Can Islam Reform Itself?

Britain experiences a shift in its religious underpinnings. As Christianity has declined, Islam has grown. Here's a fascinating story of a cultural shift in a small English town. It discomforts me as a traditionalist, but it doesn't alarm me as a conservative. Societies can change out of all recognition and yet stay the same. England experienced far more violent religious revolutions than this in its long history - the destruction of Catholicism a few centuries back, for example, and Cromwell's vile dictatorship. What's needed is Islamic reform - from within. Maybe Europe in the next few decades will be where it happens. It's certainly more fertile ground than the Middle East. Johann Hari explores the potential in a new essay in Dissent:

The trickier solutions will require Europeans to reconsider a central plank of our conventional antiracist approach: multiculturalism. The Ni Putains, Ni Soumises manifesto calls for "no more justifications of our oppression in the name of the right to difference and of respect for those who force us to bow our heads." Multiculturalism has worked on the assumption that there is one "pure" Islam, represented by elderly mullahs. Now that Islam is splitting into liberal and literalist wings, this approach places European states closer to the reactionaries than to the feminists and liberals. We will have to ensure there are no more state-funded Muslim-only schools and youth clubs, no more privileged status for reactionary clerics. "It must," [Bruce] Bawer notes, "become impossible for children growing up in Western Europe to be raised to see their religious affiliation as the be-all and end-all of their identity."

To host an Islamic civil war - one where the liberals win - Europeans need to junk both the conservative pining for an apocalyptic clash and the liberal fixation on multiculturalism. The potential prize is extraordinary. In the thirteenth century, Muslims stopped using the principle of ijtihadthe application of reason and reinterpretation to pull their religious texts into a modern contextwhen reading the Koran. This led in a clear line to the literalism and psychosis of Bin Ladenism. If the gates of ijtihad open once again, it will be in Europe. It is a long, slow process, but it has already begun. Amid the sound of suicide-murders on European streets, it is possible to hear the slow creaking of those gates and the low rumble of the Islamic Enlightenment.

Excessive hope, perhaps? Naivete even? Only if we have no real confidence in freedom and the West's astonishing power to take the material of illiberalism and bribe and coax it into something more tolerant. Yes, even that most determinedly illiberal of entities: Islam.