As for Christianity, I thought about it intellectually, but I didn’t think about it much as something real and lived-in, in part because it’s actually not super easy to meet outwardly and openly Christian people in the generally liberal setting of Bryn Mawr, PA.
I guess, even if subconsciously, this must have had an effect on me – this idea that the Christians I knew generally didn’t seem all that serious about their faith, where at the local mosque it was pretty clear that there were Muslims who were pretty serious about their faith.
I’ve always tried to be careful in how I talk about this, because it can pretty easily be misconstrued, but I remember talking to some friends a couple years back and someone described Islam as the “last badass religion,” which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase.
It’s this part of Islam that helps me understand and even empathize with why some atheists or secularists might be suspicious of Islam.
(But it’s this part of Islam that also helps me understand why Muslims themselves, even those who aren’t particularly religiously observant, seem so attached to the idea of Islam being unusually uncompromising and assertive).
If you’re nominally Christian and you see that your own faith, for whatever reason, can’t compete with Islam’s political resonance, then you might find yourself looking for non-religious forms of ideology which can offer a comparable sense of meaning.
That’s why the rise of Trump as well as the far-right in Europe is so interesting to me; these are fundamentally non-religious movements that are, in some sense, reacting to Islam but also mimicking the sense of certainty and conviction that it provides to its followers.
That’s something I respect about Muslims in general: they take their faith a lot more seriously than we Christians do. The only forms of Christianity that are going to survive the dissolution now upon us are going to be those that are serious about the faith, and incorporate it into disciplined ways of living. What would it mean for Christianity to be “badass”? Not violent, or intimidating, or cruel, but serious and countercultural. This is one reason that Orthodox Christianity is so attractive to men. It sets serious challenges in front of you — fasting, prayer, and so forth — and expects you to rise to the challenge. It’s not rigidly dogmatic and moralistic, certainly, but it’s not sentimental either. It sees the Christian life as a pilgrimage toward God in which we die to ourselves every day. That’s not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That is the faith.
Shadi Hamid identifies himself as a political and cultural liberal. His book Islamic Exceptionalism is an attempt to explain what’s happening now in the Muslim world. In previous interviews, he has talked about how Westerners have a bad habit of not taking Muslims at their word about what they believe and what it means. More from the Razib Khan interview:
My bigger issue, though, has to do with political scientists’ unwillingness to take religion seriously as a prime mover. In other words, because most political scientists in the academy aren’t particularly religious or haven’t spent much time around religious people, they usually see religion not as a cause, but rather as something caused by other more tangible, material factors, the things we can touch, feel, and of course measure. So if someone joins an Islamist organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, the tendency is to explain it with things like rural-urban migration, underemployment, poverty, being pissed off at America, the list goes on. Sure, all those things matter, but what does political science have to say about “irrational” things like wanting to get into heaven? It’s not everything, but it’s one important factor that has to taken into account.
This is something that becomes more obvious when you talk to Islamists about why they do what they do. They don’t say, “hey Shadi, I’m doing this because I want to get into heaven.” It’s more something that you feel and absorb the more you sit down and talk to a Muslim Brotherhood member. It matters to them and it’s something that drives them, especially when they’re deciding to join a sit-in and they’re well aware that the military is about to move in and use live ammunition. It’s not so much that they want to die; it’s more that they are ready to die, and it doesn’t frighten them as much as it might frighten someone else, because they believe there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be granted paradise especially if they happen to killed while they’re in the middle of an act that they consider to be in the service of God and his message.
Another example: after the failed coup attempt in Turkey last year, President Erdogan said something that raised a lot of eyebrows. He called the coup attempt “a gift from God.” What could he have possibly meant by this? Does that mean he wanted it to happen or even that he was behind his own attempted assassination? No. There’s nothing weird about what he said. There’s no doubt in my mind that Erdogan really believed that this was, quite literally, a gift from God and that God was sending him a somewhat tailored message.
Which brings me back to the question of “rationality.” If you believe in this kind of cosmic universe – a universe where one experiences daily God’s magic, if you will – then sacrificing something in this world for the next is pretty much the most rational thing you can do. After all, this is eternal paradise we’re talking about.
Yes, exactly! If Christianity has lost its sense of purpose and meaning among contemporary Americans, this has a lot to do with the loss of a sense of supernatural reality.
One more quick thing. I admire Hamid’s intellectual and moral courage in not towing a PC line about the Islamic faith:
So, in my new book, there are definitely some ideas and conclusions that I’m not quite comfortable with, which is sometimes a bit of a weird feeling. When the book came out, I was nervous, not just for the usual reasons, but also because there were certain distillations of my argument – the sound bites – which, when I said them, it was almost like I was straining myself. This is an era, perhaps the era, of anti-Muslim bigotry, and I couldn’t bear to think that I was contributing to that. The thing, though, is that I know that I have. But, just the same, I can’t bear the idea of not saying the things I believe to be true just because someone might use it for purposes I find objectionable. To me, the alternative is worse, the whole “Islam is peaceful” nonsense. “Islam is violent” is just as nonsensical, but we don’t fight those stereotypes of Islam by pretending the exact opposite is true.
Funny, but I feel that in general, I have as much or even more in common with a believing American Muslim than with a modernist American Christian.
UPDATE: Reader Firebird writes:
Your WEIRD bias is showing. A practicing Muslim in the WEST is serious and counter cultural. The vast majority of believing, practicing Muslims are not in any way doing anything countercultural. The exact opposite, in fact.
Having lived in majority Muslim nations, including one that is partculularly known for conservatism, I cannot say that I saw a great deal more seriousness from self-identifying Muslims than I do among practicing Christians. I do not see a greater dedication to textual study, or philosophy, etc among the average mosque goer as opposed to the average church goer. The society is simply not as far down the line as we are towards default secularism, so mosque goers make up a bigger proportion of the population.
I do see a stronger societal bias towards conformity and traditions, of which Islam is a part (but by no means all). A perfect example of this is the ongoing dedication to the de facto caste system that exists in Pakistan, which while foreign to Islamic thought, coexists and thrives in the minds of plenty of Pakistani Muslims.
To sum up– practicing Islam is indeed a counterculural, badass statement in the U.K. or California. It is nothing of the sort in most of the Muslim world. In those places, a better analogy would be that practicing Islam is like being a liberal professor at Yale. Expected and enforced through coercion, persuasion, and simple inertia.
No doubt a fair and accurate point.