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Why Islam's Reformers are Vitally Important


By Daniel Pipes

July 18, 2017





The Challenge of Modernizing Islam: Reformers Speak Out and The Obstacles They Face

By Christine Douglass-Williams

New York: Encounter, 2017. 296 pp. $25.99.



My library contains a wall of books about modern Islam. But hardly a one of them covers the topic of this important study by Christine Douglass-Williams. With all the attention paid to Islamists, who has the time or energy to devote to modernizing Muslims?

Indeed, the paucity of books on anti-Islamist Muslims symbolizes their larger predicament: they are threatened, marginalized, and dismissed as frauds.

Threats come from the Islamists, the advocates of applying Islamic law in its entirety and severity as a means to regain the medieval glory of Islam. Islamists attack modernizers with words and weapons, rightly sensing that these liberal Muslims pose a profound challenge to the current Islamist hegemony. However much they dominate today, Islamist reactionaries fully understand modernity's great appeal, not to speak of its victories over two other modern radical utopian movements, fascism and communism. They know their movement is doomed because Muslims will opt for the benefits of modern life, so they fight modernizers tooth and nail.

The Left marginalizes. One might expect that the many differences between socialism and Islamism would make the two camps enemies. One would be wrong. The intensity of their common hostility toward the liberal order brings them together. Leftists overwhelmingly prefer the Islamist program to the modernizing one and so reject the modernizers, going so far to revile them as anti-Islamic, a truly choice insult.

The anti-Islamic Right dismisses. Ironically, it endorses the Islamist claim that Islamists alone are true Muslims while waving away the modernizers as outliers, fabulists, and frauds. The anti-Islamic right does so despite sharing the same enemy with modernizing Muslims – the Islamists. Instead of joining forces, it perversely keeps its distance from them, muttering about their Taqiya (dissimulation), finding only fault with their analysis, and lobbing colourful slurs at their leaders.

Thus do modernizing Muslims face the problems of establishing current credibility and future potential. Islamists dominate the news with their carnage and cultural aggression; Leftists turn reality on its head, and the anti-Islam types fumble on. Worse, as these detractors flail away at them, modernizers have few opportunities to respond, what with the establishment (what I call the 6Ps: politicians, press, police, prosecutors, professors and priests) studiously ignoring them. As a result, the public hardly knows an effort to modernize Islam exists and few respect its small but hardy band of leaders. How many of you have heard of the Council on American-Islamic Relations? And how many the Center for Islamic Pluralism?

Here, Christine Douglass-Williams, a Canadian journalist and civil rights activist, enters the picture. She took the time to find eight leading North American modernizers and gave them the opportunity to present themselves and their views. Each has a distinctive outlook.

Ahmed Subhy Mansour founded a new and flexible school of thought, the Koranists.

Shireen Qudosi challenges the near-worship of Muhammad and wrestles with problematic Koranic passages.

Jalal Zuberi reveals the Islamists' textual rigidity and celebrates pluralism.

Tawfik Hamid highlights the Islamists' deceit and their intent to conquer the West.

Qanta Ahmed rejects Islamic law and argues for Muslims to live as modern citizens.

Zuhdi Jasser exposes the Islamists' narrative of victimology and emphasizes the need for patriotism.

Raheel Raza focuses on immigration's mutual demands, arguing that the West must stand by its values which Muslims must adapt to.

After laying out these interestingly divergent viewpoints, Douglass-Williams devotes the second half of her book to their commonalities. She focuses on the modernizers' efforts to: Create an alternative vision to the Islamist one; re-interpret the Koran and other problematic Islamic texts; respond to accusations of "Islamophobia" directed against them; formulate a humane position on Israel; and challenge the Islamist hegemony.

Her careful analysis shows how the modernizing Islamic movement benefits from the freedoms found in the United States and Canada (as opposed to the intellectual repression found in every Muslim-majority country). She also helps establish this movement as a serious intellectual endeavour, putting contemporary modernizers on the map as never before, thereby boosting their cause. Given the global threat of Islamism, that is a constructive, indeed a great achievement.

Mr. Pipes (, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2017 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.