January 22, 2004

The Secular Ijtihad

This post has been coming for a while, but the recent discussion on AFOE about Marx' On the Jewish Question and the headscarf issue in Europe is what has sort of crystallised it. It's about a contradiction - a fairly subtle one - in something I feel fairly strongly about.

I'm an advocate of secular government, and I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests. But Bruno Bauer - the author of the book Marx is arguing against in On the Jewish Question - highlights a contradiction in the kind of religious freedom offered by the French Revolution:

The Jew, for example, would have ceased to be a Jew if he did not allow himself to be prevented by his laws from fulfilling his duty to the state and his fellow citizens, that is, for example, if on the Sabbath he attended the Chamber of Deputies and took part in the official proceedings. Every religious privilege, and therefore also the monopoly of a privileged church, would have been abolished altogether, and if some or many persons, or even the overwhelming majority, still believed themselves bound to fulfil religious duties, this fulfilment ought to be left to them as a purely private matter.
This is very much in line with the kind of secularism associated with the French revolution, as we can see in this speech by the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789:
But, they say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation... In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen.
Clermont-Tonnerre is arguing for the legal equality of Jews and Bauer is arguing against it, but ultimately they are both advancing the same thesis: The secular state demands an allegiance which may conflict with religious duties, and that the state should come first. Marx has some problems with this, and I think rightly so. As an advocate of secularism in public policy, I have to admit that this obligation for the citizen of a secular state to advance secular values even when they contradict deeply held beliefs is incompatible with my conception of how things ought to be.  

The actual content of those beliefs is not terribly relevant. I realise that if Joe Lieberman became president, he would probably have to attend to some duties on Saturday and I doubt that his faith would stop him. Although I may be wrong. Jimmy Carter used to go to church on Sunday morning - IIRC, he even taught Sunday School while president.

But, the headscarf issue in Europe is identical in substance to what is being described here. Must the citizen of a secular state present a purely secular front when he undertakes political acts? It seems that the alternative is to call on the secular state to decide what laws and exceptions various faiths must be allowed. As an advocate of secularism, I do not want to have to become the judge of what is and isn't required by a religion I don't believe in. I think that people who do have strongly held religious beliefs are and should be offended if were to set myself up the judge of what is and isn't required in Islam, Judaism or even Christianity.

This dilemma is something courts have actually had to face, as a 1978 lawsuit in the UK demonstrates. Ahmad v. Inner London Education Authority involved a Muslim teacher in the London school system who attended prayers every Friday morning, resulting in arriving at school 40 minutes after the start of classes. He was terminated for breach of contract and challenged the dismissal under anti-discrimination clauses in British law and under the European Convention. The case is discussed here.

For our purposes, it is interesting to note what issues were selected as salient when the case was discussed by the judges of the Court of Appeal. In the first place, there was some considerable concern over the nature of the religious duty to attend Friday's congregational prayers. Was this an absolute obligation or were there legitimate excuses for not attending? Was employment, like sickness, a 'good reason' for not attending? Since Muslims were required to return to work after attending prayers, was it not advisable for a Muslim 'not to become involved in an employment which prevents his attending a mosque'? Was it not proof of Mr. Ahmad's obedience to the requirement of Islam that when teaching at a school which was not within easy reach of the nearest mosque he did not take time off work on Fridays, because he then had a legitimate excuse for not attending? What the appeal court attempted to do, therefore, was to assess the strength and nature of the obligation upon a Muslim to attend Fridays prayers and to couch this obligation in legal or quasi-legal language. Despite the expert evidence of 'an Islamic religious leader' the issue of whether or not to attend prayers is 'for the individual to reconcile with his own conscience', a private matter between him and God, the judges insisted on seeing it in terms of some external authority requiring attendance and setting out those circumstances which could legitimately excuse non-attendance. In other words was there a law, God's law, Islamic law, which conflicted directly with Mr. Ahmad's contractual obligations? The fact that the Islamic 'experts' did not advise of any such unequivocal duty and no other Muslims in the employment of the educational authority had requested time off work on Fridays, led the majority of the judges to conclude that there was not.
A group of non-Muslim British judges took it upon themselves to judge whether or not Mr Ahmad's employment contract contradicted with Islam, and in doing so set themselves up as judges, although in a fairly minor matter and in consultation with Islamic leaders, of what Islam requires. Had the expert witnesses told them that Friday prayers were an essential obligation placed on all Muslims, it is probable that the court would have ruled in Mr Ahmad's favour.

My unwillingness to set myself up as a theologian of a faith I don't hold is an important element in my thinking about the current mess in the Middle East. Many people claim (like Bob over here at AFOE) that Islam represents a unique threat to "Enlightenment values" or some other ill-defined western ideology because it is inherently and essentially more theocratic than Christianity, Judaism or some other faith. I reject this claim because it calls on me to decide what the true nature of Islam is. While this topic may well be of great relevance to Muslims, not being a Muslim means that I don't actually believe that Islam has an essential true nature separable from the real acts of Muslims. I see that there are devoted Muslims who oppose theocracy, even Islamic theocracy, and I am certainly unwilling to tell them they are not good Muslims for it. I can only judge actions, and the history of theocracy and religious intolerance is at least as deep in Christian tradition as in Islam. If this isn't true of Judaism, it is only because the last millennium has seen barely 50 years where there existed a state with a Jewish majority, and frankly, that short period doesn't always speak too well for it.

So here I am left with a contradiction. On the one hand, a secular state must either demand the tacit abandonment of the citizen's religious values when they conflict with policy, or it must set itself up as the judge of what is and isn't required by someone's religion. We must either fix people into religious categories and set up rules for each, doing what Clermont-Tonnerre opposes and letting the Jews (and perforce the Christians, Muslims, Ra?lians, et al.) have their own judges, or we must refuse the citizen any right to a religious practice which contradicts public policy. I don't want to force governments to register each person as belonging to some particular faith in order to establish legal status. This sort of categorisationalism has no place in the modern world, and inevitably leads to contradictions of such magnitude that they can't be supported. There is a chapter in Susan Star-Leigh and Geoffrey Bowker's book Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences which discusses the bizarre methods South Africa used to use to classify people by race, and how terribly contradictory it was.

So, neither is appealing to me, nor was it to Marx:

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person.

Marx also sees a contradiction in the secular state: Unless the state is freed from religion, religion can not flourish. However, doing so imposes a schizoid nature on the citizen - secular in his political life and religious in private life. This is a form of alienation - a specialised word in Marxist theory that means bad things. Marx is remarkably prescient in his description of religion in the secular state:

In the perfect democracy, the religious and theological consciousness itself is in its own eyes the more religious and the more theological because it is apparently without political significance, without worldly aims, the concern of a disposition that shuns the world, the expression of intellectual narrow-mindedness, the product of arbitrariness and fantasy, and because it is a life that is really of the other world. Christianity attains, here, the practical expression of its universal-religious significance in that the most diverse world outlooks are grouped alongside one another in the form of Christianity and still more because it does not require other people to profess Christianity, but only religion in general, any kind of religion (cf. Beaumont's work quoted above). The religious consciousness revels in the wealth of religious contradictions and religious diversity.

The Beaumont quote he is referring to is as follows:

In the United States there is neither a state religion nor a religion declared to be that of the majority, nor the predominance of one cult over another. The state stands aloof from all cults.

Marx's description sounds to me a lot like contemporary America, where you can't get elected outside of San Francisco without professing a religious belief of some kind, but where it doesn't matter what religious belief you profess so long as it can be identified with a socially acceptable religion. In this way, the secular state ultimately contradicts its own secularism.

Marx resolves the problem in a manner which I don't find convincing. He seeks to free man from religion, not by force of abolition but by removing any material cause for it. Whatever is left when there are no longer any social preconditions for faith is, in Marx' mind, little more than eccentricity. If there is no longer any need to be a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim in order to find a place in society, those labels will have little more social distinction than those who like country music instead of pop. Keeping kosher or halal will have no more significance than George Bush, Sr.'s well known distaste for broccoli. Or so Marx seems to think.

I suspect that I find this unconvincing because, unlike Marx, I'm not a very serious atheist. I'm a milquetoast agnostic who is the first to admit he's still in the thrall of many of the religious principles he grew up with.

I think Marx - or at least the young Marx writing in The Holy Family - misunderstands religion when he sees it as either a purely socio-economic distinction or a personal eccentricity. Marx wrote that "religion is the opiate of the masses." Opium was, in his era, the only effective way of dealing with intolerable pain. Marx believed that if you took away the pain, people would stop needing the opiate. Contemporary atheists often seem to think that if religion still exists where it has no political support, it is because the patient has become an addict. I think this view is a mistake. Religion is often an opiate, but that's not all that it is.

Marx underestimates the overlap between religion and philosophy and the degree to which religious principles persist even when faith is gone. I think this is more clear to us today than to Marx because Marx had exposure only to Judaism and the three major European branches of Christianity. Oriental religious thought - Confucianism, Daoism, and elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam - tends to undermine the conception of religious faith as something focused on the here-after and tests the lines that separate material practice from religious belief. The vast majority of people still hold non-secular beliefs, and they do so because they do actually matter in the here-and-now, even when they no longer entail sharp social distinctions.

One of the things that frequently gets me into trouble is saying that most people hold religious beliefs for reasons not fundamentally very different from the reason they hold scientific beliefs. Both persist because they work for people. If I credit Newtonian mechanics, it is because I can build bridges with it that don't fall down. If I credit evolution, it is because with evolution I can make sense of biology and I know of no other ideology able to do so nearly as well. Scientific ideas are working for me. Well, when someone sincerely tells you that they got off drugs and booze, and straightened out their life, because God helped them, they are not making a different claim. They have their belief in God, and it works for them. People's religious beliefs help them to make sense of the world, enable them to do things and offer them a capacity to develop themselves, and that is the only claim I can really make for scientific thinking either. As much as I advocate secular public institutions, how could I want to take away from people the cognitive tools that work for them?

So, we haven't gotten any closer to resolving the contradiction inherent in secular institutions. Marx's solution seems speculative and increasingly unlikely, even though his identification of the schizoid duality and contradictory nature of civil secularism seems to me to be spot on. I don't think the solution to this dilemma is to be found in Marx. Marx does a wonderful job of identifying the contradictions and failures of modern society, but is far less good at resolving them. He had his reasons for being that way. Marx tried very hard not to be a futurist. He never really says what post-capitalist society is supposed to look like, or how it is supposed to work, just that the revolution will come and then people will have to resolve the problems. This keeps him from reading like very dated science fiction, a problem endemic among his followers, but it leaves very little real advice for the revolutionary or reformer.

How then can we have a secular state in which the citizens not only hold religious beliefs, but take them to the ballot box, the workplace, and into positions of power? Instead of seeking an answer in secular ideology, let me propose an unusual place to look for a solution. I think the advocate of a secular state could do worse than to study the contemporary development of Islamic Law.

Talking about Islamic Law tends to bring to mind the ramshackle structure of theocratic dictates and simple bigotry of the Taliban and other Middle Eastern governments. However, Islamic law is a far larger and far older set of ideas, one which has been - at least for part of its history - as rich, as flexible and as dynamic as the Common Law and Roman Law. I am not proposing the installation of Islamic Law as a solution to the problems of the secular state. However, it does seem to me that the problems Islamic legal thought is trying to resolve are quite similar to the ones secularism faces.

I don't think Islam is more inherently theocratic than Christianity, however it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that it might be more political. Since 9/11 I've been trying to actually learn something about Islam, and one of the common elements I've seen is that for many Muslims, Islam is as much a lifestyle as a faith. Muslims have often portrayed their religion as something that encompasses more of their life than Christians usually do.

I can't be sure how widely that generalisation holds. Certainly there are very political Christians and very secular Muslims. But, for Christians in the west, Christianity is something understood more often to be an internal condition which is merely manifested in daily life.

Christians tend to divide things into a temporal sphere and a spiritual one, and have done so at least since the age of Charlemagne. This was initially a political compromise between well-armed kings and a Pope who could both solidify and legitimise secular rule, but it fit well enough into the model of the secular state that grew out of the revolutions of the late 18th century. Islam - or at least Sunni practice - lacked a strong centralised spiritual figure and distributed religious authority along lines more similar to the modern court system than to the medieval church. The Christian world assigned the Church power over certain matters and the King power over others, while Islam resembled modern liberalism far more closely by limiting the powers of the monarch and placing even the throne under the authority of Islamic courts. Very early on in Islamic legal history, the supreme authority of the courts was established as a by-product of the acceptance of Islam.

However, Islamic rulers and courts have often ruled over large non-Muslim populations, and while very many - by all evidence the majority - of those rulers have used unequal legal provisions to coerce people to become Muslims, that was not always the case. As early as the lifetime of Mohammed himself, we find in the Constitution of Medina explicit instructions that the Jews of Medina are to be treated as equal citizens and that they are not to face punishment for simply being Jews. The document - as I understand it, held to be written by Mohammed himself - asserts that the Jews are allowed to live by their own faith.

Historically, the Qu'ran and the legacy of Mohammed have been interpreted as quite explicit about the superiority of Islam over other faiths, ideologies and ruling systems. But, for much of Islamic history, Islamic rulers and courts have had to find ways to make the political supremacy of Islam work in states where large minorities, and sometimes majorities, were not Muslim. While it is certainly true that Islamic rulers have not always been tolerant, religious pluralism certainly dominated the core of the Islamic world during its golden age. Quite a few people know that Jewish thought thrived in the Islamic world during years when pogroms regularly emptied Europe's ghettos - Maimonides was a Tunisian after all - however, there is somewhat more to it than that. For much of the golden age, Islamic monarchs and courts ruled through a system of functionaries, indirect policy-makers and traders in which Jewish and Christian minorities were over-represented. Although Islamic law prescribed Islamic rule, this did not always represent a barrier to the advancement of non-Islamic elites. This tolerance sometimes even extended beyond religious differences. Not so many know that in the age of Ibn Battuta, Cairo had a thriving and fairly open gay nightclub scene. (I'll save you the suspense - Battuta did not approve.)

I am not writing this post to praise Islamic law. It has been practised in commendable ways and in horrifying ones. For every time and place where Islamic institutions were tolerant and open, it's easy enough to find two others where they were oppressive and narrow-minded. For every cosmopolitan metropolis like 14th century Egypt, we have a theocratic nightmare like 14th century Mogul India, where Hindu temples were defiled and heavy taxes were imposed on non-Muslims. Of course, the same could be said of Common Law and the Code Napol?on, neither of which proved to be a barrier to colonialism, racism, or even slavery.

I am going to take a radical position for a secularist: I think there are legitimate grounds to see in contemporary Islamic legal thought the possibility of a system of laws and governance that need not be excessively unjust or alienating and would certainly draw on more genuinely local traditions than copying European legal and political ideas directly. I think there may even be grounds to think that the development of such a code might be preferable in the real circumstances that prevail in the Middle East to imposing European legal standards.

I prefer to criticise (or praise, when the opportunity arises) modern Islamic politics on the basis of what it wishes to establish rather than because of its religious origins alone. Indeed, having claimed that it is wrong to deny people their religion when they undertake political acts, I can hardly condemn Islamic political ideology for being both political and Islamic. I think non-Muslims could take a far more progressive approach to Islamic politics by criticising it for what it actually proposes rather than for its lack of secularism. When Islamic political activists demand the promotion of social justice because Mohammed commanded it, the secular advocate of social justice should not start getting picky about whether social justice is desirable because it's what God wants or for more secular reasons. When Islamic politicians demand a second rate status for women or non-Muslims because of something they claim their religion demands, rather than either debate Islamic theology or demand that Islamic politicians establish a secularism neither they nor their constituents believe in, we ought to go and hunt down Islamic political activists with contrary ideas so that we can support their alternatives.

Another thing I've learned from what I have managed to read of Islamic thought: It is so varied that it actually makes Marxism look like a tightly-knit coherent movement. Whatever it is that someone says is Islamic, you can find some significant community of Muslims somewhere who will tell you the exact opposite. It is my hope that this very inability to agree on anything might lead to effectively secular states that are Islamic only in the same sense that Great Britain is a monarchy. Islamic Law could then become no more an inducement to theocracy than the Code Napol?on is an inducement to atheism.

The one modern example that leads me to think this is possible is, in fact, Saddam's Iraq. Go take a look at this post on Baghdad Burning, which I came across via Edward Hugh over at A Fistful of Euros. This bit in particular is suggestive:

The fundamentalist GC [Iraq Governing Council] members claim that civil Iraqi law forced people to go against their doctrine, which isn't true because a large part of civil law was based on Shari'a or the parts of Shari'a that were agreed upon by all the differing Islamic factions (like the right to divorce) and taking into consideration the different religious groups in Iraq.

But all that is neither here nor there. My point is that Islamic public institutions have attempted to resolve the same issues that face secular ones and that a modern and liberal-leaning conception of Islamic law must even more squarely face this problem. Islamic law privileges Islam above other religions and ideologies, but its most liberal contemporary advocates claim Quranic grounds for never compelling anyone to act as if they were Muslim when they are not or creating social or economic inducements to convert. They do this while continuing to back the idea that an Islamic legal code can be and must be just and beneficial to all. Secular public policy - or at least the ideology of secular public policy that I advocate - also privileges secular considerations over religion and grants authority to scientific and materialist claims over religious ones, but should not compel anyone to alienation by denying them their religious convictions in political life or even by offering inducements to abandon their faith. The parallel between the two is that both demand the supremacy of a particular institutional ideology and a particular source of authority while recognising the internal disagreements any ideology presents and simultaneously demanding that no one should ever face institutional inducements to adopt that ideology themselves.

The difficulty is in actually making this work, and here I notice an Islamic religious movement - by all evidence a small one at the moment - offering up an Islamic notion that ought to be near and dear to the hearts of secularists. I actually came across it on Irshad Manji's website, but the short and simple definition from Wikipedia is probably a better place to look first. It's called Ijtihad, and it forms one of the more fundamental elements of Islamic legal theory.

While I remain largely ignorant of many things about Islam that I would like to know, I'm going to try to sketch out elements of Islamic legal theory as far as I have been able to figure out. It should be taken as potentially suspect knowledge and no guarantee is offered of its accuracy.

Islamic law is not a simple theocratic form of governance. It is rather somewhat more analogous to the notion of case law in western legal traditions. The Quran is lengthy, at times poetic and figurative, and in places seems to contradict itself. In addition to the Quran, there are collections of hadiths, essentially anecdotes about the life of Mohammed and his immediate followers and sometimes of other important figures in Islam. There are many collections of hadiths, and while some are considered totally apocryphal others are taken as utterly true and binding on all Muslims. Which hadiths fall into which category appears to be a major source of sectarian conflict within Islam.

Using an analogy with Protestant Christianity, imagine if instead of a canonical Bible there were 200 different books of the Bible and everyone agreed that the Four Gospels were God's word and that most of the rest is nonsense. However, no two denominations could agree on which other books were God's word and which weren't. Furthermore, the contents of those books were sufficiently diverse and contradictory that no possible theology could explain an acceptance of all, or even most of them, while the Gospels are far too vague on any important theological question to form the basis for a theology beyond "Christ died for our sins and we ought to love our neighbours as we love ourselves." The principle form of Protestant theological argument - argument from scriptural sources - would therefore become categorically impossible on most matters. Which scripturally based theology you believed in would depend entirely on which things you take to be scripture.

Now, imagine all this were true and you lived in a theocratic Protestant state of the type Christian fundamentalists sometimes advocate, where the scripture was asserted to be the law. However, this was done without ever specifying exactly which scriptures that meant. Setting aside the whole issue of whether or not establishing such a state is a good idea - it isn't - let us take it as a fait accompli. How do you even make such a thing work?

Now, let's shift to a less religious analogy: The US constitution, secular as it is, has been the subject of lengthy, in some cases century-long debates over its exact meaning and its applicability in specific circumstances. Imagine, instead of the US Constitution, that the basic law of the United States was the collected autobiographical poetry of Thomas Jefferson, and that the courts were expected to work out exactly what that means in terms of day-to-day legal principles. Furthermore, this unlegalistic constitution is unamendable. No legislative process can ever change its text, and the only way to change a constitutional dictate is through different case law. And, to top it all off, there isn't a single agreed upon Supreme Court. Instead, anybody who thinks they can get away with it is able to set up a law school or a court system with entirely separate case law from any other court.

Put the two analogies together, and you have something like the situation Islamic law has had to confront. Were Islam relegated to a private matter, as religion usually is in the secular west, we might easily resolve the whole problem by saying that individual Muslims can make their own decisions, and then get on with life. But, for most of Islamic history just as most of Christian history, the ties between church, state and public culture have been too tight to make that a real option. People refused laws they considered Unislamic, and independent Islamic courts even overruled kings and expected to be obeyed.

The end result has in virtually every place been a state Islamic court system and legal code, even in those places where secularism nominally or even substantially formed the state's ideology. The state eventually came to recognise certain courts and certain principles and encoded them into law. Even secular Iraq ultimately had a fairly Islamic legal code based on a compromise between different principles and a certain amount of Gordian knot-cutting by Saddam and others.

In order to interpret the Quran, the various hadiths and past court decisions, Islamic law developed a set of principles. One is Isnah, a doctrine that bears a fair resemblance to the principles of textual analysis that have become so productive in Protestant thought. Isnah determines the validity of a hadith, and by extension of decisions made based on that hadith, by looking at the reliability of the documentation surrounding it. Is the textual source reliable? Does it contradict itself or some other text held to be reliable? Does it meet linguistic criteria, like authentic period Arabic, or if it is held to be the words of Mohammed, does it sound like the kind of thing he might have said? Did the words in that context have the meaning we give them today?

Another key legal principle is Ijma, which essentially means accepting common community standards. If everyone - or more or less everyone agrees about it - then it's valid. At various times and places there have been standards for public debate before coming to the conclusion that something is ijma. Of course, it should surprise no one that methods of determining consensus have often been subject to political manipulation. It appears that one of the major disputes between Shi'ites and Sunnis is over the role of ijma. Sunnis appear to take the existence of a consensus across the Muslim community to be proof of divine approval, while the Shi'ites require a significant consent of recognised imams.

The most relevant principle on the long run has been taqlid. This is sometimes translated as "blind imitation" but its content has often been more like the notion of legal precedent and avoiding self-contradiction in Common Law. It means that when a valid legal precedent exists, the Islamic court is bound to rule in the same manner. Lacking a firm precedent, the Islamic judge should then try to rule by analogy with existing precedent or with the words and actions of Mohammed. This use of analogy has been the key mechanism for extending Islamic precedents to novel situations.

The last principle is Ijtihad. Ijtihad is somewhat ambiguous in its scope and principles, but it is essentially the recognition that sometimes neither recognised textual sources nor precedents extended by any reasonable analogy will suffice, and that sometimes consensus in the community breaks down. When that happens, you have no guide but your own sense of right and your own intellectual capacity to interpret the meaning and scope of Islamic texts and traditions.

Shi'a tradition limits the scope of ijtihad to cases beyond decision by other means, more or less in the same manner that precedent works in Common Law. This appears - to me at least - to have been the engine of a significant amount of liberalism in Shi'ite communities. Shi'ites who live in the west are, it seems, permitted to take out interest-bearing loans because a court ruled that if that was the only way to get a home, Islam can't expect you to go homeless. Some of the most liberal political thought in Islam is coming out of Iranian seminaries these days, although so is some of the least liberal thought. It's one of the trade-offs you get in having an official religious hierarchy act as the last word in disputes.

Among Sunnis, however, things are a bit murkier. As someone who only has access to secondary sources, and then only those available in English and French - and from those I've only read a microscopic portion - I can't judge to what degree debates over ijtihad are based on viable historical claims. There appears to be some theological understanding that at some point in the past there ceased to be room for ijtihad in Sunni Islam, and all future doctrine would have to be based on principles that are strictly continuous with past doctrine.

In a historical context, this makes a certain amount of sense. A country can't have more than one supreme court. To have different courts coming to different conclusions without any mechanism for agreement would have torn the Islamic world apart. However, for the last two centuries, there seems to have been some debate about restoring the doctrine in Sunni practice as a necessary and even essential first step towards bringing Muslim societies into the modern world. The logic is that things have changed so much that Muslims must reopen their most ancient doctrines and examine whether they still fit the intentions of Mohammed.

I have no theological argument to make on this issue. My only stake in the matter is a common human interest in institutions that are just and functional, and if at all possible don't try to kill me. However, I think that those of us who support what, for lack of a better word, pundits keep calling "enlightenment values" might perhaps consider a little bit of ijtihad ourselves. Is the model of secularism established in the French and American revolutions really serving us well? It seems not to have the desired effect when we expand it to the Middle East, or even Africa or India. Just as Islam as a social and political doctrine faces problems when confronted with the West and industrial capitalism, are we having problems when confronted with religions and ideologies beyond the West? We still have not resolved the contradiction in secularism posed by Marx.

Islam is the example that most comes to mind right now because of 9/11, Islamic immigration to the west and the war in Iraq. However, this same problem could be posed in the context of China and Confucian doctrine, India and Hinduism, or Africa and its diverse peoples, cultures, religions and problems. Even Latin America and Eastern Europe can pose a challenge to liberal secularism. Have we made the principles and words of past centuries into fundamental doctrines that must be accepted whole and without shading? Have we made our ideologies so unadaptable that they have become straight-jackets?

I think there are grounds to think so. The headscarf question in France has revealed a very doctrinaire streak in French secularism that threatens to make its secular institutions irrelevant to a world that is still overwhelmingly religious. The fall of governments designed on the basis of American and European institutions all over the world speaks poorly for the universal applicability of that approach.

Conflicts persist in America over the role of religious thought in public schools, and American politicians must still profess a religious faith in order to be elected. The most frightening thing I think I've ever heard in American politics came from a Christian who doesn't think of herself as fundamentalist. She quoted Second Thessalonians 3:10 as a religious justification for abolishing welfare and public support for the poor. If secularism is performing so poorly in America, the wealthiest nation in the world and the place with the longest tradition of secular government, how can we feel secure that it is really meeting the needs of modern society?

I read in modern advocates of itjihad an attempt to restore a critical eye to Islamic doctrine that has disappeared and I fear that secularists like me haven't kept a critical eye on our own ideas. Modernists of various kinds are asking how Muslims can adapt western institutions to their needs as well as how Muslims can adapt to institutions outside of their traditions. Should we perhaps ask whether we can adapt the institutions of people outside our secular consensus to our desired ends? And, do we need to be more attentive to whether our institutions should be adapting to them?

Posted 2004/01/22 16:30 (Thu) | TrackBack

Excellent, informative post; I learned a lot by reading it. Thanks for pulling it together. Speaking as someone who has done some comparative political philosophy, I like very much where you're going. In terms of Islamic ideas (about which I know little), you might want to look at the work of Roxanne Euben, an American political theorist who has written some great stuff on the conflicts and the possible interactions between Islamic fundamentalism and modern ("European"?) political rationality. Regarding East Asia and Confucianism (about which I know a little more), Daniel A. Bell wrote a superb book ("East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia") which very much takes the same approach you're advocating here.

Speaking now as a Christian, one question. You write: "I think there are legitimate grounds to see in contemporary Islamic legal thought the possibility of a system of laws and governance that need not be excessively unjust or alienating and would certainly draw on more genuinely local traditions than copying European legal and political ideas directly." If I substituted "Christian political theology" for "Islamic legal thought," and substituted "Anglo-American" for "European," would you still affirm that sentence? I completely agree with you regarding your horrific reaction to the woman who was someone twisting the words of Paul into an argument against social welfare, but leave aside policy preferences for the moment. Speaking conceptually here: would you acknowledge that certain forms of Christianity can also serve as an embedded set of traditions from which just political arrangements within specific communities could be derived? Or do you think that "Christianity" as a cultural force has already given whatever it can to the search for justice in Europe and America, and that contemporary appeals to it could thus only involve dangerous and/or illiberal dissents from the secular order?

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at January 22, 2004 17:58

Russell, I would agree with the statement. However, I might follow it with any or several of the following:

1 - Belgium is a formally Christian state, as is the UK, Spain and several other countries that are quite obviously secular and about as tolerant as it gets nowadays. So, I can claim that not only can Christianity form the basis of such a state, but it already has.

2 - When I said that if someone wants social justice because they think Mohammed preached it, I was not going to start complaining about it, I made this point because I have had exactly that experience with Christians. I see at least as clear a message of social justice in the Gospels as in the Qu'ran.

3 - In the specific instance of fundamentalism in the US, I note a positive trend that I think merits support: the governor of Alabama suggesting that Jesus would raise taxes to help the poor. I have absolutely no difficulty supporting the political cause of someone who makes such a claim.

Now, were you to suggest that Alabama declare itself a Christian state because Belgium is a Christian state and I don't think it's horrible, I would be opposed not because we're dealing with Christianity, but because unlike in the Middle East I see no social problem or political dilemma in Alabama that could be resolved that way, and I would be inclined to distrust an American politician suggesting such a thing on the basis of a pragmatic knowledge of American politics.

On the other hand, I have no real problem with the state of Alabama putting up a nativity at Christmas. I'd prefer that if they do they be willing to symbolically celebrate Yom Kippur and Ramadan if someone askes them to, but by itself it wouldn't matter in an otherwise tolerant state.

I would apply the same standard to an Islamic regime.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 22, 2004 18:46

Excellent post and, except for the fact that Maimonides was a Spaniard who lived most of his life in Egypt, fascinating and informative.

I've responded substantively on my blog.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at January 31, 2004 0:39

I could swear Maimonides was for Tunis, but now that I look it up, I stand corrected. My point still holds: Maimonides lived in the Islamic world.

I've noticed a couple other points where I should have fact-checked a bit harder, but I seem to be having some difficulty with my lifestyle lately.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 31, 2004 17:06

Very thought-provoking post, on an issue that is much debated and in which I am quite interested in. I hope you won?t mind me making some brief comments on some of the points you have raised:

I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests.

Very laudable in theory but I think it becomes more problematic in practise and also in terms of political need. My understanding of the growth of secularism in Europe is that its origins owed largley to the legacy of the religious wars and the inability of schisms within Christianity to be healed decisively; given that high level of institionalisation, this meant that some accomadation had to be reached. The cuius regio, eius religio principle from Augsburg to Westphalia made a start on this and resulted as much from the practical inability of any one single interpretation of Christianity to impose itself on another. Over time this inter-sectarian tolerance was regularised and as society become more secularised it was gradually extended to cover non-Christians like Jews as well, especially after the Enlightement?s dominance. The challenge in a sense now exists to extend this principle of religious tolerance which was meant to be a way of maintaining peaceful relations between sects and denominations of the same religion and also of atheists/agnostics, to those of different religions altogether whose values could potentially clash. This has not really been attempted before by a secular state, as opposed to a henotheistic one. But the point is that very rarely is a secular state ever demanded by religious people themselves, it is usually accepted as a necessary settlement amongst conflicts between them but rarely forms a part of their normative political programme. Generally, speaking it is atheists or agnostics who demand a secular state; as well as those religious-minded ones, who feel it might be necessary to defuse potential religious conflict. The only exception I can think of to this case is the US.

While this topic may well be of great relevance to Muslims, not being a Muslim means that I don't actually believe that Islam has an essential true nature separable from the real acts of Muslims. I see that there are devoted Muslims who oppose theocracy, even Islamic theocracy, and I am certainly unwilling to tell them they are not good Muslims for it. I can only judge actions, and the history of theocracy and religious intolerance is at least as deep in Christian tradition as in Islam.

I think this is a very necessary sentiment ? which should not be violated. Arguments about what kind of tolerance any religious tradition really mandates quickly degenerate into good religion vs. bad religion debates which are quite complex and ultimately I would argue self-defeating. In India, this is the perennial debate between secularists and anti-secularists; where the latter insist that the positive traditions of tolerance within the dominant religion- in this case Hinduism, are more than enough to guarantee protection and religious freedom to other religious minorities. My problem with this kind of argument is that it does tend to rely on a specific reading of history and interprets religious tradition in a particular way; after all when an important part of sanction comes from revelation rather than reason, it can lead to all sorts of problems as to reaching an effective dialogue and establishing what should be the correct standard for religious beliefs. This is a problem which the secular state and secular citizens should steer clear of.

Marx's description sounds to me a lot like contemporary America, where you can't get elected outside of San Francisco without professing a religious belief of some kind, but where it doesn't matter what religious belief you profess so long as it can be identified with a socially acceptable religion. In this way, the secular state ultimately contradicts its own secularism.

Is this not because ultimately it rests on an evasion of the challenge to secularism rather than a real answer to it. Very interestingly similar debates are going on within India with many of the same points being made and I have been struck by some of the key similarities between the US and the Indian problems with state-sponsored secularism; what is often overlooked or not directly tackled is the relationship between nationalism-religion that exists in cases where a secular states struggles to co-exist with an intensely religious society. In times of political turbulence or war-like external conditions this adds an extra-dimensional difficulty to maintain such boundaries. The symbol of the nation is the core image, which is used to mobilise support for any war. The image is also directed at specific core constituencies by the propagators. I would argue it binds intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and resentment to the memory of a lost nation/past. Opponents to this kind of nationalism tend to misread the spirituality behind it and end up by invigorating it, to the extent that they themselves participate this emotional spirituality, their calls for restraint and caution in its pursuit fuels charges of weakness and uncertainty against them. Whenever individuals speak of "the American people" or "Christian values?, they are summoning up a spiritual image of the nation in which each regular individual is a microcosm of the nation. The nation is a macrocosm of the regular individual; the regular individual is the microcosm of the nation. The church/temple, nuclear family, school system, media and universities are the institutions called upon to maintain each primal unit as a reflection of the other.

Phrases such as the or indeed the "American people" speaks at once to a general yearning for identity between individual and nation and conveys the idea that a diverse host of individuals, perhaps even a majority fall outside this essential unity. It sustains the fantasy of an ethnic, religious, linguistic centre under grave duress and thereby marks as immoral and weak the pursuit of a pluralistic culture with diverse social groups and divergent sources of morality. In a country such as USA, where the diversity amongst groups such as non-European immigrants, state bureaucrats, homosexuals, church leaders, atheists, liberal academics and journalists and secularists, each such grouping contains a large number of people who deviate in various ways as individuals from the idealised image of the Nation of regular individuals. While such an assortment of different groupings might seem strange and a motley collection of unconnected different groups; what all members share is the fact of deviation from the national norm of the regular individual. The crucial corollary is that any individual initially marked by one or more of these ascriptive liabilities can become a full-fledged member simply by asserting aggressively the conventional code of the nation: which in the American case I would think would be ? individual responsibility for your own fate, unfettered faith in the capitalist market, belief in a moral god, the readiness to obey those who embody the spirit of the nation (usually certain elected leaders, especially the President and anyone in uniform), commitment to the opportunity society, opposition to the welfare state, support for family values, identification with the military as the ultimate guarantor of the nation, commitment to normal sexuality, and the collection of all these dispositions under the general heading of common sense. Such a strategy is generically sceptical towards the state, fervently committed to the authority of a nation of regular individuals, and selectively disposed to state action when it patronises the nation by waging a cultural war against those who internally deviate from the code of regular individualism and externally against those who pose a threat to the common sense values of such a nationalism or the Idea of the nation.

The problem is that the empirical reality in all countries, the US is that a whole host of trends and factors undermine such an identity. Changing patterns of immigration, acceleration of speed in communication, globalisation of capitalist economic relations: all act to change racial, ethnic, religious and sexual identities that inhabit us and in balance to this the putative spiritual/imaginary unity of the nation is constantly invoked when such identities were stable and transparent and that the threat to this ?national culture? will die a horrible death unless such a fictive past is reinstated. Of course, there has never been a time when the nation was intact and today the invocation of a nation of regular or homogenous individuals essentially catalogues a majority of the populace into diverse deviants in need of correction. The drive to realise this ideal of the nation entails extensive programmes of social engineering and punishment doomed to fail in producing their putative end. The problem for radicals and reformers is that the failure of such cultural attempts to purify the nation is very compatible with the success of these campaigns in disabling the state from acting to support the economic and cultural conditions of pluralism, secularism, human development and socio-economic progress.

Common sense evocations of ?the American people? are held together by the political designation and cultural segregation of constituencies that negate it; the promise of a return to a nation lost is kept alive by militant campaigns against those groups and dispositions said to be responsible for the loss e.g. Muslims, foreigners and other marginal groups. However, behind all the nationalist sentiments there rests some uneasy alliances: some targets are politically unavailable. Agents of Capital for example should not become central targets, even they more than any other group are involved in the forces of change that scramble the common sense of the Nation. Capitalists can remain a protected species either because of a general faith in the market as the primordial mechanism of automatic regulation and individual freedom is the key that enables the nation to be turned against the social activism of the state (this I would argue is the case in the USA), many vital spheres of exchange and production that impinge most directly on peoples? lives are outside state control and those sectors that are under state control come under attack to failing to live up to standards that nobody would expect from the private capitalist sector. The agents being held responsible for the loss of the nation are in India: the secularists, socialists and the minorities themselves, especially the Muslims, while in the USA they would be: liberals, state bureaucrats, the irreligious, popular media and liberal university establishments.

To accuse such re-nationalisers as communalists or racists is to set oneself up for a ferocious counter-refutation. For the ardent re-nationliser is not a communalist (as the nationalist does in the sense that some religious communities are inferior to others) or racist (in the sense that some races are congenitally inferior to others). This definition does not quite fit as for the Hindutva activist religious minorities are deemed compatible to the Hindu Rashtra as long as they accept the predominantly Hindu nature of society in India and the state as a Hindu state and not a secular one (even Veer Sarvarkar in his early tract ?Who is a Hindu? did not want to repatriate or exterminate Muslims in India, only for them to accept the predominance of Hindu values in society and abide by them in public life and this goes with the BJP notion of the good or acceptable Muslim in the guise of Abdul Kalam or Sikhander Bakht) while in the USA such ardent nationalists would assert that individuals and families from any racial background can be assimilated into the American nation if they work hard enough and assert the right identifications actively enough. Accusations of racism or communalism against re-nationalisers, then opens up the door to counteraccusations against the critics themselves. After all didn?t the BJP put themselves forward as the true secularists in wanting a Uniform Civil Code with the Congress as the pseudo-secularists and more recently NGOs and Charities active in post-Godhra Gujarat who have criticised the state government in complicity and planning the riots have themselves been accused of fomenting communalism (a peculiar variant of blaming the victim syndrome, whereby those who speak on behalf of persecuted of discriminated groups are they themselves accused of perverting universalist notions citizenship and identity). A better response would be to point out the difficulty in accommodating t every divergent grouping into such an imagined nation.

A good example is as you note the approach to religion in American politics. The ?American people? do not support one faith within Christianity, but this authoritative abstraction does not undermine or weaken the separation of church and state as that principle has been interpreted within the Tocquevillian/American tradition. Rather it sets faith in a less sectarian, monotheistic, moral God as the consummate sign of moral virtue and defining condition of legitimate participation in the politics of the nation. To the question ?Do you pray? a simple Yes or No answer will suffice (of course this analysis extends only towards Christian denominations, non-Christian religions are outside the pale all together). In this subtle way a certain moral undermining of those who don?t pray such as the atheist, agnostic, secularist, Unitarian etc. is accomplished without committing the American people to public enforcement of a particular version of Christianity or Judaism (needless to say any such attempt to dissolve the consensus). Similarly, BJP leaders in India such as LK Advani during the Rath Yatra campaign were at pains to clarify that they were not ?temple Hindus? but ?political Hindus? aware no doubt that many ?temple Hindus? would be unimpressed by the politicisation of religion that has undertaken by the BJP.

The Christian world assigned the Church power over certain matters and the King power over others, while Islam resembled modern liberalism far more closely by limiting the powers of the monarch and placing even the throne under the authority of Islamic courts

Well, I assume here that this division again goes back to the inability to decisively resolve intra-religious schisms in a satisfactory way; after all it was only after the Reformation, that one could say the dream of some Universal Christian state, in the manner of frex Dante, became an impossible reality. The emergence of state-based nationalisms also fractured the European-Christian world further.

For every cosmopolitan metropolis like 14th century Egypt, we have a theocratic nightmare like 14th century Mogul India, where Hindu temples were defiled and heavy taxes were imposed on non-Muslims.

Er, I have some small quibbles here. First of all the Moghuls were not really present in India as a distinct political force before the 16th century; the Indo-Islamic rulers of northern India at this time were mainly Turk-Arabs and other Asiatic warrior elites. Secondly, temple destruction is a controversial but much misunderstood historical phenomenon; one cannot simply reduce it to religious bigotry since it was a common political practise at the time. To put it crudely, two main motivations lay behind temple desecration: triumphalism and loot. As many famous temples were closely associated with their state-patrons and the religious idiom of kingship in brahmannic Hindu thought imparted divine sanction to dharmic rulers; defeating the said ruler on the battlefield led to the victorious king then going and laying waste to the dynastic deity at the temple as a way of asserting his control. Secondly, many of these temples were centres of patronage and enormous wealth generation and therefore a needy ruler bent on expansion could always sack the temple of a rival and defeated king for much needed funds. This was a common practise even by Hindu (an anachronistic term to use in the pre-colonial period as no unified ?Hindu? religion existed) rulers at the time and many Islamic rulers simply followed this practise. By large most Muslim kings were quite happy to let these centres of worship exist as long as they acknwoedled the suzerainty of the throne. Many temple grants were issued by Muslim kings as well in reward or compensation for various services offered ? it should be noted that not only tolerant and liberal rulers like Akbar followed this practise but also notoriously puritanical ones like the much maligned Aurangzeb. As for the jizya, one should also note that the vast majority of the population were exempted from this tax, as it applied only to those who earned a above a certain threshold of income ? this in effect excluded almost the entire cultivator class and most artisans falling only on the mercantile and non-Muslim state functionaries. An influential but hardly numerous or hard-off group.

Posted by: Conrad Barwa at January 31, 2004 17:08

Conrad - I clearly need to do a little more fact checking since my memory appears to be fading in my old age. Furthermore, one is always left with the problem that every historical practice made sense to someone at the time, and brevity usually precludes any sort of in-depth investigation. My knowledge of Mogul India is fairly limited. It was at some points better than others.

For the more substantial issues, European secularism has somewhat more complicated roots. The US is the only place where secularism was advanced explicitly as a compromise between sects. In France, there were no sectarian conflicts since virtually everyone was Catholic. Secularism was explicitly advanced as a superior ideology and as an alternative to the many failings of Catholic theocracy. In the rest of Europe, it emerged more as a by-product of the desire to shield sects from the consequences of state disapproval. Secularism tended to advance first as a statement of tolerance of dissenting faiths, then as an expansion of non-religious policy driven by the expansion of consideration given to minority sects and by the expansion of secularism itself among the elites.

As for the rest - I've been out a few days and will have to continue this in a new post. You've raised enough points that I'm going to have to think a bit. You really ought to get a blog somewhere.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 3, 2004 9:22


Posted by: politics at February 19, 2004 8:44
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