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The Ikhwan & The Benedict Option

Shadi Hamid (via The Brookings Institution)

Here’s a really interesting piece by Shadi Hamid on the failures of liberalism, the failures of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) at governing, and, of all things, the Benedict Option. Hamid says that as Western populations come to terms with the role of religion in the public square in an era that is postliberal (and, I take him to imply, post-Christian), we should look at how these questions are being dealt with outside our civilization:

On this, at least—how to conceive of national identity and alternatives to liberalism—the West finds itself lagging behind the Middle East. More than seven years ago, the fall of stagnant autocracies during the Arab Spring opened up a vibrant, contentious debate over the role of religion in public life and the nature of the nation. Islamists and non-Islamists had different non-negotiable commitments: Would the state be ideologically neutral or could it entrust itself with a religious and political mission?

Liberalism, as it turns out, doesn’t really work in Islamic countries as they are present constituted. Note well that Hamid is a Muslim and a liberal, so don’t take him as saying that it can never work (more on this shortly). He is saying that given the Islamically-informed social matrix of the present-day Middle East, liberal democracy has not worked. You could say that people rejected Islamist government as incompetent (e.g., Mohamed Morsi’s failed Egyptian regime), or that power elites rejected it (e.g., the military coup in Egypt that overthrew Morsi). Hamid doesn’t take a position in this short essay. He notes, though, that political conditions in Arab countries are such that an open debate about the role of religion in society is not possible there.

But we in the West are starting to have that debate right now, as part of our discussion about the end of liberalism. Hamid writes:

With his book After Virtuepublished in 1981, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre announced himself as one of the most influential critics of Enlightenment liberalism. He argued that Western societies had given up any pretense of “genuine moral consensus.” In the liberal imagination, he wrote, “we are born not with a past, only with a present and, of course, a future.” Presaging the rage over political correctness, he railed against “the attempt to impose morality by terror,” which he referred to as a “desperate expedient.” These debates—always important, but once obscure—have now gone mainstream. To read today’s post-liberals is to find echoes of MacIntyre nearly everywhere: liberalism, once a political tradition, has become an ambitious ideological project with little tolerance for true challengers. Vices are embraced as virtue, religion has become strange, truth relative, and loneliness endemic.

The Benedict Option takes its title straight from MacIntyre’s observation that what we’re waiting for is “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” By this he meant a someone who can pioneer a life-giving and resilient was of living through the ruins of liberalism. Politically, the gist of the Ben Op is that:

  1. The liberal order is breaking apart, and that it is unlikely to be saved;
  2. In its late form, it is both actively and passively hostile to the Christian faith; whether or not it always was is a secondary question; as it exists now, it does not have within itself the ability to tolerate orthodox Christianity;
  3. Small-o orthodox Christians should still involved in ordinary politics, if only to protect their liberty to run their own institutions and keep the interference of the state at bay;
  4. But they should place most of their focus on building up small, intentional communities of faith capable of preserving and passing on the faith in these adverse conditions;
  5. Quietism is not an option for Christians; Christians should re-conceive “politics” as localist activity serving the common good.

In The Benedict Option, I celebrate the teaching of the late Vaclav Benda, an anti-communist Czech dissident who pioneered a way of being politically responsible in a system where non-communists had no political power. Christians in the West are far from that condition, of course, but not as far from it as most of us think. To live in a democracy that is post-Christian is to live in a polity where the majority of people reject to some degree what Christians believe to be true. Left-wing liberalism in the USA — that is, what people identifying with the Democratic Party believe — in 2018 sees orthodox Christianity as an ideology of bigotry. This is fast becoming true of right-wing liberalism (GOP) as well. This is not because a cabal of elitists are hoodwinking the American people. This is because for a number of reasons — economic, social, technological, cultural, political, etc. — Americans have lost the historic Christian faith.

Here’s what got my attention about Shadi Hamid’s piece. Emphases below are mine:

Although the divides in the Egyptian Brotherhood are ostensibly about organizational and tactical issues, they hide a deeper ideological divide over what it means to be at once a religious movement and a political party. Movements and parties are, after all, fundamentally oriented toward different goals—religious education, social service provision, and purity for the former and winning elections for the latter. Within the more reform-oriented faction, there is a group of younger Brotherhood members and sympathizers who are interested constraining the state and even weakening it (and before anything else probably purging it). For them, the very existence of the nation-state—and Islamists’ longtime obsession with gaining control of it through elections—has corrupted these movements’ religious foundations. They would rather be left alone, free from state interference, to rebuild their movements from the bottom up.

These younger Islamists are unlikely to be familiar with the American orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, who has popularized the idea of post-liberal “intentional communities” as part of a wider argument that neither electoral politics nor the state will allow Christians to live out their values. Yet they might as well be. As one former Brotherhood activist put it to me recently, the guiding principle is “strong society, weak state.” “You can’t use the state to implement your intellectual vision,” he explained, “especially when that vision is different from the majority’s.”

The irony is that intentional communities, particularly illiberal ones, have only found success within liberal societies. Short of a liberal society, the most promising route for those wishing to refashion society along different lines might be semi-failed states, where the central government lacks control over large swaths of territory. It is little surprise, then, that Lebanon—arguably the world’s most successful failed state—features its own distorted version of intentional communities, in which people’s primary loyalty is sectarian rather than national, and groups live together in a cold peace. But for the localist model to hold any real promise probably requires reckoning with premodern approaches to community. In the Muslim imagination, the Prophet Muhammad’s proto-state of Medina was effectively an intentional community of like-minded believers—and the foundation of Islam’s original intertwining of religion and politics.

All of these premodern and modern inspirations share one common feature: a weak state that is decentralized, enjoys limited jurisdiction, and has a diminished interest in managing the lives of its citizens. Whether in the West or the Muslim world, these sorts of states are difficult to find. The modern state, by definition, is expansive. If the work of undoing what has been already been done seems daunting, that’s because it is. Still, that is unlikely to stop anyone from trying.

Read the whole thing.

There’s a lot to think about there. First, it should be noted that Islam, unlike Christianity, presupposes an Islamic state, and that it is uniquely resistant among major world religions to secularization. That’s not just me saying that. That’s Shadi Hamid saying that, in a different essay. Excerpt:

Why exactly is Islam exceptional? I chose the word “exceptional” because I think it’s as value-neutral as you can get. Exceptionalism doesn’t have to be good or bad. It can be both. It can be one or the other, depending on the context. So I want to make that very clear, that being exceptional is not necessarily a bad thing.

Let me mention here two factors that contribute to Islam’s exceptionalism. First, there is Islam’s specific intertwining of religion and politics. The founding moments of religions matter. Jesus, for instance, was a dissident against a reigning state. The New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about law or governance. And why would it? That’s not what Jesus was doing. That wasn’t his project. The Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, was quite different. He was not only a cleric, theologian and a prophet; he was also a politician. He was a head of state. He was a state builder. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined in the person of Prophet Muhammad.

For the believer it couldn’t be otherwise. So a Muslim would say that this was God’s plan. This is how it had to happen. There is no counter factual that we can consider.


While Muslims aren’t bound to their founding moment, they can’t fully escape their founding moment either. There have been secularists and liberals, particularly in the last century, who have argued for some kind of separation of religion from politics or some kind of privatization of religion. They can make those arguments, but it’s a hard sell because, in effect, they have to argue against the prophetic model. They have to deal with this fact of history that Prophet Muhammad intertwined both religious and political functions.

The second factor is that of Quranic inerrancy. There is no equivalent in Christianity. This became increasingly clear to me the more I explored Christian theology and spoke to Christian theologians. Muslims misunderstand this important aspect of Christianity. The equivalent of the Quran in Christianity is not the New Testament, but Jesus – the “Word made flesh.” In any case, Christian evangelicals don’t argue that the Bible is God’s actual speech, but that the Bible is the word of God. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the Quran is God’s actual speech, that every letter and word is directly from God. There is no human mediation, or interference, or any kind of involvement of that sort.

He continues:

It’s remarkable to me how built in to our national debate certain assumptions are. We just assume that all cultures and societies will follow a certain trajectory: from reformation, to enlightenment, to secularization, then on to the end of history. There this almost patronizing tone I often hear, which is, well, you know, Muslims will get there. They’ll figure it out, just like the Christians did. They’ll go through the same linear progression that the Christians did.

Hamid — who, again, is Muslim, and a political scientist — says this simply isn’t the case with Islam and Islamic societies. Read the whole thing. 

I bring that up to make very clear that the relationship of Christians to politics and Muslims to politics is fundamentally different. There are Christians who believe that the state should be confessional (i.e., the Catholic integralists), but that is not a requirement of Christianity, as it is in Islam.

Nevertheless, as Hamid avers, it’s fruitful to think of the similarities that believers in premodern religion have in trying to live within a modern liberal political order. It seems clear to me, from the outside, that faithful Muslims within Muslim societies would have a far easier time living out a Muslim “Benedict Option,” as long as they don’t try to impose it on the entire society, or challenge state power. How they reconcile this kind of pluralism with Islamic theology, I have no idea. But if they want to live that way, it’s possible.

For Christians in the West (and observant Muslims), this is a much more difficult task. The ethos of the West is increasingly anti-religious, and the power of the state is growing. Believe me, I have a great deal of sympathy with my friend Patrick Deneen, who ended his great book Why Liberalism Failedwithout proposing a clear political program, aside from urging localist initiatives, à la the Benedict Option. This is, in my view, the only realistic thing anybody can do at this point. The Catholic integralists, for example, have a clear idea of the kind of political order they seek, but they have not the remotest chance of seeing it realized under present or foreseeable conditions. Meanwhile, they are going to have to figure out how to preserve the faith within their own communities under increasingly hostile conditions.

Modern conservative politics have been a rough amalgam of libertarianism and traditional (cultural and religious) conservatism. I am not a libertarian, but I find it hard to see any way forward for people who hold my views except in a libertarian political structure, in which the state’s power is clearly limited. This is a prudential judgment, not a theoretical one. I am open to having my mind changed, so please, have at it.

The grave problem that religious believers — those who haven’t been assimilated into the liberal order, that is — have is that the emerging liberals today hold their own views with religious fervor. Unlike the old-fashioned liberals, they don’t believe in tolerance. They want to combat evil and smash heresy wherever it shows its face — and they have very powerful tools to do so.

When people ask me at Ben Op speeches, “What makes you think that the state will leave us alone to run our own communities?”, my answer is, “I don’t.” I explain that we have to use whatever morally licit means are available to us to combat this — and this is why we have to keep a hand in ordinary politics. But it will not matter what the state does or doesn’t do if we lose our children to cultural assimilation — and this is what the Benedict Option is meant to combat. Besides which, assuming the worst possible scenario — which is what Christians like Vaclav Benda lived with under communism — Christians still have to find ways to live out the faith and to pass it on to their children. We can start thinking and acting on this now, while we have the freedom to do so, or we can wait until we’re under great duress. I prefer to think and act now, while we have the gift of time and liberty. We won’t always.

I’ll be seeing Shadi Hamid at a religion and journalism conference early next week. I’m looking forward to talking with him about ways that American Muslims and small-o orthodox Christians can work together constructively to build our own Benedict Options in the face of a hostile secularism. As I wrote here recently, American culture is dissolving the faith of huge numbers of American Muslims.  There was a time in the last decade when I would have thought that to be a good thing, because they will pose no threat to us as American Christians. Now, I’m not sure of that at all. I would a thousand times rather have an observant Muslim family as my neighbors, and have observant Muslim kids playing with my children, than many other more likely alternatives — including among Christians. But then, the situation in the US is very different from the situation in Europe.

We live in very confusing times. I’m going out now to pick up Shadi Hamid’s 2016 book Islamic Exceptionalism. Here’s a 2014 interview with him about political Islam:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwvpqF0oltQ&w=525&h=300]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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