When even the pope has to whisper
Islam is the unexploded bomb of global politics. US foreign policy – the only foreign policy there is, for the United States is the only superpower – proceeds from the hope that a modern and democratic Islam will emerge from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq . Through democratic institutions, Washington believes, the long-marginalized Shi’ites will adapt to religious pluralism. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Islam, fixed in amber since the High Middle Ages, will metamorphose into something like American mainline Protestantism.
Alas, the available facts suggest that the opposite result will ensue: more freedom equals more fundamentalism. Not the secular Shi’ite parties but the pro-Iranian religious parties dominate the Iraqi polls. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood quadrupled its vote despite heavy-handed measures to intimidate its supporters; Hamas threatens to displace Fatah in the Palestinian elections this month; Hezbollah has become the strongest electoral as well as military force in Lebanon; and, most important of all, Mahmud Ahmadinejad crushed a more pragmatic opponent in last June’s Iranian presidential elections.
Islam was founded as a theocracy, such that the Western innovation of church-state separation remains alien to its culture. Is it possible for Islam to reform? A negative answer implies that Ahmadinejad’s January 5 call for world domination falls within the Islamic mainstream. He told an audience of religious students, “We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It’s a universal ideology that leads the world to justice. We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world. We must prepare ourselves to rule the world.” The previous day, the London Guardian leaked a European intelligence report detailing Iran ‘s efforts to acquire technology required to build nuclear weapons. A very few writers, including this one, have rejected the possibility of Islamic reformation, to the stony contempt of universally accepted opinion.
Now Pope Benedict XVI has let it be known that he does not believe Islam can reform. This we learn from the transcript of a January 5 US radio interview with one of Benedict’s students and friends, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, the provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, posted on the Asia Times Online forum by a sharp-eyed reader. For the pope to refute the fundamental premise of US policy is news of inestimable strategic importance, yet a Google News scan reveals that not a single media outlet has taken notice of what Fessio told interviewer Hugh Hewitt last week. No matter: still and small as Benedict’s voice might be, it carries further than earthquake and whirlwind.
That is precisely what I argued in an essay titled You say you want a reformation? on August 5, 2003:
Hebrew and Christian scripture claim to be the report of human encounters with God. After the Torah is read each Saturday in synagogues, the congregation intones that the text stems from “the mouth of God by the hand of Moses”, a leader whose flaws kept him from entering the Promised Land. The Jewish rabbis, moreover, postulated the existence of an unwritten Revelation whose interpretation permits considerable flexibility with the text. Christianity’s Gospels, by the same token, are the reports of human evangelists.
The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast, dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.
I claim no originality whatever in this matter, for I simply follow the leading Muslim authorities, who are unanimous that Islam is in no need of reform. The immutable character of Islamic revelation makes the subject of Koranic criticism into a minefield. It is universally known among scholars that alternative texts of the Koran have been discovered in various archeological sites – something of an embarrassment for the Archangel Gabriel – but the subject has disappeared from the media.  When Newsweek in 2004 published a brief mention of the work of the pseudonymous German philologist Christoph Luxenberg, the government of Pakistan seized the entire print run. Luxenberg became famous for re-translating the Koran to read that martyrs would receive raisins in Paradise rather than virgins. One finds nearly 12,000 Google references to Luxenberg but not a single hit on Google News. The subject, once so passionately debated in editorial columns, has vanished from the media in their entirety.
It is dangerous to publish anything that Muslims might interpret as blasphemy, as Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest newspaper, discovered when it published 12 cartoons of Mohammed, some portraying the Prophet in violent acts. Muslim protests and threats caused two of the cartoonists to go into hiding. After Arab foreign ministers condemned Denmark for refusing to act against the newspaper, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered a near-apology in his New Year’s address.
Strange as it may seem, the pope must whisper when he wants to state agreement with conventional Muslim opinion, namely that the Koranic prophecy is fixed for all time such that Islam cannot reform itself. If Islam cannot change, then a likely outcome will be civilizational war, something too horrific for US leaders to contemplate.