After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

The worst church massacre in U.S. history has all but overshadowed the prior New York City murder spree by a Muslim proclaiming "God is greatest."

But as a news theme, the earlier atrocity certainly carries long-term significance. Oddly, it occurred on the exact date the Reformation began 500 years ago, and some Muslims and non-Muslims muse that Islam needs its own Martin Luther to launch sweeping change.

The big Protestant anniversary is behind us, but for years to come the news media will be covering the moral tragedy of a faction's religiously inspired terrorism. As many pundits observe, western outsiders cannot solve Islam's internal problems. The latest insider proposal:

Writing on Reformation Day, Mustafa Akyol rejected the idea of replicating Luther in a piece titled “The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation.” (This was posted by www.theatlantic.com, which holds first rank among magazine websites for timely and provocative news analysis about religion.)  

Akyol, a Turkish journalist, TV talker and New York Times op-ed contributor, was named a fellow at Wellesley College’s Freedom Project last January. His books include the pertinent “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (2011). Significantly, the book is also available in Turkish, Malay and Indonesian translations.

Though Aykol rejects the “Reformation” label, he does seek to renew his faith’s less violent mainstream tradition and foster tolerance. If so, what’s the matter with the Luther paradigm? For one thing, today’s conflict-ridden Muslim countries do not resemble Luther’s original protest but the later religious bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant armies.

Also, Akyol says, Luther broke up Europe’s Catholic monopoly, whereas Islam is decentralized as a religion with no pope or centralized organization. Therefore, “the only definitive authority available” to improve matters is the state. And then, since Muslim regimes lack the necessary theoretical basis, Islam requires not another Luther (1483–1546)  but the equivalent of Enlightenment political philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).

Locke, a devoted though latitudinarian Protestant, profoundly shaped his native England, and the young United States, with such concepts as  natural rights, separation of powers, consent of the governed and religious toleration (though he was intolerant toward the Catholicism of his day on grounds that it was intolerant).

Can some Locke-like guru change the Muslim world? How could such a figure emerge, and from where? Is Islam likely to embrace Locke’s principles? Are religious authorities, institutions, and traditions really so weak that the state is the only means to create an Islamic culture cleansed of political terrorism?

Newswriters interested in Akyol should run such questions past a variety of Muslim thinkers.

The current situations in Egypt and Saudi Arabia provide reason for both hope and caution. 

In 2015, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged imams to undertake a “religious revolution” during an Al Azhar University speech marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birth date. He proclaimed that the faith “is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost -- and it is being lost by our own hands.” He found it “inconceivable” that Islam could “be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction” that “is antagonizing the entire world.” Al-Sisi has enacted his sermon by visiting the cathedral of victimized Coptic Christians and funding restoration of  Alexandria’s historic Jewish synagogue.

Equally dramatic if not moreso was a recent speech, followed by an October 24 interview in Britain’s The Guardian, by rising young Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, who seeks to change old ways in Saudi Arabia. Most analysts say Saudi cash in many nations has long been spreading Wahhabi and Salafi teachings that have inspired violent fringe sects.

The prince’s speech, to an economic confab, advocated a return to “moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions. ... We won’t waste 30 years of our life combatting extremist thoughts. We will destroy them now, and immediately.” He has already trimmed the arbitrary arresting power of the nation’s fierce religious police corps and somewhat liberated women’s rights.  

All very promising. But let’s admit neither nation upholds human rights and democracy as favored by the West and by modern Christianity and Judaism, nor do some other Muslim regimes.

So, once again, reporters should ask Muslim thinkers whether it’s realistic that major reform,  if not a Reformation,  could occur -- and how.

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