Catholics and Protestants once killed in the name of God, but eventually liberal ideas took hold.
By KEVIN MADIGAN
Violent. Illiberal. Intolerant. Anti-Semitic. After the tragic, murderous events in Paris earlier this month, these adjectives have been applied not only to murderous jihadists but to Islam itself. Yet these words could just as easily apply to medieval Christianity and to much of Christianity in the 20th century.
Medieval Christians notoriously persecuted, incarcerated and burned religious dissenters. Less well-known is that Protestant Reformers in early modern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite their differences with the old Western church, agreed that religion was not a matter of private judgment but of deep communal concern and unitary. Reformers believed that religious orthodoxy must be safeguarded, and almost all agreed that dissidents deserved severe punishment and even death. Calvin ’s Geneva was a theocracy; one theologian who doubted the Trinity was burned to death—with Calvin’s approval.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popes habitually fulminated against modernity. One reason that popes like Pius XI (1922-39) supported the fascist dictator Mussolini —he once stated that Il Duce had been sent by “Providence” to rescue Italy—was that they shared antipathy for parliamentary democracy and for freedom of the press and association. Generally speaking, sacred and secular leaders in Catholic parts of Europe loathed modernity and all it represented: liberal democracy, emancipation, tolerance, separation of church and state and freedom of thought.
Only in the early 1960s did the Roman Catholic Church reject this medieval worldview. Only then did it begin to tolerate other world religions, representative democracy and the disenfranchisement of religion. It was only recently that it started to be reluctant to use political agencies to achieve religious objectives—even to accept the idea that the modern citizen is free to be nonreligious.
As Pope Francis recently remarked, reflecting this relatively new attitude of tolerance and pluralism, “Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation.” It has been said, and not without reason, that the church changed more from 1960-2000 than in the previous millennium. Yet even today, outside Western Europe and the U.S., predominantly Christian states—Russia and Uganda, for instance—have notoriously repressive laws.
All of this is to say that traditionalist Islamic states and Muslims have not, historically speaking, had a monopoly on authoritarianism, violence against apostates, the wholesale rejection of religious pluralism, and the manipulation of religion to realize political agendas. But in the same sad set of facts lies some good news: The startling changes experienced by Western churches over the past several centuries suggest that similar changes might occur within the world of Islam.
As Christianity has taken many twists and turns in its history, so has Islam, and so might it again, only this time moving toward the more open posture of most contemporary Western Christians. The Christian experience should caution us against assuming there is something intrinsic to Islam that mandates that Islamic societies be anti-modern. In fact, in the 16th through 20th centuries, liberal ideas were imported into Muslim societies with remarkable success, and harmonized with Islam, especially in the Ottoman Empire. Less happily, at critical moments in Islamic history, reactionary interpretations—or misinterpretations—of the Quran and Shariah triumphed over others.
Fortunately, some Muslims have begun to reinterpret ancient traditions in light of modernity and begun their own, albeit often-quiet reformations, distressed by the authoritarian elements smuggled into their tradition. They are intent on synthesizing—as have so many branches of Judaism and Christianity—features of their religious traditions with democratic ideas. Such reformations have been institutionalized successfully in several countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Turkey and Tunisia.
We can only hope that, with the quickening pace of historical change in modernity, Islam can adjust more rapidly than Christendom, so that a broad-minded form of the religion will prevail. Muslims will have to recognize what the West, through many centuries of hard experience and reflection, has learned: that religious texts arose in a particular context and must be reinterpreted in the new context of modernity; that pluralism within one’s own tradition and the tolerance of other faiths must be appreciated anew; and, finally, that the coercive imposition of faith will generate only nominal or hypocritical, not authentic, conversions.
This will require patience on the part of the West, and more. Above all, the West must not panic and extend its battle with radical Islam—most of whose victims have been Muslims—to the world-wide population of Muslims. The Christian world passed through its era of repression and theocracy; there is no reason to presuppose that the Islamic world cannot do likewise.
Mr. Madigan, a professor of history at Harvard Divinity School, is the author, most recently, of “Medieval Christianity: A New History” (Yale University Press, 20)
Even today in Western society we see large groups of people that are uneasy with modern technology and want to force living standards back to the 19th century.
There is evidence all over the world that either for religion, language or economic reasons Muslims are failing to integrate into Western Society
We don't have multiple centuries for religions steeped in third world thinking and dedicated to isolate themselves from Western thinking to catch up when so many efficient ways to kill in mass are available to these creatures.
Is the government going to wait and watch while millions of people are killed in the name of a religion?
I surely hope not!