Roberto sent in this long, wide-ranging, thought-provoking essay about Islam and liberalism by Abdal Hakim Murad, a British professor. In it, Murad explores the difficulties modern, wholly secular Europe has dealing with Islam. He makes the standard, but still important to keep asserting, point that its devotion to its own dogmas makes liberalism highly intolerant of traditional religion. What I find particularly interesting about this essay is how Murad points out that with European Christianity all but dead, European secularists have adopted a secular version of the historically Christian view of Muslims as the Other, against which European civilization defines itself. And further: in Murad’s view, in the same way Europe of old used Christianity (or version of Christianity, Catholic or Protestant) to co-opt the state to oppress religious dissenters within, so too does modern, post-religious Europe apply the same formula to religious dissenters today, both Muslim and Christian:
An icon of European exclusiveness was supplied in 2004 when the Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to resign as a European commissioner when it emerged that he supported the Vatican’s line on homosexuality. Despite his insistence that his belief in the sinfulness of the practice would not affect the decisions he took in public life, the consensus of European officialdom obliged him to resign. The Italian Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli, objected in a futile way, by calling the ban “a decision which shows the real face of Europe, a face which we do not like. It’s fundamentalist, which is absolutely not on.” But his view provoked only frowns.
Muslims have watched with concern this striking proof of how categorically Europe has walked away from its traditional Christian values and authorities. It is interesting, also, as proof that European citizenship appears to be a matter of conformity to certain sacrosanct social beliefs – in this case, the historically anti-Christian belief that conscientious opposition to homosexual practice is so wicked that those who hold such beliefs must be excluded from public office.
As Buttiglione himself remarked, “The new soft totalitarianism which is advancing wants to be a state religion. It is an atheistic, nihilistic religion, but it is a religion that is obligatory for all.”
It is possible that this imposition of social beliefs will become more intense, despite its apparent clash with principles of freedom of conscience. In 2009, Nick Clegg (now the British Deputy Prime Minister) said that children attending faith schools should be taught that homosexuality is “normal and harmless.” Special lessons, he opined, should be required of such schools to encourage tolerance for this practice.
It seems reasonable to predict that the concretisation of such social beliefs and their imposition through law and a media monoculture will continue. Many will recognise in this a reversion to historic European norms, alien to Islam, of imposing a standard belief pattern on the king’s subjects. Cuius regio, eius religio.
Liberalism of a particular socially prescriptive kind seems to be filling the void left by religion, and, Europe being the historic land of the divine right of kings, religion here is often more closely bound up with politics than in traditional Muslim states. In this case, the condemnation of sodomy functions as a blasphemy, or a “speech violation.” Other blasphemies include, for instance, the idea that men and women are suited for different tasks, that the death penalty is a just punishment for murder, that parents may use corporal punishment to discipline their children, and that unbelievers are less pleasing to God than believers. The list is quite a long one, and it seems to be growing.
Societies hate value-vacuums. After the Second World War, Europe and America went very different ways regarding truth: Europe lapsed into what the philosopher Heidegger called gelassenheit – just letting things be, a mood which eased the transition to postmodernism. America, whose heartland did not suffer RAF bombings or Nazi death camps, remained confident, in a rather simple way, about God and family values, allowing a continuing religious alternative to the secular monoculture.
But as the European continent increasingly defines itself not as the splintered wreckage of war, but as a potentially mighty unit, it needs shared values. Like America, it has fixed on Islam as its significant Other, but while America’s foreign wars are religiously driven, Europe is preoccupied with internal cohesion, framing laws that in America would be strange: to shut the hijab out of sight, to ban minarets and to prohibit in general the public expression of conservative morality.
Read the whole thing. Murad concludes by saying that militant secularity in Europe offers new opportunities for religious believers — Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox Jewish — to cooperate. True — but it’s also the case that Christians and Jews within Europe face their own particular challenges vis-a-vis Islam. I have an observant Christian friend who lives in northern Europe, who doesn’t like the way increasingly intolerant secularism hems in Christians, but who is more disturbed by the growing antiliberal militancy of Muslim immigrant communities where she lives. She believes that the minority of believing Christians in Europe are being crushed between two militant faiths: secularism and Islam.
(Interestingly, I am reminded of an Egyptian-born British Muslim I met at a Mideast conference a few years ago, who expressed exactly the same sentiment: she and her husband despaired that living in London today, there was little middle ground between a nihilistic and consumerist secularism that they found morally insane, and a militant, fundamentalistic Islam that they hated, and believed was poised to destroy their native country.)
Anyway, Murad’s essay is worth reading and discussing, especially his claim that in Europe, contemporary liberalism acts toward heretics exactly like pre-Enlightenment Christianity. It is also interesting to contemplate that in America, perhaps even more than in Europe, homosexuality has emerged as the key battleground issue on which liberalism and religion clash. As Roberto put it in the note he appended in sending the link:
Liberalism’s problem with Islam is, ultimately, a part of its problem with any challenge to its totalist pretensions. Note that the “gotcha!” questions directed at Muslims in Germany would produce similar results if asked many Christians.