“Revolution is a transfer of power; reform is the correction of abuses.” – Lytton
First it was the “Jasmine Revolution” and then it was the “Arab Spring.” The “Arab Awakening” is latest euphemism for internecine mayhem in Muslim world. These fragrant purisms are invariably accompanied by the adjectives “peaceful’ and “democratic.” As the body bags accumulate, such circumlocutions are harder to digest. The principal purveyor of such pretense is al Jazerra, global network propagandist for the Arab Emirates. American and European reporters, indolent or inept, are quick to take their cues from al Jazerra, but the latest attempt to mask the mayhem of Muslim civil wars offers a special insult to American history.
The “awakenings’ of American history were religious reforms. The carnage in the Arab world is a lot of things, but religious reform isn’t one of them. Indeed, the images from Arab television (chanting mobs of burkas, green banners of jihad, and contorted faces of clerics like al Yusuf al Qaradawi); reveal an Arabia that is not so much awakening as sleep walking back through history.
It is religious reform and tolerance, not political revolution that makes democracy and republicanism possible. Islam does not, nor has it ever, recognized a distinction between church and state. Indeed, contemporary Islamic clerics and scholars hold that religious/secular distinctions create a “hideous schizophrenia” in the West – the source of all European and Americadegeneracy. Such dogma offers few prospects for renewal, internal or external to dar al Islam.
With the European Reformation, the ink had hardly dried on Luther and Calvin’s absolutism, notions of predestination and fatalism, when a thousand apostates bloomed. Early the next century, many Christian free thinkers fled from the intolerance and religious wars ofEuropeto the relative freedom of the British and French colonies inAmerica. Once there, the Protestant varieties of Christianity continued to multiply, many of them restoring Catholic values that Luther had rejected. Prominent among these were free will, redemption, clergy, and good works.
It was left to Americans to fire the forge of democratic ecumenicism; a furnace where freedom, republicanism, and the best common law traditions of Judaism and Christianity would be alloyed.
The story of how the American “awakenings” changed Puritan thinking was best told by Nathanial Hawthorne (1850) in the fictional Scarlet Letter.
Hester Prynne is not simply the story of a fallen angel redeemed. The back story is even more fascinating. Hawthornewas writing in midst of the Yankee critique of Luther and Calvin. In the process of trying to reform Catholicism, Puritan zealots had rejected beliefs in free will, penance, and good works. Hawthorne, a writer with Puritan roots, and his fictional adulterers, helped to restore these core values to American variants of Christianity. In the end, Hester’s scarlet letter becomes: a red badge of courage, an affront to clerical hypocrisy, a symbol of personal responsibility for moral choices, and ultimately, an icon of good works; the path to redemption – in this world, if not the next:
“…the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.”
The early American colonies were unique in two respects. The choice of government, if not governors, was a bottom-up phenomenon. And religious tolerance was not so much a choice, as a necessity. The young American democracy developed in tandem with two religious “awakenings,” in fact a serial American religious reformation which produced a diversity of Christian sects inAmerica that Luther and Calvin could never have imagined. The spires of Christianity and Mogen Davids of Judaism, the American religious mosaic, are still visible today in every town from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Europe took its “democratic” cues fromAmericafrom that point forward. Historians seldom note that the US Constitution never mentions democracy. American founding fathers had little faith in the wisdom of crowds. Subsequent, political and commercial success inEuropeandAmericawas made possible, not by the decline of religion, but by the rise of reform; republican reforms that released the constructive energies of true political and spiritual diversity.
Europe might well take credit for social “democrats” as these were linear descendents of Luther, Calvin, Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. Ecumenical Judeo/Christian republicanism, however, was a product of the American experiment, and the wellspring of Yankee exceptionalism. The Civil War wasAmerica’s great secular transformation; it was made possible by religious reforms movements that insisted on social justice. The abolitionist movement, Lincoln’s Republican Party, and the Underground Railroad all began and were sustained by the conscience of congregants.
Short of radical reform, utopian Islamism is doomed to ruinous failure. Monocultures, religious or secular, are impossible in this world – and possibly the next. Islam has never allowed itself to evolve or repair the depredations of orthodoxy.
The sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity were written by many hands; insuring degrees of observance and a rich diversity of interpretations. The holy texts of Islam come from a solitary source – or at least that’s the claim. The genius of Talmudic and New Testament commentary is the daily effort to make religion relevant to a developed world. Republican democracy is impossible without such religious pluralism and complementary political diversity.
The world is both enriched and bedeviled by spirituality. Religion is a basis for ethics in classical education and an ancient curb-level contributor to common law. Too frequently, Western scholars and politicians are uncomfortable with religion; unable to harness its power and unwilling to condemn its excess.
The European and American Enlightenment is a telling example. Academics wax eloquently about the political and scientific contributions of John Locke, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, but few are inclined to value the spiritual reforms of Desiderius Erasmus, Jonathan Edwards, Roger Williams, John Carroll, or Abraham Geiger.
Frontline recently ran a candid retrospective of the Muslim Brotherhood’s manipulations in Tahrir Square during the recent Egyptian revolt. The Frontline documentary reveals that al Ikwan was involved in the Egyptian insurrection from the beginning, and more importantly, with the assistance of al Jazerra, was instrumental in creating the “secular” facade reported by almost every foreign network. Then came the first Friday prayers after the Mubarak resignation, and the presiding cleric in Tahrir was none other than the Brotherhood’s most outspoken hate monger, Yusuf al Qaradawi. No small coincidence that al Ikwan spokesmen, such as Qaradawi, and al Jazerra news anchors both find refuge and financing under the autocratic Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Qatar.
The alliance between clan chieftains, orthodox clerics, and kept journalists is not difficult to rationalize. Irredentist religious clerics probably see al Jazerra journalists as “useful idiots.” The preferred model of governance in Arabia is theocratic tribalism, not democracy – Saudi Arabia being the baseline exemplar. The regimes under siege in the Arab League today are secular apostates; Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
Bahrain is a simple case of Sunni sectarian repression. The Saudis would like to insure that the parochial religious poles, Shia for Sunni, are not reversed in Manama as they were in Baghdad and Beirut.
If European and American commercial imperialism was a crime against Muslim history, surely Islamic religious imperialism is a crime against the future. Freedom and democracy has always been impossible without religious reform.
This essay appeared in the 1 May 11 edition of American Thinker.