Reform without Authority?

One of the problems—if you will—with Islam and why it is so difficult to reform is its lack of a central authority. Their prophet long dead and the Ottoman Caliphate long defunct, in the intervening years the closest we’ve come to a centralized authority in Islam with the power to reform is the pretender pretender Caliph of the Islamic State, an organization much maligned to the idea of reform. This hasn’t been a problem with Christianity; the Papal office has long served as an authority to rehabilitate itself according to evolving standards of decency.

But what about the vast numbers of Muslims who do not subscribe to old Islam, but rather subscribe to modern Islam with a reformed view of women and sexuality (the main points of contention between the West and Islam)?

This question has plagued me in some of my research. Using Spain (with a very long history of Muslim populations) as a case study, I am often reminded about reformed Islam when trying to make my case, which I will briefly lay out now.

In the last few decades Moroccan and Algerian immigrant populations in Spain have increased by 800%. During this same time Spanish citizens who believe religion plays no role in their day-to-day lives have increased from 42% to 67%, meaning Spain is becoming both more Islamic and more secular. And as ideas about sexuality and gender diverge between these two populations (the secular and the sectarian), cognitive dissonance forces the respective populations to clash, at least in terms of ideas. For the Muslim immigrant the following is likely to take place:

  1. The immigrant has deeply held convictions.
  2. His convictions have entrenched him in certain behaviors and actions in his home country that would be difficult to unlearn.
  3. His beliefs are specific enough to shape the real world in which he lives.
  4. But upon arrival to a country with fundamentally different social ideas, his beliefs are immediately contradicted, causing cognitive discomfort.
  5. Therefore, he seeks to mitigate his discomfort through a social support structure, usually a Mosque or Muslim community.

In essence, cognitive dissonance regarding competing ideas about sexuality and gender compel ideas to self-reinforce with each successive generation. Secular ideas become more secular faster, and traditional religious ideas secularize at a much slower pace, particularly because “[T]he jeering of non-believers simply makes it more difficult for the adherents to withdraw from the movement and admit they were wrong…” (Festinger). Muslim support structures act as a public audience that prevents many from turning away, even when presented with evidence. The clash of civilizations (with a sexual twist) will go on for generations to come.

So why then do we see so many secular Muslims in Western societies? Hell, even Lebanon (a predominantly Muslim country in the Levantine Middle East) is chock full of secular youth. I must confess that my model is by no means complete, even in regards to Spain alone, but it does represent reality at least to some small degree.

But perhaps I’m not completely wrong. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch for us old timers, but for children it is a tool for figuring out which ideas are best. Children might be better adept at secularizing by using their peers as social models. When cognitive dissonance makes them choose between their parent’s traditional beliefs and their friends’ modern beliefs, the threat of social estrangement is probably a compelling motivator to side with their Western peers.

I don’t know. I’ve been working on this for six months, and my model is getting far from parsimonious, which can be good and bad. I suppose this is all just some long-winded conversation we must have, but I very much believe cognitive dissonance is at the heart of it.

So the point is: Can Islam reform itself without a central authority by way of a growing secular youth? Or is it doomed to languish in the past for generations to come, even when the world grows up around it?

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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