Saturday, July 30, 2016

A supposed inherent inability of Muslims to live in secular democracies

This is a very flawed article where Shadi Hamid asserts that Islam is somehow so different from any other religion in the world that it really precludes Muslims from living happily and stably under a secular democracy.  I don't think you can ever make a very sound argument by generalizing about billions of people (and separating them clearly from other billions), and you certainly are in murky waters if you're assuming that certain explicit tenets of a religion or philosophy are uniformly held and obeyed by all of the people who were born into it.  But I don't really want to get into that.  I just wanted to point out a few of Hamid's factual or reasoning errors.

One is the danger of relying too much on present-day polls of what role Muslims in different countries think religion should play in government.  The results of a poll today aren't just dependent on some timeless principle of the religion of the respondents, but rather on a whole host of evolving social, economic, and historical factors.  I would assume that, for many Muslims of the 20th century living stably under secular governments (Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, most of West Africa) or wishing for the same, there was not much of a religious bent to whatever disagreements they might have had with their government.  No, the rhetoric from both leaders and citizens for most of the 20th century had to do with economic and political systems, pan-Arab or even pan-Muslim cultural identities, freedom of speech, ethnic separatism, dictatorship vs. democracy, etc.  So to say that right now the trend toward public support for Islamic law (after decades of corrupt secular governments) is something timeless and innate to Islam is naive.  Beyond this, I assume that if you asked Christians in many of the countries polled (Africa's fanatical Christian belt, but also the US itself), you would find very high support for running the country along "Christian" lines, whether this means more intact families, making abortion illegal, or suppressing the rights of non-Christian groups.  Case in point is the rugged commitment to anti-gay laws in many predominantly Christian countries.

An outright inaccuracy is Hamid's assertion that "ISIS has changed the terms of the debate, because other Islamist groups in recent decades have not been able to govern. They have not been able to build states, and ISIS has."  I would simply cite in response the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia and much of the Arabian peninsula, the Taliban until 2001, Hezbollah in parts of Lebanon, and Hamas, which I believe would all be considered Islamist groups, and which all have clearly built or maintained states and governed them for a long time.  So I'm not sure what Hamid is getting at here, but his assertion is fundamentally wrong. 

All that said, I agree with his definition of Islamism as "the attempt to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state".  And I think he is correct in defining as a major challenge for our era this question:  "How do Muslim countries adapt Islamic law or sharia to a modern context?"  But just as important is how Christians, especially in Africa but also elsewhere, negotiate the lines between a liberal vision of human rights and the diverse values of Christianity.

Likewise, I agree with Shadi Hamid's claim that Western-style secular democracy is not now universally ascendant, nor is it destined to prevail over other ways of thinking and governing.  Hamid says that "there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries".  I can agree with this (though I wouldn't say it's a sentiment universally shared by everyone in those democracies), and I can agree with Hamid's drawing attention to the potential appeal for many of more dramatic ways of living and thinking, be they Islamic martyrdom, white supremacist apocalyptic visions, or revolutionary Marxism.  But it's precisely because I agree with this point that I worry that characterizing secular democracy's discontents as a purely Muslim group is misleading in a very literal sense; such a focus would wrongly lead us to continue to surveil and demonize Muslims in Western countries, while leading us away from keeping an eye on the full range of anti-democratic passions and movements that can put our people and our society in danger.  Hamid himself admits that classic liberalism "doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater."  Hell, I myself am known to question rational modernity, and I'm not a religious fundamentalist of any stripe.

Even short of the purely destructive extremes of human behavior that seem to satisfy urges that secular democracy can't, there are many people in the US and elsewhere that want a larger role for God (ie Jesus, Shiva, or Ram), or a particular ethnic identity, or some other non-democratic force in their lives and their society.  Like Hamid, I don't necessarily see this as a universally bad thing, but rather something to negotiate and find limits for that don't hurt anyone.  In the US it's of course not acceptable to generally impose any one faith on others, but there are local jurisdictions that depart from strict liberal democracy by making concessions to the group identity and customs of Amish, Hasidic Jews, Inuits and other indigenous groups, even mainstream or evangelical Christians that allow their small towns to mix prayer and public spaces.  Across broad swathes of Africa there are laws and de facto customs inspired by Christianity, which are probably often harmless but can boil over into oppression of gays or sectarian massacres of Muslims (think central Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims trade off massacres).  Hamid doesn't seem to be considering these African cases much, focused as he is on juxtaposing mainly Third-World majority-Muslim countries with mainly wealthy majority-Christian or -atheist countries.  This merits a discussion of its own, because it could suggest (as I would assert) that the key factor in determining one's adherence to and affinity for secular democracy is not so much one's religion but rather one's residence in a relatively prosperous, stable country, versus living in an impoverished, corrupt setting with low access to education and other public goods.  But we'll not get into that here.

To close, I think it's much more useful to understand the limits of secular democracy, and its sway on the human spirit, not in terms of just saying "Muslims are different" but in fact as something that affects everyone, a challenge that must be addressed and adapted to if democracy and liberalism are indeed to prevail over our baser instincts.

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