Islam needs a velvet revolution

6 December 2006, 0146 EST

I’d like to call a moratorium on the genre of “Islam needs a Reformation” arguments.

Contra Andrew Sullivan, the Protestant Reformation did not lead Christians to realize that “their best interests” lay “in forgoing the bromides of fundamentalist certainties for the messy, secular, banal success of liberal democracy.” It left Europe filled with autocratic rulers, many of whom got to enjoy the additional benefits of controlling established churches.

Sullivan’s hand wringing about the coming sectarian storm in the Middle East also gives him an excuse to trot out the now-fashionable “I-used-to-support-the-war-but-now-I-know-better” argument that the US failed because those dratted Muslims just weren’t ready for liberal democracy:

America’s mistake is to believe it can impose this learning curve on another civilization – in a speed-reading course.

Sullivan knows better: the US invasion teeters on the brink of total failure because it was ill-designed and incompetently executed. It destroyed a high-capacity authoritarian state and left in its place a barely functional government penetrated by the very forces currently intent on slaughtering one another. The fact that religious identities — along with ethnic and clan membership — play a key role in ongoing political violence should hardly surprise anyone. After all, religious worship was one of the only tolerated arenas of collective association under Hussein.

But it is much easier to blame the whole mess on the “ripeness” of Islamic civilization for a great sectarian struggle based on some harebraned comparison to early modern Europe. So which of the two thousand-year old branches of Islam gets to play the role of “hodge-podge of Protestant movements that emerged after 1517” and which gets to be the “Catholic Church”? Personally, I think the radically decentralized Sunni faith makes a good proxy for the Papacy, and the Shia are sort of like the Calvinists, only different.

Sullivan again:

This, I fear, is the wider context of our intervention in Iraq. Our best bet is a responsible attempt to restrain it, but not a full-scale attempt to stop it. Some things are unstoppable. I fear this looming conflict is close to unstoppable (and Iraq was the trigger, not the cause).

Actually, no. If the Middle East does slide into all-out sectarian conflict the invasion of Iraq will definitely have been the trigger and the cause — at least in the normal sense of: without the collapse of the Iraqi state and its descent into religious violence there would be little risk of some sort of general escalation into sectarian warfare in the foreseeable future.

Via Josh Marshall, whose virtual pen drips with appropriate sarcasm.