Moderate Islam?

This isn’t really a rant, but there’s no other category about religion. To almost wrap up our month reading Infidel, and to end on a positive note, I’d like to point out a recent article on the idea of modernizing Islam:

Turkey is engaged in a bold and profound attempt to rewrite the basis for Islamic sharia law while also officially reinterpreting the Qur’an for the modern age.

The exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is being seen as an iconoclastic campaign to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.

The result, say experts following the ambitious experiment, could be to diminish Muslim discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with Islamic law, such as stoning and amputation, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in the large country that pivots between east and west, leaning into the Middle East while aspiring to join the European Union…

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, described the project as an attempt to make Turkish Sunni Islam “fully compatible with contemporary social and moral values.”

Although I’d personally prefer to see all people give up their belief in invisible spirits and their attachment to ancient dogma and holy books, finding a way to modernize these beliefs is better than nothing. Hugely better.

In comments on another post a few weeks ago, I questioned the idea of criticizing Christians for “cherry picking the Bible” — that is, ignoring the parts they find abhorrent and clinging to the parts they find inspirational. It seems to be popular these days, perhaps in a weird way a side effect of the arguments of writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, to think that moderate Christians are less sincere or less “real” than fundamentalists. In this way, unbelievers seem to be buying into a very dangerous part of the black-and-white fundamentalist mindset.

Ignoring parts of the Bible or Koran should not be ridiculed. It is a good thing that leads away from fanatical violence. We should be encouraging this type of behavior. Those who begin to ignore parts of their holy books may ultimately come to ignore the entire volume (that happened to me), but if not they are still hugely better off ignoring large parts than following it all literally and blindly.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Mollishka, good question. I contacted Ayaan via email but she's not available for an interview right now because of some other things she's got going on. Here's the response I received from her publicist:

    Due to current events, she is not free to participate in an email interview. However, we will be working with her newly established Foundation for Freedom of Expression in order to help raise awareness of her current security situation. She will begin posting blogs on that website ( in April. We are discussing ways to involve websites such as yours in these efforts, and I would love to keep your name and contact information for just such a purpose, if you are agreed.

    Please let me know your thoughts. We will be working in the coming months to renovate and upgrade the Foundation website, so any feedback is also welcome.

    I hope we can have an interview later in the year. But for now, I'll post a formal review, probably over the weekend.

  2. I agree that when religion incorporates modern ideas it's good. I don't really think that cherry picking the Bible is such a new idea though — Jefferson did it in the name of reason, the Council of Nicea did it in the name of dogmatism. Religions have always had an internal struggle with what beliefs are core to the faith and what can be discarded.

    Thanks for an interesting and engaging post — as a theist (albeit a naturalistic theist who doesn't believe in invisible spirits or the authority of ancient dogma) I sometimes find the skeptical movement's emphasis on "all things bad with religion" a little off-putting and contrary to our cause of promoting critical thinking. We can't get the message of skepticism out there while we are "buying into a very dangerous part of the black-and-white fundamentalist mindset" (as you so eloquently put it).

  3. waltdakind,

    As an ex-fundy, I have to watch out for black-and-white thinking all the time. It's very addicting.

    Next month Chris Hedges is giving a talk about his new book, I Don't Believe in Atheists at our local bookstore. Should be interesting. I've enjoyed his other books, but I thought he did a pretty lousy job when he debated Sam Harris on this topic a while back. I hope he did a better job in the book.

  4. Turkey HAS to compromise on the Islamic laws. They've been trying to become part of the European union for a long time now, but Europe isn't having any of their ethnic cleansing (Kurds) and other violations of human rights (some of which Sharia law would definitely include).

    I think it's a nice thing that one of the standards of being a European country means not violating human rights. I'm more surprised there are actually countries within driving access that can't join because of it.

  5. Well, the Hadiths are a good place to start. There is stuff in there that makes anything you will see in the Qu'ran look like modern thinking.

    writerdd : "As an ex-fundy, I have to watch out for black-and-white thinking all the time. It’s very addicting."

    This is not just true for ex-Fundies. It's true for everyone. Being skeptical of your own thinking is both the most difficult and the most important kind of skepticism there is.


  6. I love this idea of ‘modernising’ Islam. As noted you can cherry pick the bits of an ancient text to say whatever you want, but if people are able to make the more reasonable and friendly parts the ‘truth’ then I’m all for it. From a scholarly point of view I think it would be fascinating if there was more analysis on the Sura and Hadiths in the same way that the Germans started to really look at the Bible in the 19th century. We know a lot more about the bible these days (who wrote it etc) and it would be great to have that knowledge about the Koran without the superstition.

  7. RBH, thanks for the link. It's very interesting. I'm generally a pessmist so I certainly see where Edis is coming from! Reformations have to start somewhere though, so I'll keep a glimmer of hope about this one. I don't think many contemporaries of Martin Luther would have thought that his 95 theses would have lead to the total restructuring of Christianity, either. He didn't even think that himself.

  8. Hmmm:

    Others have not been so lucky. The Turkish publishing house that translated Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is under investigation on a charge of "insulting religious values". This even though Turkey is relatively secular, as Muslim-majority nations go. Fortunately, Turkey is also attempting to join the European Union, whose laws protecting free speech are much better (if not perfect). Hopefully, this will serve as a wedge that will persuade the Turkish government to lay aside the more regressive of their laws.

    From <a href = "; rel="nofollow">Daylight Atheism.

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