The Duck of Minerva

Once again: please stop with the “Islamic Reformation” nonsense

22 April 2007

Over at Foreign Policy Passport, Preeti Aroon repeats–not once, but twice–the invidious comparison between contemporary Islam and pre-Reformation Latin Christiandom. Now, I’ve written on the general silliness of this line of comparison before, but Aroon asks an important question:

Yesterday’s program mentioned that the Protestant Reformation was accompanied by its share of violence, which took place over centuries. (Bloody Mary and Catholic violence against Huguenots in France come to my mind.) Does that mean that a reformation of Islam would be accompanied by violence? If so, would it be worth it?


The Protestants, in general, were the back-to-basics religious extremists of the sixteenth century. More of that sort is decidely not what Islam needs.

I’m not arguing that the Catholic Church couldn’t get downright nasty and repressive. It could and it did. But Catholic humanism represented a far more tolerant strand of Latin Christianity than early modern Zwinglianism, Lutheranism, or the Reformed Church. We shouldn’t confuse pre-Reformation Catholicism with Counter-Reformation Catholicism, nor Protestant movements with later, often Protestant, champions of liberal enlightenment.

I’m currently finishing a book manuscript that points to some interesting parallels between early modern Europe and the contemporary period, yet I cannot stress two points enough:

First, the “does Islam need a Protestant Reformation” question depends on a grossly distorted view of the nature of the Protestant Reformations.

Second, even if the question didn’t precede from bad history, the circumstances of the Reformations simply don’t travel well to those of contemporary Islam.

Again, the answer is “no.” The “Protestant Reformation” is not a synonym for “The Enlightenment.”