As democracy blooms in the Middle East, there is reason for rejoicing. Representative government and unleashed economies are two of the three necessary tools for a free society, and we should give thanks that more Iraqis and Afghanis are freer now than they were 5 years ago. We can hope that more Egyptians, Iranians, Saudi Arabians and Syrians will become free over the course of the next several years or decades. Democracy is spreading slowly by our account, fast by History’s, but it alone is not the final solution. Freedom does not flourish in a vacuum of representative government and free economies alone; virtue (what I will define as morality achieved through religious understanding) has final authority.
Therefore, if democracy is to last in the Middle East, the violent fundamentalist form of Islam that rules many Middle Eastern countries simply has to go. And the west can’t expel such an ideology on its own; it will need help from the inside. The Middle East will need an Islamic Reformation to make this so-called “clash of civilizations” (Christian vs. Muslim) a Muslim vs. Muslim debate, and the War on Terror will likely prove to be little more than a catalyst for such a Reformation, not the end result.
The great criticism of the Bush Doctrine is simple: “it won’t work.” Islam and democracy are as incompatible as oil and water. Not so, says Bush; All people have a yearning to be free, Muslim or not. And he is right. This is how we were created, in freedom. But does the modern (or archaic) state of Islam allow for this freedom? The answer seems to be no for several states, including but not limited to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Mullahs and Imams seem content to spew hatred, slow to criticize suicide bombers, and happy to endorse the murder of infidels, God fearers or not. These states have a combination of religious and political power that the world has seen in the past, and the past tells us this combination leads to corruption, sometimes murder.
There was a time when Christendom had a similar combination of religious and political power. The medieval Christian church was the only game in town for most of Europe and the lines between religion and state were blurred. Princes and bishops had identical powers if not titles, and popes had free reign to tax and build in addition to holding moral sway over believers. Are there parallels with the power structure in the Muslim world? Whereas Islam has no mirror to the pope or the same hierarchy, it does have theocracies, state-sponsored clerics and legislators who consult with the Qur’an before making law.
So what did the medieval Catholic Church get as a result of such a combination of power and corruption? A stubborn monk, who was willing to die to speak the truth. And when this truth was spoken plainly, morally and without regard for self, it spread, aided by modern media. The Church still did not capitulate but the wellspring of grassroots support Martin Luther had for the truth caused a series of cataclystic political changes that forever altered the trajectory of the West. Separation of church and state, capitalism, and representative democracy owe their impetus to the Reformation, which preceded the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
But lest we gloss over the effects of the Reformation to be a mere posting of the 95 Theses and a few separatists starting a new church, the truth is far bloodier. The peasant revolts of 1524-25 cited their inspiration as the teachings of Luther, even though he washed his hands of the revolts. The revolts, spurred by the close relationship of political and religious power and their subsequent abuse, cost an estimated 100,000 lives. An internal battle between the powerful Catholics and the upstart Protestants had begun, and the results would be messy. Over time, Princes would convert to Protestantism as would all their citizens. This meant the pope was losing massive amounts of land and money. The result was the Thirty Years’ War.
It was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that is maybe the great tragedy of the Reformation, and if Islamic reform gains support from enough “liberal” Muslims, could we see similar bloodshed? The war was an outgrowth of the political ramifications of the Reformation, and was an internal Christian conflict between the Catholic Hapsburgs and German Protestants protecting their land. The result was, without exaggeration, one of the grisliest and most devastating wars the world has ever seen. Luther D. Reed, one of the great Lutheran historians of the 20th century wrote the following:
One-third of all the cultivated land in northern Germany was reduced to barrenness. Germany’s total population of 16,000,000 was reduced by armed conflict, murder, famine, disease, and emigration to less than 6,000,000. The war had lasted longer than the average expectancy of life in those times. Even when peace was signed the agony was not over. A whole generation of youth familiar only with violence and brutality, had grown to maturity without either secular or religious education. The population sank into ignorance and superstition from which even some of the highest among them were not free.
A more local example: during the war, a German pastor named Martin Rinkhart (1586 - 1649) buried 4,480 victims of the war alone, including his wife. Amazingly, he wrote the hymn “Now Thank We all Our God” during this time period.
What does this have to do with the current state of Islam? Simply that if democracy is to work (and I believe Middle Easterners do want it), a Muslim Luther will have to emerge to shake up the religious foundations of these states. Without such reform, virtue will be a forgotten component of these newly free societies. Perhaps Islamic leaders will go peacefully once their citizens get a taste of democracy. Perhaps the hate-mongers of Islam will be shown to be such a small minority that they will be voted out peacefully, one radical at a time. Democracy and free economies on their own simply cannot bear the weight of a religion that condones the murder of infidels. Rule of law would be made a mockery, and freedom would be short-lived.
The cost may be high for such a reformation, but it is due. The breaking of the bonds that politics and religion have with each other is crucial for a free society to prevail. And if the Thirty Years’ War teaches us anything, it will not be a victory quickly or easily won.