What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Islam
Tony Blair has a mushy column out, but he makes an important point in this passage:
So I understand the desire to look at this world and explain it by reference to local grievances, economic alienation, and, of course, “crazy people.” But can we really find no common thread, nothing that connects the dots of conflict, no sense of an ideology driving or at least exacerbating it all?
There is not a problem with Islam. For those of us who have studied it, there is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature. There is not a problem with Muslims in general. Most in Britain are horrified at Rigby’s murder.
But there is a problem within Islam, and we have to put it on the table and be honest about it. There are, of course, Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu ones. But I am afraid that the problematic strain within Islam is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view of religion – and of the relationship between religion and politics – that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies. At the extreme end of the spectrum are terrorists, but the worldview goes deeper and wider than it is comfortable for us to admit. So, by and large, we don’t admit it.
This has two effects. First, those who hold extreme views believe that we are weak, and that gives them strength. Second, those Muslims – and the good news is that there are many – who know the problem exists, and want to do something about it, lose heart.
In what sense is “true” Islam peaceful? I don’t doubt that most Muslims are peaceful, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the doctrines and teachings of the religion are peaceful, in the sense of being non-violent and tending towards living in harmony with others. To be sure, I don’t think that human beings are naturally peaceful, so it follows that human beings of all religions, and no religion, can be and often are violent. That’s not at issue. What’s at issue is whether there is something inherently violent within the structure of the Islamic religion.
“Violent” is as loaded a word as “peaceful.” The enormously important 20th century Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb believed that Islam was peaceful, in the sense that it offers the only way to live in harmony with God and His purposes. He believed that jihad was just and necessary until we achieve the peace that comes with all the peoples of the earth submitting to Islam. When we in the West talk about the peacefulness of Islam, or lack thereof, we are talking about the extent to which Muslim believers are capable of being integrated into the secular pluralistic public orders of liberal democracy.
It can be done, in theory. The Roman Catholic Church was bitterly opposed to liberal democracy (including one of its key values, religious liberty) in the 19th century, but became reconciled to it in the 20th. The Church traveled a long way in a relatively short time. The trick is to change without making it look like you’re changing. Can Islam pull that off? I don’t know. For one thing, unlike in Catholicism, there is no centralized institution for determining Islamic orthodoxy. More importantly, Catholicism could make the adjustment because Christianity is intrinsically apolitical, at least by comparison to Islam.
I am open to correction on this point, but as I understand it, Islam, unlike Christianity, is a religion that prescribes a legal code. It makes no sense to speak of separation of church and state in Islam, because the “church” (mosque) is the state. Obviously there are and have been many Islamic states that have not met this ideal, and there are, of course, several schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The point is that it’s hard to see how orthodox Islam reconciles itself to liberal democracy and still remains essentially Muslim — this, because sharia is entirely incompatible with liberal democracy. It is compatible with illiberal democracy — Putin’s Orthodox Russia, or Erdogan’s Islamist Turkey — but we do not have that in the West, and want to keep freedom of speech and freedom of religion. To what extent is it possible for a Muslim to be both a good Muslim and a good liberal democrat? (Not, please note, in the partisan American understanding of the term, but in the sense that nearly all Westerners espouse liberal democracy.)
Tony Blair is onto something when he says, delicately, that we in the West don’t talk about how illiberal mainstream Islamic opinion is in its understanding ofthe proper relation between religion and politics. If a Muslim in the West votes against, say, legalizing gay marriage, and argues against it in the public square, because his religion instructs him that gay marriage is harmful, that is compatible with liberal democracy. If a Muslim believes that an election result approving gay marriage must not be respected, and that advocacy for gay marriage should be forbidden because his religion says so, then that is not compatible with liberal democracy. Do you see the difference? In Russia, the Duma has just passed laws curtailing free speech regarding both homosexuality and religion — that’s highly democratic, but highly illiberal. I agree with the Orthodox Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and I oppose blasphemy, but I would not support these laws.
This is an important theological and political question, and Blair is right that we should talk about it more. I would like to know more about how Muslim modernists square their understanding of their faith with liberal democracy. I think that we don’t dare to ask these questions in part because we assume that practicing Muslims think about the relationship between religion and state in the same way most Westerners do. That is a shaky assumption. I’ve had Muslim-American friends who had no complaint at all about liberal democracy — but they didn’t seriously practice their religion. I spent an afternoon years ago with a Muslim acquaintance in Turkey, who wanted more Islam in public life precisely because he was a believer and a democrat; he was correct that the secular order in Turkey was undemocratic. It’s a complicated issue, but one that we should not be afraid to explore directly.