Without Luther, No Jefferson

In a recent post on the Iraqi Shiites I discussed Reuel Marc Gerecht’s Why the Worst is Probably Over in Iraq which takes the view that the moderate Shiite support for democracy led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani had survived the civil war.

In the course of looking more deeply into Gerecht’s his work I found this 2004 monograph entitled The Islamic Paradox. It is available in full as a PDF and is about 50 pages in length. More than any other single work I have read it plausibly advances a possible long term approach to defusing Islamic extremism grounded in cultural understanding and knowledge of the Muslim world. This kind of thinking stands in stark contrast to the projection of Western ideas on the Muslim world by ideologues of the right or left. Gerecht gives us insight into the diverse ways that Muslims are trying to enter the modern world on their own terms and precisely how we miss the importance of differences in the history of religion in the Muslim world and in the West. Here is a sample:

The intellectual connections are undeniable between “mainstream ‘ Islamic fundamentalism, which grew from al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and Mawdudi’s Jama’at-i Islami, founded in 1941, and the holy warriors who struck us on 9/11. This is not to suggest, however, that all fundamentalists approved of bin Laden’s terrorist attacks. Many Islamic activists condemned the terrorism. But the common roots allow us to see, in part, why bin Laden became and remains a cult figure throughout much of the Muslim world. More important, they allow us to understand how bin Ladenism must be fought—from the inside out. The liberal and neoconservative hope that Muslim moderates or liberal secularists can compete with and vanquish mainstream fundamentalism, which ultimately is the wellhead for bin Ladenism, in a Western context, is to imagine Thomas Jefferson without Martin Luther.

Which is to say that the Muslim world can not enter into the modern world without passing through a process something like what the West experienced as the reformation. Reading Gerecht one quickly realizes that any Muslim reformation will be quite different from what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is precisely in the various schools of Muslim clerics – Sunni and Shiite – that this transition is being tentatively hammered out. It is easy for us to dismiss the role of the clergy because, as modern Westerners, we see their role as peripheral, but the impact of clerics like grand Ayatollah Sistani are just as important as Luther’s was in his own day. Gerecht’s explanation of the difference between Sistani’s clear support ofdemocracy and Khomeini’s theocratic approach is even starker than I
realized. He begins with a critical quote from Sistani from soon after the invasion in 2003 asserting the democratic rights of Iraqis:

“The Occupational Authority in no way has the authority to
choose members for the drafting committee of a Basic Law. In no way
does any authority exist for such a drafting committee to represent the
lofty interests of the Iraqi people or to translate into law the wishes
and basic identity of the Iraqi people, the pillars of which are the
glorious faith of Islam and society’s values. The current [American]
plan discussed is fundamentally unacceptable.

Accordingly, popular elections are necessary so that each Iraqi who is
of voting age can choose his representative for a constituent assembly.
And then any Basic Law written by this assembly must be approved by a
national referendum. It is incumbent upon all believers with their
utmost commitment to demand this, and asserting the truth of this path
is the best way that they can participate in this process.”

Our Western ears, unaccustomed to giving weight to any clerical opinion, might easily miss the significance of Sistani’s words or dismiss them as pious waffling by someone trying to make himself relevant to the political process. Gerecht’s commentary takes Sistanis’s words out of our context and places them firmly in the context of the internal Muslim debate – the very center of that ‘inside out place’ – from which he argues bin Ladenism must be fought:

In the history of Islam, this opinion is revolutionary, equal to
Khomeini’s assertion of clerical supremacy. There is little reference
in this judgment, which was issued on June 28, 2003, to Islam, and what
reference there is, for a senior cleric who has devoted his life to
the study of Islamic law, verges on the pro forma. It makes no allusion
to any duties that man owes to God (huquq Allah), the common theme of
both traditional and modern fundamentalist thought. Sistani is talking
about inalienable rights that Muslims possess. In its essentials—one
man, one vote and the moral obligation to have a constitution written
by elected representatives and then approved by popular referendum—the
fatwa is flawlessly secular, clearly and concisely asserting the people
as the final political arbiter. Sistani’s opinion is striking when
compared to Khomeini’s antidemocratic statements and actions before and
after the revolution.


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