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Reclaiming Islam’s Enlightenment From Its Fundamentalist Hijackers

| July 15, 2015

akbar the great islam enlightenment

Akbar the Great, the Mogul emperor of the early 16th century, was enlightened two centuries before the French and British Enlightenment.

By Daniel Chirot and Scott Montgomery

In 1877, the great French novelist Victor Hugo wrote, “Invading armies can be resisted; invading ideas cannot be.” Nowadays, the power of ideas, for good or for evil, is something we need to take into account, particularly in contemplating Islamic radicalism. The recent terrorist attacks in France, Kuwait, and Tunisia are only the latest reminders of how important it is to understand that, behind these outrages, there are serious ideas, not simply angry, frustrated criminals.


Violent Islamic jihadist movements do not pose an existential danger to Europe or North America. They may occasionally be able to carry out deadly terrorist acts, but they have no chance of destroying or taking over Western societies. Panicked attempts to march into Muslim countries and extirpate the threat have been counterproductive, serving only to increase the appeal of Islamic extremism.

Most Muslims reject the harshest versions of Islam, but many – if not most – harbor sympathy for the idea of struggling against the dictates of the West and returning the faith to its past strengths and glories. It would be wrong to assert that only a tiny minority of Muslims back the actions of the extremists or that fundamentalist factions have hijacked a religion of which they are completely unrepresentative. Islamic radicals enjoy enough support to be a serious threat in their part of the world. It is important to understand how this happened.

Harsh, radically conservative Islamic theologies have been around almost since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, but they have been repeatedly contested by more tolerant, moderate schools of Muslim thought. Like the Christian and Jewish Bibles, the Koran is open to interpretation, whether quite liberal or dogmatic and repressive.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Muslim thinkers – most famously Jamal al-Din al-Afghani – believed that embracing many of the ideals developed in the West during the Enlightenment was the only way to promote progress. Al-Afghani and others wrote that Islam’s rejection of Western science and progress was a misinterpretation of the Koran.

But, as the twentieth century progressed, Muslim reformists lost ground to secular nationalists emphasizing socialism as the path to modernization. The promise of secularism, however, proved hollow, with countries like Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria sinking into despotism and corruption. This provided fertile ground for anti-Western, reactionary, violent versions of Islam.


Instead of armed, panicky overreactions, what is needed is cultural exchanges.


These strains have many intellectual roots. But perhaps the single most important modern source is the writing of the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb. Together with other fundamentalists, such as the Pakistani philosopher Abul A’la Maududi, Qutb argued that true Islam had been infiltrated and corrupted by outside ideas. Only when it was reclaimed would two centuries of humiliation at the hands of Western imperial powers and, more recently, the nascent state of Israel be reversed. God would side once more with Muslims against their enemies, whom Qutb called “Crusaders and Jews.”

Dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East tried to suppress the Islamic conservatives. But Saudi Arabia – a bastion of conservatism – used its oil wealth to counter secular modernizers and any kind of reformed Islam, financing fundamentalist missionaries and conservative mosques throughout the Islamic world. Qutb was executed by the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 as part of a brutal but unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, the crackdowns only strengthened the conservative Islamists, whose faith helped them survive the repression. And they served to convince young, discontented Muslims that extremism was the only possible solution to their societies’ weakness and lack of opportunity.

Confronting ideas with military means is a sure path to defeat. When Western powers send soldiers into Muslim countries, attempt to bomb extremists into submission, prop up brutal dictatorships, or blindly support every Israeli policy, they confirm the claims of the radical Islamists, driving new adherents into their arms.

The real battlefront is the arena of ideas. Instead of armed, panicky overreactions, what is needed is cultural exchanges. There are plenty of serious intellectuals in Islamic societies who want to revive the reformist call for the embrace of some of the ideas of Western Enlightenment: the value of science, the importance of liberal tolerance, and the need for free and open discussion. Western scholars who understand Islam and speak some of the many languages of its practitioners need to support these intellectual movements.

Hawks in the West may try to dismiss actions like these as weak. But while they may do little in the short run, they are sure to prove critical over the long term. After all, the force that brought down communism in Europe – a far more dangerous ideology than radical Islam – was not simply military containment, but also the power of ideas and ideals.

daniel chirotscott montgomeryDaniel Chirot, left, is Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. The two are co-authors of “The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World” (Princeton). (© Project Syndicate)

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10 Responses for “Reclaiming Islam’s Enlightenment From Its Fundamentalist Hijackers”

  1. larry says:

    What is needed is a reformation of Islam. Vast numbers of Muslims beleive death is the best punishment for apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and many other social differences. Treating women like 2nd class citizens is not acceptable in the 21st century or any other century. These are bad ideas and must be changed voluntarily or forcibly if necessary. It’s the responsibility of the moderate Muslims to create these changes now.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Funny how some propose that Israel is the biggest genocidal threat in the world, let alone in the Middle east, for simply trying to defend its continued existence. But Islamic fanatics, ever-expanding their dubious empires and fighting both each other and everybody else to brutal extremes remniscent of the Dark ages that they would prefer to take the world back into, “don’t pose an existential threat” to the enlightened world they hate more than anything. Jihad…just a walk in the park that they insanely believe will lead them straight to Heaven, on a tide of non-believer’s blood. Of course, all the while that’s in process, they can practice their inhuman rights campaign on their own women and anyone who dares to disagree with their interpretations of religious doctrine. Because, you see, they are not really a threat. Really.

  3. Stay over there says:

    I’m NOT interested in your religion. Hell, I’m Not really interested in my own religion. But since I’m an American with ‘Western” values, I will continue to live my life (as best I can) with morals and values. I WILL NOT however be “brainwashed” into believing that Islam is a peaceful religion….It has PROVED to many times over thousands of years..it is NOT !!!

    • PCer says:

      SMH Do you bother to watch anything other than American news?

    • Mondexian Mama says:

      Hey stay over there,
      I’m an atheist and have no interest in any religion,but it seems that perhaps you are “brainwashed”. If you took the time to read up on Islam and the prophet Mohammed you would find both to preach peace and brotherly love. The hatred and barbarism practiced by the extremist Muslims come straight from the Christian playbook. History is rife with the atrocities committed in the name of Christ. You would also discover that Mohammed revered the teachings of Jesus and endeavored to live his life by them. As does the Christian church,the Muslims are also required to tithe,the difference being they are encouraged to give to the less fortunate,unlike the Christian establishments who use it to glorify themselves. Don’t let them kid you,very little goes to charity. Look no further than to that monument to gullibility The Vatican and the untold wealth within.

      • Anonymous says:

        @Mondexian Mama says–You need to brush up on your history and read about the Prophet Mohammed’s both actual and approved methods of conquest before you talk about the Muslim religion or philosophy as being one of “peace and brotherly love.” You might also want to read the Hamas Charter and learn about what Jihad means and how it is translated into action in today’s world…Which, by the way, is practiced by Muslims against other Muslims as well as all other “non-believers.” The truth is a tricky thing and it does not always conform to whatever current definition of “political correctness” exists.

        • Mondexian Mama says:

          Anonymous,
          The Hamas Charter was established in the 1980s by a group second in lunacy only to the Christians.
          Almost everything you mention is current and has very little to do with Mohammed or Early Islam.
          Yes,there have been violence encouraged in the Koran and the Bible,but it was in response to the prejudices and aggression against their individual faiths. Everything in either the Koran and especially the Bible is open to interpretation,and those interpretations have been used by priests,imams, mullahs etc. to control the masses.
          Thank God I’m an atheist!

  4. Bill says:

    True just military will not solve the problem of/with the dominant force in todays islam. We need more leaders of Islamic States like El-sisi of Egypt. He has gone after the “radicals” and the mosques that preach such hate But our current administration for whatever reason does not support him. I disagree on calling islamists radicals as that implies they are not supported by most in islam as was pointed out in this most do support it/them to some degree. ~ It would be wrong to assert that only a tiny minority of Muslims back the actions of the extremists or that fundamentalist factions have hijacked a religion of which they are completely unrepresentative. Islamic radicals enjoy enough support to be a serious threat in their part of the world.~
    Also our “friends” the Saudis are like the Iranians one of the two leaders in supporting islamists around the world. We need to back those who totally reject islamist ideas and denounce and use all the power we have to undo regimes that back them.

  5. m&m says:

    What they need is deportation including Obama.

  6. Footballen says:

    Sounds exactly like the plight of proud southerners in America, except they are not nearly as apt to become that extreme or dangerous to those levels. One psycho kid a generation or so and people are screaming in the streets illegally removing flags but Mohamed shoots and kills four US Marines and a Sailor and there is crickets from the masses. What gives?

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