In this long-war against extremism, the human and social landscape, and the ‘idea terrain’ it lives and thrives in, is the real center of gravity – and Islam reform is at the tip of the spear. It is by way of the minority ‘inner sphere’ of liberal Muslims – including reformers and even secularists of various sorts – that this can best occur. This ‘inner circle’ of liberal Muslims will be most receptive to scientific skepticism and reform, but will also be instrumental in helping tailor it to cultural realities, in a way that allows it to be locally owned and organically cultivated within the sociocultural framework at hand. Finally, this need not be about dry, formal education nor about rote memorization or merely learning new facts. It should be about how to inculcate skepticism and freethought.
Education, in general, does help –even if it is not enough by itself in the aggregate. However, the important thing to focus on, perhaps, is what education – and its core trait, critical thinking – can do, and the powerful effects it can have. When we drill down to the nature of human learning, cognition, and maturation in thinking, we arrive at some encouraging and deeply important insights into the transformative nature of our ages of science and reason across both Muslim and Western Civilizations alike: education, by way of exposure to ideas and the inculcation of thinking, is a potential nuclear bomb against bad ideas, tribalism and ignorance.
Educating people by way of inciting a kind of abstract thinking and critical reasoning – even if kindled in the most seemingly sublime way – can have some profound effects. It can have some positively disruptive impacts on human thinking, with individuals, groups and entire societies. These are impacts which start at the societal grassroots, in small seeds in a human landscape ripe for the watering and growing of skepticism and free-thinking. Such nuanced ‘human terrain’, when respected and properly understood, is fertile ground for the blooming of self-organizing, bottom up, emergent scientific subcultures. To repeat the main point of this work: educating people by way of inciting a kind of abstract thinking and critical reasoning – even if kindled in the most seemingly sublime ways – can have profound and transformative effects. Effects – however seemingly small and grassroots – which we can work with as activists for freethought across the Muslim world, and help take to the next level.
Let’s explore this line of thought further. With the expansion of secular education into the Islamic world came the disruptive effect of new entrants into the market of ideas. More specifically, in the sources of these ideas, where they came from, and how they were disseminated to the intelligencia and the wider public. The traditional seminary (madrasa) and its religious scholarship and clerical-based channels of intellectual influence had a relative monopoly on Quranic and Hadithic interpretation and religious exegesis (Tafsir, تفسير ), – modern education had the disruptive effect of breaking up this monopoly, thus bringing more of a constructive plurality of voices into this domain of religious interpretation. This lead to divergent paths, with Muslim intellectual discourse breaking apart from the grip that monopolistic Madrasa system had on control and influence.
This leaves us with a very important question, and one of immense practical significance: is there a starting point for reason and reform – for science and human rights – from which Islamic societies can move forward? I argue passionately that the answer is yes. Many Muslim thinkers have taken this starting point, and moved from there.
For Western readers living in secular societies, an analogy to the pursuit of reason-based thinking within Judaism and historic Christendom may be fruitful. The intellectual and spiritual roots of pursuing truth through reason as a means to worship and appreciate God’s natural world date back well into the Abrahamic faiths, and countless Christians and Jews work to keep these alive today amidst the increasing scientific terrain of doubt and skepticism, and amidst the ever-expanding frontiers of human knowledge.
In the secular West, this conversation is ripe with collisions between faith and science, on everything from evolution and cosmology to human morality to neuroscience and free will. We are not aiming here for a grandiose dialogue about the ultimate compatibility between science and religion. Rather, we are simply looking at the basics of how Muslims can reconcile the most basic facets of a human rights revolution by a grounded acceptance of reason and science as part of their faith tradition, in a way that allows people by the millions to move along this moral landscape. To traverse the moral terrain, whenever possible, in a way that can best allow Muslims in large numbers to move toward this reconciliatory thinking from a position of phychological safety, self-respect, and self-determination, rather than amidst collision and conflict. While collision and conflict will be necessary parts of this often-painful and dissonance-filled process, as they are in any Rights Revolution of any large scale, we should seek the path of least resistance and the most locally-owned ways of reconciliation. Across secular and Muslim frontiers, we should work together diligently to muster up all the tools of knowledge and understanding into how Muslims can own this process through the intellectual and faith traditions of the Islamic world.
Many secular critics will reflexively balk at the prospect of any efforts to reconcile faith and reason. No matter ones feelings on this topic, the facts remain: nowhere in the near future is it reasonable to assume a remote likelihood that billions of Muslims will go about abandoning their desire to remain safely anchored in their faith, and in the cultures and traditions it enshrines and the core role within family and social life it plays. The millions of closeted ex-Muslims, including agnostics and atheists, are eagerly awaiting the day when a wave of scientific thinking and Enlightenment-style respect for human rights becomes a core facet of society, even if it grows city by city, in an emerging trans-global movement of interconnected freethinkers. I encourage Western secularists who are resistive to this idea out of a refusal to entertain any kind of reconciliatory dialogues between faith and reason, to examine the reality around them and the freedoms and rights they enjoy in Western society. Yes, there is an increasing hostility between faith and science in the year 2016 in the modern, developed world – that is among the privileges that a free, open society affords. We are focused here on the basics of this freedom, and how to get there. How to move into the most basic building blocks of pluralism, science and reason within Muslim societies outside the West and Muslim communities within the West.
Let me give a hopefully instructive example of this, to de-conflict the task at hand from the objections of its secular critics: we don’t need to pretend there is not an abrasive relationship between Islam (or any religion) and secular scientific, reason-based worldviews. Let’s use Western Christianity – as a very broad construct – as an example. Any search on YouTube for science and religion will unleash an onslaught of sophisticated talks and household videos on the collisions between religion and science, from Richard Dawkins debating Mehdi Hasan in the Oxford Parliament to home-made talks by Texas atheist and Goth cowboy Aron Ra. Adherents and critics of faith alike are usually familiar in varying degrees with these intellectual conflicts and culture wars. Yet most Christians and Jews in the West understand and respect the basic underpinnings of the Enlightenment traditions as almost second nature, even laying partial claim to many of their historic unfolding. This is where we need to get to in in the Muslim world, on a scale never before seen. Just as Christians now accept the work of passionate abolitionist preacher William Wilberforce as among their most proud traditions of faith and the divinely sanctioned, transcendental human compassion it enshrines, so too will the majority of Muslims one day look back on a Rights Revolution within the Muslim world as something they proudly helped own and lay claim to.