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Islam vs. Liberal Democracy

Shadi Hamid says Islam offers a politics of meaning that the West lacks

Here’s another great piece by The Atlantic’s Emma Green. This time, she interviews author Shadi Hamid, a liberal Muslim who argues in his new book that we’re getting it all wrong if we try to understand Islam through the model of Western secularism. Excerpt:

Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy—and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions.

From the Q&A portion of Green’s piece:

Green: You emphasize the importance of taking the “metaphysical” propositions of Islam seriously, over and above the material circumstances of violence. What is lost in focusing on the material rather than ideological factors in the politics of Muslim countries?

Hamid: As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, “Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?” But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It’s about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise. In the bastions of Northeastern, liberal, elite thought, that sounds bizarre. Political scientists don’t use that kind of language because, first of all, how do you measure that? But I think we should take seriously what people say they believe in.

It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation at a time when many people, including outside the Middle East, are losing faith in technocratic, liberal democracy. There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering.

I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater.

Read the whole thing.  I find myself sympathizing with Hamid a lot more than I would have a few years ago, not because I have developed a new attraction to Islam, but because I have thought more deeply into the problems of liberal democracy in a post-Christian context.

Today I’m finishing up a chapter in my forthcoming Benedict Option book about sex and sexuality, and in light of the way premodern Christians saw sex, erotic love, and, well, the cosmos, modern hedonism seems like such a paltry thing. Spend enough time reading about the premodern era and you come to a realization that people today not only have no understanding of it (they think people of that time are just like us, only with worse dentistry and more church), but they have an utterly unjustified belief that the way we live today is far better than what our ancestors had.

From a material point of view, they’re certainly right. And they’re also right from the point of view of individual freedom. But what if those ends are not the most important thing to a person? What if freedom and prosperity are not enough? What if people crave meaning?

Liberal democracy says, “That’s fine. We’re here to facilitate the choices that give your life meaning.” What’s the problem with that? Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in a 1995 essay, explains:

The moral threat [to Christianity] is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative since we lack any practices that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story and the institutions that embody it is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

I am aware that such a suggestion can only be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you I am serious, I am against tolerance, I do not believe the story of freedom is a true or good story. I do not believe it is a good story because it is so clearly a lie. The lie is exposed by simply asking, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you have no story?” Why should you let that story determine your life? Simply put, the story of freedom has now become our fate.

Consider, for example, the hallmark sentence of the Casey decision on abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is exactly the view of freedom that John Paul II so eloquently condemns in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. A view of freedom like that embodied in Casey assumes, according to John Paul II, that we must be able to create values since freedom enjoys “a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.”

In contrast, John Paul II, who is not afraid to have enemies, reminds us that the good news of the Gospel, known through proclamation, is that we are not fated to be determined by such false stories of freedom. For the truth is that since we are God’s good creation we are not free to choose our own stories. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift. We do not receive our lives as though they were a gift, but rather our lives simply are a gift: we do not exist first and then receive from God a gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.

The very activity of preaching—the proclamation of a story that cannot be known apart from such proclamation—is an affront to the ethos of freedom. As the Church, we stand under the word because we know we are told what we otherwise could not know. We stand under the word because we know we need to be told what to do. We stand under the word because we do not believe we have minds worth making up on our own. Such guidance is particularly necessary for people like us who have been corrupted by our tolerance.

In other words, “freedom” is not the same thing as “truth,” and freedom as conceived by modernity is not the same thing as freedom proclaimed by the Bible.

Muslims, obviously, have their own story. The point is that all these stories cannot be true. Liberal democracy is meant to make it possible for people who believe competing, contradictory stories to live together in peace. It has done a good job of that. But it is being stretched past the breaking point, because it provides no satisfying answer to the question, What is life for? 

If you have not read Paul Berman’s 2003 essay about the Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb, you really should. Excerpt:

In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely — the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds. But Qutb evoked this feeling in a specifically Muslim fashion. It is easy to imagine that, in expounding on these themes back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Qutb had already identified the kind of personal agony that Mohamed Atta and the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 must have experienced in our own time. It was the agony of inhabiting a modern world of liberal ideas and achievements while feeling that true life exists somewhere else. It was the agony of walking down a modern sidewalk while dreaming of a different universe altogether, located in the Koranic past — the agony of being pulled this way and that. The present, the past. The secular, the sacred. The freely chosen, the religiously mandated — a life of confusion unto madness brought on, Qutb ventured, by Christian error.

What is life for? Islam has firm answers. They are mostly the wrong answers, I believe, and heaven knows I would rather live in Western liberal democracy than under an Islamist government. But it is not hard for me to see why it is more compelling to many people than the dead-end liberal nihilism under which we godless Westerners live.



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