The West’s Islamic Reform Cult of Personality

In his piece on the Crossroads series by PBS, Gary Kamiya of Salon made the observation that when it comes to reform within Islam, someone whose “views are actually representative” is the best candidate to speak about the subject. Presumably … Read More

By / October 29, 2007

In his piece on the Crossroads series by PBS, Gary Kamiya of Salon made the observation that when it comes to reform within Islam, someone whose “views are actually representative” is the best candidate to speak about the subject. Presumably this means that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is out, since she’s atheist and works for American Enterprise Institute; Irshad Manji is out since she’s — as he called her — “eccentric” not to mention a lesbian; and someone like Tariq Ramadan is in because a lot of Muslims consider him somewhere near the mainstream and he has a well-kept Muslim beard. I would like to offer the observation that conceptualizing Islamic Reform in terms of which personality has, or can have, the most influence is a flawed way of evaluating how change in Muslim societies takes place. Over the last year, while working closely with Muslim activists in various countries, I have learned that wherever in the Muslim world positive change occurs, it is not from the influence of a “personality.” Rather, it is a legislative, judicial or regulatory act, brought about – and this is something we Americans can appreciate – by pressure from the people. In other words, the way we in the West conceptualize “Islamic Reform” is upside down. Where the Muslim world changes, it occurs because its citizenry, galvanized by every day activists and politicians trying to make a name for themselves, wants it changed, not because a personality with appeal (and in the West at that) tells Muslims to change. To be even more blunt: Muslim public opinion shapes clerical opinion, shapes the opinion of legislators, shapes the course of the change itself. When we in the West casually accept that the only way for successful change in the Muslim world is through a through a powerful religious “personality” – a Luther – we simply reinforce the same anachronistic tropes we have always held about Muslims: they are slaves to their imams. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, in most parts of the Muslim world, imams are the laughingstock. Second, reform is actually taking place in the Muslim world and “personalities” are simply not driving the change. Recognizing this might help explain why a majority of Americans never hear about the “successes” of Tariq Ramadan, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And We won’t. Ever. Cult of personality is not the answer, and we have to ask why we are such slaves to it. My hypothesis is that we link Islamic reform to a personality instead of to a set of structural, legal and regulatory changes, for one simple reason: Bin Laden. In 2001, he came on the scene, sitting in a cave, a total rebel. He talked not about Afghanistan versus the US but of Islam versus Satan. He was not bound by any norms applicable to anyone else. This was because he was a member of a state – the Taliban — that didn’t exist. As such, he was one of the “dead” people of the world: a stateless man. Normally, becoming stateless is a great tragedy. But for Bin Laden, it added to his mystique. It allowed him to appear as if he was bigger than the rest of us, because he was beyond the rest of us, freer than the rest of us. When we couldn’t catch him, we figured we’d just contain him. How? We imagined that if we could just get an anti Bin Laden, who could convince Muslims of everything that was opposite of what Bin Laden preached, we’d be straight. First we thought it would be Irshad Manji – the NYTimes called her “Bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” remember? Then we thought it was Ramadan, because he could sweet-talk Muslims. These days we think its Hirsi Ali, because she talks down to Muslims. Tomorrow we’ll think the anti-Bin Laden is someone else entirely. We keep running through our list of personalities trying all sorts of different combinations. Yet, the fact is, the opposite of Bin Laden is not a person; it is an idea. That idea is called Islamic reform. And Islamic reform is not magic dust sitting somewhere in some heretofore undiscovered individual’s pocket, nor is it the act of rewriting a new Quran or coming up with dreamy visions of Islamic theology in which angels are androgynous and God is cupid. Islamic reform is a set of structural, political, and legal changes that occur within each individual Muslim majority nation-state; changes that will be brought about through political parties and other collectives of Muslims. In short, if you want Muslim reformers, start looking for post-Islamist groups and political parties; Muslims who have figured out how to break the stranglehold of Islamist political theory upon Islam, and who want to work within the nation-state as opposed to outside of it.

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