As I started to write this post, my first reaction was to go deep – like I do sometimes. To draw lessons from our great cloud of reformers active since the dawn of politics: Cicero assassinated by senators of a republic that was no more; Galileo’s science that could not be silenced by an obscurantist church trying to stop the movement of the earth; John Knox’s flight from bloody England.
Yes, reformers have always had a tough time in their struggles – but that fact doesn’t make the decision to dissent any easier. For the reformer, their decision is personal. It is existential. It is – well quite scary really. Because they too bleed red; they too have children whom their work places in harm’s way; they too fear pain and violence. To take that step; to ‘swim against the current’ and say unpopular things directed toward people with whom you have identified, with whom you have fought, with whom you have shed tears and dreams and even blood – that is hard, lonely and dangerous.
Therefore those who choose the tempestuous journey of reform naturally seek out allies in their fight, people – often times powerful, though not always – who understand what they are trying to do and offer them protection. Without these angels, the reformers path is made so perilous as to be virtually impossible. If the German princes had not hid Luther behind great wooden doors sealing castles lost in the hinterlands, would Christianity have been saved?
There is no institution perhaps in greater need of reform these days than Islam. Consequently, today some of the most dangerous reform work being done is by courageous Muslim reformers keen on altering the trajectory of their faith. Groups like Istanbul Network for Liberty, activists like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Malala, writers like Mustafa Akyol and philosophers like Harun Nasution up against really scary enemies. The Islamic State, boiling people in oil, raping women, beheading their enemies; Al Qaida, Abu Sayaf, Boko Haram, Al Shabbab – the list of those willing to murder to stop the reformation seems endless and oh so powerful – like it probably did during the inquisition.
Nevertheless the reformers continue their work.
These days it is the liberal west – in the correct use of both words – to whom has fallen the mantle of offering protection to these reformers. We cannot fight the battles for them – just like it took a priest to confront the corruption of the Catholic Church, it’s going to take Muslim voices to change the trajectory of that faith. However, it is for us in America and Europe to protect these voices and give them space, opportunity, and safe haven.
Refuge; it’s a moral duty.
But are we living up to that noble, ancient tradition? Are we safeguarding the soil upon which this latest reformation is growing – or have we instead decided to squash this germinating flower beneath our legendary tolerance for injustice and our own prejudicial insecurities? It’s a question of which I fear the answer.
This week the US based ‘Southern Policy Law Center’ issued its own fatwa against those they believe are not sufficiently compliant with intolerant, ‘orthodox Islam’. It was an unfortunate move; because I’m not sure who they think they are helping. Whoever it is, it certainly isn’t the Sudanese girls subject to genital mutilation; the Iranian women revolting against the imposition of the hijab; or slaughter of worshipers in their own shrines. And they sure aren’t improving the quality of our own democracy – one founded upon freedom of speech so we can have hard conversations in safety. Nobody likes to hear opposing views – which is why we need to, it is good for us to entertain ideas that do not come naturally, how else will we know foolishness? Common sense, while uncommon these days, is fired in the kiln of public debate. We would do well to stand by the reformers, wherever we find them, as they seek to challenge the orthodoxies that stymie the exemplary. Lest in the future we need them, and turn to them to find that they have all perished upon the barren soil of our own intolerance.