Mormon Lessons for Muslim Reformers

LDS Temple

The LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Growing numbers of Mormons are asking probing questions about their faith, particularly about the character and motivations of their church’s prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, and the veracity of the sacred books of their faith.

Their church leaders and historians are taking notice, responding in a manner characteristic of many other large institutions in this digital age. They are ensuring that the church’s artifacts, history and doctrines are more open and accessible to ordinary members than ever before in history. They have no other choice.  That’s the way the world works, at least, within the West, in the 21st century.

And considering that Mormonism bears stark resemblance to Islam, one wonders how long it will be before rank-and-file Muslims demand similar levels of transparency in their own faith.

Writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, explores the growing digital challenge to Islam in her most recent book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.”

For a time, Ali was deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a transformation of Islam into a more benevolent faith, a pessimism she explored in her previous book “Nomad.” But the democratic uprisings that have occurred within the Middle East since the publication of that book, coupled with the expanding digital penetration of the Islamic world, have left her more optimistic.

She perceives an Islamic Reformation in the making. A tipping point in Islam, one that may ultimately share much in common with the Protestant Reformation, may be fast approaching, she argues in the book. Aside from digitization, other factors are contributing to this approaching tipping point: the growing Muslim population in Europe, many of whom are challenged on a daily basis to balance ancient Islamic ideas with the demands of modernity, and the growing levels of affluence and education in many urban centers of the Islamic world.

I hope Ali is right. I hope that such an awakening is just around the corner. But if Mormonism provides any lessons, I’m not betting that this tipping point is imminent. The widespread dissidence that has gripped the Latter-Day Saints and that has prompted the leadership’s embrace of transparency was a long time coming.

Historian Fawn McKay Brodie, a born and bred Latter-Day Saint, fired the first volley of dissidence in 1945 with the publication of “No Man Knows My History,” the first scholarly investigation of the life and religious convictions of Joseph Smith.

In many respects, the book painted a damning picture of Smith and his theology. But while book sparked alarm among the Mormon leadership and ultimately led to Brodie’s excommunication from the church, it was only until recently that the facts Brodie first unearthed through her research were lifted by the digital tide and brought t the Web browsers of rank-and-file Mormons.

Bear in mind that this growing dissidence within the church was not preordained. Events within Mormonism could have turned out very differently. The region of the West now known as Utah was still a remote part of the Mexican Empire when Brigham Young and his Saints settled it in 1846.  That was by intention.  Mormon leader Brigham Young wanted to stay as far away as possible from the reach of Mexican and American authority.

Imagine if Young had gotten his way.  What if the United States had lost the Mexican war and never wrangled away Utah and the rest of the West from Mexico?

Young’s Mormon theocracy would never have been organized into a federal territory and ultimately into the State of Utah.  There would have been no need for the establishment of research universities such as the University of Utah, where Brodie began her first steps toward becoming a professional scholar.

There is a lesson here: It takes more than a digital revolution to spark a religious awakening. Lots of factors had to be in place before the questions Brodie raised about the early origins of Mormonism gained sufficient traction among rank-and-file Saints.

Religious dissidence typically requires a leap of faith, but with the reasonable assurance of a parachute. While facing the Roman Church at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther could draw some comfort from the knowledge that Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, had his back. Brodie, an atheist, didn’t care a whit about excommunication.  Beyond that, there was little the Mormon leadership could do to silence her.  Things would have been different for Brodie in Young’s theocratic state, but she was a professional historian living in a vast democratic society with a strong tradition of free speech and academic freedom.

This is the lesson to Islam. Aspiring Luthers and Brodies who will lead the Islamic world to reformation will step out only with the assurance of powerful patrons, such as the Elector of Saxony, or the institutional backstopping common in the West.

But for now, this institutional backstopping and patronage are in perilously short supply throughout the Islamic world.  And until Islamic dissidents can depend on these resources, all the digital bandwidth in the world isn’t going to matter one whit.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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