In the wake of 9/11 there was a lot of talk about an “Islamic Reformation.” Such discussion was a key pointer to elite and public ignorance about the exact nature of the Reformation. On the one hand, the Reformation did allow for the emergence of what we might term today the democratic liberal consensus in regards to freedom of conscience in matters of religion, as radical Protestants refused even the pretense of a universal church which was inclusive of a whole society. But the other face of the Reformation was a streak of fanatical megalomania and iconoclasm which had a symbiotic relationship with what we may term the “Wars of Religion.”
There is an Islamic Reformation underway. That is why Muslims are destroying the holy sites of other Muslims:
Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.
Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”
“Radical conservatism”? First, let’s dismiss the idea that these older Islamic traditions were tolerant New Age syndicates. The history of Islam in West Africa is as brutal as anywhere else, with the enslavement of the kafir serving as major source of the human trade which fed the core Muslim world. But more importantly, the “radical conservatism” that the writer speaks of is fundamentally a paradox. Many “conservative” Islamic traditions, most especially Salafism and its affiliated siblings, are radical reconstructions of an idealized Muslim utopia which in all likelihood never existed. They are in other words radical but absolutely not conservative. Like radical Protestants attempting to recreate a “primitive Christianity” which only existed in their own imagination these Muslims jettison the organically evolved wisdom of the history of the Islamic community for their own stark and crisp interpretations. In a generic descriptive sense this is radically progressive.