FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: The Best of 2015

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

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