Monday, March 9, 2015

ISIS and the Reformation

T. Greer at The Scholar's Stage has a characteristically long post about ISIS, taking off from the much-discussed Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic (that I haven't read).  On a quick read, I agree with some of what T. Greer says, but I am leery of his endorsement of the analogy between the current struggles within Islam and the Reformation.  (D. Nexon, I believe, is also opposed to the analogy, and he knows more about the Reformation than I do.  I can't say I recall the *precise* grounds on which Nexon opposes the analogy, without refreshing my memory by looking at the relevant passages in his book or other writings, which I'm not going to do right now.) 

Speaking for myself, I'm uncomfortable about an analogy between the religious struggles within Christianity (Christendom? whatever) of the 16th and 17th centuries and the struggles within Islam today. For one thing, the Protestant reformers were not trying to recapture an historical golden age by recreating a territorial entity under their control -- i.e., no analogy to the restoration of the Caliphate.  That is just one difference.  I'm sure there are others. 

ETA: Such as differences in the content of the ideologies and the methods.


Peter T said...

I agree that the Reformation analogy is simplistic (and the article gets some details wrong: the Najd-based Wahhabis sacked Karbala in 1802, destroying tombs sacred to Shia (an event that Iraqi Shia remember). Salafism as a force has been around a lot longer than 30 years.

Sunni-Shia as a divide can be overblown. There are many sorts of Shia, but also many sorts of Sunni (eg in Indonesia Shi'ism is a tiny minority, but the Sunni community divides sharply over what Islam demands).

There seems to be a wave of commenters remarking that the sensible course is to mend fences with Iran and Hezbollah. Interesting to see if this gains more official traction.

LFC said...

"Salafism as a force has been around a lot longer than 30 years."

That was my impression, though I didn't know about the 1802 incident.

T. Greer said...


Thanks for the link!

I can think of lots of ways that the Protestant reformation and the Salafi movement differ. My comparison was an instrumental one. It is not that 21st c Salafis and 16th c Protestants are a 1:1 match. Rather, I really want people to think of the long term consequences of the rise of Salafism and the reformation analogy is very good at doing that. It is too early to tell if the Salafists will have the same long term impact as the reformation... but I would like people to open themselves up that possibility.

Had I been talking to an East Asian audience I might have discussed the Neoconfucian revolution instead. (A more peaceful revolution, that was).


@Peter T. -- "the Najd-based Wahhabis sacked Karbala in 1802"

Agreed. When I said Wahhabi thought was "It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” I was thinking of th Diriyah Emirate. I am not an expert in this subject, but from what I have read the emirate is regularly called "the first Saudi state." Please tell me if you think this is inaccurate.

Re: been around longer than 30 years -- Yes, but how powerful of a force was it outside of Saudi Arabia?

Here the Neoconfucian analogy probably is more apt; it had to gestate in S. China for a few centuries before it exploded across all of East Asia.

Peter T said...

T Greer

In that context, you are right. Maybe I just misread it.

I'm more with Jack Goldstone (Revolutions and Rebellions in the Early Modern World) or Peter Turchin on this: a confluence of demographic, social-structural and economic forces destabilising states; once started, it goes viral/fractal (ie order is contested at all levels). In the ME, this takes a religious form, and theological issues then feed back (as they did in the Reformation). But ISIS is not that different from other, non-religious, products of anarchy.

That said, I found your article very good. It will be a long-term effort to keep a lid on the tensions.

LFC said...

@T Greer

Ok, I guess I can see the grounds for an 'instrumental' comparison as you summarize it here.

I wonder, however, how one should think about differences in the content of the ideologies and their possible implications. A typical Protestant emphasis was on
'the priesthood of all believers' -- i.e., an emphasis on removing to some extent 'mediating' layers, such as the Catholic priesthood, between believers and the deity, stressing the direct connection between believers and God, hence the emphasis on translating the Bible into the vernacular languages, etc. In this sense Protestant ideology can be portrayed or seen as having a democratizing, individualizing orientation.

I don't know all that much about Salafism etc., but what I do know does not suggest that it has that orientation. The emphasis seems rather to be on the individual's submission to a particular, putatively authoritative interpretation of Islam that emphasizes excommunicating supposed unbelievers more than, I think, Protestantism even in narrowest, most sectarian forms ever did.

This does not necessarily undermine your point about
Salafism possibly having long-term consequences for Islam as significant as the consequences that the Reformation had for Christianity. Nonetheless, I do think the ideological differences are worth pointing out.

(I will add later a relevant quotation I ran across yesterday.)

LFC said...

It was a quote from Wright's The Looming Tower in which he calls takfir (the practice of excommunication) "the mirror image of Islam" (pp.142-43). But I've changed my mind about typing the whole passage out. (Maybe will put up sometime as a quote-of-the-day.)

LFC said...

Btw, Jack Goldstone had a piece in For. Affairs about 5 yrs ago that I noted at the time but didn't properly read. Was just looking at it online now. Interesting pts on the implications of future demographic shifts, e.g. urbanization in the poorest countries.

LFC said...

Obviously in the above comment about Protestantism, I'm using the word "ideology" in a broad way to be roughly synonymous in the context with "theology," "worldview," "core ideas," etc. As I've mentioned before, the word "ideology" carries no negative connotations for me; however, if it does for you, please substitute some other word.