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The Islamic Reformation: Been There, Done That?

Reformers have tried to civilize Islam - and failed.

By Will Offensicht  |  January 31, 2011

Many writers of good will have stressed the need for an Islamic "reformation."  They point out correctly that Catholicism was associated with military conquest, torture, and various brutal Inquisitions during the Middle Ages.  When running theocratic governments, the Catholics of old could be as intolerant of dissent as any modern-day Muslim theocracy.

This sort of muscular Catholicism came to end following the Protestant reformation.  The wish which accompanies this view of the past is that Islam would have such a reformation so that it could take its proper place among the rest of the world's religions which, regardless of what they may believe, are tolerant of others' rights to believe something else.

What these folks forget is that the end of church-sponsored wars came only after centuries of war between Catholics and Protestants.  The Huguenots represent but a single thread of this multi-national and multi-generational conflict, but their story is illustrative:

The Protestant reformation resulted in formerly rigidly Catholic societies becoming more tolerant of other faiths, but this process required several centuries and a tremendous amount of bloodshed.  The Huguenot conflict alone lasted from the 1536 General Edict until the Edict of Toleration in 1787, a period of more than 250 years.  The Spanish wars against Protestants, the wars in the Low Countries, and the religious conflicts in England, Germany, and Italy were equally protracted and equally messy.  America was founded as a side effect of people fleeing religious persecution.

These unarguable facts of history suggests that an Islamic reformation would be neither peaceful nor rapid.

The Islamic Reformation: Already Over?

The powers that be realized early on that Martin Luther was a dangerous subversive.  After discussing the matter at a meeting at the town of Worms in 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor declared Luther an outlaw, banned his literature, and demanded his arrest: "We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic."  His life was saved only when a political rival of the Emperor sheltered him for several years.

Unfortunately for the hopes of Western apologists for Islam, the history of the 20th century suggests that Islam has had, not one, but at least three reformations, each of which were crushed by the traditionalists just as the Emperor tried to crush Luther's reformation, only more successfully.


The nations of Islam were in sad shape after the First World War.  The Ottoman empire had sided with the Germans and had been essentially destroyed by British guerrilla forces under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia; Istanbul was occupied by British soldiers.

Resistance movements dedicated to driving out the infidels bubbled up all over Anatolia.  In the end, Mustafa Kemal drove out the foreign forces in 1923 and declared the formation of a new nation - Turkey.  He later became known as Ataturk: Father of the Turks.

In his new country, Ataturk excluded Islam from any role in public policy and relegated it to private life as the ACLU tries to ban Christianity from the public square.  All religions were to be tolerated.  He discarded all the laws of the Ottoman empire in favor of Turkish, abandoned Arabic script for the Latin alphabet, outlawed polygamy, banned veils and headscarves, and moved the worker's rest day from Friday to Sunday.

This made him a modernist in Western eyes, but to Islamic traditionalists, Ataturk was a breathtakingly radical extremist.  He realized that Islamic traditionalists would strike back; to protect his revolution, the Constitution he wrote gave the army the duty of maintaining that "wall of separation."

Ataturk's system worked for most of the 20th century.  From time to time, a political party or leader would become too overt in its calls for sharia law or Islamic governance.  The army would remove the excessively devout leader and ban the party.  New elections would be held with the lesson just taught held firmly in mind, the government remained secular, and life went on.

The problem, as we've noted before, is that unlike Christianity, Islam has no sense of separation of church and state.  The Koran is just as much a book of civic laws as moral and religious ones; no devout Muslim can be fully comfortable in a land that declines to endorse the commands of Mohammed by writing them into secular law.

As long as Turkey remained overwhelmingly Muslim and also democratic, the tension would remain.  Perhaps Ataturk himself hoped that his people would eventually move away from Islamic devotion as Europe has left Christian piety, but they didn't.

Enter the European Union.  Turkey has a toehold on the continent of Europe, and has long aspired to join the EU.  Europe can't accept a country prone to military coups, however, and is not eager to embrace sharia law.

Even to discuss joining the EU, the Turkish army had to give up their special status as guarantors of the secular nature of the state.  This has permitted a strongly Islamist party to take power, which will probably end the modernization of Turkey fairly soon.


The situation in Iran after WW I was equally unstable.  The last King of the old Persian empire, Ahmad Shah Qajar, faced a revolution led by traditionalists at about the same time Ataturk was establishing his new nation of Turkey.  The British believed that forces backed by the new Soviet government of Russia would seize control, so they sponsored a colonel named Reza Pahlavi, who threw out the king and crowned himself Shah of Iran.

Pahlavi was a Westernizer like Ataturk and instituted the same dress code.  Islamic clerics could wear turbans, but in order to be granted the right to wear a turban, a cleric had to get a license from the government.

The Shah's secret police couldn't catch every potential rebel, however.  In 1978, the Ayatollah Khomeini led a rebellion which toppled Pahlavi's son.

Iran ended up with a theocratic government based on traditional Islam, 52 Americans were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran for 444 days, and Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House.  Again, the forces of modernity were defeated by the forces of Islamic medievalism.


The Egyptian monarchy survived WW I, but after WW II, an army colonel named Abdul Nasser organized a coup and took over the country.  He expelled the British and took over the Suez Canal revenues with American support.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had helped with his coup, rapidly became disenchanted with his pro-Western views and tried to assassinate Nasser.  He had their leaders put in jail and tortured, but without a democratic process to co-opt the rebellion, he had to keep control by the use of secret police and terror, the usual tools of tyranny.

His successor, Anwar Sadat, signed a peace treaty with Israel, but was gunned down by Islamic terrorists.  Although the current government is avowedly secular and the governing elites have a Western outlook, the Muslim Brotherhood keeps growing in strength among the common people who aren't participating in the fruits of modernity.

It's likely that Egypt will end up with a government similar to the Iranian theocracy when President Mubarak dies or loses control.  With the recent uprising, we are already seeing reports that the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings to take over.

Other Countries

In Afghanistan, Mohammed Nadir Shah founded a Western-looking government much like Ataturk's Turkey and Pahlavi's Iran; his son followed in the same vein, but a coup by a group of Afghan communists smashed his government in 1972.

The Soviet Union invaded when the local communists couldn't hold power.  The Taliban drove the Soviets out with American help and then took over; America invaded after 9-11.

Afghanistan is a long way from being a stable country of any kind, much less a modern one, and it's quite difficult to imagine how it will ever become one.  Nobody else is likely to dump larger amounts of money or effort into the place than we have, to very little effect.

Pakistan had a western-educated prime minister named Zulfikar Bhutto.  In 1977, an Islamist general overthrew him and Bhutto was hanged.  In this case, the army was a force for Islamization rather than a force keeping Islam out of politics as in Turkey.

Bhutto's daughter Benazir became the first woman to lead an Islamic society in 1988 and was assassinated by Islamic terrorists in 2007.  With the assassination of Salman Taseer, a state governor who tried to stop a Christian woman from being stoned for allegedly insulting Islam, Pakistan seems to be turning firmly away from any notion of westernization.  The militants are likely to retain their atomic bombs even though atomic power isn't mentioned in the Koran.

Recent news items illuminate the differences between the Islamic mind set and the Catholic thought process.  When the Emperor wanted to discuss Luther's ideas at the Diet of Worms, he gave Luther a safe conduct which made him immune to arrest while going to the conference, during the meetings, and on his way home.  Despite regarding Luther's ideas as extremely dangerous, the Emperor honored his safe-conduct and left Luther alone as he had promised.  The resulting conflicts might have been prevented had the Emperor had Luther killed.

The bodyguard who shot Governor Taseer had sworn the strongest possible oath to protect the governor as the Emperor had sworn to protect Luther.  After shooting the governor, the assassin drew on the Koranic sura which permits Muslims to lie to infidels.  By advocating what the bodygard regarded as blasphemy, the Governor turned himself into a renegade.  That not only rendered the guard's vow to protect him null and void, the guard had a positive duty to shoot him because the Koran demands that all good Muslims kill as many renegades as possible.

Reformation Come and Gone

Reformation is gone from Iran, absent another revolution, but the current unrest could be the beginning of 250 years of see-saw wars between traditionalists and modernists as in the French wars of religion.  Egypt has a governing class with a Western outlook, but the poverty-stricken masses are more loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Egypt could soon end up governed by the Brotherhood in which case the Westernized upper classes would either flee or die as did their equivalent in Iran thirty years ago.

Turkey is still nominally a secular state, but Islamic influence is growing, particularly since the Army has been taken out of politics.

It's clear that the Islamic reformation came at least three times in three different places, five if you count Afghanistan and Pakistan, and each time, it's been defeated.

If an Islamic reformation is to succeed in taming the fires if Islam as the Protestant reformation tamed the fires of Catholicism, history suggests that the process has only begun.  Based on historical precedent, we've a couple of centuries of bloodshed within Islam ahead of us in addition to whatever conflicts spring up between Islam and the rest of the world.

Some of our leaders like to call the War on Terror "The Long War."  They may be far more right than they know.