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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Islam

Tony Blair has a mushy column out [1], 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 [2] 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 of the 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 [3] 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.


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68 Comments To "What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Islam"

#1 Comment By collin On June 12, 2013 @ 9:31 am

Has Islam not had its WW1 or 1960s? I always viewed WW1 as the the beginning of the end of colonial Europe and some of the break of religion and European governments. (I not blaming Christianity for colonial warlike Europe but I do believe governments tended to use religion to validate their colonial endeavors.)

Or is the Islam 1960s where there is a strong battle between Muslim/Sharia hardliners versus younger more liberal generations. (let us say Morsi versus Bassem Youssef.) Most of the protest tend to center on these battles but the hardliners win because they are more willing to involve violence.

#2 Comment By ossicle On June 12, 2013 @ 9:41 am

Rod, I completely understand your main point, as neatly summarized by you a few comments above (in exasperation at people not getting your main point):

“Focus on the word “intrinsically”; it means “in the nature of the thing.” I see no theological mandate within Christianity, prescribing a governing order. That exists within Islam. Christianity can be entirely disestablished, and have nothing to do with the running of the governing order, and still be Christianity. Can Islam?”

You are totally in love with your point and think it’s a good one. Good for you!

However, while your point is technically correct it’s not a good point at all. You’re ignoring that the bulk of humanity doesn’t care about intellectual stuff like the supposed intrinsic meanings of things when it conflicts with what they want to do. See the bazillion Jews who claim to take their faith seriously but mysteriously eat bacon without a problem.

When Muslims want to be part of liberal democracy, they will mysteriously have no problem with the fact that, according to an egghead, they can’t/shouldn’t, given the intrinsic nature of their religion.

They’ll do it anyway, because it’s what they want to do, and they’ll still think of themselves as Muslim.


#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 12, 2013 @ 9:59 am

Western culture and Islam are irreconcilable. That lesson won’t be learned unless the West becomes “deprogrammed” from liberalism and moral relativism.

Ah, and in that case what are we fighting for? If we are going to surrender to the rule of a virtuous prince, why not a Muslim one?

There’s a comment that somehow got lost in cyberspace after I read it that seems to have the real answer. Most people don’t worry about the intellectual intrinsicality of their faith. They find a rationale to do what makes sense.

Christians have, much to the dismay of those Christians who take every tenet of this or that doctrine seriously. Why not Muslims?

As many have pointed out, the “intrinsic” incompatibility one may find to a pluralistic republic did not begin with Muhammad, it was developed in a variety of political contexts over many centuries by many bodies of scholars, and less scholarly rulers.

#4 Comment By Scott in PA On June 12, 2013 @ 10:48 am

If we are going to surrender to the rule of a virtuous prince, why not a Muslim one?

Thanks for demonstrating that you need to be deprogrammed from liberalism and moral relativism.

#5 Comment By k On June 12, 2013 @ 11:33 am

Islam a religion functioning as what Christians understand to be a theocratic state is one thing; another question might be, can a Muslim still be a Muslim when under any kind of government or even in any conditions of captivity, slavery, etc? Of course the answer is yes. It’s not hard however to understand the resistance of “Islam” in general to want to perform all the compromises of its laws and beliefs which Judaism and Christianity have (for examples) done to make this possible, and not difficult to understand the hope of people who are serious adherents of their religion that it will be ascendant and victorious.

#6 Comment By Michael N Moore On June 12, 2013 @ 11:47 am

The US implemented a key element of Sharia Law in the 1920s, when it prohibited alcholic beverages. Who knew those devious Muslims were active here in 1920?

#7 Comment By Richard Johnson On June 12, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

“It’s not hard however to understand the resistance of “Islam” in general to want to perform all the compromises of its laws and beliefs which Judaism and Christianity have (for examples) done to make this possible, and not difficult to understand the hope of people who are serious adherents of their religion that it will be ascendant and victorious.”

Actually, it’s quite easy to imagine this given that…

…conservative Christians call for the elimination of no-fault divorce, thus making it more difficult for people to end marriages,

…liberal Christians call for a “moral budget” that reflects the morality of their religious beliefs, and

…Catholics call for an overturning of the HHS mandate regarding insurance coverage for abortions and birth control.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 12, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

Those who advocate deprogramming are the people the Second Amendment was written to protect us against. No need to exercise our Second Amendment rights until the deprogrammers are knocking at our door. But at that point its lawful self-defense.

Ditto for agents of the proposed Caliphate. They are all brothers under the rhetoric.

#9 Comment By Helen On June 12, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

“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.”

How does this work in in an age where information flows freely and the attitude towards authority is suspicious at best?

#10 Comment By He who used to be Bob On June 12, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

Fran, I am quite aware of those statements (I quoted some of them in my honours thesis), and also that Augustine said Dilige et quod vis fac (which could serve as a motto for the more genuine sort of liberal interventionism) in the context of justifying Donatist persecution. For all that, I believe Augustine to be worthwhile on the one hand, and on the other, as a product of his place and time. There is nothing particular to be gained by evaluating Augustine (or Aquinas, or Luther) as if he lived not in his time and context, but in ours. That said, Augustine has a significantly more positive attitude towards Jews than his predecessors, and some of his contemporaries (Chrysostom for instance). But even so, this is not the same as forced conversions. One should say in palliation also, that Augustine’s rhetoric is quite different from his actions. To the extent that he had the power to do so (and as a Bishop in North Africa, he had some), he almost always acted to mitigate the severity of the measures used against individuals. This comes through particularly in his letters.

And you elide Aquinas into Augustine, and Aquinas had a different set of rules by which he was playing, quite specifically ruling out coercion of non-Christians to conversion.

Again, Bush might be many things, but a crusader he was not, at least not for Christianity as opposed to Big Business and the American way of life. And certainly, those formed in Augustine and Aquinas, the Pope for instance, and his successor, argued against Bush at the time.

#11 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 12, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

Re: Thomas Aquinas, incidentally, did not hold that forced conversion to Christianity is justifiable. He specifically argued against it in ST II-II, Q. 10, art. 8, resp., on the grounds that faith cannot be coerced. He did believe that heretics and those who departed from the faith, should be compelled back because of a promise they once made.

Uh, given that heretics were much more numberous than nonbelievers in medieval Europe, I’m not sure that much matters in practice. Forced conversion (except for the Jews and possibly Lithuanians) wasn’t a major issue in medieval times because most people were already Christians of some sort or other (and Aquinas opposed both, as pointed out). What was more of an issue was the forcible suppression of heresy, and the medieval Catholic (and Protestant) churches did that in spades, taking hearty inspiration from Aquinas.

Also, the ‘promises they once made’ could include promises made on your behalf at infant baptism, which makes the whole concept a bit vacuous, at least to me.

Re: Please forgive me if I regard none of those who never repented of these abuses as being Christ’s followers, regardless of how practiced they were as theologians.

Now, that’s just silly. Among Christ’s direct followers, Peter and Paul (to name two) were hardly morally flawless. It’s part of fallen human nature that even good people end up doing terrible things now and again, and even the most well-meaning can end up horribly mistaken. I think that it was horrible that medieval Catholic and Protestant theologians sanctioned religious persecution, but that makes them imperfect Christians, it doesn’t make them ‘not Christians’.

Re: The more pertinent question, imo, is whether the Arab mind is suited to Liberal Democracy.

I’d say no, in general. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the ideological inspiration for the repressive Assad regime in Syria came largely from an Eastern Orthodox philosopher, not from a Muslim, though Aflaq would no doubt have been horrified at the use to which the Assad family put his ideals).

Of course, I’d also say that the Russian/East Slavic mind is pretty clearly not suited to Liberal Democracy either. (If anyone disagrees, they can take a quick glance at imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet history of the region). Latin America is mostly run by semi-liberal democracies right now, but that’s a pretty recent phenomenon, the region has gotten less ‘liberal’ over the last 10-15 years or so (even as it’s gotten more socially equal), and I have strong doubts that liberal democracy will prove any more durable there than it has in Russia, in the long run.

In the last analysis, liberal democracy is a deeply weird (and WEIRD, in the phrase of Rod’s beloved Jonthan Haidt) phenomenon, that pops up only in very specific circumstances, and in some ways is sort of unnatural and ill-suited to most people’s intuitive morality. In any situation where people are attached enough to a particular worldview (religious, ideological, economic, tribal, whatever) that they would rather launch a civil war than see people with a different worldview triumph, liberal democracy isn’t going to last. Maybe it only lasts in America because we are too comfortable to risk resorting to war over the issues that divide us. I don’t know, but if it is true that Arab culture is less well suited to liberal democracy than ours, I don’t think that makes Arab culture unusual, it makes *us* unusual.

#12 Comment By AnglicanPeggy On June 12, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

Rod, you always make the mistake to imply that Christianity is even a little bit different from other religions. Most Americans have been trained to interpret any attempt to separate one faith from another as a statement that one is better than another. Thus comment threads like this one will mostly concern themselves with knocking Christianity down into its rightful place as no better and perhaps even worse than its competitors. This impulse is clearly true even for Islam. No no no! Must never admit that even Islam is any worse than Christianity. If that was true, what else might also be true. Above all, any attempt to separate Christianity from the mass of other faiths is not to be tolerated or even contemplated seriously. Much mental effort will be expended in arguments against even countenancing such an idea. Nope Nope Nope it is just the same. There is no denying the gospel that all religions are exactly the same just with different details.

Unfortunately the point of your column cannot even be admitted for debate. Look at all the words expended telling you what a non-starter it is.

#13 Comment By reflectionephemeral On June 12, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

Focus on the word “intrinsically”; it means “in the nature of the thing.”

The way things are is not the way things must be. And people and societies are quite content to live with quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. Citing a snippet from the New Testament or the Koran doesn’t really get us very far if most of us ignore or rationalize away the harder teachings. (“Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven; as a result, rare indeed is the Christian who lives above subsistence level”).

By any modern conception of morality, all of Christendom appeared intrinsically incompatible with human rights for nearly two millennia. Read the Hebrew Bible, and you’d think Judaism is intrinsically incompatible with liberal democracy. Look at Christian practice around 150, and you’d think Christianity is intrinsically incompatible with political power of any sort– and maybe even with an official settled written cannon.

But things change over time.

#14 Comment By He who used to be Bob On June 12, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

Hector_St_Clare, I’d suggest that the distinction was quite real enough to both sides of the debate in medieval Europe. A Muslim converting to Christianity wouldn’t face any different attitude. We make a distinction between an individual and promises made on his behalf. But the understanding of humanity was much more communal in the thirteenth century (trends to the contrary, or isolated teachings such as some of the condemned propositions of 1277 notwithstanding). It was about a century later, and partly as a result of Ockham, that this separation flowers out into something like an argument for toleration based on the idea of an individual’s relationship with God. But if you compare Aquinas with, say, Scotus, you find the latter arguing for forced baptism of Jews, while Aquinas strongly disagrees. There were also significant swathes of people, particularly in Lombardy, who had been born into Manicheanism. So, Aquinas’ distinction was real enough in the political realm too.

Likewise, pagans and Christians, and Donatists and Catholics both made very similar plays. Donatists did plead for non-intervention, but showed themselves willing enough to exercise violence when they could (as did pagans). Indeed, part of what led to Augustine’s own hardening was the experience of violence at the hands of the Circumcellions and pagans.

Of course, we, today, would, and are right to, disagree with coercion in matters of religion, but the argument that Aquinas and Augustine should be considered as paragons of intolerance needs some proof that someone else in their time and place acted significantly differently. And in fact, you will find that both are somewhat more tolerant than their predecessors and contemporaries, whether you compare Aquinas with Scotus, or Augustine with Chrysostom or Cyril.

#15 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 13, 2013 @ 12:43 am

Re: There were also significant swathes of people, particularly in Lombardy, who had been born into Manicheanism. So, Aquinas’ distinction was real enough in the political realm too.

Manichaeans were considred Christian heretics though, not Christians. Which is, sort of, my point: the fact that pagans and Jews were immune from forced conversion didn’t really help the large numbers of Christian heretics who weren’t.

#16 Comment By JonF On June 13, 2013 @ 6:18 am

Hector, at one time no where on Earth was “well suited” for liberal democracy: even Britain was ruled by iron-fisted autocrats (exhibit A: Henry VIII). And good grief, the time when evil incarnate was ruling Deutschland has not quite passed out of living memory– and yet look at the place today. It may be true that such-and-such a country is not suited to liberal democracy TODAY but there’s no predictive power in that observation– none, zip, nada.

#17 Comment By Ben in SoCal On June 13, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

I suppose I am wired by my Slavic DNA to be highly suspicious of Islam, especially since many of my ancestors lived under Ottoman occupation.

I believe that most Muslims are peaceful people, and live in harmony with their neighbors intentionally, but Islam itself is a frightening totalitarian ideology that should itself not be tolerated. Many Germans remained decent people, but Nazism was and remains a putrid ideology.

But how would Muslims in the West treat their neighbors if they constituted majorities in many Western nations? (Which they will someday, if immigration levels continue or increase.) Look at the increase of anti-Semitism in cities like Malmo, Sweden. That’s not because blond-haired Nordics are becoming angry at Hebrews; though Leftists hate Israel, to be sure, the Left pardons the offenses of Jihad while attacking Christianity.

Western countries like Britain never suffered a full on invasion and occupation, like Constantinople from 1453 and onward. For a much needed spiritual cleansing and revival in the West, perhaps Islam’s growth, through immigration, is eventually going to lead to subjugation in previously Western Christian nations?

#18 Comment By David On June 14, 2013 @ 9:08 am

Islam ( [4] and [5] and [6])