellectuals and publics. In his more popular writings, Ramadan advocates majority rule, minority rights, and a religious politics that renounces the use of violence to advance its ends.

Consider, for instance, Ramadan's recent New York Times op-ed, "Waiting for an Arab Spring of Ideas." Ramadan counsels Muslims "to stop blaming the West for the colonialism and imperialism of the past" and to keep pursuing "values like freedom, justice, equality, autonomy and pluralism, and new models of democracy and of international relations." Not only do Muslims need to realize the democratic potential of the Arab Awakening, they need "a thoroughgoing intellectual revolution from within that will open the door to economic change; to spiritual, religious, cultural and artistic liberation; and to the empowerment of women." At the same time, Ramadan criticizes America's historical support for Middle East dictators, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay and America's seemingly unconditional support for Israel. That is OK. On a small planet, we all need to learn to take criticism graciously.

In the short term, Chris Stevens' killers should be brought to justice. But stopping religious warfare requires heirs of the Enlightenment, in Europe and America, and advocates of tajdid, in the Muslim world, to convince their peers that such warfare is wrong.