Reformations, Enlightenments, and the Middle East: A Response to Thomas Friedman

As the recent abductions by Nigeria's Boko Haram and the surge of violence in Iraq have reminded us, non-state groups can threaten religious freedom and other basic human rights at least as much as governments. In this week's conversation, we ask scholars to examine the significant trends in non-state threats to religious freedom and explore the most effective ways that governments and societies can respond. 

By: Anthony Gill

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman ponders the recent conflict in Syria and Iraq and concludes with an oft-repeated trope about Islam.

"Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey."

This notion that peace will come to Muslim lands following a “reformation” and “enlightenment” is incorrect on many fronts, both historically and logically. It also highlights one of the cautionary notes that individuals who champion the notion of religious freedom must always keep in mind: while freedom will foster diversity, it is not a conflict-free process and those not prepared for this may forsake freedom for autocracy that delivers much worse. 

Let’s examine the historical record. The Protestant Reformation occurred after a radical thinker broke away from a centralized, rent-seeking hierarchy that was imposing orthodoxy. Prior to this, there were a multitude of "reformations" that were attempted and did not succeed (on a large scale)—e.g., John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and all the little ascetic and gnostic movements that peppered Christianity since its founding. (With only a modicum of creative thinking, the various monastic orders of medieval Christianity also could be seen as "captured and contained" reformations—an attempt to create purified oases of spiritual living amidst what was seen as a secularly-tainted Church. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, reformation movements are continually rife with conflictive reformation.) 

Following Luther’s Reformation, Christianity did not settle down eventually and become less radical as Friedman seems to imply. Instead, with excommunication off the table, it produced a series of fissiparous and ongoing "reformations" that continue to this day. The Lutherans and Calvinists fragmented into different sects, with each claiming to hold a purer brand of the faith. The various American Great Awakenings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Fundamentalist revivals straddling the turn of the twentieth century were, quite bluntly, reformations. Today, we routinely see "reformations" occurring with unabated frequency (cf. divisions within the Anglican Union and United Methodist denominations; Opus Dei and liberation theology within Catholicism). The relative peacefulness with which these more modern reformations have occurred is not so much an effect of having one “big Reformation,” but rather it was the result of a long, and sometimes violent, struggle to ensure rule of law within the broader polity. 

Unlike medieval Christianity, Islam does not have a central hierarchy. This was true even during the time of the caliphate (which was largely a territorial figurehead with a weak patina theological legitimacy). Holding the Sunni-Shi’a split aside, even the great Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties experienced religious diversity on par with multi-denominational Protestantism as is evidenced by the evolution of multiple interpretations of sharia law. As such, Islam is very fissiparous. And while some Muslim societies may not be very hospitable to the religious liberties of non-Islamic faiths, within the confines of the broader Islamic faith tradition there exists a de facto freedom within the Islamic faith that results from the lack of an institutional hierarchy capable of asserting a uniform theology. 

And just as the Reformation (and its progeny) created radical theological interpretations, so too do the ongoing reformations within Islam. Without a central authority defining and enforcing spiritual orthodoxy, numerous splinter sects will lay claim to that orthodoxy, just as Christian sects do. Within both confessions, sectarian movements that seek to “reform” what they see as a corrupted faith will often make extreme claims, often denouncing heretics and apostates as defined by their new theological rigor. In essence, Protestant Christianity and Islam are experiencing micro-reformations at a constant pace. Thus, for Friedman to say that Islam needs a Reformation reveals a profound misunderstanding of reformations and Islamic history. 

It must be acknowledged that such reformations often lead to great societal strife. Friedman’s curiously backward history seems to forget that the Reformation ostensibly gave us a century of religious warfare (though I view them as being much more about base territorial claims) and a Counter-Reformation that was none too soft on dissenters. Likewise, the Enlightenment, while leading to great scientific and philosophical insights, spawned the French Revolution, its own reign of terror, and the subsequent "scientific" ideologies that led to mass murder on a scale that Islamic extremists have yet to accomplish. Europeans need to remember that some of the horrors we are witnessing in the Middle East today hold much in common with Robespierre’s guillotines, Hitler’s concentration camps, and Stalin’s gulags. 

None of this is to claim that the Reformation, the Enlightenment, or their smaller awakenings and paradigm shifts are inherently harmful and bad. Rather, it is a reminder that ideas and ideologies come with consequences in all shapes and sizes, with glories and horrors. Intellectual contestation and reformations are wonderful at checking our cultural institutions and preventing them from becoming corrupt and morbid. However, when the appeals to a "reformed orthodoxy" turn violent, that is not productive and can actually stifle theological and intellectual creativity. The problem, however, is not with the reformative (or non-reformative) nature of the religious institution(s); instead it lies with the ability of secular governance to contain violence via respect for individual (not group) human rights and an accepted and enforced rule of law wherein citizens (not kings or anointed theologians) retain sovereignty. 

When it comes to the promotion of religious freedom, this is a lesson that is critically important. True freedom will unleash a flood of intellectual and theological creativity and pluralism. These new ideas will contest extant ones and conflict will invariably occur, particularly when the new ideas begin to make headway and threaten the societal power of those holding the current orthodoxies. Whether such conflict turns violent will depend upon a wider set of institutions than merely laws pertaining to religious freedoms or the theological content of any particular faith. We must be prepared for such conflict and resolve to embed our support for religious freedom in broader support for social institutions that promote tolerance. Simply claiming that “Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey” denies support for these broader institutions and reveals a patronizing view towards those who deserve our moral encouragement. 

Anthony (Tony) Gill is a professor of political science and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Washington, a distinguished senior fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on June 19, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.   

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/reformations-enlightenments-and-the-middle-east-a-response-to-thomas-friedman