On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Mustafa Akyol examines the suggestion that Islam needs its own reformation to rid it of its more intolerant, bellicose, and brutal strains. He argues that the historical analogy is inapt—not least because Martin Luther sought to free Christianity from the church hierarchy, for which there is no Muslim equivalent:
[T]hose who hope to see a more tolerant, free, and open Muslim world should seek the equivalent not of the Protestant Reformation but of the next great paradigm in Western history: the Enlightenment. The contemporary Muslim world needs not a Martin Luther but a John Locke, whose arguments for freedom of conscience and religious toleration planted the seeds of liberalism. In particular, the more religion-friendly British Enlightenment, rather than the French one, can serve as a constructive model. (And . . . special attention should also be given to the Jewish Enlightenment, also called the Haskalah, and its pioneers such as Moses Mendelssohn. Islam, as a legalist religion, has more commonalities with Judaism than with Christianity.) . . .
Because there is no central religious authority to lead the way, one should consider the only definitive authority available, which is the state. Whether we like it or not, the state has been quite influential on religion throughout the history of Islam. It has become even more so in the past century, when Muslims overwhelmingly adopted the modern nation-state and its powerful tools, such as public education.
It really matters, therefore, whether the state promotes a tolerant or a bigoted interpretation of Islam. It really matters, for example, when the Saudi monarchy, which for decades has promoted Wahhabism, vows to promote “moderate Islam,” as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently did, giving some hope for the future. It is especially significant that this call for moderation implies not just fighting terrorism but also liberalizing society by curbing the “religion police,” empowering women, and being “open to the world and all religions.”
This argument may sound counterintuitive to some Western liberals, who are prone to think that the best thing for a state is to stay out of religion. But in a reality where the state is already deeply involved in religion, its steps toward moderation and liberalization should be welcome. It’s also worth remembering that the success of the Enlightenment in Europe was partly thanks to the era of “Enlightened despots,” the monarchs who preserved their power even as they realized crucial legal, social, and educational reforms.