You are against liberal views that are antagonistic towards religion. However there are more systemic problems with Western liberalism that have to do with Christian ideals. What would those systemic problems be?
First of all, I don’t think it is a sign of liberalism to be antagonistic towards religion. And certainly the anti-theistic movement in the United States and large parts of Europe, with its absolute intolerance to religious belief, its view of how religion as an insidious evil needs to be forcibly excised from society, is not a product of liberalism. To make it even more complicated, this sort of a resurgent attack on religion seems to be single-mindedly focused on one religion in particular, and that is Islam, which is why it so often crosses the boundary between simple criticism of religion and just pure bigotry against a particular community of faith. So when you have these paragons of liberal anti-deism suggesting, for instance that, in the case of Sam Harris, anyone who, in his words, appears as though they could conceivably be Muslim should be profiled, that is not liberalism. When you have individuals like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens suggesting that the only response to Islamic terrorism, which they view quite explicitly as a war against Islam and not against terrorism, is a kind of unending military engagement in the Middle East, that is not liberalism. Liberalism is predicated on a view of a pluralistic world, and what these simple-minded attacks on religion represent is a far more fundamentalist view of the world, insofar as fundamentalism implies forcing a single and close-minded worldview on a pluralistic world.
Anne Norton wrote a book last year called “On the Muslim Question.” What are your thoughts on the issue of how the Muslim question is essentially the new Jewish question?
Well it is certain the case in large parts of Europe and in North America that Islam has become the quintessential other. It has become a byword for everything that is foreign or exotic, unfamiliar or fearsome. You see this very clearly in some of the right-wing attacks against President Obama, for example. There is plenty to criticize with regards to foreign and domestic policy, but as whole, it has been repeatedly shown that there is a one-to-one correlation between the rejection of his domestic or foreign agenda and the belief that he himself is actually a Muslim. In fact he is not just a Muslim, but also a radical Muslim waging jihad against America from the White House. These words and phrases that are being used about Islam and Muslims should be familiar to anyone who has any knowledge of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the interwar period in America, or the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the 19th century. Everything being said about Muslims today, that they are un-American, that they are an internal enemy, that they cannot be trusted, was said about Jewish and Catholic communities in the United States. We passed federal laws banning Catholic immigration. Some of our greatest business heroes, like Henry Ford for example, were despicable anti-Semites. Ford, for instance, published the protocols of the elders of Zion in his newspapers as though it was news. He forced his viewership around the world to sell them. Of course today Jews and Catholics are part of the religious fabric of this country as any other religious community, and it is guaranteed that a generation from now, the same will be true of Islam and Muslims. But currently Islam has become a kind of opposing pole, a means of identifying what it means to be American against this, kind of, monolithic, imaginary conception of what it is to be Muslim.
Everything being said about Muslims today, that they are un-American, that they are an internal enemy, that they cannot be trusted, was said about Jewish and Catholic communities in the United States.
Should the religions that have accepted assumptions of liberal discourse and livelihood be the only ones considered acceptable or commendable religions?
There is no religion that has accepted the discourse of liberalism. People accept the discourse of liberalism. Religions are neither liberal nor conservative. They are neither peaceful nor violent. They are neither pluralistic nor misogynistic. It is people who exhibit those prejudices and pre-conceived notions, and they instill their religion with their own ideals and values. It is just simply not the case, as it appears so often, that Christianity has adopted liberalism whereas Islam hasn’t. Or it depends on which Christian you are talking about. Certainly Christianity that one sees in large parts of the United States exhibits that kind of liberalism. But the Christianity that one sees in Central Africa or in Latin America, which comes from completely different cultural background, certainly does not exhibit the same kind of commitment to liberalism. The same is true of Islam. If you look at Islam in the United States, or Islam in a place like Turkey, or even in a place like Indonesia, you see a far greater commitment to what we would term liberal values then in Islam in a place like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. So we have to stop pretending that we can make summary judgments about religion, particularly a religion that involves billions of people around the world, and instead start looking to the individual-lived experience of people of faith as representing values that we either promote or that we condemn.
Does the Muslim who gets angry about Western ideals have a different understanding of what is sacred and what is not sacred? Or what is conservative and what is not conservative?
Let me split that question up into two different questions. First of all, a Muslim who is angry about Western ideals may have, as a source of that anger, something that has little to do with his Islamic identity and everything to do with his political consciousness, ethnic awareness, or his cultural identity. There are plenty of Catholics in Latin America who feel the same way about America as a Muslim in Palestine does, and that is part and parcel of a fundamental truth that cannot be ignored, which is a misunderstanding of the link between belief and behavior. A lot of people have a simplistic notion that there is a one-to-one correlation between someone’s religious beliefs and one’s behavior or actions. But every social scientist who has given it a moment’s thought will say that it is simply not the case, that actions, ideas, world views, are the result of complex interplays between a person’s religious, certainly, but also his ethnic, cultural, social, and economic factors. So you can’t simply base a person’s perception of something like American ideals solely on his religious faith. As I say, there are people of many religions around the world, and people with no religion whatsoever, who are equally condemnatory of the United States.
To your second question about the difference between sacred and profane in a religious tradition, that is a very interesting question. And there is quite clearly a difference in the way that different communities of faith understand the role of the sacred and the profane. And the way that they define what is sacred and what is profane has somewhat to do with the way in which certain communities of faith understand the role of the individual and the Pope to the role of the community. It has to do with the difference conceptions about role of religion in society. Should religion be a factor in politics? In government? Should religion have a role in defining civic institutions? Or even the law that defines a nation state? I think that you would also see a whole gambit of opinions that cannot be simply delineated according religions. So for instance, according to surveys, a third of Americans fall into what is referred to as the cap of Christian nationalism. These are Christians who believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, that it is based on Christian ideals and values, which the Constitution, as Mike Huckabee famously stated when he ran for President, has to be altered so that it is in better alignment with Christian values and ideals. Now while that is a very dominant view of Christianity in the United States, it in no way represents the majority view of Christian insofar as the role of Christianity in politics as well as the role of religion in society.
In the same way, if you look at a country like Egypt, you have an overwhelming majority, up to 90 percent if not more, who believes that Islamic law should be the sole source of law in society, and that includes all the barbaric punishments for adultery and for stealing and even for apostasy that come with the penal codes of Islamic law. Again, that may seem like a high number, and it may encourage certain people to make certain generalizations about the way that “Muslims view the role of religion in society.” Except that in nearby Tunisia, which is also a Muslim-majority country, you have far less tolerance for the idea of Islamic law being the law of the land. In Turkey you have even less tolerance than you have in Tunisia, and so it is a reminder once again that these generalities do not work when you are talking about global religions like Christianity or Islam.
How can Muslims best retain their traditional values and balance that with Western society?
This has been the dominant preoccupation of some for the last 100 years in dealing with the colonial experience, Western cultural hegemony, Western values, Western legal tradition, and even Western religious tradition. Let’s not forget that colonialism, which was predicative as a civilizing mission, was unquestionably and unapologetically a Christianizing mission as well, not just in the Middle East but also in Africa. And that resulted in enormous amounts of resentment among colonized people, and as a consequence what you saw was a reversion to conservative, Puritanical forms of Islam or Hinduism, in the case of the colonial experience in the Indian subcontinent. And with the end of colonialism, there has been a great struggle among the indigenous peoples of the Middle East, South Asia, North and South Africa to figure out a way to reconcile their traditional beliefs and practices with the realities of the modern world. That has been a tumultuous enterprise, which is why it is not a coincidence that the region that the world that experiences the greatest instability, politically, economically, socially, religiously, also happens to be the region of the world that has most recently been colonized by Europeans.
It may take some time, perhaps a generation or more, for that reconciliation between what is expected of a modern constitutional state and the desires of indigenous people to remain true to their religious values and traditions to work itself out. I personally am positive that it will do so. But I do think that, going back to the last part of your question, the key, at least in creating the intellectual and ideological framework for that reconciliation, rests not so much in the traditional centers of the Muslim World but in Europe and the United States. There you have thriving Muslim communities, who are certainly facing discrimination and marginalization. But, who nevertheless have absorbed the so-called Western principles of individualism, pluralism, democracy, human rights, and tolerance, and who have quite seamlessly integrated those values and ideals into their religious and cultural tradition, and who are now, I think, in a position to have a real influence on the global stage in defining a truly contemporary, modern interpretation of Islam, one that can be exported to Muslim-majority countries, particularly ones in the Middle East.
Considering that Islam is a very political religion, in contrast to Christianity, would you consider the depoliticization of Islam? What would be the benefits of that?
The very foundation of your question is absolutely incorrect. It is first and foremost just not the case that Islam is a more political religion than Christianity. On the contrary, until the Protestant Reformation and the breakup of the kingdoms of Europe and Treaty of Westphalia, Christianity was a quintessential, political religion. It dominated every aspect of life under Christendom, and whereas in large parts of Muslim-majority regions, you had the exact opposite case, where you certainly had Sultanates with a fractured caliphate, with little very day-to-day control over the lived experiences of Muslim subjects. Secondly, you are wrong that the Prophet Muhammad was inherently a political as well as a religious leader whereas Jesus was just a spiritual leader. The difference between the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ is that the Prophet Muhammad actually succeeded in the movement that he was trying to establish in the Arabian peninsula, and Jesus did not. Jesus died having failed to do what he claimed to be doing, which is the creation of the kingdom of God. So it is a matter of circumstance, not a matter of inherent ideals. Jesus’s message in the Gospel is as politically active and revolutionary as the message of the Prophet Muhammad was. One had an opportunity to actually express his message and one did not.
It is first and foremost just not the case that Islam is a more political religion than Christianity.
And then finally I think this idea that some religions are more political than others is simply a misunderstanding of what religion is in general. Religion, and this is true of all religions in all parts of the world, is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. When someone says, “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Jew,” “I am a Christian,” they are making a statement of identity that encompasses who they are, how they act, their goals in the world, how they understand the relationship between creator and creation, and as a matter of identity, that statement encompasses all the other aspects of a person’s identity, including their ethnicity, their culture, their social and political views, their gender, their sexual orientation. So all of this is to say, that the notion of a political religion is a misunderstanding of what religion is. If religion is about how you see the world, then of course politics plays a role in that. The, I think, unconsidered yet completely understandable plead to remove religion from politics is really impossible to achieve, particularly in a democracy. Because if the foundation of a democracy is that an individual can vote for a representative who most reflects his or her values or beliefs, then you better believe that religion is going to play a role in that kind of society. It should play a role in that kind of society.
That is not to say there are not problems inherent in religion and politics. Religion is absolute and politics, at least in theory, is supposed to be about compromise. But nevertheless it is just overly simplistic either to view some religions as more political than other religions or to think that there can be some separation between religion and politics. One can certainly talk about the separation between faith and politics or about metaphysics and politics. But religion insofar that it is a communal experience is inextricably linked to every aspect of a person’s identity, including his or her politics.
Would you say that for a religion like Islam to enter political debate on its own terms, it might have to threaten the authority of existing Western assumptions or infrastructures?
It is certainly true that for there to be a successful, viable democratic movement in a Muslim-majority state, it needs to define that democracy for itself and on its own terms, and not simply export it from the West. Democracy is malleable. It is deeply a part of the culture out of which it arises. And so an American democracy is not going to look anything like a democracy in, say, Egypt. Nor should it. And again if in a democratic society the values and mores of the majority population are going to influence the cultural norms and ideals, and if the majority population is Muslim, as opposed to Christian or Buddhist or Jewish, then of course there is going to be distinction in that kind of democratic society. And that is a good thing.
Has there or has there not been a good example of an Islamic democracy? Or is the idea of a stable Islamic democracy a work in progress?
First of all, let’s not lose sight of the fact that one-third of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims already live in a democracy. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is a democracy, that Turkey is a democracy, that Malaysia is a democracy, that Bangladesh is a democracy, that Pakistan is a democracy. And yet, of course, these countries are dealing with enormous social and political upheaval. Of course, there are attacks by conservatives, and even fundamentalists on the nature of that democracy. All of this is true, and all of that is to say, is that democracy everywhere in the world, especially in the United States, is an ongoing phenomenon. We in the United States are still trying to define what it means to be a democracy, what is the role of religion in that democracy, what is the role of women, which we have only recently given the right to vote in this country. Those problems, those issues are still in the process of being reconciled all over the world, including in the Muslim world. I think it is still a work in progress, but I do think there are very successful democratic, Muslim-majority states that are doing a fine job of figuring out how to reconcile religion in society.
And Muslim-majority nations are doing this without becoming secular states?
Well it is important to understand that secularism is different than secularization. Secularism is an ideology predicated on the notion that religion should have no role to play in society. The United States is not a secular society by any means. The United States, on the contrary, is a society in which we encourage the role of religion in government, in society, in politics. What we are referring to is secularization, the process whereby political authority is transferred from the hands of religious authorities and put into the hands of civic authorities. And what we see in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Turkey is a process of secularization, but not secularism. Secularism is not a necessary ingredient in democracy. On the contrary, pluralism is a necessary ingredient in democracy. So it is just incorrect and absurd to say that the reason that these Muslim-majority nations are successful is because they are secular. They are not secular. They are secularizing, and that is a necessary requirement, but secularism is not.
Would you say that the “imitatio” nature of Islam, the fact that Muslim behavior and etiquette is highly dependent on the habits and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, is what makes it more difficult for Muslims to adapt Western values?
First of all, you act as though there is some kind of consensus about the actions and words of the Prophet Muhammad, and there is no consensus at all. If what you are referring to is the Hadith, then what you are talking about is an absolutely unverified and unverifiable oral tradition dating back more than 1000 years linked not to the sixth or seventh century but to the ninth and tenth centuries, when these Hadith were written down in the first place. I often say to people that if you find me a Hadith on any subject and give me 24 hours, I will find a Hadith that contradicts it, which of course explains the enormous diversity of Islamic beliefs and practices around the world and why I say with confidence that Islam is one of if not the most diverse religions in the world today. So this goes back to where we began this conversation, which is that it is just simply not the case that there is a template for behavior based on the Prophet’s life that all Muslims follow. It is that Muslims come to their conception of the Prophet’s behavior with their own pre-conceived notions. They are all prejudices, and they, like every person of faith, pick and choose what aspects of the Prophet’s behavior they would like to follow and what they would like to ignore. So once again, the onus lands on the individual, who is the sole arbiter of religious interpretation. Scripture without interpretation is just words on a page.