Huntington: 1 - Reformers: 0

The notion of an inevitable "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West was an idea many progressives loved to hate, but the so-called 'cartoon crisis' is forcing a second look.
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It's been a banner week for Samuel Huntington. His thesis about an inevitable "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West was an idea many progressives loved to hate, me included. But the so-called 'cartoon crisis' is forcing a lot of people to give his dire warnings a second look.

Conversely, it's been a bad week for thoughtful Islamic reformers. If I read them correctly, writers like Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam) and Reza Aslan (No god but God) argue that Islam cannot adapt to modernity unless it allows its followers to ask basic questions and apply reason to religion. To do that, you have to carve out a sphere in which it is safe to risk offending the pious and committing so-called blasphemy. You can't do it with a gun to your head.

Muslims used to have such freedom. In its early Golden Age, Islam encouraged a process of rational religious inquiry and debate called "ijtihad." Those engaged in ijtihad could think and reason about religion without fear of the blasphemy police. But about a thousand years ago, Sunni leaders declared that everything about Islam and its laws had been figured out. In one of religious history's most ominous metaphors, they formally "closed the gates of ijtihad." Piety was set in stone. As was blasphemy.

Today's reformers want to reopen those gates. Irshad Manji even proposes a whole reform program called "Operation Ijtihad." But things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. The great thrust of the Islamic Reformation now sweeping the Muslim world is toward a return to unquestioning orthodoxy, often enforced by the threat of violence.

In that sense, the cartoon crisis is very bad news both for Islamic reformers and for those in the west who would like to see them succeed.

It's bad news for the reformers because the outpouring of outraged violence has helped solidify the idea that to offend orthodoxy is not merely to risk one's own soul, but to commit a crime. That should be no surprise; in classic Sharia law both apostasy and blasphemy are crimes punishable by death. But reviving that idea so powerfully in 2006 hardly bodes well for free enquiry and rational discourse.

It's also bad for progressives in the west because the reaction to the cartoons -- even by moderate Muslims -- implies that Islamic prohibitions apply to everyone, not just Muslims. This is, by the way, a fairly new wrinkle. Even the lamentable Rushdie affair could be seen, at least in one sense, as a dispute within Islam, since Rushdie was a Muslim. But the Danish cartoonists who have been forced into hiding for committing an act of Islamic blasphemy are not Muslims.

Many in the west blame those cartoonists and their Danish publishers for provoking the whole imbroglio. Former President Clinton called the cartoons "appalling" and compared them to hate speech. The Bush administration labeled them "unacceptable," while giving tepid lip service to freedom of expression.

Maybe. But I think we need to think this through.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the Danes were indeed out to provoke. Bad, right? Sure. But the main Muslim argument against the cartoons is not that they constitute provocative hate speech, but that they constitute blasphemy; that it is forbidden to depict Mohammed in any way, and that this prohibition applies equally in Denmark and Dubai.

So let's also imagine that sometime in the near future a serious western scholar publishes a book that exposes major contradictions within the Koran. Or a book that questions the authenticity of many of the hadiths, the revered records of Mohammed's deeds and words, upon which much of Islamic law is based.

This is exactly the kind of free enquiry that sets minds free; the kind that Islamic reformers pray for.

But such books would profoundly offend orthodox Islam, which considers the Koran perfect and Mohammed unassailable. So if such books prompted protests and riots and death threats, where would moderate Muslims stand? Would the US call such scholarship unacceptable? Would Bill Clinton liken it to hate speech?

Maybe not. Maybe the moderate voices of Islam were only offended by these particular cartoons because their intent was to insult and incite, whereas more serious and scholarly 'blasphemy' would be fine.

But if that's the case, they should say so loud and clear. Thus far they are not saying so.

So as it now stands, the cartoon crisis has played deftly into the hands of those who want to promote Huntington's clash of civilizations, while dealing a serious blow to the reformers.

Indeed, with the Danish cartoonists now in cowering in fear for their lives, the forces of intimidation have already won. It's hard to imagine anybody publishing anything that might offend pious Muslims in the future, whether it's a snarky cartoon or a serious study. Hiding from fatwas isn't fun.

So reformist Muslims can probably forget about reopening the gates of ijtihad anytime soon. Instead, it looks like those gates may be closing even here in the west.

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