No longer just a joke.
I am not the first to remark that modernity is not the absence or even decline of religion, but a change in the relationship between religion and the social order. One aspect of this change is pluralization, the expectation of religious diversity within society. I am inclined to think this aspect is the one that represents modernity in its fullest development, and with the most far-reaching ramifications. However, another aspect is what we might call reformism, the expectation that social institutions should be continually reformed to bring them into better alignment with our moral convictions. Reformism comes first, and when it achieves its ends in full (which does not always happen) the result is pluralization. It is noteworthy that Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor, who disagree about so much, agree that reformism was the prime mover of modernity.
One piece of evidence I would point to in favor of the description I have just given of the relationship between pluralization and reformism is that you sometimes find reformism without pluralism, but you never find pluralism without reformism. Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, represent reformism taken to an extreme. Bernard Lewis has pointed out that the entire constitutional structure of Iran consists of recent inventions – there was no such thing as a “mullah” until the 1970s. Because Iran is a theocracy, this represents a far-reaching reform not only of government and society, but of Islam itself (at least as practiced in Iran). And while Saudi Arabia has revived the old names of tribal offices instead of inventing new ones, the reformist impulse is the same. For example, I have seen quite a few knowledgeable people point out that the severe restrictions on female dress in these and other countries are of recent origin.
All of which brings us to what might be the most eyebrow-raising story in some time: Al-Qaeda has instituted a complaint department.
“Any one who might have a complaint against any element of the Islamic state, whether the Emir or an ordinary solider, can come and submit their complaint in any headquarters building of the Islamic state,” the group’s operations in a northeastern part of Syria said in a notice. “Emir” refers to al-Qaeda’s sub-leaders, according to the Telegraph’s translation.
The Telegraph notes that al-Qaeda has an extensive bureaucratic structure. Last month, for example, the Associated Press discovered a letter from an al-Qaeda council that criticized Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a top leader, for not submitting his expenses, answering his phone, or carrying out attacks according to instructions.
Why is this humorous? Because we in pluralist societies are always surprised when we discover what we consider the less central distinguishing qualities of modern organizations – bureaucracy, offices, rules, complaint departments – without what we consider the most central distinguishing quality, pluralism.
And at the risk of being called ethnocentric, I would argue we are right to be amused, even if the realities of Al-Qaeda make it a dark amusement. The basic question here is: are we right that pluarlism is the central characteristic, and bureaucracy and all the rest of it is peripheral – that reformism ultimately ought to lead to pluralism? If so, as I believe is the case, we would not find it surprising if countries that aren’t very reformist are also not very pluralist. It doesn’t violate our expectations if tribal Hindus in rural India murder Christian converts. (“Nobody bats an eye, because it’s all part of the plan.”) But it’s funny when reformism is carried to a great extreme among those who have pledged by their God to lay down their lives in a murderous war to destroy pluralism. “Don’t they see the contradiction?” we want to ask.
Well, no, they don’t, and they’re not going to. But if we beat them, their next of kin may be prompted to think more clearly.