Can Islam be modernized?

The struggle for freedom in Islam
Forfatter: Sylo Taraku
Forlag: Res Publica (Norge)
REFORM / A thorough presentation and discussion of the work that is being done to reform Islam, in Norway and internationally.


Kosovo Albanian Sylo Taraku fled to Norway when Yugoslavia collapsed. For several years he has been an important participant in various debates about how people of Muslim background, both believers and secular, can find a place in Western countries. This can be attacked in several ways, such as how we meet those who come. In this book, however, the theme and the need for a reform of Islam is the theme.

Taraku gives a brief introduction to the historical background of today's conflicts between the West and Islam, after which much of the book consists of interviews with Norwegian and foreign intellectuals and representatives from Muslim communities. These conversations illuminate the problem from different perspectives and mean that Taraku does not have to write a long pamphlet.

Politics and religion

However, there was no doubt that Islam is in crisis, and in the short term it is about how Muslims must find a way to practice their faith that is compatible with democracy and human rights. The link between politics and religion in Islam is the problem. This implies that religious rules and admonitions form the very foundation of the state, and that it should be so, since Allah's admonitions through Muhammad are perfect. No human being can test these admonitions. Critical questions and readings are not only undesirable, they can also trigger draconian punishments carved over a thousand years ago. One can be sentenced to death for practicing homosexuality, for exercising free speech, and for leaving Islam.


Today it is easy to get the impression that this has always been the case, but Taraku shows that that is not the case. The prerequisite for the Islamic golden age was precisely that they did not allow religious exhortations to stand in the way of innovation and critical thinking. But in the Late Middle Ages, this golden age ended with the reactionary religious forces regaining control. I wish Taraku would have gone into why this happened, not just found it out. How does one go from advanced philosophy and innovation back to a religious dictatorship?


Many hope that within Islam we will see a similar theological reformation that we received in Christianity. We must then consider a premise that is quite different: in Luther's time, all were believers – there was no discourse outside of Christianity. Everything that touched the world also touched on Christianity, and vice versa. But today it is possible to stand outside the faith. Why take up the fight with conservative believers when you don't have to? This may explain why the conservative (often reactionary) authorities predominate in Islam. Many who could have challenged these have given up faith. And those reformers who have not done so will often be considered fifth colonists – whether they are from the West or they are unbelievers.

Many Norwegians, especially on the left, have been very restrained
by criticizing Muslims.

No matter how willing you are to reform, the unwillingness to engage with theological authorities is great. That created justified resurrection when the Islamic Council of then-Secretary General Shoaib Sultan in 2007 had major problems unequivocally to waive the death penalty for homosexuality. He thought the death penalty was "wrong" but added "I will not comment on Iran's theological rationale for this" (interview with Free Thought). After all, this reservation could not be understood in any other way than the death penalty for homosexuality may be right anyway. The question should also be sent to the European Fatwa Council.

Sylo Taraku

The fear of going out with theological authorities is of course not unique to Islam. If you ask members of the Salvation Army what they think about its discrimination against gays, many will say that opposition to it is great and perhaps even shared by the majority. But discrimination continues as before.


Most Muslims in Norway probably just want to live normal lives and enjoy the same rights as everyone else. Some of them argue for special rights because of their faith, and they are fully entitled to that. That is why we have freedom of speech. Yet it is disappointing that some of the markings that have gathered the most Muslims in the streets of Oslo have been demonstrations in support of the death penalty for blasphemy.

Many Norwegians, especially the left, have been very reluctant to criticize Muslims. The Muslims have been viewed as a vulnerable minority, and they have not wanted to express anything that could be interpreted as supporting immigration-hostile environments. This picture has changed in recent years, and internal surveillance and moral policing among immigrant groups have been highlighted. Taraku never hides what he himself thinks, but keeps a matter of fact regardless of who he is talking to and what is being talked about. He steer clear of foreign words and academic terms so that texts are easily accessible. The selection of interlocutors and interview objects means that the various issues are highlighted from several angles. As an introduction to these meetings, he describes the environment, what is on the bookshelf, that they drink tea and so on. These introductions appear to be little inventive and could just as well have been cut out.

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