The title question is in no way meant to be provocative, let alone insulting. But the world, including vast numbers of Muslims, needs this question answered.
After having studied Arabic at college and lectured on comparative religion for decades, and having devoted years to writing my upcoming book comparing American values with leftist and Islamist values, I have become convinced of two things regarding Islam: It must be reformed, and it can be reformed.
Both suppositions are highly controversial. Few believing Muslims think that Islam needs to be reformed; the suggestion would strike most religious Muslims as absurd, if not insulting and ultimately blasphemous. And it would strike many non-Muslim critics of Islam as naïve. As Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt 1883 to 1907, put it in a quote known to all Western students of Islam, “Islam reformed is Islam no longer.”
Let’s deal first with the question of whether Islam needs reforming.
The case for it is compelling. Here are a few reasons:
• Majority-Muslim and Islam-based countries are not, and have not been, free societies. According to the 2010 Freedom House “Freedom in the World” survey, of the world’s 47 Muslim-majority countries, only two are free, 18 are partly free, and 27 are not free. There is no honest explanation for this nearly total absence of liberty in Muslim countries that does not reflect in some way on Islam.
• Muslim treatment of Jews and Christians in places such as medieval Spain was morally far superior to the treatment of non-Christians by European Christians during the same period. But in the modern period, nowhere Islam controlled afforded non-Muslims anywhere near the equality that non-Christians came to take for granted in the Christian world.
• There was a burst of intellectual and scientific creativity in the Muslim world for a few hundred years, but then the opponents of reason came to dominate Islam, and with that development came a loss of scientific and intellectual curiosity. How could it have been otherwise? The dominant Muslim view was that the natural world had no laws. Everything that occurred did so solely because Allah willed it. If an arrow hit its target, it was not because of the archer’s ability or wind patterns or laws of physics; it was because Allah willed it. According to a United Nations report written by Arab scholars, the Arab world’s lack of interest in the non-Arab and non-Muslim worlds is so great that in any given year, comparatively tiny Greece translates more books into Greek than all the Arab countries combined translate into Arabic.
• Regarding women, one cannot name a culture or religion in which the status of women is as low as it is in many Muslim societies. Moreover, the status of women has actually declined in many Muslim societies in the present generation. For example, the veil is more common in Egypt today than it was a hundred years ago.
• In nearly every Muslim country in which non-Muslims live (usually Christians) — from Nigeria to Egypt to Iraq — they suffer persecution.
• A very small percentage of Muslims are terrorists. But nearly every international terrorist is Muslim. And according to every poll I have seen, at least 70 million of the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims support Islamist actions and theology.
• Every state that calls itself an Islamic republic and rules according to Islamic law is a totalitarian state, and it is usually a bloodthirsty one. Saudi Arabia is an example of the first; Taliban Afghanistan, Islamist Iran, and Islamist Sudan are examples of both.
So, yes, Islam needs to be reformed. This is no insult to Muslims. Judaism and Christianity have undergone major changes. And needed to.
Can Islam be reformed? I do not agree with Lord Cromer. I believe it can.