Monday, May 02, 2005

The Islamic Reformation

I just finished reading a wonderful book by Reza Aslan called "No god but God." I bought it after seeing him appear on the Daily Show (and some people claim the Daily Show isn't educational!).

I believe this book should be mandatory reading for all Americans. So many of us have jumped to conclusions about Islam simply because of the acts of a few extremists. September 11 was indeed a shocking moment in our history, but as Reza Aslan explains at the end of his book, it is representative not of a struggle between Islam and the West, but rather of a struggle within Islam itself.

In tracing the history of Islam and its various sectarian movements over the centuries, Mr. Aslan comes to the conclusion that the events in the Muslim world today parallel the struggles faced by Europe during the 16th century with the Reformation. As he points out, Islam is just reaching that period in its history, and all of the tensions between the various factions are coming to a head.

In conjunction with "No god but God" I've also been reading the Qu'ran, and have been pleasantly surprised by the non-misogynistic and peaceful nature of the text. Islam is a breathtakingly diverse and rich religion, and is no more incendiary than Christianity was at a similar stage in its development.

The book reminded me that many of my closest friends when I was growing up in Japan were devout Muslims, and that my Muslim friends and acquaintances have been erudite, polite, and (speaking for the males) much more chivalrous than most of my other friends. There is no danger greater than generalizing - the Japanese internment camps in the US during WWII come to mind. Many Americans are on the verge of condemning or have already condemned all Muslims as extremists. This is truly terrifying.

Reza Aslan argues against imposing Western democracy in the Islamic world - he believes that Islam is not incompatible with democracy, much as Christianity was not incompatible with democracy. His point is that democracies such as the United States are based on fundamental Christian social and moral values, and that imposing a Christian cultural context on the Islamic world will not be effective in bringing social change. Instead, with the Islamic reformation, a uniquely Islamic participatory democracy is developing, rooted in Islamic values.

The bottom line is this: We cannot brand people as extremists for calling for democracy based on a religious template. Our nation is based on that same template, and seems to be doing ok. Reza Aslan's book is an important introduction to the history of Islam, and while slightly biased towards the Shi'ites (he is Iranian), gives a fair overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the various denominations of Islam. Maybe if our administration bothered reading it, they'd realize that much like in Latin America, meddling in the Islamic world is not the best way to achieve lasting participatory democracy.


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