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