“War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 [years] have seen no war…The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery. The state has our instincts without our restraints.” Will Durant, The Lessons of History, p. 81

“What is the source of the wars and the fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain.” James 4:1, 2

“We should drown ourselves in the ocean of Gibbon’s prose, and pass with him into the somber magic, the scholastic subtlety, and the rural jollity of the Middle Ages, and the pious butchery, the sensuous poetry, and architectural embroidery of Islam.” Will Durant, Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, p. 148

The Christian Example for Modernizing Islam

Kevin Madigan, The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2015, p. A 11

Violent. Illiberal. Intolerant. Anti-Semitic.   After the tragic, murderous events in Paris earlier this month, these adjectives have been applied not only to murderous jihadists but to Islam itself. Yet these words could just as easily apply to medieval Christianity and to much of Christianity in the 20th century.

Medieval Christians notoriously persecuted, incarcerated and burned religious dissenters. Less well-known is that Protestant Reformers in early modern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, de­spite their differences with the old Western church, agreed that reli­gion was not a matter of private judgment but of deep, communal concern and unitary. Reformers believed that religious orthodoxy must be safeguarded, and almost all agreed that dissidents deserved severe punishment and even death. Calvin’s Geneva was a theocracy; one theologian who doubted the Trinity was burned to death—with Calvin’s approval.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popes habit­ually fulminated against moder­nity. One reason that popes like Pius XI (1922-39) supported the fascist dictator Mussolini—he once stated that H Duce had been sent by “Providence” to rescue Italy—was that they shared antipathy for parliamentary de­mocracy and for freedom of the press and association. Generally speaking, sacred and secular leaders in Catholic parts of Eu­rope loathed modernity and all it represented: liberal democracy, emancipation, tolerance, separa­tion of church and state and freedom of thought.

Only in the early 1960s did the Roman Catholic Church reject this medieval worldview Only then did it begin to toleiate other world religions representative democracy and the disenfran chisement of religion. It was only recently that it started to be re­luctant to use political agencies to achieve religious objectives-even to accept the idea that the modern citizen is free to be non-religious.

As Pope Francis recently re­marked, reflecting this relatively new attitude of tolerance and pluralism, “Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation.” It has been said, and not without reason, that the church changed more from 1960-2000 than in the previous millennium. Yet even today, out­side Western Europe and the US., predominantly Christian states-Russia and Uganda, for instance-have notoriously repressive laws.

All of this is to say that tradi­tionalist Islamic states and Mus­lims have not, historically speaking, had a monopoly on authoritarian­ism, violence against apostates, the wholesale rejection of reli­gious pluralism, and the manipu­lation of religion to realize politi­cal agendas. But in the same sad set of facts lies some good news:

The startling changes experienced by Western churches over the past several centuries suggest that similar changes might occur within the world of Islam.

As Christianity has taken many twists and turns in its history, so has Islam, and so might it again, only this time moving toward the more open posture of most contemporary Western Christians.

The Christian experience should caution us against assuming there is something intrinsic to Islam that mandates that Islamic soci­eties be anti-modern. In fact, in the 16th through 20th centuries, liberal ideas were imported into Muslim societies with remarkable success, and harmonized with Islam, especially in the Ottoman Empire. Less happily, at critical moments in Islamic history, reac­tionary interpretations—or misin­terpretations—of the Quran and Shariah triumphed over others.

Fortunately, some Muslims have begun to reinterpret ancient traditions in light of modernity and begun their own, albeit often-quiet reformations, distressed by the authoritarian elements smug­gled into their tradition. They are intent on synthesizing—as have so many branches of Judaism and Christianity—features of their religious traditions with demo­cratic ideas. Such reformations have been institutionalized suc­cessfully in several countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Turkey and Tunisia.

We can only hope that, with the quickening pace of historical change in modernity, Islam/ can adjust more rapidly than Chris­tendom, so that a broad-minded form of the religion will prevail. Muslims will have to recognize what the West, through’ many centuries of hard experience and reflection, has-learned: that reli­gious texts arose in a particular context and must be reinter­preted in the new context of modernity; that pluralism within one’s own tradition and the toler­ance ef other faiths must be appreciated anew; and, finally, that the coercive imposition of faith will generate only nominal or hypocritical, not authentic, conversions.

This will require patience on the part of the West, and more. Above all, the West must not panic and extend its battle with radical Islam—most of whose vic­tims have been Muslims—to the world-wide population of Mus­lims. The Christian world passed through its era of repression and theocracy; there is no reason to presuppose that the Islamic world cannot do likewise.

Mr. Madigan, a professor of history at Harvard Divinity School is the author, most re­cently, of “Medieval Christianity: A New History” (Yale University Press, 2015).


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