Welcome, Happy Purim and my first post

Welcome to my new blog and my personal space on the Times of Israel website, and Happy Purim to all of you who might be celebrating it. I’d like to thank all of you who visit this corner of the Internet and the Times of Israel for this opportunity to blog for them and for their support and faith in providing me a platform and forum on their website. I appreciate their allowing me to use their name, trademark, bandwidth, domain, part of their webpage and other resources in question; I hope I can live up to their expectations.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking of how to organize and develop this blog; post length, subject matter, covering one subject per post or dividing them into sections by topic and even whether to try to keep to a regular daily or weekly posting schedule. My specific role is to act as a commentator on foreign and defense affairs, the Mideast, American politics and popular culture. It’s a diverse set of responsibilities but I’ll try to cover each of these varied areas with some depth and standards; it might not be easy, they often don’t go together, especially the last two fields. Nonetheless I promise to do my best and I hope I don’t disappoint my editors and the honorable people at the Times of Israel who trusted and gave me this opportunity or anyone who might read these commentaries.

For my introductory post I wanted to give my thoughts on what is probably the most pressing issue in global affairs and defense/security, not just for the United States but much of the rest of the world, including Israel. It’s known by various names including Muslim Fundamentalist, Islamic Extremism, Militant Islam and less often in recent years Islamic Fascism or Islamofascism. Since the September 11th attacks there has been a lot of discussion of the need for an “Islamic Reformation” or a movement to change the religious status quo in the Muslim World along the lines of the one initiated by Luther, Zwingli and Calvin which created Protestantism and the corresponding Counter or Catholic Reformation of figures like Erasmus and Loyola.

While I don’t question the need for such a reform movement I don’t believe the 16th century European Reformations are the best model to use as a basis for that modernization effort. Like its predecessors and fellow “Abrahamic” faiths Judaism and Christianity, Islam holds its scriptures as infallible, divine revelations. The literal or “fundamental” reading of biblical sources and their acceptance as historical and empirical, i.e. scientific fact, was unaffected in the West and elsewhere by the work of figures such as Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, Loyola and Erasmus.

The efforts, religious teachings and movements of these theologians and commentators were meant to strengthen and rectify, the “reform” aspect as mentioned before, western Christianity, its power and through them their societies. In many cases the literalness of scripture, its emphasis and standing increased through the Reformation. It’s certainly hard to argue that the importance of religion, the devotion it inspired and the passions it kindled were weakened by the Reformation and its immediate consequences.

The questioning of the overwhelming centrality of religion and its literal interpretation and reading had to wait until the work of the Copernican Revolution and the Enlightenment, as well as the secularization of politics in the wake of the Thirty Years War, began to change educated and ruling opinion in Europe. This shift accelerated and became irreversible after the discoveries in the fields of evolutionary, paleontological and geological science in the late 18th and 19th centuries completed the classical age of the modern scientific revolution.

Belief in the literalist reading and interpretation of all scripture in the Western world became impossible for any educated, or even modestly informed, individual after the findings of Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, Hutton and Lyell; for better or worse Christianity and Judaism in Europe and the wider Western world had to adapt to this new situation. Scientific advance in the 19th century now dictated a new allegorical reading of holy scripture on a scale that went beyond anything attempted, and possibly contemplated, before. Even the theological challenges posed by Classical Greco-Roman philosophy, the explorations of the biblically absent Western Hemisphere in the Age of Discovery and the findings of Copernicus and Galileo paled in comparison.

Islam, however, was largely unaffected by the fall of the biblical creation story and other scriptural narratives as accepted historical and scientific fact in the Occident. The failure of the Scientific Revolution to break through to the consciousness of the Muslim World has been one of the greatest, and possibly the single worst, tragedy of the 21st century. It’s the model of the late Enlightenment/Age of Reason, if not those movements themselves, that we have to bring to the Islamic World, and especially it’s central Arabic, Turkish and Persian-speaking lands.

This failure to change the traditional view of the infallible nature of Quranic revelation and the Hadith’s has been so complete that even as of this writing in early March 2015 there isn’t a single major Muslim sect or movement which advocates a figurative interpretation of either, and the literalist approach to its reading and study is virtually unchallenged among the large majority of Muslims.

As the Quran and Hadith contain a good deal of “questionable” content in terms of promoting equality among religious faiths and other issues of human rights and modernity (Surah 9:29 of the Quran is a good example of the more problematic passages in Islamic scripture), a means of explaining or finding a way of interpreting these scriptures in an allegorical or non-fundamentalist manner must be found.  Bringing Islam into the modern world and ending the assaults of its most aggressive adherents on the rest of humanity will eventually require such an effort. Fortunately, there seem to be some in the West and more people in the Muslim World coming to a somewhat similar conclusion.

About the Author
Jonathan Turner is a writer and historian who lives and works in New York City. A former Fellow at the U.S. Department of State where he worked in Public Affairs, he is currently working on developing a think tank devoted to historical research, defense issues and foreign policy analysis called the Severn Institute.
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