Any Springtime in the Arab Spring?; Why Lapsed Catholics Are Potential Muslims

Islamic Law Expert Says He's Lost Some Optimism

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MAY 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Islamism, an ideology that demands complete adherence to the sacred law of Islam, imbued with a deep antagonism toward non-Muslims, is on the rise and appears to be consolidating.

This is most evident in some post-“Arab Spring” nations where Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, banned under previous regimes, are gaining popularity. Their resurgence is also being witnessed, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, in parts of Asia and West Africa.

And as the ideology spreads, displacing indigenous Christians and other minorities as it does so, Muslims are increasingly seeing Sharia Law – the moral code and religious law of Islam – not only as the hallmark of what it means to be Muslim, but as integral to the constitution of the Islamic state.  

This is the disconcerting observation of Professor David Forte, an expert in Islamic Law, who gave a talk this week in Rome to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

What concerns Forte most is that this push to make Sharia the constitution or legal system of a Muslim state is not part of traditional Islam. “That’s never been true before,” he told ZENIT. “The Islamic state has always been separate from Sharia, though would be enormously influenced by it and would enforce all kinds of parts of it, but it would also enforce all kinds of parts of the law that were contrary to it. And the mullahs, the ulama [arbiters of Sharia Law], would agree to that.”

But he said such an idea of a mixed state “is off the table now” and the trend is moving instead “towards an implementation of the Sharia as the legal system.” Such a development is “disappointing” not only to him, but also like-minded, reformist Muslims.

The reason for this trend appears to be the merging of the ulama tradition with the modern nation state. Under the imperial regimes of Islam, the dangers were always limited by customs and other forces within the empire. “The rulers would limit the Sharia, and in turn be limited by the Sharia - it was a very mixed and complex political structure,” explained Forte, who lectures in law at Cleveland State University. “But with the coming of the nation state and the rise of the Islamists in the 20th century, they wanted to make the Sharia superior, but also to tie it to the monopoly of force of the positivistic modern state.”

“The two of those together are very worrisome,” Forte said.

So what does this mean when it comes to possible democratic reforms among Muslim-majority states -- a hope enkindled by the Arab Spring? Can these Muslim states ever be truly democratic? “The short answer is we don’t know,” said Forte, pointing out the issue boils down to both the form and substance democracy could take.

“The forms of election only matter if they’re based upon that rock-solid vision of what the human person is,” he explained. “So from what we see of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, they’re very much in favour of various forms of democracy, but they want the forms to point to a compulsory Sharia law on other people. So I’m not sure the substance of democracy is there.”

As to whether the Arab Spring will in general be a positive chapter in the history of the Middle East, Forte believes it depends on whether the Arab world becomes self-educated as a result. “If their educational establishment opens up more, so that people read more, then they can become more civilised, in which case they may return to the idea of the Sharia as having a limited part in society, not a total part, and apply it perhaps to worship, or inheritance,” he said.

The mixed state, he added, “may derive from the fact that the people don’t believe the Sharia suits their sense of individuality and dignity from their democratic reforms. That’s the hope, but we don’t know whether that will actually work out.”

Sharia is also not necessarily an irreformable legal system as it has shown historical precedent for change -- a reality that could represent a sign of hope, worthy of further study. “The content of the Sharia is, if you look at it in classical terms, liberal and reformist in its initial era and then as it became solidified, archaic in some ways,” he said.

Sharia law has traditionally had three permanently inferior classes -- women, slaves and unbelievers -- and continues to practice archaic elements of the law such as physically chastising wives and disfiguring people for theft. But Forte pointed out that slavery was “something that was essentially part of Sharia but which was gotten rid of.”

“I’ve yet to come across any of the often hatefully-rabid mullahs calling for a return to slavery,” he said. “I find that curious; it may be revealing and it’s a wedge that needs to be explored.”

As for the future of Islam and Islamic states as a whole, however, Forte sounded a less positive note. “I say jokingly that I was more optimistic 10 years ago,” he said. “Now I’m cautiously pessimistic.”

* * *

One of the most interesting declassified documents to be discovered in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan was a note written by a US al-Qaeda official suggesting lapsed Catholics were rich pickings for conversion to Islam.

In the memo released last week, American al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn told Bin Laden in January last year that Catholics were “fertile ground” for conversion, “particularly after the rage expanding against the mother church [Vatican] as a result of its scandals, and policies refused by many of its public.”

Gadahn singled out Irish people in particular, saying they “were the most religious of atheist Europe,” and moving toward secularism. “Why do not we face them with Islam?” he asked.  

Gadahn’s regrettable observations to some extent fulfill one of Pope Benedict XVI’s warnings made during his controversial Regensburg lecture of 2006: that secularism, borne out of a post-Enlightenment, positivist and materialist way of thinking, leads to an insufficient capacity to reason.

“Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate,” the Pope said. “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Professor Forte believes in this area in particular, the Pope has been prophetic. “We didn’t realise how deep a sociological insight he had in the function of reason,” he said. “Benedict understands the sociological impact on a society which gives up on right reason and uses reason only for narrow instrumental purposes. That’s the type of society that becomes bereft and famished for some sort of spiritual home. And the Islamic faith comes across as a very simple, practical faith.”

He pointed out that secularists and intellectuals who have lost Christianity may easily regard Islam as a kind of spiritual Unitarianism (a belief that typically rejects formal dogma in favour of a rationalist approach to belief). And yet he said that “right reason, reason that looks for first principles,” would resist Islam because its current philosophical basis “is almost solely instrumental – not as it was in the first centuries of Islam.”

“If you had a vibrant intellectual tradition that embraced natural law, a good deal of those intellectuals would see the value of faith because it seeks a first principle,” said Forte. “But if you have a deconstructive philosophical structure where you don’t look for right reason, then people look anywhere for a faith.”

He added: “It is not that you don’t have faith and reason to guide you, it is that you don’t have the faith ‘in‘ reason to reach the right results. In such a case, you’re open to being persuaded by any number of influences.”