Where is Islam’s Martin Luther? our brother Anwar Ibrahim or Tariq Ramadan

Where is Islam’s Martin Luther? It’s a question that many of us who speak or write about Islam in public forums encounter repeatedly. It’s also a question that permeates newspaper editorials and the blogosphere. The question occasionally comes from Muslims, but I hear it more frequently from Protestant Christians who have concluded that Islam is a rigid, oppressive religion in desperate need of a Reformation and a Martin Luther if it is going to be “saved.” I hate this question. It’s the wrong one for Christians to ask for two reasons. For starters, it reflects a lack of knowledge of Islam. Islam does have the concepts of reform (islah) and revival/renewal (tajdid), and even a cursory study of contemporary Islamic history reveals an array of important reformers, from Muhammad Abduh and Sayyid Ahmad Khan of the nineteenth century to present-day Muslim feminists Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, not to mention the prominent Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan (ironically considered by some to be a Muslim Martin Luther). To be sure, this is a very diverse group, but what they all share is a commitment to putting Islamic scriptures and traditions into conversation with the West and the modern world.

But the question is deeply troubling on another level. It reflects a Protestantized narrative of a mythical figure, a savior who liberated Christians from the big bad Catholic Church and the heavy burdens it placed on ordinary Christians to achieve salvation through ritualistic obligations and the performance of good works. The huge problem with this narrative lies not simply in its latent anti-Catholicism but in its failure to take into account the entirety of Luther’s legacy — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As a religious historian at a college named for the sixteenth-century German reformer, I have an obligation to expose my students to the historical Luther, warts and all. What my students learn is that Luther’s ideas on justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers changed the course of Christianity and Western history. And they learn that these ideas were met with enthusiasm by plenty of Europeans who found in them a breath of fresh air, a new and inspiring way to practice the faith.

What they also learn is that not everyone in Europe felt liberated by Luther. Jews certainly didn’t. Luther labeled them a “miserable and accursed” group, a “whoring people” who are nothing more than “thieves and robbers.” His advice for how Christians should deal with them was “to set fire to their synagogues or schools,” to have their homes “razed and destroyed,” to confiscate their prayer books, and to abolish safe conduct for them on highways, among other things. His views on Jews were not new to European history, but for a man known for reform and change, here is one area where that was sorely missing.

Plenty of women didn’t necessarily find liberation in Luther’s reforms either. True, some women who had been confined to convents against their will did welcome Luther’s decision to close down convents and monasteries. They gladly embraced the vocation of wife and mother that Luther touted so highly over against the life of a nun. But there were plenty of women who still wanted the opportunity to embrace a religious vocation and to live a life for God apart from the direct supervision of men. These women also appreciated the educational opportunities that convents afforded them that did not exist for laywomen. Some of these nuns were among the fiercest opponents of Luther’s Reformation, seeing in it not greater but lesser freedom and opportunity.

What’s more, while Luther may have elevated a woman’s vocation as wife and mother, he certainly didn’t elevate women as such. Like almost every medieval theologian before him, Luther viewed women as the weaker, more carnal, and less rational part of human nature. God created women primarily for the purpose of procreation, though after the Fall, they were also useful as “a medicine against the sin of fornication.”

Perhaps the most obvious group not to find freedom or liberation in Luther’s Reformation was the hosts of Catholic laypersons who were largely content with their religion and who resisted Luther’s reform efforts. Historians have done an excellent job in recent decades of uncovering the stories of ordinary women and men throughout sixteenth-century Europe who continued to attend Mass, confess their sins to a priest, perform works of penance, and put their hope in the mediation of the Catholic Church for their salvation and for coping with the challenges of daily living. This is an important point in light of the question we began with. When Protestants ask, “Where is Islam’s Martin Luther?”, they are often assuming that Luther was the answer to every Christian’s “problems” back in the day. He wasn’t. The same holds true today.

A closer look at Luther’s Reformation reveals that there were plenty of things that he did not change, plenty of views that he held that many modern Christians might not find befitting of the “savior” of Christianity. With the historical Luther, we discover that old prejudices were perpetuated, marginalized groups remained marginalized, and intolerance of religious “others” (Catholics, Jews, and Muslims) was the norm. Certainly this is not what Protestants want for Islam?

My purpose here is not to beat up on Luther but to encourage Christians to move beyond the problematic assumptions about him and their own tradition that undermine the much-needed dialogue between Christians and Muslims today. When Christians call for a Muslim Martin Luther, they are assuming not only that Islam lacks reformers but that Luther’s particular version of Christianity is a perfect model that any would-be Muslim reformer should strive to emulate. This is not a recipe for successful interfaith dialogue or relationships – it’s a recipe for Protestant triumphalism and self-righteousness. And it’s a sign that the time has come for many Christians, Protestant and otherwise, to start doing their homework concerning their own religious traditions so that they can be equipped to ask much better questions of the traditions of others.


Posted by suarakeadilanmalaysia on July 9, 2011 ·

Anwar Ibrahim is consoled by daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar as he lays in his hotel room after he was hurt when police fired tear gas during the Bersih rally today. — Reuters pic

By Liz Gooch, New York Times

Officials said they had arrested 672 people for “various offenses” by late morning as they closed off roads leading into the capital and some streets in the city in advance of the rally planned at Merdeka Stadium.


Demonstrators were seen scattering Saturday afternoon as police fired tear gas, and it was unknown whether the rally would be held.

Saturday’s confrontation between police and protesters culminated after weeks of growing tension as activists have called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to make election laws more transparent. National elections are expected to be held by the middle of 2012.

Saturday’s rally was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, also known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay. The coalition is made up of 62 nongovernmental organizations.

Speaking at a news conference on Saturday, Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairwoman of Bersih, said the arrests and firing of tear gas by police had stirred a sense of outrage among Malaysians.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and democracy with regular national elections, but Bersih organizers say that elections are vulnerable to manipulation.

They have issued a list of eight demands, including marking voters with indelible ink to prevent them from voting more than once, purging electoral rolls of “phantom voters” and ensuring that opposition parties have equal access to the mainstream news media. The group is also calling for a royal commission to investigate how elections are conducted.

Last Saturday, the government declared Bersih illegal, because it had not registered as an organization and was causing unrest among the public. Bersih countered that it was not a new organization, but rather an alliance of existing groups.

Mr. Razak said the coalition could hold the rally if it agreed to meet in a stadium, rather than on the streets as first planned. Bersih organizers agreed to the terms, but the authorities said that Bersih cannot proceed without a police permit, which normally would not be granted to a group that has been declared illegal.

Bersih leaders responded by accusing the prime minister of having “reneged” on his offer to provide a stadium for their rally. Bersih leaders said they would go ahead with Saturday’s protest, despite not receiving permits from police.

In recent weeks, 225 people have been arrested in connection with the Bersih movement under various laws including the Sedition Act and Emergency Ordinance, which allows for detention without trial. On Thursday, the police said six people remained in custody. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the recent arrests, and called on the government to stop harassing those associated with Bersih.

“The Malaysian government’s crackdown on an electoral reform group shows utter disregard both for free expression and for the democratic process,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

A street rally calling for similar changes in 2007, in which the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters, was credited with helping the opposition make historic gains in the 2008 elections. The next election must be held by mid-2013, but there is speculation it could be held as early as this year.

Never in Islam’s history have the actions of so few of its followers caused the religion and its community of believers to be such an abomination in the eyes of others. Millions of Muslims who fled to North America and Europe to escape poverty and persecution at home have become the objects of hatred and are now profiled as potential terrorists. The nascent democratic movements in Muslim countries will regress for a few decades as ruling autocrats use their participation in the global war against terrorism to terrorize their critics and dissenters.

This is what Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists and sponsors have done to Islam and its community worldwide by their murder of innocents at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks must be condemned, and the condemnation must be without reservation. The foremost religious authorities are outraged and have issued statements denouncing the monstrous murders. All efforts to punish the perpetrators must be supported.

One is therefore perturbed by the confusion among Muslims who responded to the attack with a misplaced diatribe against the U.S. In Malaysia, the government-controlled media have been deployed to stir up anti-American sentiments, while members of the political Elite use a different language for international diplomacy. Certainly there are legitimate grievances against the U.S. and good reason for despondency over the fate of the Palestinians, who now face an even more arrogant Israel. But this is not the time for sermonizing or moralizing over U.S. foreign policy. Had we Malaysians been the victims of such a tragedy, we would find such hectoring tasteless and repulsive.

One wonders how, in the 21st century, the Muslim world could have produced an Osama bin Laden. In the centuries when Islam forged civilizations, men of wealth created pious foundations supporting universities and hospitals, and princes competed with one another to patronize scientists, philosophers and men of letters. The greatest of scientists and philosophers of the medieval age, ibn Sina, was a product of that system. But bin Laden uses his personal fortune to sponsor terror and murder, not learning or creativity, and to wreak destruction rather than promote creation.

Bin Laden and his prot�g�s are the children of desperation; they come from countries where political struggle through peaceful means is futile. In many Muslim countries, political dissent is simply illegal. Yet, year by year, the size of the educated class and the number of young professionals continue to increase. These people need space to express their political and social concerns. But state control is total, leaving no room for civil society to grow.

The need for Muslim societies to address their internal social and political development has become more urgent than ever. Economic development alone is clearly insufficient: it creates its own tensions in the social and political spheres, which must be addressed. A proper orientation must be developed for Muslim engagement with the world at large. Participation in the global processes must not be the monopoly of the government.

It is the sense of alienation and the perception that the world is against them that nurture bitterness among those who resort to terrorism. Confusion and anger against the global order and its only superpower have been brought about by the failure of the Muslim world to address two crucial issues: Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and anarchy as a result of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent rise of the Taliban, and the suffering inflicted on the Muslim masses in Iraq by its dictator as well as by sanctions imposed on that long-suffering nation.

For ethical reasons, Muslims will support the global initiative against terrorism. But there is a growing perception that autocrats of all types will seize the opportunity to prop up their regimes and deal a severe blow to democratic movements. Russian President Vladimir Putin will use it to defend atrocities in Chechnya, Israel to defend its intransigence and Malaysia its detentions without trial.

Necessity will prompt the U.S. to seek the collaboration of the governments of Muslim countries. This is understandable. But they do not hold all the answers to terrorism. The growth of democracy, political participation and civil society is the final answer. By softening its endorsement of the struggle for democracy and the protection of human rights, the U.S. will inadvertently strengthen dictatorial regimes, thus replicating past associations with Marcos, Suharto and the Shah of Iran.

For more than 100 years, the Muslim world has had to grapple with the problem of modernity. Of greatest urgency is the effort to inculcate an intellectual and political orientation that promotes democracy and openness. Intellectuals and politicians must have the courage to condemn fanaticism in all its forms. But they must, in the same breath, equally condemn the tyrants and oppressive regimes that dash every hope of peaceful change.



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