We may have to wait forever for the “moderate” Muslims to take charge.

Will anyone else step up to lead a reform movement?


Jay B. Gaskill

Recently I listened to an intriguing discussion about a strange phenomenon (strange at least to Western thinkers like myself). How does a seemingly “moderate” or even quasi-secular Muslim mutate into a deadly jihadist, ready and willing to take innocent lives (including those of women and children) as part of in the larger struggle against the infidel West.

[ I used the word mutate intentionally here because the situation implies to me there is something in Islamist thinking itself that resembles a pre-malignant condition. Hold that thought; I’ll pick up that thread at the end.]

Then one of the experts in this discussion said that we in the West are likely to get nowhere in the struggle to put out the fires of jihad unless we’re also able to meet the problem on the theological level. Surely, I thought, that can’t be true. I could just imagine how much credibility we would have attempting to tell the devout followers of Mohammed, Allah’s Prophet, how they should practice their religion.

But the comment sparked some careful thinking on my part leading to this essay.

What, exactly, are we to expect from any religion in the context of a peaceful civil order? I think we in the West would agree: We can expect that religious adherents will peacefully coexist with followers of other faiths and the secularists with no faith at all. When the question is posed that way, it suggests the existence of and adherence to an underlying social contract that is given priority over the demands of faith. Perhaps, I thought, our problem is to find the essential elements of that underlying social contract and to reconcile them with theology in general, ours included.

What I’m really advocating here is a new target for our special support and encouragement within the Muslim world. It might be that long expected – possibly mythical – advent of Reform Islam. However much we might hope that change comes about within our lifetimes, it may take longer. But more likely, it will be a mullah or coalition of mullahs who begin talking about accommodating Islam to civil society.

In this, I think the emphasis on “moderate” Islam is a bit off target. Consider that moderates tend to have a bad rap among the committed for a reason. Too often the moderates’ various positions appear to have been arrived at via essential accommodation (i.e., as in the surrender of principle) rather than via conscientious moral reasoning or practical accommodation (as in accepting incremental progress without surrendering principle). This is why moderates are often suspected of being timid believers or timid anti-believers. Surely, this is one reason that very few Muslim moderates have poked their heads above the foxhole. After all, who among the moderates are willing to shed “blood, sweat and tears” in the cause of moderation?

Many, many more Islamic moderates are welcome and needed, of course, but I am persuaded that what the current situation really calls for is something different: Devout Muslims need to rise up, embrace and defend the new doctrine of “civil Islam”. I grant the difficulties.

In order to locate the elements in Islamist doctrine and practice that stand in the way of a “civil Islam”, we would do well to examine our own religious histories. Any solution, whether theological, exigent or pragmatic, should apply with equal force to all religious and quasi-religious elements in the culture. We are not likely to persuade a whole people to embrace a set of norms that cannot reasonably be reconciled with the special demands of all faith. I propose to outline some “ifs”, some “thens”, some new conditions, and some implications, in that order:

Three “ifs”:

If the conflict is with an authoritarian and unacceptably militant and intolerant subset of Islam;
If resolution of the conflict is, at least in one critical part, a theological project;
If this theological resolution requires a measure of authentic reform, as opposed to relying on irresolute Muslims mischaracterized as “moderates”;

Three “thens”:

Then we need to locate a theological position that could be mutually adhered to (by Muslims and non-secular, non-Muslims) that also is sufficient for peaceful co-existence with the larger secular polity;
We need to identify and endorse working models of governance that are adequate to the accommodation of civil Islam without requiring its adherents to sacrifice their core beliefs; and
And we must identify, locate and endorse an ethos that can bridge the religionist-secular divide in a way that does not threaten religion, nor coerce secularism.

Three new conditions:

The moral center is threatened (many believe, among them this author) by a growing amoral secular ethos.
The circumstances of the human condition are such that if our species did not have morally grounded religious institutions, then we would need to re-create them;
The world culture is rapidly moving in the direction of a “free market” in religion to the end that the days of coerced religious affiliation are numbered.


To move the dialogue with Islam forward (to the extent there is one at all), I strongly suggest that all religionists need to identify their shared moral ground and articulate this as a set of moral principles that can reasonably embrace the secular communities as well.

[I have written extensively about this “normative architecture”. The elements of the Decalogue, or at least its underlying normative principles are widely shared in secular and religious moral systems. See “i2i – The Dialogic Imperative” posted as http://www.jaygaskill.com/i2i.htm .]

Within the interactions of a civil society, religious adherents also need to explicitly shed the “single path” to G-d (or to salvation, redemption, holiness, submission to Allah – pick the phrase that fits). The “single path” is a fallacy, and the involuntary conversion is also a fallacy.

Both religionists and secularists need to understand that ultimate moral authority (as deity or by any other name) naturally lends itself to implementation in a classic legal structure.

The legal model is well known and universally utilized within the existing civil societies and consists of a descending hierarchy as follows: ultimate moral authority, if any; a constitution; the laws; the rules of application and adjudication; the systems for enforcement and adjudication. Any hierarchical system of moral principles – even in the ecclesial context – more or less tracks the legal pattern. Again in a descending hierarchy, we tend to find ultimate normative governing principles, derived moral principles, derived laws and rules, and contextually determined applications.

At the beginning of this essay I suggested that we need to identify and endorse working models of governance that are adequate to the accommodation of civil Islam without requiring its adherents to sacrifice their core beliefs. Are there such models? I might tempted suggest that both the US and Israel have struck the proper balance, if one could imagine a state with Islam in a limited titular or implicit organizing role, but the same degree of forbearance and protection to non-conforming faith and secular practices as is common in those two democracies. Obviously few in the Islamic world are likely to agree.

The application of the civil model to an otherwise Islamic society encounters several problems, not the least of which is Islam’s traditional merger of religious and governmental institutions. Yet this obstacle has been overcome by both Judaism and Christianity. We can be confident that, over time, the power of the theocrats will yield to the democrats. Our hope is that we humans can accomplish that transition without millions of deaths. That hope is not unreasonable. Even in present day Iran, there are nascent civil democratic institutions that exist in tension with the governing mullahs. If there were insuperable theological difficulties, we’d not notice anyone playing the democratic game in Iran.

The second level of difficulty is the recognition of human fallibility. The modern religionist would not dispute the proposition that all prophets, seers and saints are subject to some degree of “pronouncement error”. Assuming an authentic encounter with deity or ultimate authority (however named or unnamed) has taken place, there still are four categories of possible errors (hopefully small errors, but not always so): mis-transcription, mistranslation, misinterpretation and misapplication. Again, from the modern perspective, when deity “speaks”, we moderns tend to believe that it is in the form of direct knowledge, rather than spoken words. Therefore we mere humans can understand the divine (whether a divine message or divine engendered insight) only incompletely via metaphors, and our attempts to verbalize divine messages or insights are subject to an unavoidable element of accidental distortion. Even the doctrine of “Papal infallibility” does not assert that Roman Catholic doctrine, as understood, practiced and taught by the Pope (however correct its adherents may fervently believe), is more than a “teaching”.

Recognition of human fallibility does not destroy faith, but it does undermine literalism. This is an extremely important understanding because it contradicts the “single path” fallacy and contributes immensely to the “worship and let worship” ethos of the civil society. It leads us to the single corollary principle in opposition to which the militant branches of Islam have so far been all too willing to shed innocent blood: That is the principle that deity is utterly beyond human ownership, beyond tribe, religion or sect. The implied line is clear: Civil Islam is free to strongly, even fiercely teach that Mohammed is the Greatest Prophet, but not that Mohammed was the only prophet (as Mohammed himself recognized Moses and Jesus as prophets, for example), nor as one whose doctrine should be spread or enforced via coercion.

Is there something in Islamist thinking itself that resembles a pre-malignant condition? Can reasonable Muslims be persuaded to adopt the norms essential to civil society without committing a fatal heresy? I am decidedly not an Islamic theologian. But even I can recognize that the two questions I’ve just posed are functionally one in the same.


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