Tony Abbott has provoked outrage in some circles, and proud banner raising in others, by proposing that Islam needed to reform itself, and so undergo something akin to the complex sequences of cultural and institutional changes that led to the formation of politically secular, if morally religious, liberal democracy. Islam, he says, making an argument based on some historical knowledge, never had the equivalent to “the West’s” separation of church and state, its acceptance of a public culture of reason in the Enlightenment, its theological renunciation of violence in defence of the faith. While recognising the risk of demonising Islam, Abbot draws attention to a defensive weakness concerning these strengths of modern secular, liberal political culture. His real target is pusillanimous relativism when threatened with random death. “Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.”(Daily Telegraph 9 December 2015)
Much of the commentary on these comments is overheated. It is not as if Abbott is the only commentator to say these things. Some want to verbal Abbott and confuse him with demagogues like Donald Trump. Many are perhaps overly optimistic about what can be achieved by an overly sensitive commitment to consensus and the private dealings of moderate Muslim leaders with the police and security agencies. Some want to paint Abbott as a political caricature, as some rearguard leadership revolt, but rarely with a strong sense of how Abbott himself may have been inspired by Churchill’s moral opposition to Nazism. All these objections focus on process, and refuse to consider the substance of Abbott’s claims, which I would summarise as three key propositions: Islam is not only a religion of peace, but at its core preaches violence – “killing people in the name of God;” the West’s pattern of development of political institutions, especially the separation of church and state, is worthy of emulation by Islamic societies since it is superior; and the adoption by moderate Islam of such institutions in the political world can stop the violent radical among Islam.
It seems to me that only the first of these propositions is true. People shy away from such a conclusion, and there are many aspects of Islam that are peaceful. It has its own traditions of reform and modernism, and especially Sufism has been important in promoting a less austere church. It has been a religion of traders as well as warriors and jihadists, but this does not deny that it has long been a religion of jihadists, fatwahs, and warlords. In some of its traditions, it does not only justify killing, it sanctifies it. No-one would say this is all of Islam, but to pretend it is not part of it is to be willingly blind.
A more detailed discussion of the contrasting experience of church and state between the West and Islam is here: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/
The final question is whether amendments to political institutions and developments of political culture can remove the periodic outbreak of cults of violent death in political cultures. I think here the answer is no, and after all there are many examples of the outbreaks of violence within liberal cultures that would lead one to doubt this. A more detailed reflection on that question will need to await another night.