Islam Will Not Have Its Own ‘Reformation’

Stop expecting a Muslim Martin Luther. No two religions follow the same historical path.


Last week, in his annual Christmas address, Pope Francis prayed for victims of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. His prayers for both Christian and Muslim victims of the jihadis’ violence were a fitting tribute to one of the most dismal aspects of 2014. But the pope’s words also offered a striking contrast between the manifest humility of the Vatican — back on the good side of what seems like a decades-long good-pope/bad-pope routine — and the savagery of a newly declared caliphate.

This contrast led some observers (like, say, Bill Maher) to declare we should stop being so politically correct and state the obvious: Islam remains stuck in the Middle Ages. And even those who found this particular formulation too crude were still struck trying to explain why it seems that so many western countries have figured out how to separate church and state, while Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey continue to struggle.

One of the most enduring explanations is that the Islamic world really needs its own Reformation — a Muslim Martin Luther to bring the religion of Mohammed into modernity. It’s an argument that Thomas Friedman and various others have been making for over a decade. In the last year alone Fetullah Gulen and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were added to the short list of potential Martin Luthers. Many analysts and critics of Islam seem committed to the idea that, be it a reclusive Turkish preacher or an authoritarian Egyptian general, there must be someone out there who can straighten out the confusion over church and state in in the Muslim world, and finally help Islam make the jump from totalitarian fundamentalism to enlightened, liberal religion, from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Pope Francis. 

But before western observers start applying lessons of European history to the Muslim world, a little self-reflection is in order. Wasn’t the Reformation an attack on the Catholic Church? Didn’t Martin Luther, the man who began it, once write a book called Against the Roman Papacy: An Institution of the Devil? Indeed, every time a western writer identifies an Islamic Martin Luther, it highlights an unresolved question about western society itself: Is today’s modern Christian world a triumph of Protestantism over the pope? Or is it a reflection of Christianity’s more secular essence, inherent in Protestantism and Catholicism alike?

Neither. The different political cultures in Christian and Muslim countries we debate today resulted from a convoluted history, a twisting path that offers few simple or satisfying lessons.

For most of American history, it would have been self-evident to the majority of American Protestants that the celebrated separation of church and state in the United States only became possible because the Protestant Reformation tamed the Vatican in the 16th century. Most viewed Catholicism as a medieval religion at odds with the Anglo-American tradition of secular democracy. Shortly after Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew declared that “Popery and liberty are incompatible,” the famed Continental Congress declared Catholicism a religion that spread “impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”

American anti-Catholicism was certainly crude but not entirely without reason. The Vatican, after all, didn’t exactly cultivate a progressive image at the time. The church’s leaders proudly proclaimed opposition to crucial aspects of democracy, such as voting. Pope Pius IX, for example, issued a famous 1864 encyclical called the Syllabus of Errors condemning, among other things, liberalism, freedom of conscience, and progress.

These days, though, most Protestants would likely agree that Pope Francis seems like a pretty nice guy, and certainly no threat to democracy. The pope — this one especially — is on board with progress. And maybe even with evolution now. So what happened?

For most of Europe’s past, the only thing church leaders and their monarchical counterparts agreed on was that church and state should be united. They just disagreed over who should be holding the reins. In fact, if anything kept church and state separate, it was the power struggle between the two camps.

As the Roman Empire lost control of Europe during the first millennium, the pope maintained control over the church (and its extensive property) throughout Rome’s former territory. The pope’s earthly power frequently brought him into conflict with Europe’s kings. When these rulers tried to seize church land or appoint bishops, the Catholic Church called on its considerable allies and resources to resist. This conflict would pit some of Europe’s most powerful rulers — Charlemagne, several Holy Roman Emperors, and King Philip IV of France — against the pope over the question of whether kings should choose popes or popes should choose kings. Both sides wanted to play the “caliph,” with the joint spiritual and temporal authority that role entailed. But while both church and state relied on the other for legitimacy, neither could permanently gain the upper hand for centuries.

The Protestant Reformation finally gave European monarchs like Henry VIII the theological justification to unite church and state under their authority instead of the Vatican’s. Indeed, Protestants only favored the separation of church and state so long as the church in question was the Catholic one; in 1534, when English King Henry VIII split with the Vatican, he made himself the head of the newly proclaimed Church of England. In one version of history, put forward by generations of Protestant historians, this was a triumph of secularism. The state, as embodied by King Henry, had freed itself from the church, as embodied by the pope in Rome.

But no one seems to be calling for an Islamic Henry VIII to reinvent Muslim society — and that isn’t just because the king had a penchant for beheadings. There is no getting around the fact that Henry technically transformed England into a theocracy. The king declared himself England’s supreme political and religious leader, the very role that Islamists imagine a caliph would enjoy. (To this day, Queen Elizabeth vies with the Dalai Lama for the title of World’s Most Endearing Nominal Theocrat.)

Uniting church and state under protestant kings like Henry only helped facilitate modern secularism because these rulers were more serious about their new-found power than their theology. They wanted their countries to become rich and powerful. In their new roles as religious authorities, they could bend or warp religious rules for earthly end goals. As European states became richer, more stable, and more powerful over the ensuing centuries, their political cultures became more liberal and democratic. And religion in the hands of protestant monarchs kept pace. Queen Elizabeth, weighed down by an elected parliament and generations of English common law, could no longer use her authority as Anglican potentate to, say, endorse enslaving prisoners of war as the Islamic State recently did. In short, she isn’t the kind of caliph anyone in the Islamic State wants.

The church-state relationship developed differently in countries that remained Catholic, like France or Italy. Rather than become leaders of new churches, subsequent revolutionary leaders like Robespierre in France or Garibaldi in Italy sought to abolish Catholic institutions entirely. The French Revolution, for example, confiscated church land, banned monastic orders, and forced priests to swear an oath to the civil constitution (of course, all this involved many more beheadings). The pope and his faithful were, understandably, horrified. The Vatican spent the better part of the 19th century on the political sidelines, refusing to engage with Europe’s secular regimes.

In the early 1900s, the Catholic Church belatedly recognized that accepting the state’s new-found primacy, and even some of its liberal ideology, was the price of remaining relevant. With the Vatican’s concordat with the Italian state in 1929, the faithful could finally vote in civil elections without fear of damnation. In a sense, concessions like these enabled church and state to meet each other halfway, as governments in France and Italy also laid the basis for Europe’s present-day accommodation by allowing the Vatican to reclaim some of its former power and property.

The history of how secularism developed in Protestant and Catholic countries serves as a reminder that politics and circumstance shape religion, and its application to society, far more than abstract theology does. And these forces can change a faith dramatically even while scripture remains the same. The claim that there is something inherently secular or humanist about Christianity hardly holds up against a history of 250 popes who all read the same Bible as Francis and came to completely different conclusions about the role of the church in society.

But if the separation of church and state is all about politics and not theology, it seems even more pertinent to ask which of the political precedents from western history offers the best model for the Muslim world. Is the solution not a Muslim Henry VIII but an al-Robespierre?

Unlikely. The real answer is that there’s no single, obvious, historically proven path to modern secularism. Take just one example: The French revolutionary approach to dealing with the church served as the example for one of the most famous secularizers in the Islamic world, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk saw the Islamic religious establishment as an enemy force — just like French revolutionaries saw the Vatican — that had to be defeated. He expropriated the property of religious foundations and banned religious orders. And he was so committed to teaching an anti-Catholic view of European history — inspired by both protestant prejudice and French revolutionary secularism — that even today a surprising number of Turkish high school graduates have told me they believe Protestants are the modern Christians and Catholics the backwards ones.

But anyone who’s been following the news from Turkey over the past decade or so knows that a century on, Ataturk’s approach did not work perfectly. Turkish politics remain bitterly divided between those who think the country is too secular and those who complain it is no longer secular enough.

So if even Ataturk couldn’t do it, is there any hope for creating a consensus on the role of religion in public life sufficient to facilitate liberal democracy in Muslim-majority countries? Or at least sufficient to forestall some of the violence we saw in 2014? Looking optimistically toward the new year, one lesson from several millennia of church-state conflict in Europe is that even without following any particular model, Muslim countries might just succeed in blazing their own paths, much like the Vatican managed to do, even without a Catholic Martin Luther of its own.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Wikimedia

Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.

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