Category Archives: Islam
What the law says on paper does not always reflect what goes on in practice. A government can recognize rights in theory that it does not genuinely respect in reality – or that it does not have the power to protect. An ethnic or religious community can claim legal deference to its internal courts, on the basis that all of its members yield voluntary allegiance to those courts, without the allegiance of such members being genuinely free.
Take the fictional example of a Muslim woman who has immigrated to the United States with her family from Bangladesh. The woman speaks virtually no English and all of her best friends and closest family (aside from her husband) remained in the mother country. In the United States only a few years, the woman’s husband begins to abuse her her in various ways, physically, emotionally, sexually. He manipulates her by reminding her that if she seeks to divorce him he will win custody over their children based on the Shari’a derived prenuptial marriage contract they established and that American law has agreed to recognize as valid. The woman, a devout Muslim, recognizes that if she abandons the Muslim community she will lose everything that is dear to her, everything that she knows, including possibly her salvation.
Hard-nosed critics will point out that everything is fine. This woman has all the same rights and freedoms as do any other Americans. She can flee the Muslim community and find refuge in the hands of secular courts whenever she wants. We should not lose any sleep over her plight, or the plight of potentially thousands of women and children like her.
At the First Thoughts blog Matthew Schmitz cordially responds to my worry that the situation in Islamic communities is still too complex, and the commitment of most Muslims to fundamental rights and freedoms still too weak, to merit the sort of deference to Shari’a courts that would make the above scenario possible. I’m grateful to Schmitz for his engagement of my post. As he puts it:
My response to this is simple: Laws often fall short of their aims, and if we’re worried they’re being ignored or going unenforced the trick is to actually enforce them, not impose new burdens.
Fair enough. One would think, then, that it makes sense to take the time to establish a mode of interaction between secular courts and Shari’a courts that is compatible with the enforcement of basic rights and freedoms and appropriate to the circumstances in most Islamic communities, right? As John Witte writes (in the paper Schmitz is worried about),
First, it takes time and practice for a secular legal system to adjust to the realities and needs of new religious groups and to make the necessary legal accommodations… Concessions and accommodations will come, but only with time, persistence, and patience.
Second, it takes flexibility and innovation on the part of the religious community to win accommodations from secular laws and cultures….
Third, religious communities, in turn, have to accommodate, or at least tolerate, the core values of their secular host nations if they expect to win concessions for their religious courts and other religious practices. No Western nation will long accommodate, perhaps not even tolerate, a religious community that cannot accept its core values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, or of human rights, democracy, and rule of law….
Finally, Muslim tribunals must become legally sophisticated and procedurally equitable to be both attractive to voluntary Muslim disputants and acceptable to secular state courts.
In other words, it takes time and care to get it right. Religious liberties do not trump other rights and freedoms that government is bound to protect, and if religious groups demand religious prerogatives, without credibly demonstrating that they will exercise those prerogatives consistent with a modicum of justice for the weak and vulnerable, the government should not readily yield to that demand.
Schmitz agrees that the law needs to be enforced, but is he open to the steps necessary to ensure that this will actually happen? He is focused on one objective, that of securing religious liberty. He understandably argues that religious liberty is so threatened in this country that we should take its side regardless of the group or practices in view, or of the dangers that might come with it. And I want to make it clear that I wholeheartedly agree with Schmitz in his skepticism about the anti-Shari’a laws passed in places like Oklahoma (and rejected by federal courts). I am not defending anti-Shari’a laws in this post. I do not think they are the way to go.
At the same time, I wonder of Schmitz is taking the dangers of accommodation to Shari’a law seriously enough. Just as importantly, I wonder if he is underestimating the threat that is posed to religious liberty itself if that liberty is widely used as a cloak for oppression and injustice. In short, if we don’t do the hard work of making sure Muslims use their religious liberty consistent with basic inalienable rights and freedoms, it is the cause of religious liberty itself that will suffer, not simply the persons who suffer because the law was not properly enforced.
To be clear, the point is not that Muslims are more guilty of certain crimes – such as spousal abuse - than are other religious groups. The point is not that Muslims are morally inferior at all. The point is rather that Islamic communities have to go through a process, a process through which Jewish, Catholic, and other communities have already passed, to ensure that accommodations can be granted and yet the laws protecting people’s basic rights and freedoms still be enforced. Many Islamic communities have not yet demonstrated the commitment to fundamental liberties, or to the procedures necessary to secure those liberties, to merit the sort of deference that is ideal.
Schmitz is right that religious freedom has special priority in this country. But that doesn’t mean it justifies irresponsible deference, deference that is blind to the necessity of preserving fundamental procedures of justice. I know Schmitz would not accept religious liberty as a justification for crimes like child sacrifice or the freedom of conscience when it comes to abortion. In that sense it is not a trump card that can be played against other rights like the right to life or to due process of law. And those rights need to be protected in reality, not just on paper.
Religious liberty is indeed “too fundamental and fragile an American principle to trifle with.” That’s why we need to get it right.
In a thought-provoking article at Christianity Today my professor and dissertation adviser John Witte, Jr., defends the intent of the Oklahoma legislation that prohibited the use of Shari’a law in state courts, legislation that has thus far been rejected on religious liberty grounds by federal courts. Witte describes three arguments generally used to defend the limited legitimacy of Shari’a law in the United States, rejecting each in turn.
The first reason has to do with religious liberty:
Both Western constitutional laws and international human rights norms give robust protection to the religious freedom of individuals and groups. Why deny peaceful Muslim citizens the freedom to opt out of state laws on sex, marriage, and family that run afoul of central faith commandments?
This argument, however, falsely assumes that claims of conscience and religious free exercise must always trump. But this is hardly the case in modern democracies, even though religious freedom is cherished… Even the most devout religious believer enjoys no immunity from criminal laws against activities like polygamy, child marriage, female genital mutilation, or corporal discipline of wives. Religious freedom is not a license to engage in crime…. Most Western democracies readily allow religious officials to officiate at weddings, testify in divorce cases, assist in the adoption of a child, facilitate the rescue of a distressed family member, and the like. Some democracies also will uphold religious arbitration awards and mediation settlements over domestic issues. But that is a long way from delegating full legal power to religious bodies for governing the domestic affairs of their voluntary faithful
The second argument is essentially libertarian. It follows John Locke in asserting that marriage and the family are pre-political institutions that the state is bound to recognize but not meddle with. Why not, as some conservatives have suggested in response to the spreading phenomena of same-sex marriage, simply privatize the whole institution?
Witte’s response to this argument is an excellent explanation of why the state must be involved in the institution of marriage, both in terms of protection and regulation:
A comprehensive system of marriage and family law—let alone the many related legal systems of inheritance, trusts, family property, children’s rights, education, social welfare, and more—cannot long operate without coercive power. It needs police, prosecutors, and prisons; subpoenas, fines, and contempt orders; material, physical, and corporal sanctions. Moral suasion and example, coupled with communal approbation and censure, can certainly do part of the work. But a properly functioning marriage and family law system requires all these coercive instruments of government. And no religious authority can wield coercive power.
The third argument is based on the value of religious equality. As Witte affirms, federal and state courts permit deference to religious rules and tribunals on various points when it comes to Judaism and Christianity. Why should Islam be any different? Witte acknowledges that this argument is the most difficult to overcome. His basic response is to appeal to history. The exceptions granted to Jews and Christians have come about over a long process and for valid, particular reasons. Islam has not yet worked through that process. What’s more, by virtue of their embrace of democratic rights and freedoms Christians and Jews have earned a certain degree of deference that is not yet clearly due to Muslim communities:
[R]eligious communities, in turn, have to accommodate—or at least tolerate—the core constitutional and cultural values of their secular host nations. No Western nation will readily grant concessions to a religious community that rejects liberty, equality, and fraternity, or human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Witte’s argument is spot-on in many respects, but Matthew Schmitz is not convinced. In a post at First Thoughts entitled “Christianity Today’s Dead-Wrong Defence of Anti-Sharia Laws” he argues that the Oklahoma law was less a rejection of special accommodation to Shari’a law than it was a restriction of religious freedom currently enjoyed by all religious groups.
If a marriage contract doesn’t run afoul of our laws or our Constitution, what does it matter whether or not it references Sharia? Should it be ruled out? If so, what about an otherwise identical contract that doesn’t reference reference Sharia? Witte’s argument is, at its best, an argument for inaction—not for the measures passed by states like Oklahoma and Kansas.
In a fuller statement of his argument in National Review, back in June, Schmitz made a persuasive case that laws targeted at Muslims accomplish nothing in the way of preserving the sovereignty of American law, and that, in fact, they do much to weaken religious liberty, alienate Muslims, and even threaten national security. His most important point is that there is no need for the sort of law Oklahoma wants, or that Witte defends.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld. The other possible reading of the law is that it only bars rulings based on foreign legal systems when the rulings themselves would violate constitutional rights. But in that case, as Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School has argued, the law is meaningless, for courts will not tolerate or enforce violations of constitutional rights in any case.
In short, even if courts were to recognize the limited relevance of Shari’a law for members of Muslim communities, that would not prevent any particular individual from claiming and receiving the full protection of the rights and freedoms all Americans are afforded under the Constitution and the law of the land.
Of course, Witte knows this. As he writes in his article, the current accommodations made to Jewish courts do not offer the latter any form of coercion. Constitutional rights and freedoms always trump religious authority full stop. Thus Jewish courts “do not claim authority over all of Jewish sex, marriage, and family life. Having abandoned physical coercion and sanctions, they claim no authority beyond persuasion to stop a disputant from walking out of court and out of the Jewish community altogether.”
But the issue is complex. In theory an individual may be able to walk out of her religious community at any time, but in reality the threat of social and religious ostracism is far too great, especially for ethnic and religious communities not well integrated into American society. This seems to be the assumption underlying Witte’s reference to history. So while Schmitz thinks the fears of “creeping Shari’a” are overblown and worries about the more fundamental cause of religious liberty, a valid fear given the events of the last few years, Witte fears that the Islamic community has not yet clearly embraced American values with sufficient enthusiasm to warrant the sort of deference given to other communities, a seemingly equally valid fear given the reality on the ground.
It’s a difficult tension, and it’s by no means clear to me that there is an easy answer. I’ll be paying close attention to how it all plays out.
The Washington Post reports that the governing Islamist party of Tunisia has also condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world. The attack on the embassy in Tunis resulted in the deaths of a few protestors and apparently in the placing of an al Qaeda flag where the American flag had once flown.
According to the Post:
Tunisia is now run by the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, which has vowed to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy. But the moderate government has since struggled to quell protests by increasingly vocal ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.
The youth wing of Ennahda said in a statement emailed early Saturday that both the film that incited the protests and the violence should be condemned.
The party’s statement accused “enemies of the revolution” of turning peaceful demonstrations into destructive mobs and manipulating anger over the film to divide the country and prevent Tunisia from building a robust democracy.
“We call on the youth and on all Tunisians to maintain vigilance and unity in order to prevent all attempts at sowing divisions and halting the revolution,” the statement said.
This is a bit dated now, but in her remarks at the opening plenary of the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue on Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton skillfully represented, I believe, the proper response of the United States to the recent embassy attacks in the Middle East and the video that sparked them.
Clinton navigates numerous thorny issues of politics and religion here, successfully avoiding offense while offering a political assessment of religion and violence that is substantive and meaningful. It’s worth reading this whole excerpt (all italics are added by me):
I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.
To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.
Violence, we believe, has no place in religion and is no way to honor religion. Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents. As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace. It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions. These are places whose very purpose is peaceful: to promote better understanding across countries and cultures. All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.
Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.
There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.
Now I understand that some Christians would take issue with a description of Islam as a “great” religion, as well as with the claim that Islam “respects the fundamental dignity of human beings.” But there is no question that any charitable description of the world’s second greatest faith would be able to affirm these points. Remember, this is a political statement, an assessment of the proper balance between freedom of speech, human security, and religious liberty. It’s basic message, brilliantly put, is that the United States is committed to all three.
Of course, level headed leaders in the Middle East, including the Islamist leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, share Clinton’s desire to reduce the tension. On Friday Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy President of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote in the New York Times,
Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.
In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.
The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.
We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.
We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.
Right he is. But who will the average Muslim on the street believe? And what about those prominent leaders who are willing to denounce the film that started all this but will not denounce the violence that has followed it? For all concerned, I hope the leaders who understand what’s at stake here – and manage to keep cool heads about it all – are able to win the day.
What’s wrong with the Muslim world? What kind of religion teaches its adherents that vitriol and violence is the appropriate response to blasphemy? And why does the United States continue to maintain its active presence in the Middle East, let alone to work hard to win the respect of Muslims around the world?
FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned.
But of course, this is not the complete picture. While a number of extremist Muslims were involved in violence or in exciting violence, many others worked hard to prevent it. A piece in Slate points out,
Hillary Clinton reported this morning, in her most eloquent news conference as secretary of state, that Libyan citizens and security forces had tried to fight off the small mob of militants who set fire to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and that, afterward, they’d sheltered many survivors and carried the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, to a nearby hospital….
Similarly, Clinton said, Egyptian security forces helped American guards stave off those who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo before much damage was done. Though she didn’t mention it, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, must know that his country’s fortunes, and thus his own political prospects, depend on foreign aid and investment….
[W]hat we’re seeing is, potentially, a conflict not only between the West and radical Islam but also between elements within Islam… [I]n the long run, it’s important for President Morsi, Libya’s leaders, and at least a few other prominent Muslim spokesmen throughout the region to denounce the most violent of these protesters—and to denounce the very tactic of assaulting embassies and killing diplomats as an antiquated practice that violates their principles and has no place in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.
In another piece The Economist reminds suspicious westerners that the violence they are witnessing in the Middle East is not simply spontaneous, Islamic-inspired practice. Rather, it is carefully orchestrated by extremist Islamists who represent only a minority of Muslims but who are working hard to grow that minority.
Muslims’ resentment at slights to their religion is readily aroused by reports of desecration of the Koran or books, films and pictures that include a blasphemous (ie, any) depiction of the Prophet Muhammad or of God. Yet outbursts of rage can also be stirred by political grandstanding and mischievous politicians preying on an ill-informed and aggrieved populace.
It is certainly odd, for example, that the latest film suddenly began attracting attention in the run-up to September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West. It was energetically publicised (albeit in caustic terms) by two Salafist (hardline Islamist) television channels.
Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, reaped the benefits of his fatwa demanding the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses”, published in 1988. Pakistani politicians gain from whipping up sentiment against Christians—and against politicians seen as soft on them.
But why is it so easy for these demagogues to turn ordinary Muslims against the West? Isn’t that simply the result of Islam? Certainly there are aspects of Islam that render it subject to manipulation and abuse, and the religion cannot be whitewashed of those parts of its history that prominently featured conquest, violence, and intolerance. Muslim scholars need to continue to wrestle with how the Islamic faith can be faithfully practiced in a democratic and pluralistic world. But Islam is no more reducible to violence and intolerance than is any other human religion, and there is much more that makes Muslims vulnerable to manipulation than religious orthodoxy.
Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslim countries makes rabble-rousing easy. Protesters at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on “American state television”: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere….
A reluctance among many Muslims to accept that America could be a blundering victim of atrocities rather than a wily perpetrator meant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were widely reported from the outset as an inside job, facilitated by Israel’s intelligence service, to stoke up Western hatred of Islam. Three-quarters of Egyptians now believe that conspiracy theory.
There is a lot of miscommunication going on, and Americans need to appreciate that fact. The average Arab in the Middle East does not understand America the way my Muslim neighbors down the street do. And just as America has successfully won over millions of Muslims in this country to the values of democracy and pluralism, the same may yet occur in the Middle East. Yes there are countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. But there are also examples of tremendous progress like Turkey. Yes there are Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there are also Muslims like my neighbors down the street who have warmly welcomed my family into their homes, attended my children’s birthday parties, and even babysat for us.
Like most Americans and like most Muslims living in the Middle East, what these people aspire to is a life of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Amid all the furor and the violence, when all the attention is on demagogues, terrorists, and extremists, we should not forget them.
Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence
Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.
The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.
It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.
To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.
But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.
It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.
And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.
The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.
What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:
Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]
The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]
The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America - in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms - is obvious.]
It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:
1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.
2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.
3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.
4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.
5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.
Whatever descriptive truth was left in the old saying, ‘Islam admits no separation between din and dunya’ (that is, between religion and the world) has been definitively emptied out by the Arab Spring – Olivier Roy
It is often said by Christians that unlike Christianity, Islam allows no distinction between church and state. While Christianity has always emphasized the spiritual (or eternal) nature of the church in contrast to the secular (i.e., temporal) character of the state (or of civil government), Islam allows no such nuance. The implication, to many Christians, is that Islam as a religion is incompatible with the values of freedom and democracy.
In a fascinating recent essay entitled “The Transformation of the Arab World,” Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, argues that the Arab Spring has challenged this perspective. While Islam may be somewhat incompatible with liberalism or secularism, he points out, it is by no means incompatible with democratization, or with the secularization of politics. What’s more, it is the very revitalization of Islam that is making the distinction between religion and politics an emerging reality.
Roy points out that intellectuals often view the Middle East as if it is caught between the horns of a terrible dilemma: the choice of secular dictatorship or Islamic totalitarianism. Even democratization, it is often thought, will inevitably fail due to the political commitments of the various forms of Islamism.
In contrast, Roy argues that the Arab Spring has given expression to a very real democratization that is beyond the power of the Islamists to control even as it remains thoroughly Islamic in its orientation. Roy writes,
In order to grasp what is happening in the Middle East, we must set aside a number of deep-rooted prejudices. First among them is the assumption that democracy presupposes secularization: The democratization movement in the Arab world came precisely after thirty years of what has been called the ‘return of the sacred,’ an obvious process of re-Islamization of everyday life, coupled with the rise of Islamist parties. The second is the idea that a democrat must also, by definition, be a liberal.
In other words, it is just as Islam has thrived in the Middle East that Arab culture has become increasingly democratized. It is just as young Muslims are taking their faith more and more seriously that politics is going through a process of secularization.
In part, Roy explains, younger Muslims are coming to embrace a form of Islam less associated with political identity and more associated with personally embraced faith. One reason for this is the set of significant demographic changes these Muslims have experienced.
[T]here has been a dramatic decline in fertility across the Arab world… Women have entered universities and the job market. Young people obtain more schooling than their parents did and marry later. Husbands and wives are more often closer to each other in age and level of education. They have fewer children, with nuclear families replacing extended households. Mobile phones, satellite television, and the Internet have allowed the newer generations to associate, connect, and debate on a ‘peer-to-peer’ basis rather than through a top-down, authoritarian system of knowledge transmission. The young feel less strongly bound to patriarchal customs and institutions that have been unable to cope with the challenges facing contemporary Middle Eastern societies.
As a result of these political changes, Roy argues,
The young are more individualistic and less prone to feel the pull of holistic ideologies, whether Islamist or nationalist… The failure of political Islam that I pointed to twenty years ago is now obvious. This does not mean that Islamist parties are absent from the political playing field – quite the contrary. But their utopian conception of an ‘Islamic state’ has lost credibility.
Democratization, in short, is resulting from profound social and cultural changes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda is “yesterday’s news” and younger Muslims are interested in a different form of Islamic practice. Even the Salafists “are recasting religion as a code and a set of clear-cut norms disconnected from tradition and culture.” The new form of Islamic practice “delinks personal faith from traditions, collective identity, and external authority.”
Young ‘born-again’ Muslims have found their own way by surfing the Internet or joining local peer groups. They have criticized the cultural Islam of their parents and have tried to construct their own brand of Islam, one that feels more like a matter of conviction and less like an inherited habit.Religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice.
And what is the political result of all of this?
This individualization and diversification have had the unexpected consequence of disconnecting religion from daily politics, of bringing religion back into the private sphere and excluding it from that of government management. Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society.
To be sure, the secularization of politics should not be conflated with political secularism or with liberalism. Most Muslims continue to want Islamic convictions or shari’a law to serve as the guide and foundation for civil law. But there is less faith in the ability of Islamists to “change a society by decree,” and as Roy demonstrates by numerous examples from recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, even the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are increasingly conforming to the democratic game.
Why? Because the increasing emphasis on the role of religion in every area of life, alongside the democratization of that religion, has “given birth to a variety of religious movements.” The multiplication of forms of Islam represents “a willy-nilly democratization of the religious field.” And when so many religious groups are competing with one another, democratic politics becomes a necessity.
Again, the point is not that Islam is no longer viewed as relevant for politics. But its relevance is more in the way of values and moral commitments rather than authority. Increasingly Muslims are recognizing that even shari’a law is more of a “reference point” than an “autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law.” Indeed, as Roy notes, “Instead of the secularization of society, we might do better to speak of the ‘autonomization’ of politics from religion and of religion from politics, due to the diversification of the religious field and the inability to reconstruct religion as a political ideology.”
These are fascinating developments, and there are numerous points of analogy with the experience of Christians in the modernization, secularization, and democratization of the West. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at some of these points of analogy.
In a fascinating column in RealClearReligion the famous sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins compares the radical Islam of figures like Sayyid Qutb (author of Milestones and an intellectual father of modern day Islamism) with 16th Century Calvinism. Jenkins’s overall point is to demonstrate that a religion often evolves in positive ways only by first passing through dark times. In the case of the West, he suggests, the Enlightenment followed the radicalism and iconoclasm of the Reformation; Protestants had to destroy much of what came before them in medieval Christianity in order to forge new ways to the future.
In the process of making this argument Jenkins accurately portrays a side of 17th Century Calvinism that most present-day Calvinists would find troubling. Speaking of the Dutch Reformed iconoclasts of the 1560s, he writes,
Beyond smashing images, the insurgents had other ideas that look strikingly familiar to anyone familiar with radical Islam today, with thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi.
The Calvinists of the 1560s sought to remodel society on the basis of theocratic Old Testament law strictly interpreted, with the role of the sovereign measured by how far he or she submitted to God’s will. Some thinkers devised a pioneering theory of tyrannicide, justifying the removal of any allegedly Christian ruler who betrayed Christ’s true church. Protestant radicals pursued a harsh policy of reading rival believers out of the faith, defining the followers of images as utterly anti-Christian, deadly enemies of God.
In the English-speaking world, the heirs of 1566 were the Puritans, the radicals who dreamed of an austere New England. When Puritans seized power in England itself in the 1640s, their agents toured the country, smashing statues and windows in every parish church they could find. By the 1640s, at the height of Europe’s death struggle between Protestants and Catholics, Calvinist ideas that to us seem intolerably theocratic dominated not just the Netherlands, but also New England, Switzerland and Scotland, and were struggling for ascendancy in the whole British Isles. Religious zeal often expressed itself through witchcraft persecutions.
To be sure, what Jenkins describes here was not true of all Calvinists. John Calvin himself, living in an earlier century, explicitly rejected the sort of strict allegiance to the Old Testament civil law that Jenkins here describes, and he absolutely rejected the theories of tyrannicide and rebellion articulated by some of his followers. But Jenkins nevertheless accurately describes a strand of Calvinism, and his description of the violence and disorder that was sparked by radical Calvinist notions of what allegiance to God in the public square demanded is truthful, if not representative of the whole tradition.
One question we might ask here is to what extent was this old militant Calvinism different from the Islamism with which our nation is in conflict today. If Calvinists today were advocating theories of resistance and revolution, or if they were suggesting that the current U.S. government of Barack Obama is illegitimate such that Christians do not owe it allegiance, would the state have to launch a campaign against them as well? What if they were defending tyrannicide, based on the belief that Barack Obama is a tyrant?
Actually, this is not so theoretical. If there is one thing I have learned since starting this blog, it is that there are a number of Calvinists out there today who would espouse virtually all of these views (perhaps even tyrannicide? I’m not sure …). I don’t think most Reformed Christians give the time of day to these thinkers, but there is a minority that is with them all the way.
These people are some of the most vocal critics of the two kingdoms doctrine that is being advocated with various nuances by figures such as Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen, and they are certainly hostile to any sort of criticism of the culture war model of political engagement. As they like to point out, modern day two kingdoms advocates do not apply their theory exactly like our 16th and 17th Century forbears would have. The contemporary two kingdoms doctrine must therefore be illegitimate – both historically and theologically.
But I would like to ask those who find these arguments persuasive, do you really want to go back to the heyday of Calvinist revolution and theocracy? Is it the American project that you reject – with its commitment to religious liberty and the separation of church and state? And if so, how do you distinguish your own cause from that of the Islamists, especially the more respectable groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or the intellectual followers of Sayyid Qutb? To those who, like me, find this brand of Calvinism profoundly troubling, how do you reject it without some sort of distinction between the two kingdoms, between the kingdom of Jesus, and the political institutions of this age?
Jenkins appreciates the fact that the violence and revolution associated with early Calvinism was an important part of the story of how the democratic liberties and political structures that we take for granted came to exist. Calvinism had its own growing pains, and the best political theological insights from its earlier years need to be extracted from a number of assumptions and applications that were inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. But not every Calvinist views things this way. That’s why we need to keep making the point.
Keen to portray the uprising as a sectarian insurrection by extreme elements of the Sunni Muslim majority posing a vicious threat to minorities, Mr Assad has often wheeled out bishops and nuns to express devotion to his regime and to condemn supposed foreign interference. Yet they do not carry their flocks with them.
Amounting to about 10% of the country’s 23m people, Syria’s Christians increasingly, if still often privately, express sympathy for the opposition. In battered cities, behind closed doors in living rooms cluttered with statues of the Virgin Mary, many grumble about the bloody crackdown. Christians and Muslims often attend funerals together for the victims of government violence, such as Basil Shehadeh, a young Christian film-maker recently killed in Homs, Syria’s third city. Christians are well represented in the political opposition. The Syrian National Council, a group mainly of exiles, includes several. The “local co-ordination committees”, as activists’ cells are known, contain numerous Christians. A church-based group ferries medicine around the country to help the victims of repression.
Of course, this does not mean Syrian Christians are unaware of the dangers of an Islamist regime.
On social networks Christians send each other cartoons of women draped in the veil and men with bushy beards as harbingers of the new Syria. “I’d rather have this regime than chaos or Islamists,” says a teacher in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, proudly pointing to his scantily clad female family members.
While the revolutions going on in the Middle East certainly increase religious freedom for Muslims, the same is not always the case for Christians. Muslim men in Egypt can now sport beards and Muslim women are beginning to wear burqas, but Christians are worried. As events in Tunisia make clear, freedom of expression for Muslims is often accompanied by the repression of those not committed to Islamic standards of modesty or blasphemy.
The best way forward is for the Arab world to figure out a way to respect pluralism and religious liberty while avoiding the pitfalls of both radical secularism and radical Islamism. Christians in the west have long made the distinction between morality (and religion) and politics, while never entirely separating the two. And the reality is that even most Muslims who live in the United States have adapted to the American version of secularity. The question remains, will majority Muslim countries find a way to do the same?