The Trouble With Muslim Reformists

As a follower of Islam who takes issue with many aspects of the ‘Islamic’ status quo, I write this article with a heavy heart. I have previously discussed several problematic ‘Islamic’ paradigms which are defended with alarming frequency as being ‘orthodox,’ ‘mainstream’ and ‘normative,’ and put a case forward for their revaluation. Some equate this with the more contentious term ‘reform,’ one I do not self-identify with, but do not dismiss on principle just because of the oft loaded word. However, my desire for change cannot obscure my disillusionment with many of the better known individuals who are often upheld as being the Muslims who should challenge and change the status quo.

I will ‘defend’ such reformers as far as admitting that their desire to reform Islam (which sadly often entails watering down and secularising Islam), and their increasing audience is largely reactionary towards harsh, extreme, or anti-intellectual behaviour from Muslims; whether violent extremists, despots, and even supposedly ‘normative’ scholars, speakers and leaders who may have a plethora of intolerant and anti-intellectual views. I also hasten to add that my critique does not universally apply to every Muslim who identifies as a reformist, nor are all of claims of the reformists I critique completely invalid. Some reformists (and indeed some outright Islamophobes) raise difficult and important questions which, regardless of the motivations of the questioner do require addressing. My intention of this article is not to deny the genuine threat of extremism from Muslim individuals, which regardless of the exaggerations it may be subjected to, categorically exists. With this disclaimer aside, I discuss some of the problems associated with the popularised Muslim ‘reform’ movement which features various speakers on the US and UK media circuit.


Many ‘reformers’ accept, and sometimes insist that the worldviews of Muslim extremists are a faithful and plausible interpretation of the texts

Any successful religious reform movement requires consistency with both the intellect and the texts of the faith itself. From an Islamic standpoint this could mean addressing problematic hadiths or fatwas by scrutinising the reliability of the narrators/scholars, or cross referencing them with others, or scrutinising them in light of their historical context. This need not be done within the common so called ‘normative’ paradigm of ‘okay as long as Bukhari remains de facto infallible and you don’t critique anything Ibn Taymiyya said’ (the Mu’tazila  or Ibn Sina or Ibn Arabi often receive no such protection and can be excommunicated by even lay Muslims without accusations of deviance, who will nonetheless reinstate the likes of Ibn Sina when wanting to prove how scientific past Muslim civilisations used to be). There is no inherent problem with informed disagreements with even the most well-known classical scholars, who after all, are not protected from error nor (as far as we know) promised salvation.

This is seldom the approach of reformers featuring on the Western media circuit however. On the contrary, these individuals frequently assert that hard-line and even terroristic ‘Islamic’ opinions are actually very plausible interpretations; interpretations which can only be challenged if Islam is interpreted within the paradigm of secular liberalism. Reformers will sometimes mention that more conciliatory ‘liberal friendly’ Islamic views may have some grounds too, but rarely attack the Islamic legitimacy of extreme views. Rather it is more common for them to assert that Muslims and non-Muslims who do deny the Islamic legitimacy of such views are ‘apologists’ and thus part of the problem! The laughable Republican Zudhi Jasser who lamented Obama referring to Islam as being a peaceful religion and being inconsolable at the president claiming that ISIS was ‘not Islamic’ is one of many examples.


The popular reform movement uses ‘reform’ to mean ‘gut filleting and turning into secular liberalism’

‘Reform’ denotes amending something which is currently unsatisfactory. It does not mean ‘secular liberalism for brown people,’ yet for many reformers, reform means precisely that. The mildest form of this approach argues that Islam essentially supports secular liberalism, but many reformers outright assert that Islam needs to be chopped and changed to fit with secular liberal sensitivities. Muslims are encouraged to be ‘more spiritual and less legalistic,’ though on inspection, this simply means ‘make Islam irrelevant and detach it from life’s affairs.’ It is true that Islam should be a very spiritual faith. It is also true that the infamous ‘haram police’ (from literal religious police to intrusive ‘friends’) have made Islam appear dour, pedantic and hyper legalistic, to the point where most Muslims now believe that more difficult equals more authentic. However, Islam clearly has a political and worldly dimension as well as a spiritual one, as does almost every other religion; any belief system which has nothing to say about life’s affairs is utterly vacuous and irrelevant (which secularists are perfectly aware of, but cynically claim a ‘neutral’ stance). Reformists frequently point to the Christian Protestant reformation (which they sometimes argue should be used as a model for an Islamic one; showing how little they actually know about The Reformation), and argue that Islam needs to be ‘spiritual’ as is European Christianity. They omit the obvious fact that European Christianity is largely watered down, gut filleted and irrelevant, as some reformers seemingly want Islam to also become. Most northern European Christians are nominally so, and even most practicing Christians today believe the simplified, dumbed down and false narratives about their own religious history (The Church always being fundamentally opposed to science, which it wasn’t; or that most wars were ‘caused by religion,’ which they weren’t).

The typical response to the above discussion is accusations of theocratic Islamism, or sympathy to it (for all their accusations that religion ‘divides’ people, secularists and reformers can be incredibly binary when judging people who are not card carrying secularists). Though I consider the frequent and arbitrary accusations of ‘Islamism’ to Muslims who fail to pay homage to secularism laughable, I have nonetheless pondered whether writing against advocates for reform simply legitimises the Wahabis (who go berserk at the word because is it ‘sectarian’) who disproportionately dominate Islamic discourse today. Broadly speaking I advocate pluralism (something secularists say they do, but often don’t), where societies are not run according to a particular interpretation of religion, but that people can openly live, and base ethical decisions on their worldviews whether materialistic, plantonistic, theistic or other. And that they can be honest about it. Secular liberalism is a specific political philosophy and not a default stance which a human must follow to avoid being an extremist. As secularists are fond of repeating: ‘no idea is beyond scrutiny’ (apart from secularism, humanism, feminism, materialism or liberalism which only extremists who want to live in the bronze age criticise), and liberalism, just like religion can be scrutinised along with its (mis)interpretations, followers, prophets, and its heretics. I strongly recommend readers who are interested in critiques of secular liberalism to the work of Dr John Gray, author of Two faces of liberalism. An excellent critique of secular liberal notions of evil by the author can be found here.

Some reformists actually desire mass apostasy from Islam but demand ‘reform’ for the sake of pragmatism

Several card carrying reformists imply, or even outright profess disbelief in Islam; rendering their terms for how Muslims must reform Islam incredibly disingenuous; when in fact what they want is for them to leave it. By ‘disbelief’, I do not refer to my personal judgement of someone who ‘declares haram to be halal,’ or ‘sides with the kuffar’ or any such Wahhabi sound bites used to arbitrarily excommunicate people; I mean people who literally state their non-belief! And then call themselves Muslims and reformists. For militant atheists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan claiming to be Islamic reformists makes as much sense as Richard Dawkins claiming to be a Christian reformer. Such advocates will typically try to bridge the gap between being a Muslim and an ex Muslim, often arguing that Muslims need to become ‘liberals’ (which they state or imply is the only alternative to extremism), and subsequently use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘ex’ Muslim interchangeably!

Suffice to say that the motivations of such people to ‘reform Islam’ are questionable. It would not be paranoia to suppose that the goal of these individuals is to seek mass apostasy amongst Muslims whilst trying to appear relatively impartial and pragmatic! In practice it looks something like this.


The credentials of many ‘celebrity’ reformers is limited to their personal backstories and not expertise in religion or geopolitics

I hesitated before using the above heading; I hear the ‘no credentials’ argument ad infinitum from some Muslims to stifle opposing views, where ‘no credentials’ means ‘no credentials in the eyes of my favourite scholars’ or ‘they don’t follow the majority opinion’ (the term ‘majority opinion’ is used quite commonly and often means ‘tows the Salafi line’ ). I am not claiming that one needs a doctorate from Al Azhar or requires fluency in Arabic to have credentials. Nor do they need to be a popular member of a ‘Muslim community.’ Some academic background in Islam, or geopolitics, or terrorism (something reformists often talk discuss, and insist, despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary, is a product of interpretations of the Qur’an), would be something; but most celebrity reformists are devoid of this. ‘I was an extremist once’ or ‘I had an abusive father or Imam’ does not equate to having credentials, just as a former Broadmoor patient does not emerge as an expert in psychology when discharged.

The ‘been there done that’ line is cynically overused from those of all political and religious orientations to make their new affiliation sound more daring and autonomous. Right wingers often claim to be ‘liberals mugged by reality,’ atheists typically provide cringe worthy platitudes about their escape from the shackles of religion to the pastures of freethought (whilst ironically calling theists sheep), whilst evangelists will shamelessly over exaggerate and embellish their decadent and depraved pasts, to emphasise the revolutionary nature of their conversion or increase in practice. Essentially, the more interesting or dramatic a back story is, the more credence gullible people give to the individual. My personal back story is not very exciting. I never practised Islam much as a youth but slowly realised that it is inconsistent to identify with a religion without following it or learning about it. So I started learning about it a little at a time. And I have a long way to go. Boring. I would be far more interesting if my past was one of a murderous Jihadist or a promiscuous, irreligious drug addict and habitual criminal (or all of them at once, which is a plausible combination if recent terrorist attacks are anything to go by), but it would have no bearing on my arguments. To illustrate how naive and wantonly delusional people are for trusting celebrity ‘ex extremists,’ I ask readers to consider how much credibility we would give to:

‘A young English girl who was horribly sexually abused by her family and then ran away to Pakistan, embraced Fundamentalist Islam, studied at a Russian university (where Vladamir Putin personally paid her tuition and gave her Judo lessons) and then married an Afghan mullah at a ceremony officiated by Kim Jong Un? In Iran. And then getting her to do the speaking circuit around the world, lecturing about how hard Western Civilization sucked because she was abused by her uncle and did not get over it until she accepted Islam and ran away from the civilization that was indifferent to her suffering, in fact facilitated it, in fact facilitated the suffering of all women.’

As a colleague of mine points out, we would be rightly incandescent with rage at such a performance. But yet this is exactly what we expect young European Muslims to put up with; as the above is an entirely consistent rejoinder to the stories given by several celebrity reformers and ex Muslims. The fact that one has suffered the hideous practice of FGM doesn’t legitimise their claim that Benjamin Netanyahu deserves a Nobel peace prize or that general Sisi is a modern day Martin Luther!

I appeal to readers to question why some reformers are regularly given a platform, on mainstream and right wing media outlets like Fox News. Have they got any academic credentials in religion or geopolitics (unlike some of the genuine academics they like to malign as being ‘apologists for Islamism,’ for having the audacity to suggest that Muslim terrorists often have motives which aren’t derived from religious texts), or is their ‘credibility’ based on their rather emotional backstories and the capacity to make provocative statements?

One of the most common and tired platitudes used by ‘reformist’ and ‘ex’ Muslims is the ‘minority within a minority’ narrative, used to make them appear especially beleaguered and daring. Let us first remind ourselves that Islam is a religion and not a race (a true statement but also standard phrase used to defend Islamophobia, even when couched in clearly racist terms). Thus, individuals who no longer consider themselves followers or believers in Islam are no longer Muslims by definition (this is solely a reference to individuals who outright refer to themselves as having left Islam, not individuals who fail to perform rituals, or even are struggling with belief, as many individuals of all faiths do).

The fact that people who are no longer Muslims are no longer Muslims is a logical necessity, but individuals like Maryam Namazie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali will incessantly excite themselves and their followers with self congratulatory narratives of their ‘minority within a minority’ status. Of course, as individuals who have renounced Islam, and residents of Europe, they are no longer a religious minority at all, but rather the majority- part of the non Muslim population of Western Europe.

Essentially, to the populist ex Muslim ‘reformer,’ Muslims are more of a race then a religion when it suits them (when they want to promote their ‘minority in a minority’ status), but a religion and not a race when it suits them (when they want to ‘safely’ make or defend outrageous and even politically hostile statements against Muslim groups or populations).


Popular reformists tacitly approve of (and sometimes encourage) Islamophobic speakers, apologists and politicians

In fairness, reformers are not much worse than many Muslims in this respect; indeed many ‘regular’ Muslims will often refuse to criticise or accept criticism of popular Muslim spokespeople and preachers. Typical defences of pseudo-scientific arguments and belligerent views from certain preachers who mimic televangelists will be ‘oh he’s just catering to his audience,’ ‘take the good and leave the bad brother,’ and of course ‘unity bro.’

In a similar manner, reformists will typically defend and make excuses for all but the most vitriolic Islamophobes. Lame defences often look like:

‘well Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants reform now, so her (un retracted) statements that Islam should be crushed in all forms including militarily don’t count,’

Douglas Murray has come a long way you know’ (From a Muslim reformer who I still maintain some respect for when I pointed out Murrays history of anti Muslim vitriol none of which as far as I know has been retracted).

‘I don’t think you quite understand Sam Harris. Yes he says we’re at War with Islam and endorses racial profiling, defends torture and consistently makes excuses in favour of ‘the West’ bombing civilians because of ‘intention,’ but he supports reform. Okay? If you don’t agree, you’re an Islamist. Or an Islamist sympathiser. Or a regressive leftist.

Even is cases when the Islamophobes who Muslim reformers defend, and sometimes side with have recently switched to a less incendiary tone, this is usually because they have become more pragmatic. They know that simply demanding that Muslims apostatise won’t work on a large scale. Thus even hard-line Islamophobes like the aforementioned Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali usually now say that they want ‘reform,’ though of course, the reform envisaged suspiciously resembles apostasy!

This does not mean that such Muslim reformers are necessarily all out anti Muslim bigots per se (something many Muslims claim, and then look foolish doing so), the likes of Maajid Nawaz for instance, for all his provocateur statements (like claiming that the Muslim council of Britain condoned the Salman Taseer murder or that the Hijab is illiberal body shaming) is clearly against anti Muslim violence or workplace discrimination. Rather, reformists are usually sympathetic towards Islamophobes. Sympathy to extremism is something most human beings are guilty of in some shape or form; most individuals will make excuses for their national ‘heroes’ of the past, which they would not make for others, even if those ‘heroes’ were guilty of atrocities. A staunch defender of Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan will typically see their hero doing the lesser of two evils or the ‘greater good,’ when confronted with any of their morally questionable decisions; yet only see a monster in Fidel Castro or Gamel Abdel Nasser for any of their alleged violations of human rights. Likewise, many who identify as being far left will on principle be wantonly sceptical about any reported misdeeds of the aforementioned Castro or Che Guevara.


Celebrity reformers are essentially tools for the political and media establishment

The reason many Muslim reformers are given a relatively widespread platform is that they are wittingly or unwittingly facilitating the will of the political establishment. This is not to say that are ‘part of the government,’ (a common overrated argument against anti extremism groups like Quilliam and Prevent is that they are, or were ‘government funded.’ Government funding is taxpayer’s money which many organisations can simply apply for; it does not mean the government run the program) but it does mean they are being used to serve the ends of large sections of the political, financial and media establishment.

This is not as many Muslims believe, to demonise all Muslims. If the Western establishment wanted to completely demonise all Muslims they could certainly do a better job of it. Given our interdependence and common interests with numerous Muslim majority states (like happy clappy Saudi Arabia), making all Muslims the enemy is not in its interests. Certain narratives regarding Muslims are in the interests of the establishment however, and Muslim reformers are good at perpetuating these. The notion that violent extremism and misogyny are fundamentally products of a sincere interpretation of Islam is such a narrative. To deny this would lead many to the conclusion that foreign intervention, Imperialism (past and present) and even environmental damage have some responsibility in manufacturing the social conditions for such problems. Muslim reformers serve such a purpose; as they will faithfully insist that our primary focus should be on ‘ideology.’

Muslim reformers are also a useful tool to propagate messages which would be deemed by readers and viewers to be inflammatory or Islamophobic if said by a non Muslim. Few of my non Muslim friends and colleagues would seriously entertain a white Christian guest attempting to convince his audience of a ‘global Jihadist insurgency and calling Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIS as one of obfuscation, denial, and inaction’ (As Maajid Nawaz did to the delight of Fox News) but when someone with a ‘Muslim identity’ does so, the response from a perfectly well meaning non-Muslim audience is often ‘why would a Muslim go out of their way to be alarmist about their own religion? Ergo this person must be sincere.’ Even outright bigotry and political belligerence towards Muslims is more readily accepted if coming from the mouth of someone with a ‘Muslim identify.’ Hopeless individuals like Zuhdi Jasser for instance will reliably used as a means to promote spying, congressional witch hunts, Zionism, neoconservatism and ‘regime changes,’ invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and even the notion that beards should be tolerated for Sikhs but not for Muslims!

A term often raised in this discourse is ‘native informant,’ and whilst I believe the insulting connotations of the term often just muddy the water, as a point of logic it is not always invalid. Criticising Muslims or Islam does not make a Muslim or former Muslim a native informant. However, when most of ones fan base is composed of new atheists, hardline secularists, Zionists and Islamophobes (who deny the phenomenon of Islamophobia even exists anyway), and the individual seldom if ever actually engages with any sections of a Muslim community; instead preferring right wing political think tanks, the charge of being a native informant is perfectly warranted. Especially when Muslim ‘identity’ or ‘background’ is used as a central argument to earn validity. Consider next time you hear to a ‘reformist’ warning their audience of the global jihadist insurgency, or of ‘dhimmitude’ or insisting that Benjamin Netanyahu or Sisi are heroic peacemakers; would this person be considered otherwise credible without their background as either an Islamist extremist or victim (or both)?

Certainly, the Muslim communities across the world require urgent and radical change on a social, political and religious level. Muslims need to tackle cultural and societal problems (like marriage culture amongst many). On a political level Muslims need to engage further with the political processes of the countries they reside with and be able to challenge the destructive influences of hardline nationalism or neoliberalism (and many Muslims sadly subscribe to at least one). On a religious level Muslims need to become vastly more theologically literate, able to address religious challenges whether from external (atheism, materialism) or within (anti intellectualism, anthropomorphism, Wahhabism, which can easily lead confused followers to atheism), and be prepared for what will become a mass scale apostasy if they continue to put misplaced faith in many of their ‘leaders’ and Imams (a truly outstanding article I can recommend which outlines how Muslims can be empowered to avoid this can be found here).

Sadly however as we have seen, many of the popularist voices ‘for change,’ do not bring the positive change needed. Celebrity reformists by their nature are unlikely to fulfil interests other than that of the establishment which promotes them. Don’t be fooled by the social media pictures with a cover over the mouth of the individual (‘I’m being silenced’) or the rhetoric of ‘I’m being suppressed by theocratic Islamists and regressive leftists’ (the latter term given to non Muslims like Noam Chomsky, Robert Pape, Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones who have the gall to argue that Islam is not the essential or main cause of terrorism). Most ideologues, of any political orientation usually claim to be fighting against almost insurmountable odds in order to convince people they are saying something novel, revolutionary and anti establishment (even if their political views are Western exceptionalism and neoliberalism which is common amongst reformers).

Advocates for positive, grassroots level change in Muslim (and all) communities do exist but are seldom famous. Such individuals are unlikely to desire celebrity status, and even less likely to be granted it. Outstanding and perceptive authors like the brilliant Jeffrey Lang and Khaled Abou el Fadl will never tow the Saudi Arabian Petro Dollar Islam line and thus will never enjoy the funding provided to Salafist writers and speakers. Such individuals are also unlikely to make alarmist and wantonly provocative statements about the Muslim communities, and thus are also unattractive for right wing media outlets in the way that popularist reformers are.

Suffice to say that Muslims face many problems from within and without (mostly from within; as these facilitate and exacerbate external problems), and this article presents even more. I am no cynic however, and believe that solutions do exist, some of which myself and a colleague have outlined on this website. I will leave readers with the often used but evidently lightly regarded verse from the Qur’an:

Verily! God will not change the condition of a people as long as they do not change their state of goodness themselves (Qur’an 13:11)

Categories: Islam

3 replies

  1. How’s Adam Deen’s reformation of The Quilliam Foundation getting on, Adil?!


    • Whilst Adam says some valid things which I respect it seems that they are ‘reforming’ him and not for the better. I do have empathy for him because he’s been driven to this by idiots and extremists who have relentlessly hounded him for not being wahhabi friendly enough. The sort of people who imo genuinely don’t care if Muslims who don’t toe their line apostasize. Or even prefer that they do. Nonetheless it is sad that Adam looks to be following in the footsteps of maajid nawaz and even using the same petulant and immature sound bites.


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