In his latest book “Rendez vous avec L’Islam,” the French writer and intellectual Alexandre Adler indicated that a reform of Islam, by incorporating the values of modernity, and its reconciliation with democracy, will start outside the Arab world “which is a lost cause and will take place in Turkey and Iran.”
Adler sets to resolve the “Islamic dilemma” and argues that the biggest strategic issue of the present phase is how to contain “Sunni fundamentalism,” of which al Qaeda represents its most extreme wing, while we can sense it is a political and partisan condition in most Arab countries and in Pakistan, where its presence is rooted in the military institution.
Adler writes that the power and authority of this radical current is due to the failure of the Arab nationalist dynamic in its attempt to unite the countries of the region, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This failure caused the rise of a “fascist hostile” tendency that used terrorism to target Arab regimes and western interests, from an extreme eradication perspective that does not allow dialogue with the other. Adler believes that facing this challenge, which threatens global stability, cannot be fruitful and efficient unless it occurs from inside the Islamic world and within Islam’s highest authority itself.
Whereas the Arab world is not equipped to pay these dues, according to Adler, hopes are pinned on the Turkish model of Islam, which reconciles secularism and reform, and the Iranian model, which is currently obscured in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s victory.
His argument is one of the models of intellectual debate currently taking place on Islam. In the west, this debate adopts one of two different paths:
1- One course/direction uses/exploits the cultural paradigm as evidence to the idea of a deep-rooted split between Islam and modern values, considering that the current differences/ problems in Islamic western relations are not due to circumstantial reasons related to the growth of terrorism (fundamentalist and militant), but due to the a clash between two exclusive cultures incapable of meeting halfway. It also sees that the expression of extremist armed groups is the same as what more moderate trends/tendencies express in writing.
In this view, the only possible reform is to adopt the Christian European option during the Renaissance and Enlightenment ages, in other words to instigate a deep-rooted review of the system itself, to eliminate its “demagogical insularity,” according to Mohammed Arkoun and in order to incorporate the values of the self, freedom and criticism in its education and political dimensions.
This is an intrinsic/substantial reform that is based on the western experience and the religion as a base for action and reference.
It is clear that this perspective, as reflected in Arkoun’s latest writings, gives religious reform priority over political reform and considers it as a condition for success.
However, this perspective suffers from an essential gap, which is reducing Islam by considering it a spiritual regional tradition without being aware of its special characteristics and its own values and historical experiences. This represents a missed opportunity to achieve reform by transforming the agenda of reform into a methodological debate and historical comparisons. They might be welcomed in academic circles but they will look sterile on the political and social scene.
2- A perspective/course that sees political reform as the natural entry for the sought essential transformation. Islamic minds neither reject reform nor refuse the values of modernity and democracy. It is capable of accepting, as all other religions, a vast array of intellectual and social proposals and ideas. The problem is not due to the limit or failure of historical and cultural criticism. The tragedy is cased by oppression and the inability to make a free choice and this is why breaking free from totalitarianism will surely lead to the liberation of thought and awareness. The majority of American studies prefer this line of argumentation, from a pragmatic point of view, relying on successful reform and modernizing experiments elsewhere in the world. It considers the charges against Islam, as a religion that is not susceptible for democracy, have been previously applied to Orthodox Christianity and Asian and African religions, but events have shown otherwise.
The importance of this condition is that it is capable of being exported as a model that can be applied to the Islamic world. It is known that Bernard Lewis, who focused some of his work on the Turkish model, preaches about the current Turkish experiment.
Even if Turkish secularism was based, since its inception, on the laic French model, or the total separation between church and state as a starting point for central government, Ataturk’s project was not, in reality, based on an intellectual or theoretical background and did not internalize the heritage of European enlightenment. It did not even go beyond the procedural and organizational body of laws and did not seek to develop western social tradition. This is why the political and intellectual situation has remained similar, deep down, to the current general Arab and Muslim condition. The success of the current experiment goes back to its ability to reconcile between the procedural and organizational gains of the secular choice and the flexible Islamic ideology that is accepting of the mechanisms and constraints of democratic rotation of power.
As for the Iranian experiment, it appears to be alternating with a deep-seated intellectual reform project coexisting with a marked return of the radical revolutionary trend, which clashes with its regional and international surroundings, to power.
It is the reformist project that has failed in power, for a number of reasons I do not wish to mention, but it has created a significant social and cultural dynamic, which hopefully will have a say in public life.