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Monday, February 13, 2006
Are Muslims Illiberal By Nature?, Part I

I'm anticipating a full week of blogging after last week's vacation. This post is made possible only because I worked on it on the plane.

The recent Hamas victory, the continuing Sunni insurgency, and the violent reaction to the shameful cartoons published in the European press have furthered the deep suspicion that Europeans elites and some American publics hold in regard toward Muslims capacity for liberal politics. I take liberal politics in the European and American elite story to mean: (1) a public guarantee of private property, (2) an ethical and legal system centered on the individual, (3) a formal disavowal of ethnicity, race, and religion as interdiction on individual entry into the public sphere, and (4) a respect for the freedoms of the press and free speech as inalienable rights. From (1) and (2), liberal politics produces formal and informal limits on the power and purview of state authority. From (2), (3), and (4), liberal politics creates the concept of (a) toleration, which is the non-interference to prevent those persons with different worldviews from expressing themselves and living their lives under conditions of deep disagreement or moral revulsion, and (b) recognition, which is the positive acceptance of and commitment to furthering a diverse, and even contradictory, set of life-choices for individuals within liberal societies.

These suspicions arise out of two different traditions, both of whom I believe are imperialist at their core. The first tradition's claim is that public respect for liberal politics is the peculiar historical development of particular states in Europe and Asia. In this story, a certain level of development--whether civil society, a proto-capitalist market, or increasing governmental restraint by certain elites--is a precondition for liberal politics; Muslim societies, with the Arab world in particular, either lack this institutional development, or, are only now beginning to move toward liberalization. The second tradition claims that Islam, as an ideology and religion, is hostile to the four features of liberalism, and, therefore, militates against (2), (3), (4), (b), and (a) save for the other people of the Book. The net result of both stories is that individuals who confess Islam, and, social networks that take Islamic principles, practices, and theologies as their grounding principle are essentially opposed to the creation of liberal polities in the Islamic world, and the continued maintenance of liberal polities in Europe.

Both see terrorism as something specific to the Arab and Islamic worlds. The first story, about historical and institutional development, views Bin Laden's jihad as the natural response of a world that has been left behind in historical progression. The public will of the Arab world, sometimes pejoratively referred to as "the Arab street", therefore manifests itself in the anti-liberal tendencies of the global jihad, the antipathies of Muslim publics in Europe, and in anti-Americanism in political Islamist movements in the Arab world. The potentially redeeming feature of this story is that while Muslims are presently illiberal, sufficient time and development (toward Western ways of life, no doubt) will make them non-liberal (which is to say backwards without being antithetical to values), and then liberal. The second story, about the ideological basis and confessional core of Islam, explain global jihadism as the logical extension of the Muslim belief in violence and inability to separate religion from public life. The only remedy to a threat such as that is either conversion or eradication; dialogue is not possible.

Needless to say I disagree with the view that Islam is inherently "illiberal." No particular culture or religious system has any inherent liberal or illiberal tendencies. Rather, liberalism is a type of political commitment toward a vision of society; it is affirmed by individuals as one of the many factors in their lives when they think about what they wish their public spheres to look like. Moreover, the development story grants an unjustified superiority to the current political arrangements by positing, as an ontological fact, that all political and social forms of organization will affirm liberalism in the future; therefore, liberal elites and polities grant themselves a license to transform other life-worlds to fit into a liberal mosaic. The story about the confessional nature of Islam, I believe, demonstrates a poor understanding of how, phenomenologically, religious beliefs and religion as practice manifests itself as a lived experience.

Saul Levmore, on the UChicago faculty law blog, implicitly adopts the position of the first story in his entry. This quote, in particular, attempts to cast the political backlash as an economic inefficient action, boycott, driven forward by an angry response, re-presenting the anger as a liberal measure holding another nation accountable:
The boycott of Danish goods that has taken hold in parts of the Moslem world may be a fairly good response. I do not mean "good" in the sense that I approve of it, but rather in the sense of people's ability to express their preferences in a way that might influence behavior in another part of the world and in a place where the more direct route, of holding the host government responsible and expecting domestic restraints, is unavailable.

One of the commenters, who has identified himself as Roach, responds to the first view with the undisguised bigotry of the second:
We've seen in the last few days that this is not a normal boycott. This is a riot, a boiling over of a resentful, angry, and fanatical constituency, complete with the burning of the Danish embassy in Lebanon. One is tempted to dismiss these as the acts of a few fanatics, a facsimile of extreme Western behavior of, say, the 15th-17th Centuries. But it is different. The solution to the vices of Christendom could be found in Christianity itself, which teaches a fundamental equality of man rooted in the belief that each person is entitled to respect as a creature made in the image of God. That is to say Christians could collectively learn they were behaving un-Christianly and that our modern liberal, democratic way of life more fully recognizes this principle than its predecessors.

In contrast, the recent reaction of the Muslim world is not a deviation from the peaceful core beliefs of Islam, but rather an expression of its core commandmaents [sic] of violence against nonbelievers that dare to fail to submit to what is believed to be a perfect code of behavior. There is no way to look at this turn of events without looking to the culture and teachings of Islam.

Roach even more explicitly blends the two approaches. In his story, although the Muslims have adopted a current political format, the boycott, unlike the Westerners, they have not evolved beyond a medieval framework.

Roach then makes a subtle shift in language usage whereby he acknowledges that the "bad" Western past avowed Christian beliefs more so than the "West" does today while castigating Islam as the actual source of the antiliberal poison. "The solution to the vices of Christendom", he declares, "could be found in Christianity itself, which teaches a fundamental equality of man rooted in the belief that each person is entitled to respect as a creature made in the image of God." The Christian religious elites were closet liberals all along and thereby possessed a self-correcting function. Musliums, by contrast, lacking the divinely-revealed liberalism of Christendom, have received instead "core commandmaents [sic] [to] violence against nonbelievers that dare to fail to submit to what is believed to be a perfect code of behavior." Roach further clarifies his view of Islamic doctrine:
It's easy enough to find passages that support the kind of violent intolerance in the Koran itself. 'VIII.39-42: Say to the Infidels: if they desist from their unbelief, what is now past shall be forgiven; but if they return to it, they have already before them the doom of the ancients! Fight then against them till strife be at an end, and the religion be all of it God's.' Islamic apostate Ibn Warraq said it best when he wrote, "There may be moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. There is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. At most there is a difference of degree but not of kind."

Whereas God revealed liberalism to the early Christians-- who subsequently waited until the 19th century to emerge as political philosophy-- to the Muslims he gave an invitation to violence, who waited until the 20th century to begin holy war. The timing of his causal logic is convenient if nothing else.

After employing an apostate to define Islamic doctrine, Roach continues his exposition of the Islamic faith:
Islam is a complete religion and way of life. It counsels laws, a form of government, and modes of mandatory behavior by believers and unbelivers [sic] alike. These are contained in the legal code promulgated by Mohammad himself, the Sharia. In contrast to Christianity which speaks to individual behavior and Judaism which teaches a detailed code for the Jewish community, Islam has a complete code for Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike that is meant to be imposed through force by one who is believed to be a divinely appointed regime, the Caliphate. This legal code is believed to come from God Himself. It does not permit deviation. This is a core belief of Islam: that legislation is a divine function that man cannot alter. Islam is pardoxical [sic]; it uses words like freedom from violence, but it means them in a different way. The Koran is clear that no man is really free (to choose Islam for example) unless he is under the aegis of the Sharia code. The Sharia is perfect and works to man's benefit and thus Muslims believe they are commanded to fight (literally) to impose this "freedom" on others.

Roach's argument is illustrative of a third criticism of the nature of Islamic belief that runs through the intellectual communities. This criticism, most simply, maintains that Islam is fundamentally illiberal because it is comprehensive in its prescriptions and recommendations. There is no room for a public deliberative sphere in Islam because the object of the liberal political publics--the formation of laws, institutions of government, and the creation of inter-subjective norms--are already provided for in the commandments of God. Christianity and Judaism are more restricted in their scope, and thereby allow their adherents to make choices outside a religious framework and to engage in liberal politics. Liberal politics is only liberal, this argument would say because the norms and laws are consensual and changeable; Islamic law, by contrast, is imposed and immutable.

If the law cannot change, Roach's logic would suggest the publics subject to those laws cannot develop the virtue of tolerance nor can they permit free speech.
While anti-Christian polemics from the Last Temptation of Christ to South Park proliferate in our culture, the death threats and spasms of violence we've seen in recent days in the Islamic world stand in sharp contrast to the quiesence of Christians occasionally aggrieved by what they see as disrespect for their religion. And, more important, acts of violence by Christian extremists find little support in the broader Christian community. One does not hear even in Baptist and Catholic Churches kind words for those that would defy the law and use violence again, for example, abortionists or others that deviate from their religious and moral teachings. The reason is not some cultural difference, but different commandments to the faithful; Christians are told, in essence, to ignore unbelievers and pray for them. Christianity may influence one's political philosophy, but only indirectly. Christianity at its core is concerned with one's orientation to the world, not the structure of worldly affairs. In contrast, Muslims are told by their holiest text that such offenses must be met with violence.

The totality of the Islamic system combined with divine injunctions to violence mix to produce an unchanging illiberalism, and, in the present world, an unhealthy anti-liberalism.

In the next post, I will argue against Roach's reading of the situation for four reasons. One, this argument misconstrues the nature of religious belief, and, thereby attribute characteristics to "true Muslims" that don't exist in the real world. Two, this misreading of religion is also present in his reconstruction of Christianity. Three, the causal logic of Roach's argument--that Islamic beliefs lends itself to radicalism when confronted with the demands of liberalism--should apply to American Muslims. If we are to believe his argument, the Muslims in America should have similarly revolted. Why is this revolt limited to Europe? Four, this argument reinforces the idea of a clash civilizations and creates a situation where the only solution to the "Muslim Question" is conversion or extermination.