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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Islam and liberal society

While we're on the subject of Islam and its blanket demonisation by some Western thinkers let's briefly consider People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West, by Waleed Aly. Aly is another Monash person, and one who has established a good local reputation as a spokesperson for Muslim thought.

He doesn't like being called a "moderate" partly, if I understand him, because it might imply that he is less religious, or has less faith, than other Muslims. I.e., it might suggest he is "only moderately Muslim". Since I consider piety and faith (not to mention humility, sexual modesty, and various other things like that) to be more vices than virtues, I'd consider calling him a "moderate" to be paying him a compliment, if that was its meaning. In fact, the word may imply no more than that someone is tolerant of other viewpoints and unwilling to use force. In any event, perhaps Aly would be prepared to accept being considered an educated, refined, liberal Muslim - or something similar. I'll call him a "liberal Muslim" until such a time as I hear that he dislikes that expression, too.

I'm going to give Aly's book a plug. It's really worth looking at what a highly articulate liberal Muslim has to say about the disastrous geopolitical relationships that exist today, involving Islam. While I have the sense that Aly is reluctant to acknowledge just how much of this Islam has brought upon itself, or to detail how oppressive Islam has been in the past, I clearly have my own biases. What I'm willing to concede to him - and I hope I'm right in doing so - is that classical Islam was no more oppressive to non-Muslims than was Christianity to non-Christians - even in recent centuries. It was more tolerant than medieval Christianity.

Indeed, I'm willing to accept that classical Islam was no worse than Christianity today, as experienced in many parts of the world. Step outside of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Western Europe, and the vicious dog of organised Christian religion still has plenty of bite; it hasn't been tamed everywhere.

Moreover - though Aly does not argue this in any clear way - there may be seeds within classical Muslim thought for the acceptance of liberal political arrangements. I really hope that this is true.

Aly does argue, explicitly and quite convincingly, that what contemporary Islam needs is not a Reformation but a Renaissance. We'd all be better off, he suggests, if more Muslims could rediscover the more enlightened elements in their own historical tradition. Unfortunately, to the extent that Islam has already been capital-R Reformed it has often been in a less tolerant and sophisticated direction.

Unfortunately, People Like Us does not have an index! Accordingly, I can't see whether it even mentions Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Mill (or, say, Montesquieu). It does not discuss these figures, and none of their works are listed in the "Notes on sources" at the back. This is unfortunate, because I'd like to see someone like Aly engage effectively with the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism, with its emphasis on religious tolerance and individual liberty (especially liberty from the imposition, by way of the coercive power of the state, of specifically religious morality).

I'm going to come back to this issue in a later post, because right now it is critical that Islam find some genuinely liberal intellectual leaders who can provide reasons to endorse Enlightenment liberal values from within Islam's own traditions. Without this, I fear that we really are headed for the kind of civilisational collision that is so often written and spoken of (by people like Samuel Huntington, and now with the clear blessing - as it were - of Christopher Hitchens). That would be a disaster. Instead, we need to engage intellectually with Islam and try to find a modus vivendi.

On the other hand, there's no way that I (for one) will be giving up the central political ideas of Locke and Mill. There are some things that are non-negotiable and worth fighting for.

7 comments:

Brian English said...

Hi Russell, I've regularly read Waleed's articles in the age, and even watched Salam Cafe and felt that this guy is very cool.
Anyway, I've noticed in all his articles in the last year, it's been suffixed with 'author of ....people like us'. I'm glad you reviewed it.
Anyway, I have this question. I've seen he's signed up to "Australians all" which espouses reasonable seculoar views (to me) but never says "My religion is wrong when it says apostasy is punishable by death, women are less than men etc..."
What's your thoughts on this? Do we demand that religious types publicly deny the nasty bits of their religion or let it "slide" because talk is better (more profitable) than whacking someone over the head and let god decide?

Brian English said...

Just reread my comment. The last sentence was dry (or bad) humour...Just in case.

Russell Blackford said...

Hi Brian. I'm going to have more to say about some of these issues in later posts, but I don't think there's a clear answer to your question - it will problem depend on what else the person is saying and the context in which it is said.

I do think that people like Waleed Aly ultimately need to find better ways of reassuring secular liberals than they have done so far - we always seem to be the ones who are expected to reassure the religious, not offend them, etc., etc. We need reassurances about the things you mention, among others, and I don't see why moderates (or whatever) can't give them. But that doesn't mean we have to act like jerks towards such a person.

Blake Stacey said...

Moreover - though Aly does not argue this in any clear way - there may be seeds within classical Muslim thought for the acceptance of liberal political arrangements. I really hope that this is true.

If modern Islamic states were run like, say, the the Umayyad emirate of Al-Andalus, I'd be much happier with world affairs. Sadly, though, Abd-ar-Rahman III is no longer a major player on the global stage.

Russell Blackford said...

The concept of religious tolerance and freedom that those enlightened caliphs and so on adopted was, not, of course, the same as modern liberal tolerance. But even Locke, hundreds of years later, was not willing to tolerate atheists or Roman Catholics.

I have to wonder how Golden Age Islam would have developed if it had survived, because it was a lot more promising than the Christianity of the time, or even of much later times. Historically, Christianity has tended to be authoritarian, repressive, cruel, and bloodthirsty. It has really been tamed by two things: its own incredibly bloody wars, which almost forced a degree of religious tolerance in the sevententh century; and its repeated bruisings by reason and science, which have produced widespread scepticism, or at least radical reinterpretation of the core meaning of the faith. Imagine what the world would be like if we all lived in enlightened caliphates such as those that existed for a time in medieval Iberia; then imagine the world if we all lived under the sway of an unchallenged Vatican. It seems obvious which would be better, and which would have more promise of morphing into something genuinely liberal.

Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary Islam is massively unenelightened and authoritarian. That's the harsh reality that we need to deal with somehow, but it doesn't make the situation hopeless. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Infidel has a great depiction of liberated young Muslim women from central Europe. Islam is not just one thing.

I despair when otherwise-rational people seem to think that Islam is an eternal, essential enemy - to be destroyed by any means up to and including something like genocide.

Blake Stacey said...

Indeed, Islam is not "just one thing". Furthermore, I suspect that some of the debates around Sam Harris' work — which have been much lower-key than those around Hitchens and Dawkins — stem from the perception that Buddhism is "just one thing" and Hinduism is its own "one thing". My impression has been that Harris defends a purified, highly distilled version of "spirituality" which is only one element of the stupefyingly diverse religious heritage of the Asian continent.

Russell Blackford said...

...and, to be fair, Christianity is not just one thing either, as we have to remind kneejerk atheists now and then. It has had some pretty nasty historical tendencies, but I'm not going to lumber a nice process theologian like John Bishop, or a theological radical like Selby Spong, or my own Christian friends, with them.