Welcome to the Islamic Reformation (and How to Make Sense of bin Laden)


Speaking recently on Stanford's campus, Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar who has written for The New York Times, The Nation, and Slate, sketched out an interesting framework for making sense of recent trends within the Middle East, and more particularly within Islam itself (iTunes - feed N/A). His argument is essentially this: Islam is undergoing a reformation that's not terribly unlike the one Christianity underwent in the 16th century. Within Islam, we see individuals arrogating power from the clerical establishment, interpreting Islam for themselves, and attempting to return it to a more pure and original form. And what's driving all of this are three social and technological innovations. First, the translation of the Koran into many new languages, which has made it accessible to widespread populations, including non-Arabic-speaking people, for the first time.  Second, the participation in reformist movements by Muslims from the West, who bring their own individualistic perspectives to the religion. Third and most importantly, the invention of the Internet, which, much like the printing press during the 16th century, has empowered new arbiters of Islamic law. Through the internet, new thinkers can get their ideas out there in unprecedented ways, mobilize support behind a new body of religious ideas, and compete effectively with the old religious order.

It is within this general context of reformation that Aslan places Usama bin Laden. Although the Islamic reformation has been shaped by many moderate and progressive figures, there are, as with all reformations, more radical figures who challenge the traditional religious institutions and will resort to a pathological kind of violence if necessary. In this instance, Aslan sees similarities between bin Laden and more radical figures of the Protestant Reformation. Give the talk a listen. And let yourself get past the first 10 minutes because it starts a little slowly.

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