Can Islam ever make peace with liberalism?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, this is the debate we need to have

(Image credit: (REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar))

In the week or so since two jihadists massacred 12 people in the Parisian offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, debate about the attacks in the American press has taken a predictable turn. Early expressions of outrage at the act of homicidal barbarism have given way to a heated conversation That is, about liberal society and its double standards with regard to what’s considered blasphemous or an acceptable form of shock.

Should the New York Times reproduce images of cartoons that might antagonize some readers? Why is the media in Western countries so much less willing to run anti-Semitic words and pictures than images that offend Muslims? Should France be arresting people for expressing sympathy for the shooters? Or does doing so belie liberalism’s vision of itself as truly open-minded and pluralistic?

These are worthy, important questions.

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But they’re less worthy and important than a different set of questions that have haunted the West since Sept. 11, 2001, if not before. This latter cluster of questions does not focus on us, per se — or at least they are not about us alone. They focus, instead, on how the liberal societies of the West should think about and respond to people who emphatically reject the most fundamental principle underlying those societies — the principle of toleration and the concomitant commitment on the part of individuals and groups within those societies not to resort to violence (especially lethal violence) as a means of expressing disagreement.

Raising this and related questions makes many liberals exceedingly uneasy — at least when those questions concern the beliefs and behavior of Muslims. The most common liberal objection goes like this: focusing on the threat of specifically Islamic terrorism invariably transforms Islam in the popular imagination into an enemy. Such demonization is horribly unfair, since very, very few members of the Muslim faith become terrorists, and it also runs the risk of strengthening far-right political movements that feed off of and encourage Islamophobia and other prejudices.

Among the ignorant and the ill-informed, this is indeed a concern. But being misunderstood is always a danger, and we don’t normally skew public discussion in order to avoid fools and bigots from misconstruing it.

Then there’s the fact that, strangely, liberals express far less skittishness about highlighting the illiberal behavior of members of other faiths — Christianity, for example — when extremists within them lash out in violence. Think of the anti-abortion radicals — nearly always extremely devout Christians — who have killed doctors and receptionists at abortion clinics on a handful of occasions. Those events don’t tend to inspire a lot of liberal hand-wringing about how the principle of abortion on demand might have provoked the sensitivities of Christians who consider the procedure to be lethal violence aimed at destroying innocent human life. No: the conversation jumps instead to full-throated denunciations of the perpetrators and a discussion of how better to protect the constitutionally enshrined reproductive rights of women against radicals who would murder those who seek to exercise those rights.

Which is exactly as it should be. Because murdering someone over a disagreement is a barbaric act — a brutal violation of the most elementary norms of civilized life, and an assault on the most inviolable principles of liberal society itself.

It is good, then, that we do not restrain ourselves from denouncing anti-abortion terrorists and thinking through how to protect ourselves against them — even though the threat they pose is small. (There have been a total of eight deaths at abortion clinics since the first attack in the early 1990s.)

To which many liberals will respond: Do we really lack for denunciations of Islamic terrorism? Have we not spent enormous amounts of time and resources on protecting ourselves against it, especially since the 9/11 attacks?

We certainly have.

And yet, to judge from our policies and the content of our public debates — which lurch from Know Nothing name-calling on Fox News and Real Time with Bill Maher, to an overly fussy refusal to make any critical generalizations or judgments about contemporary Islam at all — we could be doing a much better job of it.

What should we be talking about instead?

How about this:

According to a pair of recent (and underreported) polls, one in six French Muslims and one in seven British Muslims sympathize with the goals and tactics of the Islamic State — which as we’re all well aware include decapitating Westerners in YouTube videos and establishing an Islamic caliphate governed by the most draconian, illiberal version of sharia law imaginable.

Survey results from within majority-Muslim nations are, if anything, even more troubling.

An ambitious multinational poll published in 2013 by the Pew Research Center sought to determine the percentage of Muslims in a series of countries who favor making sharia the law of the land. The results? Seventy-four percent of Muslims in Egypt, 84 percent of Muslims in Pakistan, 91 percent of Muslims in Iraq, and 99 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan would like to live under Islamic law.

As if to disabuse anyone who might hope that these respondents prefer a more moderate form of sharia than the harshly theocratic version than haunts the Western liberal imagination, the poll also asked those who favor sharia if they believe apostasy — the act of a Muslim converting to a religion other than Islam — should be a crime punishable by death. The results? Forty-two percent of sharia supporters in Iraq, 76 percent of sharia supporters in Pakistan, 79 percent of sharia supporters in Afghanistan, and 86 percent of sharia supporters in Egypt favor the death penalty for apostasy.

Now, some concessions.

First, the poll also shows lower rates of support for sharia law in some majority-Muslims nations, and far lower rates in many countries where Muslims are a minority.

Second, Western (predominately Christian) civilization has shown itself to be similarly intolerant in many times and places in the past — including during eras when Islam was comparatively broadminded.

It can’t be said often enough: Islam as such isn’t a problem or a threat.

But here’s what also needs to be said: certain forms of contemporary Islam are an enormous, confounding problem and a threat to the liberal political and social order. The threat isn’t just from bombs, bullets, and butcher’s knives. It’s also, and perhaps more gravely, from ideas that may well be fundamentally unassimilable to a liberal way of life.

Liberalism offers the following deal to individuals and groups: give up the hope of controlling the whole of social life, of using government power (and violence) to enforce your vision of the highest good, and allow the natural pluralism of society to grow and flourish; in return you’ll be granted the freedom to find a home within that highly differentiated socio-cultural ecosystem, a place where you and those with whom you freely choose to associate can also grow and flourish in peace.

Tolerate — and you will be tolerated in turn.

That’s the liberal bargain. It is one of the finest achievements of Western civilization, and one of its greatest gifts to humanity in all times and places — nothing less than an all-purpose strategy for getting along despite our often rancorous disagreements about the highest good and ultimate ends of life.

Muslims who admire (let alone who go to fight for) the Islamic State, or who favor a form of sharia law that would make apostasy a crime punishable by death, have effectively rejected the liberal bargain and opted to exile themselves from liberal civilization.

And therein lies the challenge confronting the liberal West.

When it comes to the delicate question of how to dissipate anti-liberal animus in Muslim communities within Western nations, it’s useful to recall that the liberal bargain can take a range of forms — and that some of those forms seem somewhat better than others at inspiring Muslim allegiance. The Islamic community in the United States, for example, is more fully integrated into American life and much less radicalized than analogous (but much larger) communities in Europe. That is no doubt in part because American law and mores permit a larger role for religion in public life than does, say, the French republican ideology of public secularism (laïcité). That might point toward the wisdom of adopting something closer to the American model of church-state relations on the European continent.

As for the West’s interactions with the wider world, there we must be lucid about the limits of our power. The most illiberal elements in contemporary Islamic civilization will either come around in time to see the value of the liberal bargain or they won’t. There’s very little that we in the West can do to hasten that reckoning and reevaluation. It certainly won’t be catalyzed by additional military escapades in the Middle East and South Asia that only inflame anti-Western sentiments.

And that points above all to the need for patience — and the resolve to keep our cool and muddle through what could be a long era of civilizational tension and mutual suspicion that simply cannot be resolved on the battlefield.

When confronted with an intractable problem, sometimes the wisest, most courageous thing to do is wait it out.

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