Edward Feser’s Liberalism and Islam

Edward Feser, author of The Last Superstition, is an insightful and thoroughly convincing writer teaching philosophy out of Los Angeles. They’re in addition to their philosophic muscle a writer in support of my Catholic friends out there, who are really blessed to have such an articulate and powerful mind writing in defense of their shared belief in Christ and the Church. Now, in light of recent events surrounding radical Islam, including the ever reliable show of silence by left leaning people in general, I’ve found Feser’s material really very educational, for which I’m sharing it here. So, before getting back to dialogues between myself and others sometime in the near future, let’s study again the relationship between Islam and modern “enlightened” people. If you’ve ever wondered why people who insist they’re in support of women, children and homosexuals are caught in bed with Islam, an idea which in 99% of its incarnations (including the one practiced by Mohammad himself) utterly terrorizes women, children and homosexuals, please read on, we’re setting our phaser to stun.*


― T. C. M

Note: What follows is pretty long, especially if you think of it as a blog post.  So think of it instead as an article.  The topic does not, in any event, lend itself to brevity.  Nor do I think it ideal to break up the flow of the argument by dividing the piece into multiple posts.  So here it is in one lump.  It is something of a companion piece to my recent post about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Critics of that post will, I think, better understand it in light of this one.

In an article in The New Criterion over a decade ago, the late political scientist Kenneth Minogue noted a developing tendency in contemporary progressivism toward “Christophobia,” a movement beyond mere disbelief in Christian doctrine toward outright hostility.  The years since have hardly made Minogue’s observation less timely.  The New Atheism, the first stirrings of which Minogue cited in the article, came to full prominence (and acquired the “New Atheism” label) later in the decade in which he wrote.  The Obama administration’s attempt to impose its contraception mandate on Catholic institutions evinces a disdain for rights of conscience that would have horrified earlier generations of liberals.  Opponents of “same-sex marriage” have in recent years found themselves subject to loss of employment, cyber-mobbing, and even death threats — all in the name of progressivism.  If contempt for Christian moral teaching still hides behind a mask of liberal neutrality, Hillary Clinton let that mask slip further still when she recently insisted that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” in order to accommodate easy access to abortion.  Not all liberals approve of these developments, of course.  But demographic trends indicate that a Christophobic brand of progressivism may have little difficulty finding new recruits.

Now, how do contemporary liberals view Islam?  How would one expect them to, given their principles, and given the principles and practice of Islam?  Consider that, like Christianity, Islamic moral teaching unequivocally condemns homosexual behavior, extramarital sex, and the sexual revolution in general.  Feminism has, to put it mildly, had little effect on Islam, which is traditionally highly patriarchal.  In Islam, men can have multiple wives, but wives cannot have multiple husbands.  Men can marry non-Muslim women, but women cannot marry non-Muslim men.  The authority of husbands over wives goes far beyond anything feminists objected to in 1950s America.  Rules governing divorce, custody of children, inheritance, and legal testimony all strongly favor men.  In many modern Muslim countries, the implementation of this patriarchal system takes forms which modern Western women would find unimaginably repressive.  Women are expected to cover their bodies in public to a greater or lesser extent, the burqa being the most extreme case.  In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive, to go out in public without a chaperone, or to interact with men to whom they are not related.  In some Muslim countries, husbands have a right to discipline their wives with beatings.  In some, female genital mutilation is widely practiced.  “Honor killings” of women thought to have brought shame upon their families often occur not only in Muslim countries, but in Western countries with large Muslim populations.  Of course, not all Muslims approve of all of this.  Nor or is it by any means the whole story about women in Islamic society, and Muslims emphasize the way Islam improved the situation of women compared to pre-Islamic Arabia.   The point, though, is that it is far from being a marginal part of the story.

Consider also that the punishments for crime traditionally sanctioned within Islam can be unbelievably harsh by modern Western standards — cutting off the hands of thieves, whipping fornicators, stoning adulterers, and so forth — and while such punishments have been abandoned by most Muslim countries, there are a few in which they are still employed.  Liberal standards of freedom of thought and expression have no echo in traditional Islamic doctrine.  No Muslim is permitted to convert to another religion, and apostasy may be punished with death.  There is nothing comparable to the liberal separation of religion from politics, and Islam is expected to dominate the public sphere no less than the private.  While Jews, Christians, and other “People of the Book” are afforded some liberty of religious practice, historically they were expected to obey the Islamic political authority and to pay a special tax.  Adherents of other religions, particularly polytheists, had no rights.  Again, not all Muslims would agree with every aspect of traditional practice.  Moreover, modern Muslim countries do not all implement this privileging of Islam to the same extent.  Still, in some — Saudi Arabia being a notorious example — the freedom of non-Muslims to practice their own religion is severely restricted.

Consider too that theological liberalism has few takers in contemporary Islam.  In particular, historical-critical methods of studying scripture, and accommodations of theological doctrine to philosophical naturalism, modern science, and post-Enlightenment moral and political sensibilities, have had little influence within the Islamic world.  Then there is the fact that the history of Islam from its beginnings through the medieval period and down to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is unambiguously imperialistic and militaristic.  Modern terrorism is largely (even if not entirely) a jihadist phenomenon, just as public perception would have it and occasional spin to the contrary notwithstanding.  As in other contexts, so too where war is concerned, not all contemporary Muslims would approve of every aspect of traditional Islamic practice.   Certainly many contemporary Muslims would condemn terrorism and attacks upon civilians.  Still, and needless to say, the antiwar idealism that has been so much a part of liberal rhetoric (if not always of liberal practice) since the 1960s finds little echo in the Islamic world.

All of this is, of course, well known.  My point in rehearsing it here is neither to compare Islam unfavorably to other religions, nor, for the moment, to suggest that any of the facts rehearsed reflects inherent (as opposed to historically contingent) features of Islam, though I will address that question below.  The point is rather this.  Western Christianity has largely accommodated itself to liberalism.  Give or take a few standout episodes (such as the French Revolution), it has less political power now than at any time since before Constantine.  And the more any of its tenets are out of sync with liberalism, the less likely even prominent churchmen are to talk about those tenets in public or to put much emphasis on them in private.  Christianity, in short, has effectively been “tamed” by liberalism.  And yet liberal Christophobia has only increased.  You might think, then, that Islamophobia would be an even greater tendency within liberalism, given how very much farther out of sync contemporary Islam is with contemporary liberal mores and policy.  And a few prominent left-of-center voices — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher — have indeed been highly critical of Islam.

But in fact most liberals exhibit exactly the opposite tendency.  Probably many liberal readers of this article, including those happy to rehearse the purported sins of Christianity, will have been made uncomfortable by the list of facts about Islam rehearsed above.  To say anything which might seem in any way to put Islam in a bad light is to risk having flung at one the now-routine accusation of “anti-Muslim bigotry.”  The tendency is to downplay every aspect of historical and contemporary Islam which is irreconcilable with liberalism, to search out and call attention to aspects which are (or can be interpreted as) favorable to or at least compatible with liberalism, and to insist that the latter alone are representative of “genuine” Islam.  In his New Criterion article, Minogue noted how Christophobia has been conjoined with an “extraordinary solicitude for Islamic sensibilities in Western states since 9/11” — since 9/11, take note.  Despite 9/11, and indeed, one is tempted to say even because of 9/11.  Every new jihadist attack seems, as if by a kind of reverse inductive reasoning, to make some liberals even more confident in their judgment that there is no essential connection between Islam and terrorism, and that Islam and liberal values are ultimately reconcilable.

The concomitant of Christophobia, then, seems to be not Islamophobia but rather a kind of Islamophilia, and the condemnation of Islamophobia as itself a manifestation of the purported evils of traditional Christianity.  Nor is it only in liberal perception of current events that Christophobia and Islamophilia are conjoined.  As Minogue also observed, one of the ritualistic liberal expressions of Islamophilia is an incessant “apologizing for the Crusades” — this despite the fact that the Crusades, while far from morally spotless in their execution, were essentially defensive responses to medieval Islamic aggression, as actual historians of the Crusades like Jonathan Riley-Smith and Thomas Madden never tire of demonstrating.   Modern Westerners apologizing for the Crusades is like Eliot Ness’s descendents apologizing to Al Capone’s descendents for some of Ness’s men having gotten a bit rough with some of Capone’s men.

So, we have a paradox.  Considered both historically and in terms of its contemporary manifestations, Islam would appear to be the least liberal of religions.  Nor is it easy to see why any devout Muslim would want to accommodate his religion to liberalism — especially when he sees how liberals have come to treat Christianity after having tamed it.  Yet liberals by and large seem to think such an accommodation is not only possible but highly likely.  Why?  Is there something in Islam that liberals have seen that others have not?  Or are liberal hopes delusional?

The answer, I would say, is that liberal hopes are delusional, breathtakingly delusional, almost preternaturally delusional.  There is no hope whatsoever for any accommodation between Islam and liberalism.  Since I am neither a liberal nor a Muslim I do not mean this either as criticism or as praise of either system of thought, but just as a straightforward statement of fact grounded in an analysis of the nature of each of the systems.

The key to understanding the nature of each system, and to seeing why they are incompatible, also happens to be the key to understanding why liberalism is prone to both Christophobia and Islamophilia.  That key is to see that each of these systems is a kind of heresy.  The term may seem polemical, but I am using it in an analytical rather than a polemical sense.  “Heresy” derives from the Greek hairesis — a “choosing” or “taking,” from some system of thought, one part of it to the exclusion of the rest.  For example, monophysitism is a Christological heresy which “chooses” Christ’s divine nature to the exclusion of his human nature; Sabellianism is a Trinitarian heresy which “chooses” the unity of God to the exclusion of the distinctness of the divine Persons; and so forth.  As these examples indicate, a heresy typically involves taking an aspect of a system of thought that also includes another, crucial balancing aspect, and leaving out the balancing aspect.  When I say that liberalism and Islam are heresies — and I do mean Christian heresies, specifically — what I mean is that each has, in effect if not in explicit intention, “chosen” or “taken” certain aspects of Christianity to the exclusion of other, balancing aspects.

Which aspects?  Christianity draws a clear distinction between the natural order and the supernatural order, and between the sacred and the secular, and has tried to maintain a proper balance between each side of each of these distinctions.  Islam, by contrast, tends to emphasize the supernatural and the sacred to the exclusion of the natural and the secular.  Liberalism, at the other extreme, tends to emphasize the natural and the secular to the exclusion of the supernatural and the sacred.  I don’t mean to say that the exclusions are always thoroughgoing; they are not.  There have, in the centuries since Muhammad, been Muslim thinkers who take the natural and the secular seriously, and there have in the centuries-old liberal tradition been thinkers who have taken the sacred and the supernatural seriously.  But the exclusionary tendencies are real and they are strong, and that they are tendencies in diametrically opposed directions should give some clue as to why any attempt to harmonize liberalism and Islam is doomed to failure.  But let’s examine all of this more closely, beginning with the Christian balance which each of these other systems upsets.

Church and state

Christianity arose in a position of extreme weakness relative to the state, and remained in this position for centuries.  Moreover, despite unambiguously affirming the state’s legitimacy (as in chapter 13 of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example), the early Church was subject to relentless persecution by the state.  These contingent historical factors might have been enough to guarantee that Christianity would come to regard Church and state as having fundamentally different missions.  But Christian doctrine entails that in any case.  Though the Jews of his day hoped for a political Messiah who would take up arms and free them from Roman domination, Christ famously declared: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  He also commanded: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), indicating that the political and religious orders are distinct.  The letter to the Hebrews teaches that the patriarchs of old — who are models for the Christian to follow —  “were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one” and that God has indeed “prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11: 13, 16).  The letter to the Philippians says that “our commonwealth is in heaven” (3:20).  St. Augustine distinguished between the “earthly city” and the City of God.  And so forth.

There has from the very beginning of Christian teaching, then, been a clear distinction between the religious and the political, between the sacred and the secular, between Church and state.  (Notice that I said a “distinction” between Church and state; I did not say a “separation,” which is a very different idea, to which I will return below.)  The distinction would eventually come to be given a theoretical articulation in terms of a further distinction between the natural order and the supernatural order.

The natural order of things is just the world of creatures acting in a way that reflects their natures.  Lions hunt their prey, birds fly, trees grow, water flows, and so on, just by virtue of being lions, birds, trees, water, etc.  It is just natural for these things to act in those particular ways.  “Natural” here contrasts both with what is contrary to nature and with what is beyond the power of nature.  For example, a lion’s lacking four limbs or having no desire to eat would be contrary to nature in the sense that these are not the sorts of things that would be true of a mature and healthy lion.  A lion which has fewer than four limbs or which has no desire to eat would be defective in some way, would fail to manifest the characteristics that naturally flow from having the nature of a lion.  A lion which could fly through the air, on the other hand, would be acting in a way that is beyond the power of nature, since there is nothing in the nature even of mature and healthy lions which would give them such an ability.  Only something outside the lion — a human being strapping a jet pack onto the lion, say, or God causing a miracle — could impart such a power to it.

What is “natural” in this sense determines what is good or bad for a thing.  Given its distinctive nature, a lion has to hunt and eat if it is to survive and flourish; given its distinctive nature, a tree has to sink roots and take in nutrients through them if it is to survive and flourish; and so on.  Lions or trees that failed to do these things would be defective qua lions or trees, would in that sense be bad specimens of their kind.  Lions and trees which do realize these ends are to that extent good instances of their kinds.

Human beings are also part of the natural order.  Their nature is that of rational animals, and so not only their corporeal activities (eating, sleeping, reproducing, walking, seeing, hearing, and so forth) but also their intellectual and volitional activities (i.e. thinking and willing) are natural in the relevant sense.  Now, being rational animals, human beings can (unlike inanimate things, plants, and non-human animals) understand their nature and choose whether or not to pursue what that nature determines to be good for them.  This is why their realization of that good, or failure to realize it, can be morally good or bad.  And because we can therefore know what is morally good or bad for us just by virtue of knowing our nature, there is such a thing as a natural law, a body of moral knowledge that is available to us apart from any special divine revelation.

Now for the Christian tradition, just as for the classical Western philosophical tradition that Christianity incorporated, human beings are also by nature social and political animals.  It is natural for us to form families, larger communities, and governments to administer the affairs of those larger communities.  The state is in that sense a natural institution.  It is something the need and legitimacy of which can be known as part of the natural law.  Part of what that entails is that it is not something that is entirely our invention, any more than our natures are our invention.  We determine the specific forms the state may take, but the need for and legitimacy of some state or other is not something we determine, but flows from nature.  That the state is a natural institution also entails that it is not something which exists only as a result of some special divine action, like the sending of a prophet.  It could and indeed would exist even if no prophets had ever been sent.

To be sure, the natural order of things is by no means to be understood in atheistic terms.  On the contrary, nothing could exist or operate even for an instant without divine conservation of things in being and concurrence with their every activity.  Moreover, for the mainstream Christian tradition, this is something which can be known via purely philosophical arguments, i.e. by way of natural theology.  And a complete system of natural law would take account of the truths of natural theology.  Hence it would include, as part of our natural obligations, the duty to worship God, both individually and communally.  To that extent, even the state as a purely natural institution would be obliged to recognize and honor God.  And it would uphold other aspects of natural law as well.

However, it is only God as understood by way of natural theology, the God of the philosophers, that the natural law teaches all human beings to recognize, and that the natural law directs the state to recognize.  Special divine revelation — the sort of theological knowledge which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim to have, and which goes beyond anything which natural reason or philosophy could arrive at — has nothing to do with it.  And thus the Church has nothing to do with it.  Given just the natural law, there could — in principle, at least — have been a situation in which the state exists, and in which the state even recognizes the God of the philosophers, but in which there were no prophets sent, no miraculous suspensions of the natural order, no special divine revelation, no divinely inspired books, no Church founded.  This would not have been an atheistic order of things, but it would not have been a Christian order of things either.  It would have been a purely natural order of things, and in that sense (even if not in the modern, desiccated sense) a purely secular order.

What Christianity introduces, and what the Church introduces, is something supernatural — “supernatural,” not in the idiotic sense modern people associate with that word (having to do with ghosts, goblins, werewolves, etc.), but rather in the original sense of something that goes beyond, exceeds, and adds to a thing’s nature.  In particular, Christianity teaches that God has in his grace opened to us the possibility of knowing Him in a far more intimate way than we would ever naturally be able to via mere philosophy.  It promises the possibility of the beatific vision, a direct knowledge of the divine essence which the unaided human intellect could never even in theory attain.  God gives us a small foretaste of this knowledge by specially revealing to us his Trinitarian nature, something we could not possibly have arrived at through natural theology alone.  He has become Incarnate to remedy the loss of this supernatural end suffered by our first parents, to whom it was offered.  To the virtues of which human beings can have knowledge via natural law (such as justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom) he adds the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity).  And so forth.  He institutes the Church — a supernatural institution in the sense that it is founded by a special divine act and did not arise merely in the natural course of human affairs — to assist us in realizing this supernatural end, by means of the sacraments, by means of her teaching authority, etc.

Now, our supernatural end, and the Church’s supernatural mission in helping us to achieve it, do not negate the natural law or natural institutions like the state.  Grace raises nature to something it could not have otherwise achieved, but it does not destroy it in the process.  The state remains a natural institution, the Church a supernatural one.  The state is still grounded in natural law, the Church in special divine revelation.  The state retains its mission of facilitating the realization of our natural ends, the Church her mission of facilitating the realization of our supernatural end.  Hence the state and the Church remain distinct.  Are they separate, though?  That is to say, though different institutions with different origins and different missions, should they work together and assist one another in realizing their respective purposes?  Or should they run on parallel and completely disconnected tracks?

That depends.  In the Catholic context, the traditional teaching, vigorously and repeatedly upheld by the 19th century and pre-Vatican II 20th century popes, is that ideally Church and state ought to cooperate.  Contrary to an annoyingly common misunderstanding, these popes were not teaching that non-Catholics ought to be coerced by the state into becoming Catholics.  Nor were they teaching that non-Catholics should be forbidden from practicing their own religions in the privacy of their own homes, their own church buildings or synagogues, etc.  Rather, the issue was whether, in a country in which the vast majority of citizens were Catholic, non-Catholics ought to be permitted to proselytize and thereby possibly lead Catholics to abandon their faith.  It was not denied that there can be circumstances in which such proselytizing might be tolerated for the sake of civil order.  The question was whether non-Catholics have a strict right in justice to proselytize even in a majority Catholic society.  And the pre-Vatican II popes taught that they did not have such a right, and that in a Catholic country the state could in principle justly restrict such proselytizing (even if there are also cases where the state might not exercise its right to such restriction, if this would do more harm than good).

This was the teaching which Vatican II seemed to reverse, though the relevant document, Dignitatis Humanae, explicitly taught that it was “leav[ing] untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”  Yet whether the principles set out in Dignitatis Humanae really can be reconciled with the principles set out by the pre-Vatican II popes, how exactly they are to be reconciled if they can be, and which principles are more authoritative and ought to be retained if they cannot be reconciled — these have all been matters of controversy.  They are controversies most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have avoided.  The reason, it seems to me, is that the older teaching is extremely unpopular in modern times, and thus whatever its current doctrinal status, most Catholics are happy to let it remain a dead letter and leave its precise relationship to Dignitatis Humanae unsettled.  Yet a question unanswered and ignored is still a real question, and there are scholars who have in different ways attempted to apply to this one a “hermeneutic of continuity,” including Thomas Storck, Fr. Brian Harrison, and Thomas Pink.

But this is not a question which can be, or needs to be, settled here.  What is clear even on the most conservative interpretation is that since the state is a natural institution and the Church a supernatural one, it is possible for there to be states which are not per se unjust even if they do not give any special recognition or assistance to the Church.  For of course, it could have turned out that there was no divine supernatural offer to us at all, and thus no Church at all, but in which the natural law, and thus the state, still existed.  And of course, there were states in existence before the Church existed, and they weren’t per se unjust merely because there wasn’t yet any Church around for them to recognize and assist.  Furthermore, there are and have been since the time the Church was founded states in which few or none of the citizens are Christian, and thus in which the Church has no presence at all.  And not even the most conservative Catholic position on matters of Church and state would say that such states are intrinsically unjust merely for that reason.

The bottom line, then, is this.  According to Christian teaching, Church and state are irreducibly distinct institutions, each with its own unique foundation and mission.  They may assist one another and in that sense not be “separate.”  On the most conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching, under some circumstances they ought to assist one another and thus not be “separate.”  But a circumstance in which the state does not give special recognition or assistance to the Church — or, more generally, to some theological doctrine specially revealed via a prophet, sacred book, etc. — is at worst not ideal.  It is not per se abnormal, unnatural, or unjust.  The secular order (which, you’ll recall, is not the same thing as an atheistic order, even if it is not a Christian order) has a legitimacy of its own.  This, as we will see, is very different from the way Islam views things.  But first let’s look more closely at liberalism.

Liberalism and religion

The liberal tradition essentially begins with Hobbes and Locke.  What it inherits and preserves from Christianity is the idea that Church and state are distinct and have different missions, and that the state’s mission is something which can be determined from natural law or unaided reason rather than special divine revelation.  But it departs from the Christian tradition in several crucial ways.  First, it introduces a highly desiccated notion of the “natural” and thus a highly desiccated notion of reason and natural law.  Second, it does not regard the state as natural but as entirely man-made, though it still regards the state as rational insofar as it takes us to have good rational grounds for creating it.  Third, it tends to regard revelation, and indeed religion in general, not only as distinct from the order of natural or unaided reason, but as positively at odds with reason.  Fourth, for that reason it regards the Church as something which is not only distinct from the state but which ought always and in principle to be kept rigorously separate from the state, or indeed even subordinate to the state.  Fifth, given its desiccated notion of “nature” and tendency to pit religion in general against reason, it also has a tendency to exclude even the generic theism of natural theology from the political order.  In short, from Christianity, liberalism “chooses” or “takes” the natural and secular, radically redefines them, and excludes the supernatural and the sacred.  And in that sense it is a kind of “heresy.”

But let’s walk through this more slowly.  In Hobbes we see the transformation of the natural law tradition into “state of nature” theory.  In Hobbes’s state of nature, there is no state, and there is no nature either, not in the sense in which the ancients and the medievals understood “nature.”  For Hobbes rejects the classical philosophical categories in terms of which natural law had traditionally been understood.  As a nominalist, he denies that there are any universal natures or essences of things.  As a mechanist, he denies that there are in nature any final causes, any ends towards which things are by nature directed.  So, there is for him no such thing as any good toward which all human beings are naturally directed.  There are just the individual human beings and the diverse desires they actually happen to have, and that’s that.  Reason is not a faculty by which we might discover what we should desire given our nature or essence qua human, but just a tool we use to calculate the best way to get what we do in fact desire as individuals.  For Hobbes, then, our natural state is just to do whatever it is we want to do.  The “state of nature” is a state of perfect license.

Hobbes was well aware that this by no means entailed a hippie paradise.  On the contrary, he famously judged in Leviathan that the inevitable result of everyone pursuing his idiosyncratic desires would be complete chaos, with “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  So, though we’re naturally not social or political, but rather just individuals pursuing our idiosyncratic desires, it is in our self-interest to “contract” with one another to form the state, as an instrument by which the chaos might be prevented.  Laws which we are obliged to obey come into existence with the state, and we are obliged to obey them only because we have contracted to do so by virtue of having contracted to form the state.  But part of the deal is that this state must have absolute power, because if it does not — if there is a separation of powers within the state, or institutions of civil society which might balance state power, and in particular a Church which is not subject to the state — then the chaos will simply be relocated rather than eliminated.  Rather than individuals with their idiosyncratic aims — none of which is objectively better than any other — constantly in conflict with one another, we will have institutions with their idiosyncratic aims — none of which is objectively better than any other — constantly in conflict with one another.  So, everything must be subject to the state, including the Church.

Locke was, to say the least, not happy with the more illiberal consequences of Hobbes’s liberal premises.  So he tinkered with the premises to get a happier outcome.  (Call it an early exercise in John Rawls’s method of “reflective equilibrium.”)  Like Hobbes, he rejects the classical metaphysics of the medieval natural law tradition, and like Hobbes, he does not regard the state as a natural institution but a man-made one.  But unlike Hobbes, he thinks there are laws binding on us even in the state of nature, before governments are founded and even apart from our consenting to those laws.  Since, given his metaphysics, he cannot ground these natural laws in human nature in quite the way the medievals did, he grounds them instead in God’s ownership of us.  That is to say, even in the state of nature, there are moral grounds for us not to harm others, since to do so would be to damage God’s property.  Hence the state of nature is not as nasty as Hobbes made it out to be, and the remedy to its defects therefore needn’t be as drastic as Hobbes’s remedy.  That is to say, it needn’t be an absolutist state, but a far more limited government.

So far Locke might seem much closer to the medievals than to Hobbes.  Indeed, so central is natural theology to his conception of natural law that he took the view that atheism should not be tolerated even by the liberal state, since he regarded it as inherently subversive of the moral and political order.  However, appearances are deceiving.  First, and again, like Hobbes, Locke does not regard the state or the social order as natural to us but as man-made.  Second, he conceives of the rights we derive from God as essentially a kind of property rights over ourselves.  God may own us ultimately, but for everyday practical purposes we can treat ourselves and others as self-owners.  Third, his natural theology notwithstanding, Locke does not think of social and political life as essentially geared toward anything especially noble, such as facilitating our adherence to natural law and thus fulfilling our social nature and attaining moral virtue.  As he makes clear in the Letter Concerning Toleration, the state exists only to enable us more easily to pursue the private earthly individual interests that would have been our focus in the state of nature:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interest I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

Fourth, Locke’s natural theology, stripped as it is of the classical philosophical foundations to which ancient and medieval natural theology appealed, is in any case underdeveloped and problematic, and had little influence on the later liberal tradition.

Fifth, Locke’s position on relations between the state and revealed religion (as opposed to natural theology) is far from the medieval Christian position.  For one thing, not only are Church and state distinct, but they must in his view be kept separate, and the state not only need not but may not offer any special recognition or assistance to any religious body, even if its citizens were to consent to this.  For another thing, while the state must therefore tolerate various competing religions, this toleration is to be extended only to those religions compatible with the liberal conception of politics.  Locke goes so far as to work this into his conception of true religion, claiming in his Letter Concerning Toleration that “toleration [is] the chief characteristic mark of the true church.”  And for these reasons Locke held that Catholicism should not be tolerated.  For Catholicism does not hold (and certainly did not hold in Locke’s day) that religions other than itself must be tolerated, and it requires that Catholics’ first loyalty be to the pope rather than to the liberal state.  (See my book Locke for more detailed discussion of the various aspects of Locke’s philosophy.)

So, what survived from Locke is essentially the idea that we are self-owning individuals who create society and government for the purpose of facilitating the pursuit of our private earthly interests, and that religions can be tolerated only to the extent that they conform themselves to this liberal conception of the social and political order.  The “selective toleration” side of Lockeanism today echoes most loudly in the work of John Rawls, who insists that the liberal state be neutral between all “comprehensive doctrines” — religions, metaphysical systems, systems of morality, and so forth — but only insofar as they are “reasonable.”  And what makes a comprehensive doctrine “reasonable” is that it endorses liberal egalitarian political institutions, and grounds its public policy recommendations exclusively on premises constituting the common ground or “overlapping consensus” that exists between itself and other such liberal-friendly doctrines.  In short, Rawlsian liberalism is “neutral” between all and only religions and philosophies that are willing to conform themselves to Rawlsian liberalism.

The “self-ownership” side of Lockeanism has been especially influential in contemporary libertarian versions of liberalism, which seek to “privatize” as much of human life as possible, shrinking the state further or even eliminating it altogether, and modeling all human relationships on contractual agreements or market exchanges.  Libertarians and Rawlsians alike would also strenuously object to any suggestion that the state might in any way officially recognize even the generic theism of natural theology, or uphold natural law moral principles.

Whether in its Hobbesian, Lockean, Rawlsian, or libertarian form, then, liberalism “chooses” or “takes” from its Christian inheritance the secular aspect of public life, radically redefines it, and excludes entirely from public life, in principle and not merely pragmatically, the sacred and supernatural.  In this way it is from the point of view of Christian political thought a kind of “heresy.”  (And notice that I have been talking here about the Anglo-American liberal tradition, which is typically regarded as less hostile to religion than the continental liberal tradition.)

Islam and the state

Let us turn now to the opposite extreme point of view represented by Islam.  That Islam is a kind of Christian heresy is a thesis put forward by Hilaire Belloc in his book The Great HeresiesBelloc wrote:

Mohammedanism… began as a heresy, not as a new religion.  It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was — not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing. It differed from most (not from all) heresies in this, that it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church. The chief heresiarch, Mohammed himself, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine to begin with.  He sprang from pagans. But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified. It was the great Catholic world — on the frontiers of which he lived, whose influence was all around him and whose territories he had known by travel — which inspired his convictions. He came of, and mixed with, the degraded idolaters of the Arabian wilderness, the conquest of which had never seemed worth the Romans’ while.

He took over very few of those old pagan ideas which might have been native to him from his descent. On the contrary, he preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church and distinguished it from the paganism which it had conquered in the Greek and Roman civilization. Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of God. The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine: the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone.  The world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in rebellion against God was a part of the teaching, with a chief evil spirit, such as Christendom had recognized. Mohammed preached with insistence that prime Catholic doctrine, on the human side — the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the consequent doctrine of punishment and reward after death.

If anyone sets down those points that orthodox Catholicism has in common with Mohammedanism, and those points only, one might imagine if one went no further that there should have been no cause of quarrel. Mohammed would almost seem in this aspect to be a sort of missionary, preaching and spreading by the energy of his character the chief and fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church among those who had hitherto been degraded pagans of the Desert. (pp. 42-43)

As Belloc goes on to note, what Muhammad rejected — the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Eucharist and with it the priesthood, theological matters which have led to so many doctrinal quarrels in the history of the Church — amounted to a drastic simplification of Christian teaching.  And this simplicity is a key part of Islam’s success.  This is why it is by no means a mere academic quibble, or a concession to political correctness, to argue as I did in a recent post that Christians and Muslims are, despite their deep theological differences, talking about the same God.  For unless one understands this, one will fail to understand the true nature of Islam as a kind of “heresy,” a transformation of Christianity rather than an entirely novel religion.

Plato famously distinguished three parts of the soul — the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part.  You might say that Christianity, with its highly complex system of theological doctrine and otherworldly ethos, appeals most strongly to the rational part of the soul.  Liberalism, which promises material security and license, appeals most strongly to the appetitive part of the soul.  And Islam most appeals to the middle part of the soul, the spirited part — the part moved by anger at perceived injustice, by honor and shame, by the martial virtues, by command and submission rather than endless talk and theological hair-splitting. It is best understood as a streamlined variation on Christianity, a kind of “Christianity lite,” and in particular a Christianity tailor-made for the man of action.

And Muhammad and his followers were definitely men of action.  This brings us to the political side of Islam, which is our main concern here.  Muhammad’s program was religious, to be sure, but by no means merely religious.  Or to be more precise, he did not regard the cultural, moral, legal, economic, military, and political spheres as something distinct from the religious sphere, to which religion may or may not be applied.  They were all just parts of one sphere, the religious sphere, from the get go.  Muhammad was prophet, statesman, legislator, general, and cultural and moral exemplar, all rolled into one.  And Islam was, accordingly, not merely a program of religious reform, but a program of complete social and political reform, every aspect of which — not merely the theological aspect — was grounded in the revelation Muhammad claimed to have received from God.

Not that everyone got with the program, at least not initially.  Muhammad faced opposition, so much so that he famously had to flee from Mecca to Medina.  But this opposition did not succeed for long, and soon the entirety of Arabia, as well as North Africa, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Persia, knew the power of Islam — its temporal power, its political and in particular its military power, no less than its spiritual power.  Muhammad’s kingdom, unlike Christ’s, was from the start very definitely of this world, and his servants certainly fought.  And unlike the Church during the first centuries of Christianity, Islam was not in a weak position relative to the state.  That is not because Islam controlled the state.  It is because Islam was the state.  The caliphate was not a secular power over which Islam had acquired an influence, not a state to which a distinct Islamic “Church” had been annexed.  It was “Church” and state in one.  Or rather, it was all just Islam, because there is in Islam no such thing in the first place as the notion of a “Church” understood as a purely religious institution, which might be distinguished from some other institution called “the state,” to which it may or may not be fused.

It is a fundamental error, then, to try to understand Islam or its history on the model of the relationship between Church and state in Christian history.  To do so — and to suggest on the basis of this analogy that the separation between Church and state that liberalism achieved might be duplicated in the Muslim context — is simply to ignore the actual history of Islam (and, ironically, to impose alien Western categories on Islam in the very act of trying to defend it against its Western critics).  It is particularly absurd to propose, as some Western liberals do, a “separation of mosque and state,” as if the notion of the mosque were the Islamic equivalent of the notion of the Church.  For one thing, the word “church” is ambiguous in English.  It can mean a certain kind of building, or it can mean the Church as an institution, distinct from other institutions like the state, the family, a business corporation, etc.  There is no parallel ambiguity in the word “mosque.”  It’s just a building.  For another thing, it is not a building devoted merely to what Westerners think of as purely religious affairs.  Rather, it is a place wherein the Muslim preacher might also just as well discuss politics, culture, economics, etc. — because, again, these are all just as much a part of the concerns of Islam as purely religious matters are.  The idea of a “separation of mosque and state” is therefore a muddle.

Another part of the radical simplification of Christianity represented by Islam, then, is the collapse of the distinction between the sacred and secular spheres, but in a direction opposite to the collapse to be found in liberalism.  It is a “choosing” or “taking” of the sacred to the exclusion of the secular, what Roger Scruton calls in his book The West and the Rest Islam’s “confiscation of the political” (p. 91).  And it is also, at least for the most part, an absorption of the natural into the supernatural.  For law, in Islam, is essentially the divine law given through the Prophet, and especially through the Quran.  There is no natural law in the sense in which Christianity affirms a natural law.  That is to say, there is no moral and political sphere grounded in a purely natural order distinct from the supernatural order, knowable in principle by unaided reason from the study of that natural order, and having a legitimacy of its own whether or not God specially reveals a distinct supernatural end to which the natural order might be raised.

(To be sure, occasionally one hears of “Islamic natural law theories,” as in the recent book Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue, by Anver Emon, Matthew Levering, and David Novak.  But they turn out on closer inspection to be rather anticlimactic from a Christian point of view.  Emon, a Muslim, acknowledges that pre-modern Muslim jurists were “somewhat nervous” about granting unaided reason authority where law is concerned, and even where they do apply it, it is to questions not already addressed by the Quran or hadith (pp. 148-9).  Furthermore, the approach does not involve appealing to the natures of things, including human nature, considered by themselves, but rather starts with God’s goodness — something primarily known from revelation — and infers to the goodness of his creation, from which further conclusions relevant to law might be inferred.  All of this is very different from the idea that there is a natural order entirely independent of divine revelation from which very general moral and political conclusions might in principle be drawn by unaided reason.)

As I have said, for Christianity, a social and political order that exists utterly independently of special divine revelation in general or the Church in particular is at worst less than ideal.  It is not per se evil, abnormal, or unnatural.  Accordingly, it can have of its own nature a legitimate authority over the Christian, and we can owe our allegiance to it even if our first allegiance is to the Church.  But for Islam, things are very different.  A social and political order that exists utterly independently of Quranic revelation is deeply unnatural and abnormal.  We cannot regard it as having any authority of its nature, but at best as something we might put up with for the time being for pragmatic reasons.  Our only truly binding allegiance is to Islam, understood as a single complete religious, social, political, economic, and cultural system.  And the thing to do with non-Islamic political and social orders in order to make them healthy and normal is, ultimately, to convert them to Islam.

Now, just as it is only the naïve reading of Western categories into Islam that could lead one to compare Islamic history to the history of relations between Church and state, so too only a naïve reading of Western categories into Islam could lead one to think that a historical-critical reading of the Quran might lead Islam to liberalize its conception of the political.  For the Quran is not to be understood on the model of the Bible as Jews and Christians understand it.  The Bible was written by human beings, and bears the marks of the personalities of its authors and the historical and cultural contexts in which they wrote.  No Jew or Christian, no matter how theologically conservative, denies this.  They merely claim that these human authors were divinely guided in writing in such a way that they were preserved from error.

That is not how the Quran is understood in Islam.  It is not in any sense the work of Muhammad.  He did not write it, not even under divine inspiration.  Rather, it is the direct word of God himself, eternally pre-existing its revelation through Muhammad, which “came down” to him from heaven.  To say that the Quran somehow got things wrong is not, for the Muslim, like saying that there are errors in the Bible.  It is more like saying that Christ himself got things wrong.  And to suggest that Quranic teaching reflects a merely contingent historical epoch is like saying that what Christians call the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, reflects a merely contingent historical epoch (whatever that could mean).  For the Muslim to give up this view of the Quran would be like the Christian giving up the infallibility and divinity of Christ.  It would be to give up the religion itself.

The inclusion within the sacred of what Westerners regard as the secular is therefore not the “fundamentalist” Islamic position, but simply the Islamic position full stop.  The illusion that things are otherwise no doubt stems in part from the fact that there are secular states in the Islamic world today.  But this is a historically contingent and highly artificial circumstance that has nothing to do with Islam itself.  It is a holdover from colonial powers like the English and the French, who imposed Western-style systems on the Muslim populations — systems which have been preserved after the departure of the colonial powers, not by the consent of the majority of these populations, but by secularizing autocrats like Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, and the like.  Hence, as Muslim scholar Muzammil Siddiqi notes, “there is a de facto separation of religion and state in the Muslim world,” which is an inheritance from the colonial period:

But the whole legal system of these states, their economic system, political system, educational system are not Islamic.  There is no caliph ruling these states… People have very little say on who runs the government and how.  Muslim countries are divided on ethnic, racial, tribal, linguistic and nationalistic lines.  These are not the principals of an Islamic state… In the Muslim countries today, governments are quite free to interfere in religious matters, but religious people are not allowed to criticize political leaders and governmental authorities. (The Abraham Connection: A Jew, Christian, and Muslim in Dialogue: David M. Gordis, George R. Grose, Muzammil H. Siddiqi, edited by George Grose and Benjamin Hubbard, at pp. 140-41)

Asked whether the American model of separation and Church and state might nevertheless be a model for Muslim governments to adopt, Siddiqi comments:

I do not think that can be done because Islam has its own political system… In order to secularize a society, you have to privatize its religion.  You have to say that religion is a private matter and it is something that a person does with his solitude, between him or her and God.  A state should have its own rules and should function on those principles without any reference to God or a higher authority.

But Islamic law is comprehensive and covers all aspects of life.  It deals with economy, politics, education, international relations, etc.  How can one privatize this religion without reducing it considerably?  Muslim societies have refused to become secular in spite of all the attempts and pressures from inside and outside during the past two centuries.  People do not consider religion as a private matter.  So how can one establish a secular state among Muslims? (p. 141)

It should be noted that this is the opinion of a mainstream American Muslim scholar who was twice invited by President George W. Bush to represent Islam at national prayer services, at Washington National Cathedral and Ground Zero in New York.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I suppose I should also note that Siddiqi was a professor of mine when I double-majored in philosophy and religious studies at California State University, Fullerton, in the early 1990s.)

Religion of peace?

Now, Siddiqi also says that the Islamic political system “guarantees the religious freedom of all people without separating the religion from the state” though he allows that “on the issue of religious freedom, I believe there is need for… further elaboration and refinement by Muslim jurists” (p. 141).  That is putting it mildly, since religious freedom is not the first thing one thinks of when reading the history of Islam.

To be sure, a famous Quranic text declares that “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (The Cow 2:256, Dawood translation), and Jews, Christians, and some others are given a special regard as “People of the Book.”  Then there is the idea that the word “Islam” has the same root as the Arabic word for “peace,” so that Islam can be characterized as a “religion of peace.”  It is also often said that jihad is really about one’s spiritual struggle with himself rather than war with non-Muslims.  Robotically citing such factoids — and thereby essentially engaging in the method of “argument by proof-text” they would dismiss as shallow if employed by a fundamentalist Christian — some liberal Westerners feel justified in rolling over and resuming their dogmatic slumbers.  And taken in isolation, these do seem to provide materials by which a Muslim thinker might develop a justification for some kind of religious toleration.

The problems come when we do not take them in isolation but instead look at them in the context of Islamic teaching as a whole.  Start with the “There is no compulsion in religion” passage.  As is well known, there are also Quranic passages that point in the opposite direction, such as:

Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe neither in Allah nor the Last Day, who do not forbid what Allah and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued. (Repentance 9:29)

“Those to whom the Scriptures were given” are Jews and Christians.  That they are not quite as highly regarded by the Quran as some Western liberals suppose is also evident from this passage:

Had the People of the Book accepted Islam, it would have surely been better for them.  Few of them are true believers, and most of them are evil-doers. (The Imrans 3:110)

Then there are those who are not “People of the Book,” the polytheists:

Tell the unbelievers that if they mend their ways their past shall be forgiven; but if they persist in sin, let them reflect upon the fate of their forefathers.

Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme. (The Spoils 8: 38-39)

We need to take account also of the haditha or sayings of Muhammad outside the Quran, which carry a high degree of authority in Islam.  A famous saying from the hadith collection of al-Bukhari is:

I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat [religious tax].  If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them.

And on the subject of apostasy from Islam, another famous hadith from the same collection says: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”

As to the idea that “jihad” pertains to a spiritual struggle with oneself, the problem is that while the word can mean that, that is simply not its only meaning nor its usual meaning.  Its usual meaning is “holy war” in the sense of military struggle against the enemies of Islam.  Neither the Quran, nor the hadith, nor Islamic history and tradition as a whole give any grounds whatsoever for claiming otherwise.

As to the “religion of peace” idea, while it is true that “Islam” has the same root as an Arabic word often translated “peace,” this has nothing whatsoever to do with pacifism, or a hippie “live and let live” ethos, or anything else some liberal Westerners apparently want to read into Muhammad’s original message in the face of all the overwhelming evidence.  “Islam” means “submission” or “surrender,” and the idea is that we are not at peace either with ourselves or with each other because we resist the will of God.  To be at peace, then, requires ceasing this resistance, and submitting or surrendering to God’s will.  Which, of course, for Islam means accepting Islam.

This is why, in Islamic tradition, the world is traditionally conceived of as divided up between the “House of Islam” and the “House of War,” between those peoples who have submitted to the Muslim religious and political order and those who have not yet done so.  Historically, non-Muslims within the borders of Islamic countries who were willing to accept dhimmi status — a second-class citizen arrangement which entails paying a special tax not imposed on Muslims, a lack of some of the political rights Muslims have, and refraining from proselytizing or practicing non-Muslim religions in a conspicuous way — were often tolerated.  But non-Muslims who refused to do this, and peoples outside the boundaries of the Muslim world, were regarded as a threat in principle to the Islamic order and at least technically, even if not always in practice, in a state of war with Islam.  And what might count as a “threat” to Islam can be construed fairly broadly.  It might include attempts to convert Muslims, attempts to introduce a secular political order in Islamic countries, and so forth.

So, is there a sense in which Islam has historically been concerned with securing peace?  Absolutely.  Does this entail that Islam has historically been concerned with securing peace as Western liberals understand it, viz. achieving a pluralistic society in which people of all religions and none, and adhering to radically different philosophies and moral codes, live together on equal terms, freely exchanging ideas?  Absolutely not; exactly the opposite, in fact.

It is quite absurd, then, for Western liberals to cite proof texts and factoids like the ones referred to above as if they were evidence that Islam is reconcilable with liberalism.  To be sure, this does not entail that a devout Muslim might not make a principled case that in the present age, military struggle is not the appropriate means by which either to propagate Islam or to defend it against its enemies.  And it certainly does not entail that a devout Muslim could not condemn terrorism and attacks upon civilians.  It is simply unjust, uncharitable, and ignorant to insist that any Muslim would, to be consistent, have to approve of the tactics and program of al-Qaeda or ISIS.  A devout Muslim may, consistent with the principles of his religion, advocate an entirely peaceful approach to furthering Islam — through proselytizing, voting, getting legislation passed, and so forth.

However, it simply doesn’t follow that Islam is compatible with liberalism — with the separation in principle of religion and politics, with the Lockean conception of toleration, with Rawlsian or libertarian neutrality, etc.  It also simply doesn’t follow that a more belligerent approach is not also at least equally defensible given Islamic premises.  For example, a Muslim could perfectly well argue that the “no compulsion” passage in the Quran was meant by God only to apply to circumstances like the specific one Muhammad faced when he was in a weak position relative to his enemies.  Or he could (as J. Budziszewski has noted) argue that the passage has wider application than that, but that in light of other Quranic passages and hadith, the toleration the passage requires has to be understood very narrowly, i.e. that it rules out forced conversions, but still allows for punishment of apostasy and of non-Muslim proselytizing, and is consistent with imposing dhimmi status on non-Muslims.  There are no grounds whatsoever for regarding such positions as somehow less authentically Islamic than a more moderate interpretation would be.  Moreover, if the examples of Muhammad himself and of the earliest Muslim communities are regarded as normative for Muslims of all eras, then the more hard-line interpretations might claim to have a stronger case for being regarded as authentically Islamic.

Of course, many liberals would respond by citing Old Testament passages commanding conquest of non-Israelite cities, brutal suppression of idolatry, etc.  If most modern Christians advocate religious diversity despite such passages, why (the liberal asks) couldn’t most modern Muslims come to advocate religious diversity despite the rougher Quranic passages and haditha?  But the comparison is specious, for three reasons.  First, more or less all Christians agree that the Mosaic law was intended only for a limited time, as preparation for the Incarnation, and does not in any direct way apply to Christians.  Hence there are principled grounds in long-standing Christian doctrine for denying that the passages in question have any relevance today.  There is no parallel to this in Islam, no precedent in Islamic history for regarding the harsher Quranic passages as somehow no longer having any application.

Second, the Catholic tradition has, in the Magisterium of the Church, an authoritative interpreter of scripture, which can decisively settle disputes among Catholics about how to understand and apply various biblical passages.  And neither the Church nor any Catholic would hold that the Old Testament passages in question require Christians to make war upon non-Christians, to execute idolaters, etc.  By contrast, there is no authoritative interpreter in Islam, no Magisterium which can require all Muslims to read Quranic passages in a certain specific way, etc.

Third, while it is true that Protestantism also lacks such an authoritative interpreter, it is also the case that the idea of religious toleration has a long history and central place within Protestantism.  Indeed, liberalism and its doctrine of toleration were precisely outgrowths of Protestant Christianity, spurred by Protestantism’s conflict with the Catholic Church.  This deep and longstanding tendency in Protestant thought counteracts any possibility of reading the Old Testament passages in question as having application today.  But there is no corresponding tendency or tradition in the history of Islam, which might counteract the possibility of reading the harsher Quranic passages and hadith as having contemporary application.

Oil and water

This last set of issues illustrates one of the reasons so many Western liberals have such difficulty seeing the incompatibility of liberalism with Islam.  Many of them simply have too little respect for religion to bother studying it very carefully, and thus end up saying silly and ill-informed things when they do comment on it.  This is as true of touchy-feely Islamophilia-prone liberals as it is of shrill New Atheist-type liberals.  Their idea of “religion” is determined mostly by whatever it is they know about Christianity — which often isn’t much — and they suppose that other religions are more or less like that but with the names changed.  Hence they suppose that the Quran is more or less like the Bible, that a mosque is more or less like a church, that Muhammad is more or less like Jesus or at least like an Old Testament prophet, and so forth.

A second problem is that when educated liberals encounter non-Christian religious believers, they are often likely to encounter the most liberal adherents, and wrongly to generalize from the impressions they get from those adherents.  Hence if (while in college, say, or at an academic conference, or working at an NGO) they encounter individual Muslims who happen to have liberal or even secular attitudes, they might infer that Islam in general and considered as a system must be compatible with liberalism and secularism.  But that simply doesn’t follow, and the sample isn’t necessarily representative.

A third problem is that the workability of liberalism as a system requires that all “comprehensive doctrines,” or at least all those with a large number of adherents within a liberal society, are compatible with basic liberal premises (and thus “reasonable,” as Rawlsian liberals conceive of “reasonableness”). If there is a “comprehensive doctrine” with a large number of adherents which is simply not compatible with basic liberal premises, that will be a very serious problem for the entire liberal project.  Hence there is tremendous reluctance to conclude that there is any such “comprehensive doctrine,” or to look for evidence that might support such a conclusion.

Fourth, egalitarianism is one of the dogmas of modern liberalism, just as the divinity of Christ is a dogma of Christianity or the divine origin of the Quran is a dogma of Islam.  Many liberals find it almost impossible to understand how anyone could rationally deny it, and thus how such denials could be anything but expressions of unreasoning hatred.  Hence epithets like “bigot” play, within liberalism, the same role that words like “heretic” often do within religion.  They are a means of silencing dissenters and sending a warning to anyone even considering dissent from egalitarianism.  Many liberals are inclined a priori to suppose that any suggestion that Islam and liberalism are not compatible simply must be an expression of bigotry.

Fifth, liberalism is heavily invested in a narrative according to which the pre-liberal European civilization against which it reacted — that is to say, medieval and early modern Christian civilization — was especially oppressive, both to Europeans and non-Europeans.  Now, historically Islam has been the great political and military rival to Christianity.  Hence, even though that history has largely been a history of Islamic aggression against Christian states, it is extremely tempting for the liberal to pretend that the Christian side was as aggressive, or even more aggressive.  Hence all the absurd apologizing for the Crusades.  It is also extremely tempting for the liberal to regard contemporary Muslims as allies in liberals’ political disputes with conservative Christians (even if Muslims are far closer to conservative Christians where “social issues” are concerned than they are to liberals).

In short, liberal attitudes about Islam and are — ironically, given liberals’ self-conception — often shaped by prejudice, stereotypes, wishful thinking, dogmatism, and partisanship. But not entirely.  For there really are critics of Islam who say stupid, ill-informed, and bigoted things, and seem willing to believe only the worst of it.  Such hotheads give aid and comfort to those who would dismiss any critical analysis of Islam as “bigotry.”  And they should learn that you cannot effectively counter a rival unless you are willing to understand it and acknowledge its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

In any event, as opposite departures from Christianity — one in the direction of emphasizing the sacred to the exclusion of the secular, the other in the direction of emphasizing a desiccated notion of the secular to the exclusion of the sacred — Islam and liberalism agree only in their insistence that the moral and political order has no foundation in nature.  For liberalism it derives from us, for Islam from special divine revelation, and the Christian middle ground disappears.  In every other way, Islam and liberalism are like oil and water.

A further difference between them, I think, is that Muslims see this in a way liberals do not.  Nor is this the only respect in which liberalism is prone to delusion.  Materially, liberalism is at the apex of its strength.  But spiritually it is at its lowest ebb.  It has lost all confidence in the superiority or even the basic goodness of the civilization from which it sprang.  It has lost any sense of limits, any awareness that moral and social institutions cannot be molded and remolded at will, any thought that one cannot borrow and spend indefinitely, any ability to think beyond election cycles and what the mob happens to be demanding at the moment.  It is Hubris that cannot see Nemesis implacably speeding toward it.

Materially, Islam is at an historical ebb.  But spiritually — now, as when Belloc marveled at the fact in the 1930s — it is undiminished, as confident as it ever was in the basic rightness of its cause, the inevitability of its victory, and the vast numbers of human beings it can call upon to live by it, suffer persecution for it, and fight and die for it.

This should not be surprising.  Liberalism appeals to our animal side, to our craving for physical comfort and pleasure, which always get us into trouble in the long run.  Islam appeals to our social and religious side, to the call to self-control, sacrifice for the community, and submission to God, which seem onerous only in the short run but invariably guarantee that something larger than ourselves will survive into the future when we as individuals are long dead.  That is to say, Islam simply preserves more of its Christian inheritance than liberalism does.

As a Catholic, I have no doubt that the Church will survive the various crises through which she is currently suffering — just as it survived Roman persecution, the Arian heresy, wave after wave of jihadist onslaughts, the Reformation, the French Revolution, Stalin and his legions, and all the rest.  Which of its two ancient rivals — liberalism or Islam — is more likely to survive alongside it into the future?  The smart money’s on Islam.

Read more by way of Edward’s blog.


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