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Islam's Reformation and Obama's Speech

A man browses through an Arabic copy of "Newsweek" in Baghdad on June 3.
A man browses through an Arabic copy of "Newsweek" in Baghdad on June 3.
There has been no dearth of advice, solicited and unsolicited, to U.S. President Barack Obama in the run-up to his eagerly anticipated address to the Muslim world in Cairo this week.

Pundits have second-guessed and advised, suggesting what he could or should say, and even where he should say it. Not surprisingly, many would-be counselors focus on either the Palestinian question or Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Others harp on authoritarian leaders and the continuing democracy deficit in most states with predominantly Muslim populations.

These are all important questions, of course. Obama has already indicated that he will address them, even while cautioning that no instant solutions are possible.

But to say that these immediate political issues -- and America's policy responses to them -- are the topics of greatest importance to the wide and various Muslim world is ultimately to slight that world and the challenges it faces. Worse, it inadvertently endorses the view of those Muslim extremists who would like to reduce the Muslim world to a monolithic bloc of thought, culture, and sensibility, a global community obsessed with the same small set of grievances.

'Civilizational Richness'

Fortunately, Obama, whose father was a Muslim and who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, knows that Muslim realities are far more complex. With more than 1 billion adherents and scores of internal divisions, the House of Islam is not just a religion but the core component of a civilization -- of many civilizations, to be precise.

Whether Persian, Turkish, South Asian, or other, these civilizations have sustained and helped to shape varieties of Islam, each strongly inflected by ethnic, national, and regional traditions. While such civilizational diversity has often led to conflicts within the wider Islamic world -- think of the ongoing tensions between Persians and Arabs -- it is also a crucial factor behind Islam's intellectual, artistic, and even theological richness.

But it is precisely that civilizational richness that the ideologues of Muslim extremism seek to destroy. Their dream of creating a supranational umma (community) of believers goes hand in hand with a "purified" version of Islam that they claim will restore the vision of Islam's prophetic founder.

Called Salafism and derived from the teachings of earlier reformers, including Arabia's Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, this version seeks to strip away the accretions and accomplishments of centuries of actually existing Islam, including the practices of Sufis and most schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Indeed, the puritan zealots attempt to reduce the Shari'a, the ethical core behind all schools of Islamic legal thought, to a primitive set of prescriptions (the veiling of women) and punishments (the stoning of adulterers). No wonder Muslim critics of this Salafism say that it is an attempt to "re-bedouinize" Islam.

Reformation Under Way

Muslims around the world would have been able to resist this simplistic and oppressive version of their faith had it not been for one thing: the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Thanks to that money, a large Saudi-based Wahhabi establishment has been able to proselytize aggressively everywhere from Indonesia to Europe, establishing schools (with rigid curricula), training mullahs, and even subsidizing scholars in leading Islamic universities.

Wahhabist Salafism is not simply a seedbed of extremist thought, informing what some scholars now call "global Islam"; through decades of collaboration and mutual support, Salafism has become the house doctrine of most Islamist movements and parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt.

The rise and spread of Salafist global Islam is part of a much larger story: the response of the predominantly Muslim world to the challenge of modernization, including colonialism and now post-colonialism. Western observers say that, in face of this challenge, Islam desperately needs a reformation. But that reformation is in fact already under way.

Complicated by the dramatic spread of literacy and new forms of mass communication (both of which give rise to new voices of religious authority), this reformation is focused on a struggle to define the meanings and applications of Islam.

The outcome will determine whether Islam can become a viable force within the emerging global civilization -- or will reject that civilization emphatically, possibly even violently.

What can Obama say about this ongoing reformation of Islam? Very little, beyond acknowledging its existence, its dimensions, and the importance of what is at stake.

But modestly voicing his support for those brave Muslim champions of Islamic diversity and civiilizational richness would actually be saying quite a lot.

Jay Tolson is director of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL