Global Watch

Is Islam singing from Reformation’s hymn sheet?

President el-Sissi, starting a new Reformation?

In the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo some reputable commentators claim the world is at war.

If history is anything to go by, this war will not end until the Islamic faith makes peace within itself – a peace that accommodates differences within itself and accepts the right of existence of other faiths and religions.

The events in Paris on 7 January with the attack on the magazine and what followed, leading to the death of 17 people, have received almost unprecedented global media coverage and responses from world leaders.

It is, however, also true, and cause for some reflection, that according to some sources at least 2 000 people have been killed during that same week in Nigeria by a radical Islamic movement, Boko Haram, in what is essentially the same war.

The developments in Europe and the Western world at large are also putting serious pressure on the core values of liberal secularism, which has become effectively the largest ‘religion’ in at least the West, if not the world.

In this regard consider, for one, the suggestion by British Conservative prime minister David Cameron of extended powers for security/spy agencies to read and listen to communications between people.

At the same time his Liberal Democrat coalition partner and security minister, Simon Hughes, said the new powers were unnecessary and told the public: “Hold on to our liberties; don’t give them up in defence of the nation, specifically at a time where liberty is under attack. That’s the wrong message to send.”

More examples of these tensions developing in secular states, from Germany’s protest marches against the “Islamisation” of Europe to reports of the torture of “War against Terrorism” prisoners in the USA, can be added.

Echoes from history

This situation reminds one very strongly of the period of the Reformation during the 16th and 17th century that culminated in the Thirty Years War and the eventual Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, from which our present day secular states would develop.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes that period in our history as follows: “The Protestant Reformation was the 16th-century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era.”

Further similarities to what is happening today, and an interesting central role of France even then, is to be found in a description of the Thirty Years War by History Today:

“The war or series of connected wars began in 1618, when the Austrian Habsburgs tried to impose Roman Catholicism on their Protestant subjects in Bohemia. It pitted Protestant against Catholic, the Holy Roman Empire against France, the German princes and princelings against the emperor and each other, and France against the Habsburgs of Spain. The Swedes, the Danes, the Poles, the Russians, the Dutch and the Swiss were all dragged in or dived in. Commercial interests and rivalries played a part, as did religion and power politics.”

In his upcoming book Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, George Friedman of Stratfor Global Intelligence, writes about the centuries-old conflict between Christianity and Islam: “What remains true is that Islam and Christianity were obsessed with each other from the first encounter. Like Rome and Egypt they traded with each other and made war on each other.”

What is now different is that, especially since the 19th century, a considerably more complicating factor has been the development of secularism as a dominant ideology to replace the hegemonic control over European culture, drawing a clear separation between public and private life and accommodating multiculturalism.

For Europeans, and Western culture at large, religion belongs to the private sphere. At the same time, since especially the end of World War II and then the Cold War, there has been a large-scale migration of people to Europe fulfilling the continent’s need for their labour.

It is telling that France now has, with approximately five million, the largest Muslim community in Europe – constituting 7.5% of the country’s population.

But, in the words of Friedman in a recent article: “The Muslims, for their part, did not come to join in a cultural transformation. They came for work, and money, and for the simplest reasons.”

In the meantime, as World Affairs in a recent report puts it, “… the war on Islamist terror is that it is not our war to wage. The West is not at war with Islam.”

Analysing Western states’ options in reacting to the present situation as a choice between a “securitized state”, “an all-out war against militant Islam” or treating it as “an act of violence of a minority” with warnings against the danger of “Islamophobia” it writes:

“The war, such as it is, is in fact the war for the soul of Islam. For most part, it cannot be waged by non-Muslims, only by the believers themselves. Not until and unless they denounce, excommunicate, and expose the murderers, the hate-preachers, and the enforcers in their midst, before rather than after an attack has been committed, can they truly claim that Islam was not involved.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outcry, there have indeed been signs of at least some influential Muslim leaders calling for reforms within the faith. Even from within formal structures of Islam are there such calls for a ‘reformation’.

One of these calls came from Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who in a recent speech called for a “revolution” in Islam to reform interpretations of the faith for hundreds of years, which have made the Muslim world a scourge of “destruction” and pitted it against the rest of the world.

It is, however, early days and in the words of Friedman: “We are entering a place that has no solutions. Such a place does have decisions, and all of the choices will be bad. What has to be done will be done, and those who refused to make choices will see themselves as more moral than those who did.

“There is a war, and like all wars, this one is very different from the last in the way it is prosecuted. But it is war nonetheless, and denying that is denying the obvious.”

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by Piet Coetzer

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