Islam, the Ideology
First and foremost it is crucially important to differentiate between the philosophy Islam and a demographic group that is often nominally associated with the religion, i.e. Muslims. To collapse all distinctions, assuming that Muslim always means a devout practitioner of Islam and Islam is whatever Muslims do, is to abandon any concern with reality and the complex meaning of words. My Almanac states that Turkey is 99.8% Muslim; yet it is common knowledge that Turkey is one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. Sometimes the demographic label means nothing more than that one’s ancestors once practiced the religion. Many Muslims (like nominal adherents of any religion) are lax or lapsed; or they may practice their religion in a perfunctory or selective manner. These distinctions are important to get a full picture of the vastly divergent people.
When approaching a religious philosophy one consults the texts and examines the mythology, paying special attention to the example of the religion’s founding figure. Reform movements, of course, modify the picture as a secondary factor but one can still proceed in the same manner.
What defines a reformed and moderate version of the religion? First of all, there is an important difference between a lax practice and a moderate version of a religion. For a moderate version we usually see one of several signs: new texts partially superseding the old, major theologians as authorities of reform, separation from other denominations, etc. A textual approach is clearly philosophical and differs from the anthropological/sociological approach used by some historians and commentators of the current scene. That approach also has merit.
At present there is a taboo against a critical analysis of the religion of Islam – especially if there is a possibility that it may result in a negative assessment. I’ve been criticize on several venues for my critical stance or I’ve been urged to make equally critical assessments of other religions. This is not how knowledge is established. A disposition requiring a desirable outcome is nothing more than a prejudice – a positive prejudice – but a pre-judgment nevertheless.
Under the current atmosphere all critical effort has been directed towards the encouragement of Moderate Islam. I’ve argued that secularization has a significant tradition within Islamic countries while Moderate Islam has severe problems; Islam’s structural limitations diminish its prospects as a foundation for a sustained liberal order.
Advocating a new moderate turn instead of secularization makes the religion central (which in important senses had been marginalized until 40 years ago) and demoralizes advocates of secularization. Take the example of our government’s respect for the Koran and the extreme measures the administration takes to show respect for the religion. This demonstrates Islam’s power to Muslims and demoralizes the secularists. Even moderates worry. I remember Irshad Manji responding with dismay to Koran-gate and the initial bi-partisan assumption that Islam be treated with kid-gloves. She worried about a broader message: criticism of Islam is forbidden if it inflames Muslims anywhere in the world. Muslims – particularly devout jihadists – effectively have veto-power over discussions about Islam.
Without the possibility of severe criticism, the prospects for moderate reformers will slip away. During the 13th century, it was the secular doctrines of Aristotle that challenged the Church. During Locke’s time, philosophy continued to moderate religion. This continues even today. No religion is as criticized as Christianity and its many variants.
Is it possible to undertake a critical examination of Islam? In France it is virtually illegal to criticize Islam; in Italy it is illegal and one author is now charged with “vilifying a religion.” We still have our First Amendment rights; but that comes with a civic obligation to exercise those rights and speak out against any injustice or harmful ideas as counseled by our best judgment.
If, as I argue elsewhere, Islam is at its core an illiberal political ideology (it was certainly created as a state-religion), it should be criticized as any such ideology – for example, communism. And like communism during the Cold War, political speech is protected under the First Amendment while actual acts of violence are a proper concern of the state.
We should also remember that the vilification of innocent individuals brought disgrace to the critics of communism. One should avoid such injustice today. As usual, judge people as individuals looking beyond nominal designations to discover the truth. That’s why it is doubly important to realize a philosophical analysis is not a demographic analysis.
There comes a time when a society’s culture is dominated by an ideology or a nation is ruled by a clique driven by an ideology. If one judges a societies’ culture lacking to a significant extent, one’s preferred course of action is avoidance, just as one would if one found an individual’s character objectionable. While I don’t write about foreign policy I generally prefer disengagement and severing ties, as I’ve mentioned on one occasion. Otherwise establishing a deterrent is the wise course of action. I respect those who wish to reform and aid the fledging democracy abroad – indeed, I cheer every success along the way – but in the long-run I hope a less ambitious policy is adopted.
If we are to understand the Islamic revival, the threat it poses civilization, and the long road ahead, we have to be brutally honest. For this I do not apologize. And if we are to understand the difficulties our fellow countrymen have just discussing this topic, we realize our culture has sunk to a new low, unable to even think in principles – totally reduced to sound-bites, temporal partisan trivia, slogans, and name-calling. It is far more important to focus on the challenges of our own culture. I’ve done this to some extent and hope to move the focus in that direction in the future.