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If We Can't Criticize Islam, We Can't Reform It

"Avoiding and censoring criticism of Islam solely because populists and demagogues make similar critiques is the greatest failure of today's liberals and freethinkers."

08/02/2017 10:08 EDT | Updated 08/02/2017 14:03 EDT

It has become crystal clear that Islam needs an Enlightenment. However, initiating the Enlightenment process is a near-impossible task, so what can be done? First, it's important to agree on some basic concepts. For example, it is not "Islamophobic" for someone to criticize everyday conservative Islam generally and Islamism in particular. On the contrary, criticism is a prerequisite for any lasting reformation within Islam.

We know from history that the European Enlightenment did not happen overnight. It's not as if Europe woke up one fine morning and delightfully jumped into the formation of a secular and pluralistic society. To construct this new world, Europe went through a dialectic process of reformation, characterized by destructive historical conflicts.

A similar process, though at a more modest level, can be observed in various parts of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, though, it looks like this process will encounter a most stubborn resistance. This is not only a result of efforts from fundamentalist Muslims, but also on the part of Western intellectuals, regressive leftists, and the political far right.

Avoiding and censoring criticism of Islam solely because populists and demagogues make similar critiques is the greatest failure of today's liberals and freethinkers.

It's astonishing when western liberals, who claim to possess the legacy of the Enlightenment, say that Islamists and jihadists abuse Islam. What makes them so certain? Why do they claim to have evidence that fundamentalists are not Islamic and have nothing to do with Islam?

Apparently, the Prophet Muhammad also misused Islam: why else would it read in the Quran and Hadith that he conducted religious wars against the Jews and unbelievers, and approved the killing of apostates?

Despite this betrayal of the Enlightenment, scholars and intellectuals can now be found throughout the Islamic world who are not afraid of calling things by their names, and who openly express concerns about the contemporary problems within Islam.

Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images
An Egyptian worshipper reads from the Koran, Islam's holy book, inside the 10th century historic al-Azhar mosque, in the capital Cairo's Islamic quarter on April 26, 2017. Pope Francis is visiting Egypt on April 28, 2017, and he is scheduled to meet with Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest institution of Sunni Islam.

For example, Dr. Elham Manea, a Yemeni-Swiss lecturer of political science at the University of Zürich, argues that the Prophet Muhammad has two faces: a peaceful one, but also a violent one. Dr. Manea further contends that sticking one's head in the sand and suggesting that Islamism is a corruption of Islam is an exercise in futility.

To find an antidote for this problem of rampant fundamentalism, it's much more important to recognize that Islamism isn't something alien, but is an important part of mainstream and traditional interpretations of Islam. Of course, criticism of Islamism and Islam is a very complex issue in this new era of Western populism.

Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters
Protesters wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis March 20, 2012. Thousands of secular Tunisians marched in the capital on Tuesday, the country's independence day, to show their rejection of growing calls by conservative Salafi Islamists to transform post-revolutionary Tunisia into an Islamic state.

As expected, there are people who try to exploit our work and efforts, people with whom we have little in common politically, intellectually, or historically. What we ought to do is admit when such people are correct, but still criticize them when they're wrong. Avoiding and censoring criticism of Islam solely because populists and demagogues make similar critiques is the greatest failure of today's liberals and freethinkers.

Europe, Islam, and "Islamophobia"

Is the West today confronted with the return of religious fundamentalism in a new disguise? Yes, but today, it is the mosque instead of the Church that is requesting far-reaching powers. Islamic fundamentalism not only affects Muslim countries, but is also a global problem. Tragic testaments to this fact include, of course, global terror attacks in the name of Islam, such as the recent attack in Nice. Yet also in Europe, we see demands for religiously-justified special wishes of some Muslims, especially in public schools.

In this context, it's totally absurd that those who are critical of these demands are accused of "Islamophobia." A reliable method of censorship, Islamists frequently apply this phrase to quickly dispose of any logical or reasoned arguments, while simultaneously making their opponents appear dishonourable. What's perplexing is that many Western liberals fall repeatedly into this trap. When it comes to Islam, under the banner of multiculturalism and misplaced tolerance, they've come to represent a regressive and even reactionary position.

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Leaders of Britain First, Jayda Fransen (2R) and Paul Golding (3L) lead March Against Terrorism on April 01, 2017 in London, England. Supporters of far-right political movement Britain First gathered in central London to protest against Islam and Islamic terrorism in the wake of the recent Westminster terror attack.

Would these regressive leftists take the same position if Christian fundamentalists, for religious reasons, were to demand the segregation of boys and girls in public swimming pools, or a ban on the teaching of boys by female teachers? Islamist ideology is ultimately directed against all that we liberals once loved and held dear: the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity produced by the Enlightenment.

Instead of listening to those regressive leftists who have played down or even legitimized the Paris terror attacks, Charlie Hebdo, and other incidents, the west should support free thinkers and intellectuals like Elham Manea, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Hamed Abdel Samad, and other liberal, secular Muslims and ex-Muslims. These figures are not only better acquainted with Islam, but have lived under religious laws and have had to confront the issue intimately for decades.

These Muslim and ex-Muslim reformers are of the opinion that, in order to initiate a major Enlightenment within Islam, we must recognize the undeniable fact that Islam itself, including the Prophet and Koran, is not infallible and must be subject to criticism.

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