The Reformation Was Not a Dinner Party

Nick Danforth over at Foreign Policy considers the call for a “reformation” in Islam:

Last week, in his annual Christmas address, Pope Francis prayed for victims of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. His prayers for both Christian and Muslim victims of the jihadis’ violence were a fitting tribute to one of the most dismal aspects of 2014. But the pope’s words also offered a striking contrast between the manifest humility of the Vatican — back on the good side of what seems like a decades-long good-pope/bad-pope routine — and the savagery of a newly declared caliphate.

This contrast led some observers (like, say, Bill Maher) to declare we should stop being so politically correct and state the obvious: Islam remains stuck in the Middle Ages. And even those who found this particular formulation too crude were still struck trying to explain why it seems that so many western countries have figured out how to separate church and state, while Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey continue to struggle.

One of the most enduring explanations is that the Islamic world really needs its own Reformation — a Muslim Martin Luther to bring the religion of Mohammed into modernity. It’s an argument that Thomas Friedman and various others have been making for over a decade. In the last year alone Fetullah Gulen and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were added to the short list of potential Martin Luthers. Many analysts and critics of Islam seem committed to the idea that, be it a reclusive Turkish preacher or an authoritarian Egyptian general, there must be someone out there who can straighten out the confusion over church and state in in the Muslim world, and finally help Islam make the jump from totalitarian fundamentalism to enlightened, liberal religion, from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Pope Francis.

Danforth examines a bit of the history, primarily focusing on the state takeover the church in those parts of Europe that went protestant, like Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England. He could have also focused on Germany and Scandinavia, where Protestantism was an essential part of modern state formation, but he speaks enough of this in the context of the Tudor monarchy. You don’t have absolute monarchs in the way we tend to understand them — Louis XIV and James I/VI saying “l’etat c’est moi” — prior to the Enlightenment, and the English struggle between king and parliament was a struggle between absolutist claims, between absolute sovereignty resting in the king (as the first two Stuart monarchs claims) or in parliament (as Cromwell would claim — who became much more of a absolute monarch than either of his Stuart predecessors — or as the makers of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 would claim). Monarchies have always rested in webs and networks of accountability, and (at least in England) the fight over how that accountability should work is what has made up some of the most interesting episodes of English history. You don’t have absolute states without first having had absolute monarchies, and absolute monarchy — the monarch who can rule without any form of accountability to people he (or she) rules — is a product of Enlightenment.

But there’s also a really stunted idea of what the Reformation was and what it kicked off, and idea that would (to Bill Maher’s or Thomad Friedman’s likely horror) be happily at home as part of any insipid Lutheran Reformation Day sermon: Martin Luther nailed his 95 points for discussion up on the door of the church in Wittenberg, the pope got mad, everyone gathered round and sang “A Mighty Fortress” and we all lived happily ever after. The end. Pass the lutefisk.

Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631.

Missing from all this is the more than a century of violence — horrific violence — the whole thing begat. Concluding with the 30 Years War (which began when a couple of unfortunates were tossed out a Prague window), which saw not only Protestant and Catholic Germans butchering each other with giddy abandon (historians have traditionally estimated those killed in that war at about a third of all Germans, though that may be a stretch, depending on who you ask), aided by a shifting series of alliances involving the entire Hapsburg Empire (stretching from Spain to Austria, and supporting Catholics whenever it could), the Very Catholic King of France (who decided to support the protestants), a Swedish army that probably saved Protestantism in Europe (three cheers for Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedish revolution in military affairs!) and even the Ottoman Empire, a sometimes ally of the Very Catholic King of France.

Emerging from the blood and gore of the 30 Years War were the Peace of Westphalia, which established the nation-state, and not the church, as the primary actor in European affairs (a fact Catholic Europe would immediately acclimate itself to, even as Rome would spend another 300 years fighting it), and a sense that killing on behalf of God was no longer morally or politically respectable.

Islamist violence is largely a modern problem, dating from the 1970s and collapse of any promise for a better future made by secular Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s and the inability of left-wing militancy and violence to deliver much but symbolic victories. The Iranian Revolution of February 1979, the seizure of the Masjid al-Haram in Makka, Saudi Arabia, in December of the same year, and the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 are three acts that can likely be said to signal the beginning of this era of Islamist violence. If this Islam’s “Reformation,” then we’ve got another century of sporadic violence to come. In fact, the worst is yet to be.

Which side does the West choose? Or encourage? Or support? “Catholic” Muslims or “Protestant” Muslims? How can we tell the difference? How would we even know? We don’t have a good record at choosing sides and shaping outcomes in that part of the world.

But more than anything, there are no laws to history and no linear “progress,” no great enlightened place we are all going. I agree with Danforth when he writes:

The history of how secularism developed in Protestant and Catholic countries serves as a reminder that politics and circumstance shape religion, and its application to society, far more than abstract theology does. And these forces can change a faith dramatically even while scripture remains the same. The claim that there is something inherently secular or humanist about Christianity hardly holds up against a history of 250 popes who all read the same Bible as Francis and came to completely different conclusions about the role of the church in society.

History is built upon accidents and contingencies. The Protestant Reformation was the meeting of a guilt-ridden German monk with a few princes who were looking for an excuse to expand their power. There is nothing similar at work in the Islamic world.

Regardless, It’s unfair to call Islamists medieval. Because it fails to appreciate not only the depth and breadth of medieval Islamic civilization, but also the reality that medieval Christendom was significantly more civilized than we give it credit for.

No, what the Islamists are — and always have been, from Algeria’s FIS to Da’esh — are modernist revolutionaries who seek to eradicate the past and build a future without any reference to history save for a highly idealized ancient past. Da’esh are the Muslim equivalents to the Khmer Rouge. This is a completely modern aspiration, a faith in good intentions and human will that seeks to reshape the world regardless of the inheritance of history.