Kanan Makiya on Islam and Democracy
Kanan Makiya is the author of Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. He has brilliantly and authorotatively argued for regime change and the deposal of Saddam since the first Gulf War. He is also Iraqi (his mother is British and his father the Iraqi architect Muhammad Makiya) and is now one of the very few Arab Muslim voices that speaks with any credibility whilst at the same time delivering some difficult messages to the Arab (and the wider Muslim world) for the need to accept democracy and, crucially, for the need for a disengagement of Religion from State.
I have excerpted large tracks of his interview that has been published in Democratiya 3. These are the sections that deals specifically with Islam and its need for its adherents to face up to some fundamental cultural choices, such as the role of Islam in government and the need to reclaim the voice of Muslims from the Salafis and the Jihadis. This will not be an easy message for the large majority of Muslims living in Islamic countries, particularly Arab Muslims, but Makiya’s words are directed at Muslims to address and debate these ideas.
I hate the word modernise, as in an embrace of Modernism. We who live in a Post-Modern world know that Modernism has not come close to answering all the questions, particularly for cultures with deep Traditional foundations. But Makiya deals with that here in the following text by saying that Muslims must and will find their own way to reform Islam and it will most likely not take the same form as the (European Christian) Reformation – which dealt Christianity a death knell in the late 17th century with the last coffin nails banged in with Vatican 2 in the 60s. Islam’s Reformation, when it is to happen, must avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water, at all costs.
On the future transformation of Islam
On a simple level, I mean there is a culture of not taking responsibility for the state of one's house. The culture of constantly shunting that responsibility to others—'imperialism', 'Zionism', and so on—has become a break on moving forward across the Middle East. Look at Muslim societies today. They are relatively backward in terms of income levels. They have been unable to create democracies. They are stuck in a language and a rhetoric that is patently unmodern. The defensive wall that exists between Islam (at least as it is currently constructed) and the necessary changes needed is, above all, the idea that others are responsible for what we've done, and that everything bad that happened to us has happened because of others. The answer to the question 'what is wrong?' is always 'it's somebody else's fault'.
Now, why is Islam in that position, and is it changing? The 'civilisational challenge' is this: can the Arab Islamic world come to terms with the fact that it is responsible for its own ills, and for pulling itself up by your own bootstraps in order to get into the world, rather than keep finding ways of staying out of it? This is not an easy thing. For a religion to undertake that kind of internal self-critique means it has to accept a real reformation of itself. Christianity was able to do that. Judaism was, in a completely different way, more or less able to do that (not as completely). But Islam hasn't even begun to do that. And in the meantime there is a kind of rot. We don't live in a world that allows long periods of time for making this kind of internal reformation of oneself. In the meantime the rot represented by the rise of Salafi Islam, Jihadi Isalm, etc is so great, so palpable, that it is threatening us all, and is threatening Islam itself, above all.
Islam is largely at war with itself. The greatest number of people who are dying on the battlefields are Muslims. Muslims are fighting Muslims. Think of Algeria. Think of the struggle inside Egypt. Think of the Lebanese civil war. The greatest number of casualties so far, 9/11 notwithstanding, is Muslims fighting Muslims. But we don't have a properly focussed debate, with those trying to reform and transform the religion leading one side and those trying to hold it back leading the other.
However, there are very important changes starting to take place, New voices are being heard. Cruelty and Silence is everywhere. That was impossible in 1993. There are Muslims critiquing Islam itself. These voices are starting to emerge. This reformation may be beginning. But they haven't yet cohered into a clear movement with an agenda that is tackling the other side, the Jihadi view of Islam, the obscurantist and fundamentalist side of Islam. So while there are reasons for optimism, there are also reasons to worry. Because, as yet, these new voices aren't anywhere near as strong as they need to be. Moreover, Jihadi Islam now has a substantial social base it didn't have ten years ago. One could even say we look like we're losing the battle at the moment. I certainly hope that's not the case. But we are in the throws of a deep convulsion that is taking place within Islam itself, among Muslims, and we have no way of clearly predicting how this is going to turn out. I call that a civilisational crisis of the first order.
On Islam and Democracy
It's a tension only in the sense that every great religion has to find its own way of freeing itself and moving forward in the world. Islam will find a way that is different to that of Christianity. The same formulas—separation of church and state, etc—may not play themselves out, in the convulsions that take place within Islam, in exactly the same way they played out in Christianity. We should not look for a straight line between the European experience and the Islamic experience. But can it in principle be resolved? Absolutely, I think it can.
Yes, Islam's relation to politics - it's insistence that it legislates for day to day life – can cause problems when you try to separate it from politics (quite different from Christianity where you can start to put religion and politics into two separate boxes). However we negotiate this reformation-transition, we know it is going to be different. But that it can take place is a proposition I completely believe. It hasn't taken place this far simply because the individuals, the subjective factor able to make it take place, have not yet emerged strongly enough from within Islam.
It's not the same thing for a person like me to write from a secular point of view about these issues, and for a cleric, breaking with his own traditions, to write about these issues. In Iraq today there are such clerics. Think of Sayyid Ayyad, a remarkable man in his mid-forties. who has arrived at a series of conclusions utterly from within the Shiite tradition of Islam, which accept the separation of church and state. He's on the lists, he's up for elections, he's on TV, and he's a real firebrand. He is a new kind of force speaking a new kind of language, shocking traditional Muslim audiences. He has a very high opinion, for instance, of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. Many more people like him need to engage in the debate, as well as people like myself. I and others like me can't break through that wall by themselves; we need help from inside the fortress of Islam. Missing, at the moment, are the clerics who will fight from within and make their argument not in the way I make my argument (from western texts, general texts of human rights or from someone like Hannah Arendt), but from within the religion itself. This is, after all, how the reformation came about. It was largely by very religious, pious men constructing arguments for human rights from within their own tradition. That this can be done in Islam I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt. The nature of scriptural texts is that they are infinitely malleable. It is what you chose to put forward that counts. In fact, it is really quite remarkable how the growing Salafi, or Jihadi, trend of Islam rests on a tiny body of text. It represents a very small minority position within Islam. It has succeeded largely through the strength, vigour and energy of its own militancy, which it has used to capture a whole section of the tradition. That's never happened before. There is, in principle, a huge body of texts and many traditions with which to create an alternative version of Islam. I haven't a shadow of a doubt that it can be done. It just needs the men and women from within to do it.
The whole interview is invaluable.