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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I wish Waleed Aly had said

In People Like Us, liberal Muslim intellectual Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its "church" and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in way that I find disquieting.

He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.

Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it's no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.

What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state - such as Australia - stands. He imagines that the phrase "separation of Church and State" is all about struggles between kings and popes - issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.

The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let's face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line ... for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.

Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal "church". The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions' doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly's interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.

Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals' lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam's political ambitions - which is one reason why the word "Islamophobia" is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.

It's true, of course, that religionists - Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever - often feel that their religious identity is something "given" rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.

Fine. That's understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this - and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise ... and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.

However, it's way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I've written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true - atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.

So what should Waleed Aly have said?

Well, he could have said something like this:

"I cannot guarantee that I'll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill's harm principle (we can discuss the details of the 'something like', but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam's values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country."

I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking - or something very like it - sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking - perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.

That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.

It would be reassurance enough.


Anonymous said...

Good article Russell.
Two points:
1. Having read a few articles by Irfan Yusuf, in which he says that muslims (of his stripe at least) are bound to live by the civil/moral code of the land in which they are a minority I think it possible that muslims will abide by the law of the land (for now anyway.) And he says some clerics go as far as declaring Australia a country of "people of the book", that is Abrahamic religionists and thus able to fit in fine due to some interpretation of the Quran and hadith. This gives me a few causes for concern; the first is, what if one day muslims aren't the minority? A long way off I know, but it goes against secular tolerance - minorities are not to be crushed by majorities. Still I suppose it needs to be framed that way for less liberal muslims to coexist with us infidels. A more proximate concern is the religious framing of the acceptance of our laws and tolerance of our way of life. I'd prefer him to say something along the lines of what you'd like Waleed Aly to have said. Basically I have religious views, but I abide by the secular deal....

2. Most importantly. What have you got against Quetz and his love of beverages, especially tea? Next you'll be into the Flying Spaghetti monster and followers of the secret tortellini sect.
Pasta be upon you Russell.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell,

You seem to be blogging about Waleed Aly's book quite a bit. If you guys are at the same university, have you ever met him to discuss the issues you raise? It seems the natural thing to do and might make for an interesting discussion.

Russell Blackford said...

Andy, we were actually both supposed to be part of a public forum on the New Atheism (with others) but it seems to have fallen through for the moment.

Obviously, I liked his book (despite some snarky comments in this post) ... but equally obviously we need more dialogue between liberal Muslims and secularists. Otherwise, hard-eyed men with guns (who first used that phrase?) will be determining the fates of both groups.

Russell Blackford said...

And of course Brian some of us are not people of the book: we reject all the Abrahamic (and other) religions.

Anonymous said...

Did I get censored before for my german usage? I apologise if I did.
And of course Brian some of us are not people of the book: we reject all the Abrahamic (and other) religions
We do indeed. That's why it concerns me to be put in the outgroup in debates about society's future.

Russell Blackford said...

It would be a lot better if Irfan Yusuf didn't worry about whether we are "people of the book". Because we are liberals, we don't persecute anybody for their religion, or irreligion, as long as they are prepared to reciprocate. That includes non-persecution of Islam. I'd be more impressed if Yusuf said that this is enough for Australia to be part of the house of Islam.

May the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster never direct you against traffic in a one-way street.

Anonymous said...

Actually, he (Irfan Yusuf, who I know well) has said that:
"It seems in recent times some conservative leaders have found a niche in Muslim-bashing. What this small fringe of conservatives needs to accept is that Australia is no longer a Christian nation. Australia is a secular liberal democratic nation."
Secularism isn't incompatible with Abrahamic fellowship.

clodhopper said...

What does 'Abrahamic Fellowship' mean?

Russell Blackford said...

I don't have any problem with the quote attributed to Irfan Yusuf by muslimgirlpower. What we need religionists of all stripes to recognise is that Australia is a secular, liberal, democratic society (and I'll take it that this includes widely-interpreted Lockean tolerance, the harm principle, freedom of speech, etc.).

If Yusuf thinks that, then good for him; I then have no problem with him at all. That's exactly what we want everyone in this country to commit to.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can worship the Abrahamic god as much as they wish, as long as they don't bring religious dogmas and specifically religious morality into the public sphere, and seek to impose them on others through the power of the state.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of Muslims and Mill

@B said...

>>I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty.

Imho and 5yrs later, we ought be setting the bar even higher. Religio-politics in Australia is swaying the public without theological justifications, Islamic or otherwise. The religious are adept at spotting earthly harm and mustering secular rationale to support some moral law they like. Merely overlooking the science.

This week (on the back of President Obama's personal support of same-sex marraige) a group of Aussie doctors-cum-lobbiests are warning the public against same-sex parenting based on secular harm. They're saying they aren't religiously motivated (how does one tell??), that their righteousness is personal and professional and based on reason. Yet their rhetoric in defence of the status quo (compelling though it is) is in fact flying in the face of the preponderance of scientific evidence. They're factually mistaken. It's moral bullying for that reason. For siding with the conventional wisdom of the 1950s.

They hope to convince Aussies that the same-sex marriage they're already uncomfortable with isn't a church-state issue. It's that "slight of hand" re-framing that helps us Aussies deny that there's much of a local culture war between religion and science. It hides the flaw of moralising based on mistaken historical facts.