Enlightened Despots, Then and Now

The Truth About an Islamic Enlightenment

A man fixes a mosque's minaret with a crescent moon symbol in Jeddah, July 6, 2015. Mohamed Al Hwaity / Reuters

By now, the pattern is predictable. Jihadists carry out a suicide bombing, a ritual beheading, an immolation, a murder in a Western city, or some other such barbarism, and newspapers, magazines, and blogs demand or suggest an Islamic enlightenment. By “enlightenment,” they generally mean the turn that the West took centuries ago from faith to reason, from religion to science, from traditional authority to democracy, and from religious violence to tolerance: in short, modernity. Before the Enlightenment, European and American Christians burned witches and heretics and fought and died for obscure otherworldly beliefs; after the Enlightenment, they did not. And so, the argument goes, Islamic societies need their own enlightenment to wrest them back to the future.

Setting aside that the Enlightenment did not end violence and self-destruction in the West (see: World War I, fascism, World War II, and the Cold War), calls for enlightenment in the Islamic world typically fail to recognize a few vital facts, not least of which is that Islamic societies have been grappling for generations with the Enlightenment, both the West’s and their own. Indeed, the very turmoil and violence that are thrashing Muslim societies are in no small measure a reaction against the forces of enlightenment, rather than a sign that those forces await initiation. The West’s own history shows that the Enlightenment was not an event but a long, tumultuous, and often bloody struggle, one that remains deeply (although less horrifically) contentious to this day.

The Enlightenment, then, in both the natural and political sciences, set itself against traditional authorities, particularly the church and the state it sanctioned. No, the Western Enlightenment did not happen quickly, and its successes did not come solely through the power of reason. The process began in the seventeenth century, in the wake of the Renaissance and Reformation, as philosophers and scientists turned away from purely theoretical and metaphysical questions and toward the practical question of how to improve the human condition. Enlightenment thinkers abandoned the

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