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An Islamic reformation

By Thomas Friedman
December 4, 2002
The Iranian
Source: The New York Times

What's going on in Iran today is, without question, the most promising trend in the Muslim world. It is a combination of Martin Luther and Tiananmen Square - a drive for an Islamic reformation combined with a spontaneous student-led democracy movement.

This movement faces a formidable opponent in Iran's conservative clerical leadership. It can't provide a quick fix to what ails relations between Islam and the West today. There is none. But it is still hugely important, because it reflects a deepening understanding by many Iranian Muslims that to thrive in the modern era they, and other Muslims, need an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics. This understanding is the necessary condition for preventing the brewing crisis between Islam and the West -- which was triggered by 9/11 -- from turning into a war of civilizations.

To put it another way, what's going on in Iran today is precisely the war of ideas within Islam that is the most important war of all. We can kill Osama bin Laden and all his acolytes, but others will spring up in their place.

The only ones who can delegitimize and root out these forces in any sustained way are Muslim societies themselves. And that will happen only when more Muslim societies undergo, from within, their own struggle for democracy and religious reform. Only the disenchanted citizens of the Soviet bloc could kill Marx; only Muslims fed up that their faith is being dominated by anti-modernists can kill bin Ladenism and its offshoots.

This struggle in Iran is symbolized by one man, whose name you should know: Hashem Aghajari, a former Islamic revolutionary and now a college professor, who was arrested Nov. 6 and sentenced to death by the Iranian hard-liners -- triggering a student uprising -- after giving a speech on the need to rejuvenate Islam with an "Islamic Protestantism". [See "From monkey to man"]

Mr. Aghajari's speech was delivered on the 25th anniversary of the death of Ali Shariati, one of the Iranian revolution's most progressive thinkers. In the speech -- translated by the invaluable MEMRI service -- he often cited Mr. Shariati as his inspiration. He began by noting that just as "the Protestant movement wanted to rescue Christianity from the clergy and the church hierarchy," so Muslims must do something similar today. The Muslim clergymen who have come to dominate their faith, he said, were never meant to have a monopoly on religious thinking or be allowed to ban any new interpretations in light of modernity.

"Just as people at the dawn of Islam conversed with the Prophet, we have the right to do this today," he said. "Just as they interpreted what was conveyed [to them] at historical junctures, we must do the same. We cannot say: `Because this is the past we must accept it without question.' . . . This is not logical. For years, young people were afraid to open a Koran. They said, `We must go ask the mullahs what the Koran says.' Then came Shariati, and he told the young people that those ideas were bankrupt. [He said] you could understand the Koran using your own methods. . . . The religious leaders taught that if you understand the Koran on your own, you have committed a crime. They feared that their racket would cease to exist if young people learned [the Koran] on their own."

He continued: "We need a religion that respects the rights of all -- a progressive religion, rather than a traditional religion that tramples the people. . . . One must be a good person, a pure person. We must not say that if you are not with us we can do whatever we want to you. By behaving as we do, we are trampling our own religious principles."

Mr. Aghajari concluded: "Today, more than ever, we need the `Islamic humanism' and `Islamic Protestantism' that Shariati advocated. While [Iran's clerical leaders] apparently do not recognize human rights, this principle has been recognized by our Constitution. . . . The [Iranian regime] divides people into insiders and outsiders. They can do whatever they want to the outsiders. They can go to their homes, steal their property, slander them, terrorize them and kill them because they were outsiders. Is this Islamic logic? When there is no respect for human beings?"

Mr. Aghajari refused to appeal his death sentence, saying his whole conviction was a farce. But on Monday his lawyer appealed on his own. Mr. Aghajari's fate now hangs in the balance. Watch this story. It's the most important trial in the world today.


Thomas Friedman is an international affairs columnist for The New York Times, where this article was originally published on December 4, 2002, (An Islamic Reformation).

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By Thomas L. Friedman

Friedman's columns
The New York Times

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