Good lord, is it “Islam Needs a Reformation” time again? I swear, every year it comes earlier and earlier. You’ve barely put away the stuff from “Cultural Relativism is Destroying the West” week, and the next thing you know, the op-ed pages are putting up “Islam Needs a Reformation” pieces. Mr Tony was first, there were a few of them in the shimmering Bombora of newsprint that is the Oz’s weekend’s Inquirer section, and The Age got into the act, with a groaner of a piece from crusty old Paul Monk, a man famous for dedicating his early ’80s BA honours thesis to Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Soon after this dedication, the Berlin Wall fell. Just sayin’ …

Where to begin with this Islam needs a reformation stuff? There are three large Islamic civilisations: a west Asian (Middle Eastern) Arab one, a Turkish-Persian one, and east Asian one, based around Indonesia and Malaysia. Pakistan is a national remnant of an Indian Islam civilisation once spread across the whole subcontinent. Both the east Asian and Turkish groupings have generated societies capable of combining modernity and religion, have no strong violent jihadist currents arising as an expression of that civilisation, and have outperformed key Western areas — the US south, parts of Eastern Europe — in creating high-growth societies, with a degree of spread of inclusiveness and opportunity.

So clearly, clearly, Islam has its “reformed” areas, and the idea that there is a causal relationship between the presence of Islam and violent jihadist movements is false. It’s a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. Something else is going on. It’s obvious that that something else is foreign domination and occupation. In 1954, Iran’s secular leadership was felled in a US-sponsored coup, and the “shah” — really the son of a recently reconstructed shonk line of shahs — installed as leader. The shah wiped out left-liberal and Marxist groups who had been in power in 1953-54 (and threatened US and UK oil interests), leaving Shiite fundamentalism as its only opposition, and thus helping it take power in 1979.

In 1980, in response to a possible domino effect, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up/restore a pro-communist secular regime — and, in response, the US poured massive funding into mujahideen groups, turning rural resistance into an organisation with international links. Israel helped establish Hamas as a counterweight to the secular PLO. The Saudi government — really, one family that had taken power over a still-nomadic region that happened to have oil — was feted, as was its extreme Salafist version of Islam. The latter would supply much of the ideology and leadership of violent jihadism. Invaded Arab lands would supply their field of operation and growth.

Violent jihadism may have an Islamic content, but its rise and occurrence has happened in mutliply colonised lands — colonised first by the Ottomans and then by the West. The lands of the Ottoman colonisers themselves and the Persians — Turkey and Iran — do not have the sort of violent jihadist terror of which the “Enlightenment” crowd speak (Iran sponsors armed movements in various places, in the way that many states do; Turkey has some Islamic State attacks on its soil, which may have some involvement from the Turkish “deep state”, which runs them in part). The jihadist movements in east Asia have never gained purchase.

Such terror occurs where autonomous states and civil societies have been crushed for a century, sometimes several centuries. It then reappears in the diaspora, as an expression of solidarity with occupied lands. Occupation, civil destruction are what cause such violent movements, give them a legitimacy they would otherwise lack — and we have just done a decade of such destruction across a vast swathe of territory. The “Islam needs an Enlightenment” crowd have, as their primary goal, the denial of this stark and obvious fact. Beyond that, the right need this sort of argument to give themselves an identity via something they define themselves against. Battered and bruised and divided, defeated on numerous issues (far from all), within their own party, they lack a compelling program and philosophy to offer to the public.

When a Christian religious right needs to start going on about someone’s else’s religion like that, you know they’re in trouble. One of the things they’re in trouble from is the Enlightenment of which they speak. Modernity produces liberal, individualised and atomised societies, which become more so as they become more modern. Personal expression and the fulfilment of desire become more important than obedience to a given code. No single “meaning” of the society can be advanced. When people try and put the modern framework — liberal rights, etc — as a value in itself, you know they’re in trouble, because these are simply the conditions for free and meaningful activity. They matter, and winning them is a historically important act. Once you’ve done so, then your problems really begin. You can see this with the current rise of Trump in the US.

Claiming loyalty to a set of documents setting out rights and responsibilities will only get you so far. Trump really lit the lights when he suggested banning Muslim immigrants — in other words, reaffirming a country’s concrete, given white ethnos (as its historic core), as against the abstract justifications for its founding. The degree to which this is a contradiction at the root of the first modern society can be shown in the fact that Trump’s remarks earned him a rebuke — from the Tea Party. Within modernity, the right will always be in a state of crisis, resentment and other-definition with regard to cultural meaning — whether that other is Islam or t.e.h. Leftz — as the inherited framework of traditional society is corroded by the acid of an ever-extended market. The Thatcher/Reagan period wasn’t the restoration of such a social conservative/free-market liberal society; it was the last defiant expression of it, before the social and cultural conditions for it dissolved altogether.

What’s even weirder is when genuine conservatives start to run this line. That can be done only in a way that is duplicitous or genuinely deluded or both. The role that the Enlightenment plays with regard to our heritage was ably summed up by the Australian cultural critic John Carroll in his book Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture. Actually, in the title of the book. Once you have unleashed the forces of science, reflection, equality, demystification, etc, then the concrete-abstract ensemble of values, beliefs and images that make up a culture becomes ungrounded, and you tilt towards the abstract and universal. Whatever particular culture you had, its boundedness, is gone, and you’re on the way to something else. Carroll understood this. So did B.A. Santamaria, the intellectual godfather of both Abbott and Monk.

Santa wanted the cities of Australia cut down in size and the population redistributed to rural cantons, to live as family farmers, ruled over by bishops with a degree of state-institutional power. A sort of Catholiphate. It’s all contained in his 1940s book The Earth, Our Mother, whose proto-Green sensibilities are deeply embarrassing to, well, everyone. In his later years, having abandoned such radical hopes in a search for the social-cultural mix that would guard against the nihilistic effects of modernity, Santamaria turned towards the societies of … east Asia, with their traditional mix of religious obedience, male-headed households, values of personal modesty, self-abnegation in the work ethic, and the presence of God in everyday life. Y’know. East Asian Muslim societies.

The chorus of bleating about enlightenment from Santa’s little helpers is hilarious — the movement spent 20 years trying to delay every advance of modernity and equality: equal pay for women, decriminalised abortion and homosexuality, no-fault divorce, state-subsidised women’s refuges and everything else. It shows how lost, desperate and in need of meaning from elsewhere the right is. No coincidence that Abbott should be adopting that position, as this lost, desperate and other-directed man starts popping up in selfies across the nation and the letters page of “Happy Shopper” weekly.

Let’s help the right out here a little. One short explanation of the character of Islamic societies is that Islam is a form of proto-modernity. It’s the last of the great religions, and it occurs as a religious-political movement from the start, uniting the Arab world. Its theology is monotheism reduced and abstracted to the point that makes it possible for enlightenment to emerge — it’s the translations and commentaries on the Greeks that make it to the West from Baghdad in the 12th century that start the process by which Europe starts to think its way out of the complex and retrograde polytheism of the Trinity-based Christianity. Islam’s limits on representation is in service to that end — that God must be a vanishing point, always out of reach (like all religions, it becomes recrudesced in practice, by fatalism, “God’s will”, that will now be pretty much wholly devoted to explaining the Saudi government’s lethal incompetence in running construction and crowd control in Mecca).

There’s a lot of Islam in the Enlightenment, by way of Aquinas, the Bulgars, the Cathars and other quests for a simpler idea of God. Islam is as close as any religion gets to the Deism that was the real religion of many of the US founders — a copy of the Koran was found on Jefferson’s nightstand after his death. There is no serious question that the Ottoman empire was a more “liberal” and pluralist place than any European country, for centuries, with peoples allowed to follow their own religion, way of life and laws within the larger framework of the empire (it was also the country that invented famine relief, sending ships of grain to Dublin during the Irish potato famine).

Islam’s proto-liberal framework preceded the recent upsurge of a new fundamentalism. Wider public support for that fundamentalism has unquestionably come from its presence in a vacuum — its character as the only force sufficiently organised to oppose Western domination. With the help of cynical Western powers, it has wiped out Marxist and pan-Arabist secular movements. Wahhabism/Salafism’s “first family”, the Saudis, acquired their own vastly wealthy country, and it was given an added boost when “decadent” Western culture began to appear on a new global media system, at around the same time as Western bombs started to fall on people watching it.

None of the remnant traditional features of Islam — gender roles, blasphemy, etc — dictate a violent fundamentalism. If they did, violent fundamentalism would emerge in rural Morocco, not in a suburb of Hamburg, Germany. It is a quest for a simple truth that will serve as an organising power and a force of change that drives violent Islamism, and what could be more modern than that? The “needs a reformation” crowd might be saying that there is a deep universal ethic to principles like full legal equality for different genders, political representation, a sphere of open speech, etc, and in this they are correct. But many Muslim societies are on that path, which tends to follow technological and communications modernisation. Where they diverge and take their own path is in rejecting the Western notion that modernity and enlightenment consists in flattening all traditional forms of life, and then rebuilding on a razed plain, which is our fundamentalism. Glancing at that from outside, one would conclude that it is a wasteland of anger, misplaced pubic emotion, anomie, clinical depression and anxiety, rising suicidality, displaced violence, false and self-defeating ideas of liberty, equivalence of gender roles, and mass disorders of subjectivity. There is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that people who have gained a measure of political liberty from pre-modern social forms would want to follow us on this path. Indeed, it’s just faintly possible that, in coming after us, they may feel they’ve dodged a bullet.

Not least in terror, of course. Because for all the violence, what’s extraordinary is not how many Islamist terrorists there are, but how few. During the IRA years of 1970-1995, the organisation could count up to 500 soldiers — men and women willing to kill and die — drawn from the Catholic population of northern Ireland. If the Muslim diaspora generated anything like that proportion of violent actors, we really would be at civil war. What we have instead are marginal groups, responding to Western anomie with anomic acts, in the pursuit of re-establishing meaning. Talking them up as Islam’s representatives, by diagnosis of some Islamic “pathology”, is to grant them the very meaning they are striving for. It is to arm them. Which appears to be what many Western conservatives secretly desire to do. What else but a major violent incident would convince them that this year, Christmas has come early?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey