The Dartmouth Observer
Monday, February 20, 2006
Are Muslims Illiberal By Nature?, part II
I finally finished this post. I will try and blog more this week than the two previous. I will also try shorter posts. Enjoy. I'll grammer proof tommorrow.
I have four disagreements with Roach's argument, and with the arguments about the illiberality of Islam in general. First, this argument misconstrues the nature of religious belief, and, thereby attribute characteristics to "true Muslims" that don't exist in the real world. Second, this misreading of religion is also present in his reconstruction of Christianity. Third, 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? Fourth, 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.
First, religious observance is not a passive behavior in which a religion reproduces itself in the minds, words, and bodies of believers. Practitioners and confessors co-construct religious observances and traditions. Institutions of communion and association, like churches, mosques, and prayer groups, as well as external expectations, mean that the believers can't do just anything they want. Nevertheless, there is a lot of room for creation, manipulation, and redefinition within any given religious belief system according the practices and lived experiences of the worshippers.
Put more concretely: does Islam exist prior to the Muslims who enact it? Does a religious exist without people to practice and believe it? If it is the case that any analysis of religion and religious belief must begin with the practitioners of the religion, then Ibn Warraq's quip "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" becomes a meaningless statement. For fundamentalists, there is no difference between Islam and what they practice. The same is true for moderate Muslims.
A sophisticated account of religion would necessarily begin with the following definition as "explanations of existence based on assumptions about the nature of the supernatural and about the purpose of being." Roach can't make claims about what Islam truly is without taking into account the experiences and practices of actual Muslims.
Second, not only does Roach get Islam wrong, he misses the comprehensive nature of Christianity, which is no less a life world than Islam. The texts of Christianity contain recommendations for family life, suggest obedience to state authority, and a preference against, though not prohibition of, slavery (especially against fellow believers.) While textual Christianity certainly need not be interpreted as a rule-based view of religious observance, in practice many Christian congregations affirm rule-based, comprehensive life projects. To the extent that diverging opinions about textual interpretations are justifiable, the disagreements are legitimate.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let's assume, with Roach, that the nature of Islam (and not just the content) can be radically different from the nature of Christianity (and Judaism). From whose point of view are Islam and the Muslims to be judged? How is it that we come to know the nature of religion and the people who affirm it? Roach certainly provides us with one model: a Euro-centric framing of the issue in which the normals going ons of free speech becomes vastly complicated by Muslims who take their faith seriously.
Muslims may disagree about terrorism; Islam, like Christianity, counsels certain limitations on warfare aimed to protect innocents. But Muslims do not (at least within the framework of Islam) disagree about jihad. It's a core obligation of Muslims. It's a central part of their religious beliefs and religious history. And by its nature it defines who is innocent and who is the enemy very broadly.
However, it does not seem that a Euro-centric vantage is a fair origin for criticism or even a justifiable one. European know-towing to free speech notwithstanding, there is not a strong historical record in favor of any given European government's relationship with non-Europeans. Even in the postcolonial age, Europe does not seem to have much respect or concern with the domestic institutions of the postcolonies nor the persons and immigrants within and from those postcolonies.
Roach's particular reading of the Islamic consensus on jihad seems equally unjustifiable. What Roach says is that no reasoning Muslim, if she is being true to her faith, can disagree with jihad. He could have also said that no Christian, if he is being true to his faith, can disagree with agape. Assuming that this is true, there can still be disagreements about the nature, scope, and limitations of jihad and agape. Muslims may be uniformly committed to jihad as a matter of faith; what that means in practice is less clear. All Christians believe in love, but individual Christian behavior and conceptions of love differ wildly. It is reasonable to assume that within Islam, Muslims can possess an equal amount of reasonable disagreement and pluralism.
Moreover, the history of religious "persuasion" is not the history of missionaries and remarkable speeches. The spread of Christendom was as blood soaked as the spread of Judaism in ancient Palestine, or the spread of Islam in the Arab and Islamic worlds. With great zeal did the faithful convert and persuade with their fervor and military technology. Spain persuaded the Americas to give up their native religious beliefs (and land, gold, and treasure) just as the British persuaded the Native Americans to make way for their colonies. If Islam is so essentially violent in comparison to the pacific Christians, why is it that Christianity, and not Islam, produced witch-hunts?
Third, the causal logic of Roach's argument would imply that Americans should fear Muslims within the United States as much as Europeans fear Muslims within the EU because, as a matter of religious principle, both populations may spontaneously erupt into violence.
From the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, to the riots by disaffected Muslim youth in Paris, as a group Muslims living in Europe have shown themselves to be a turbulent minority that feels free to demand obeissance to its own notions of the sacred from the broader community while according little such respect to others. Europe should act on what is increasingly obvious: the liberal and tolerant way of life to which they are accustomed is incompatible with a large and growing minority that has little respect for the beliefs of others.
Let us bracket the discussion of whether Muslims are a threat to Europe and instead focus on the violence that didn't happen in America. The key problem for Roach's "argument" is this: if Islam is so intolerant, why didn't the American Muslims revolt? Here why: unless Roach is willing to forward and defend the claim that his interpretation of Islam is the legitimate one based on a careful and considered reading of the text that American Muslims lack, it seems that the essence of Islam thesis is an untenable causal logic. For Roach, sincerity of Islamic beliefs (independent variable) leads to political violence (dependent variable) against orders that do not conform to Sharia law (conditional variable). If we hold constant the conditional variable and the independent variable, we should see regular violence by Muslims against liberalism in the United States. Why don't we see that?
One of the respondents on the blog observed a fact:
European Muslims, on the other hand, don't have this kind of success in Europe. there are a number of institutional, economic and psychological reasons -- IN WHICH BOTH THE EUROPEAN ESTABLISHMENT AND THE IMMIGRANT MENTALITY are complicit. as a consequence of these wide scale failures, the European muslim minority fears reprisals when their beliefs are so publicly mocked. the thought is: "if they can mock our most holy man, they surely won't stop at anything if they come after us."
Spencer Akerman, in a New Republic piece entitled "Why American Musliums Haven't Turned to Terrorism" (registriation required), has an answer to this quandry:
Al Jazeera aired the communiqué of 30-year-old Mohammad Sidique Khan, which Khan recorded to explain why he helped murder over 50 of his fellow Britons on a bus and in the Underground. "Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight," Khan declared. "We are at war. I am a soldier. And now, you, too, will taste the reality of this situation." When Khan spoke of "my people," he wasn't talking about his British countrymen. Rather, he was referring to the members of a global Islamic community, which he, like Osama bin Laden, believes is under siege by the rapacious Western world...
Instead of blaming the Muslim population, we should instead blame Europe. More specifically, there is political dynamic to the European construction of Muslim identity lacking in America. This identity creates a state in which Muslims exist outside of public law and thus live by the dictates of the state of nature. As Kant reminded us in the Metaphysical Elements of Justice, a state of nature is one in which persons lack publicly guaranteed rights and can only claim to have what they can possess and defend. Muslims in Europe can only have toleration and political speech through acts of violence.
Their religious difference matters only in so far as it is the particular politicized difference of their current environment. Furthermore, it is their social position in relationship to the social and legal equality of opportunity afforded to non-Muslims that explains the European Muslims turn to violence.
Hannah Arendt once remarked that violence is prepolitical; in political relations violence stifles speech and is counterproductive. Nevertheless, this violence, for her, was necessary to secure the preconditions of political life: self-reproduction of physical life (nourishment, etc) and use-objects to build a common world. Her insight is particularly helpful in answering Roach's question of "Why now and why the Muslims?". The alienation of Muslims from European civil society and the political sphere means that relationship of the state to the Muslims communities are by nature violent. Muslims aren't allowed to be political liberals in Europe; they cannot choose and deliberate the norms under which they are to be governed. The state can only impose onto them its authority while denying them opportunities for autonomous self-reproduction, inclusion, and deliberation. The current arrangement in Europe can only be described as a colonial/ imperial relationship within a domestic political order. As such, violence is the only speech--and trust me, it's not free--that Muslims have because our hands are covering their mouth and choking the very life out of their communities.
Lastly, Roach's solution to the problem only perpetrates the problems of the relationship. He gets to the heart of his agnst however in this telling rant:
Now is a time to stand up for Denmark, to tell the Muslim world that their tyrannical belief system will not affect our behavior in the least, and that our principles and values are RIGHT in this regard and, in any case, we will continue to live under them and not give into pressure. Now is time not to offer nuanced considerations of whether our free speech principles might be outdated, but a time to be a partisan for free speech and our western way of life in the face of violence abroad and the activities of subversive, would-be tyrants at home.
The Clash of Civilizations argument was old, and wrong, when Sam Huntington gave it formulation in the 1990s. The worst part of the Clash of Civilizations logic is its ironic juxtaposition of tolerance and incompatibility as liberal virtues. In three conceptual moves, the logic removes the innate pluralism at the heart of justifiable political liberal projects and creates a monistic comprehensive puritanical order.
The first move requires the creation of an other in an oppositional, existential threatening dyad. Tolerance and pluralism are first excised from liberalism in this us or them situation. The second move, after the excision, is the announcement of the immutability and correctness of our values. If the conflict is to be about essential nature and fundaments, then we're right and "they" need to change. The third move is the logical extension of the first, unreflecting opposition to the phantom menace crated. In the clash of civilizations logic, being liberal means not changing and not learning from the views and experiences of others.
By invoking the logic of the clash of civilizations, Roach wants a contest of wills. That's not politics, that's violence. What is needed is actual pluralism and public deliberation in European with more viewpoints represented than a bunch of chauvinists threatened by change. This dialogue must include the alienated, the wretched, the disaffected, and the damned. Political liberalism is only liberal to the extent which it facilitates the governed determining the conditions and extent of their governance. Everything else is just warfare.