Traditional Judaism and Islam share many traits: Both are monotheistic, inspired by prophecy, and incorporate extensive religious jurisprudence. Both the Torah and the Koran call for homosexuals, adulterers and polytheists to be killed. On the other hand, in both books appeals to righteousness, justice and charity predominate.
Nonetheless the gap between Jews and Muslims is wider than ever: Jews have built a flourishing state in the Middle East; Muslims populate some of the poorest, most corrupt and strife-ridden countries in the world. Jewish minorities in the West are prosperous and successfully integrated; In Europe, Muslims are often poor, alienated and angry.
Jews contribute a disproportionate percentage of Nobel prize-winners and philanthropists; Muslims contribute a disproportionate number of tyrants and terrorists. Last but not least, Jewish education flourishes with a rich variety of courses engaging Judaism with the latest developments in ethics, literature, and philosophy. Muslim education is for the most part based on rote memorization of the Koran and ideas that haven't changed for centuries.
What accounts for this gap? Some claim that Judaism since thousands of years values learning and critical thinking. This opinion may be factually true, yet is incomplete. It does not explain why ultra-orthodox Jews, despite their sophisticated Talmudic disquisitions, have contributed relatively little to the outside world. The great Jewish contributions to culture, science and politics over the last 150 years have come from secular, reform, conservative or modern orthodox quarters - viewed as heretical by traditional Jewry.
The challenge for the Muslim World in the 21st Century will be to set out on the path that Judaism began with emancipation in the early 19th Century. That is, to engage religious scriptures and traditions in a dialogue with the humanities and social sciences.
Battle for Islam’s future
Muslims need to wage the same battle against obscurantism that the leaders of the Jewish enlightenment pursued - in order to rescue their religion from intellectual irrelevance. Jewish leaders in the 19th Century realized that Judaism had to be repackaged, rebranded and remarketed as soon as Europe's secular schools and universities started welcoming Jews. Indeed, had Judaism not reformulated itself in Western Europe and America 150 years ago, it is plausible that there would nowadays be millions of apostate Jews.
The battle for Islam's future can only be won by presenting Muslims with the same challenge. If the West invested a fraction of the amounts spent in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide Muslim countries with the resources and knowhow needed to teach humanities, critical thinking and modern research methodologies in schools and universities, Muslim youngsters would acquire essential cultural and intellectual tools. This would make them less vulnerable to jihadist rhetoric and inane slogans such as "The Koran is our Constitution."
Muslim preachers would thus be forced to revise their sermons. This revision would be timid at first, but could - in the long-run- catalyze authentic reform movements in Islam that preach equality for women and non-Muslims, the abolition of capital punishment and a thorough reformulation of jihad as an instrument of non-violent resistance.
Is this unthinkable? In today’s Islam probably. However, had we asked the most progressive rabbi a century ago whether there would be hundreds of female rabbis in 2012, he would have laughed. If in a few decades, ulemas in Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan when asked about female imams smile, we can be confident that Muslims will contribute as much to the common weal in the 21st Century as Jews did during the 20th Century.
Rafael Castro is a political analyst based in Berlin who holds degrees from Yale and from Hebrew University.