Leaving Islam




From Critics to Apologists: 
The Historical Relationship Between Liberalism and Islam


Roy Hanson

The word “liberal arts” was first used in England during the Renaissance to describe “the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, not immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a free man.” In effect, this term was used to describe the quest for knowledge for its own sake as opposed to the learning of a trade. It was not until the Enlightenment that “liberal” took on a political use, meaning "free from prejudice, tolerant," and "tending in favor of freedom and democracy.” Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” (1911) shows that long before ideals like multiculturalism, not only conservatives were viewing liberalism with suspicion:  

"Conservative, n, A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." 

Consistent with the liberal heritage of toleration is the reluctance of modern liberals to criticize non-Western cultures. Inconsistent with this same heritage is the tendency of many liberals to overlook the reactionary components of the cultures they often defend. The pioneers of liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries were not subject to this paradox. Their efforts to reform their own world did not compromise their confidence towards the society that gave them the tools to change their world. Hence, long before liberalism was corrupted by the self-censorship political correctness, there was nothing anti-liberal about taking other cultures and religions to task over their incompatibility with liberalism.

            In his masterpiece on good governance, ”The Spirit of Laws,” (1748) Barron de Montesquieu condemns Muslim society for its tyranny, slavery, and misogyny. The core of his argument is in Book 24, Chapter 4:  

It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.  

            Although Montesquieu called for separation of church and state, he never diminishes the role of Christianity in providing the moral guidance necessary for Western civilization’s continuing success. This is evident in preceding paragraph:  

While the Mahometan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians renders their princes less timid, and consequently less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other life, continues the happiness of this!           

The Baron-philosopher was not making this up. For centuries, fratricide had become a common means for consolidating power in the Ottoman sultanate. Montesquieu was also among the 140 contributors to the groundbreaking 72,000 article Encyclopedia compiled by Denis Diderot between 1751 and 1772. His contribution to this monumental achievement can be discerned in some passages that are reiterated from the Spirit of Laws, but unattributed articles original to the Encyclopedia are equally ruthless in their depiction of Islam and Muslim society. Take for example this commentary under the topic of “Fanatisme” in Volume 6, page 393, paragraph 42:  

"When government is based absolutely [or completely] on religion, such as that of the Mahometans, then its fanaticism is turned outward, and turns these people into the common enemy of mankind."  

In the spirit of the time, the section on “Christianisme” in Volume 3, page 381, paragraph 18 also acknowledges abuses perpetrated in the name of the church, but attributes these to the people who abuse Christianity, not the religion itself.  

Christianity, of course, has known its own wars of religion; and the flames of those wars have often proved catastrophic for Christian peoples. This proves that there is nothing so innately good that it cannot be abused by human malignity. Fanaticism is a disease that, from time to time, produces germs capable of infecting the globe, but this is a vice not of Christianity itself, but of individual believers.  

While many secular humanists today will dismiss this as a “Christian” perspective, the struggle against the authority of the church that characterized the Enlightenment also made it possible for atheists and other secularists to dissect the very idea of having religion in the first place. David Hume’s meticulous development of empirical theory is credited with paving the way for future philosophers, politicians, and scientists to think well beyond the church dogma. Often denounced for his alleged atheism, Hume’s condemnation of the Koran in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757) could hardly fit the stereotype of the dogmatic Christian making ritualistic denunciations of other faiths:  

But would we know, whether the pretended prophet had really attained a just sentiment of morals? Let us attend to his narration; and we shall soon find, that he bestows praise on such instances of treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry, as are utterly incompatible with civilized society. No steady rule of right seems there to be attended to; and every action is blamed or praised, so far only as it is beneficial or hurtful to the true believers.  

            Why did a secularist like Hume still feel the need to strongly denounce a book that Christians were already indoctrinated to reject? Could this have served to appease conservatives already displeased with his lack of faith in God? If this is true, one would surely think that those who merited from Hume’s legacy of skepticism would no longer find it necessary to “demonize” other faiths, but the deconstruction of Islam persisted well into the next century.

The Utilitarians created one of the first ethical formulas of the modern age that eliminated the need for divine guidance. This movement pioneered by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by John Stuart Mill evaluated the righteousness of an action exclusively on the basis of its benefit to society. Contrary to one of the key principles of the Enlightenment, the concept of natural rights was rejected because its requirement of a divine being was outside the scope of Utilitarian theory.

Unlike many his predecessors, Bentham did not excoriate Islam’s foremost prophet. In Chapter 2 of “Of the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation” (1843), he regards Muhammad as an “extraordinary” man whose charisma and good intentions might have done great things for Arab society had he been endowed with “more knowledge and more genius.” But from the Utilitarian standpoint, the good intentions of the prophet were not enough to overcome the inherent barbarism of the society where he grew up. As a man of his time, Muhammad lacked the intellectual resources that “might have bestowed on these nations, laws more consonant with their happiness, and less hostile to the human race.” In effect, based exclusively on its consequences, Islam is condemned by Bentham not as a false religion, but as a way of life that is antagonistic to human welfare.

            Like Bentham, John Stuart Mill also focuses on results. In “The Utility of Religion” (1874), he describes the dangers of religious fundamentalism:  

…there is real evil consequent on ascribing a supernatural origin to the received maxims of morality…(thereby) consecrat(ing) the whole of them, and protect(ing) them from being discussed or criticized. So that if among the moral doctrines received as a part of religion, there be any which are imperfect…(or) no longer suited to the changes that have taken place in human relations …these doctrines are considered equally binding on the conscience with the noblest, most permanent and most universal precepts of Christ. Wherever morality is supposed to be of supernatural origin, morality is stereotyped; as law is, for the same reason, among believers in the Koran.  

Mill was an agnostic who used Islam as the cautionary example of religious extremism. Whether or not Mill believed that both Christianity and Islam are equally prone to the ravages of fundamentalism is not clear in this passage. On one hand, he praises the teachings of Christ. On the other hand, he warns against the danger of believing that morality comes from God. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that even Christians who do not necessarily view the Bible as the infallible word of God usually do believe that its highest principles are of divine origin. If this also qualifies under Mill’s precaution against the belief in “supernatural morality” why does he single out Muslim society?

The right of devout Christians to discuss and even criticize parts of the Bible for their accuracy in revealing God’s word is a hallmark of Western society. The Reformation has made belief in divine morality compatible with this freedom in nearly all sects of Christianity, hence, there is little danger of “imperfect” portions of the Bible being placed on the same level of more “universal precepts” found in the Gospels. In contrast, for any Muslim to treat the Koran as anything short of the direct word of God is nothing short of blasphemy. Therefore, the Koran is much more likely to bring about the “stereotyped morality” whereby rational analysis is strongly discouraged.

In this stirring passage from Chapter 2 of “The Subjection of Women” (1869), Mill uses the Islamic analogy to praise the sacrifice of those who have fought against oppression by the church in the past, and regards Christian theocracy as a perversion Christianity’s very essence:  

To pretend that Christianity was intended to stereotype existing forms of government and society, and protect them against change, is to reduce it to the level of Islamism or of Brahminism. It is precisely because Christianity has not done this, that it has been the religion of the progressive portion of mankind, and Islamism, Brahminism, etc. have been those of the stationary portions; or rather (for there is no such thing as a really stationary society) of the declining portions. There have been abundance of people, in all ages of Christianity, who tried to make it something of the same kind; to convert us into a sort of Christian Mussulmans, with the Bible for a Koran, prohibiting all improvement: and great has been their power, and many have had to sacrifice their lives in resisting them. But they have been resisted, and the resistance has made us what we are, and will yet make us what we are to be.  

Unlike John Stuart Mill, French politician and author Alexis de Tocqueville defies categorization. The extraordinarily range of insightful observations found in both volumes of “Democracy in America ” has made it a popular reference for journalists, politicians, and professors of social studies from both sides of the political spectrum. Mill’s praise for the first volume of this masterpiece in the 1835 October issue of the London Review no doubt played a significant role in the public’s eager anticipation for the publication of a second volume five years later.

Like Mill, Tocqueville characterizes Christianity as a religion that adapts to change but Tocqueville gives reasons for this that are more clear and satisfying. In Chapter V of Volume 2 he attributes the progressiveness of Christian society to its ability to distinguish between core belief and ritual:  

The principal opinions which constitute a creed, and which theologians call articles of faith, must be very carefully distinguished from the accessories connected with them. Religions are obliged to hold fast to the former, whatever be the peculiar spirit of the age; but they should take good care not to bind themselves in the same manner to the latter at a time when everything is in transition. The permanence of external and secondary things seems to me to have a chance of enduring only when civil society is itself static; under any other circumstances I am inclined to regard it as dangerous.  

Then Tocqueville specifies the dangers inherent to any religion that micromanages the lives of its followers:  

A religion which became more insistent in details, more inflexible, and more burdened with small observances during the time that men became more equal would soon find itself limited to a band of fanatic zealots in the midst of a skeptical multitude.  

Does this scenario sound familiar? An earlier paragraph from the same chapter indicates exactly what religion Tocqueville had in mind:  

Mohammed had not only religious doctrines descend from Heaven and placed in the Koran, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels in contrast, speak only of the general relations of men to God and among themselves. Outside of that they teach nothing and oblige nothing to be believed. That alone, among a thousand other reasons, is enough to show that the first of these two religions cannot dominate for long in enlightened and democratic times, whereas the second is destined to reign in these centuries as in all others.  

One would be hard-pressed to believe that prejudice played a significant role in such a meticulous and humanistic comparison between Christianity and Islam. In the same chapter, Tocqueville stresses the importance of religion in curbing selfish desires of democratic peoples by placing their desires “above and beyond the treasures of earth.”

Tocqueville also traveled to Algeria and petitioned to put an end to slavery in all French colonies, but his observation and subsequent criticism of slavery and racism in America did not prevent him from seeing the hope and promise embodied in America ’s democratic experiment. Liberals who believe the prison abuses of Abu Ghraib completely invalidate America ’s role in promoting human rights in the Middle East could learn from Tocqueville’s sense of perspective. This trite article by Nicolas Kristoff concerning the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series (Jesus and Jihad, NY Times, 7/ 17/04) provides a stark contrast to Tocqueville’s ability to see the big picture:  

I don't think the readers of ‘Glorious Appearing’ will ram planes into buildings. But we did imprison thousands of Muslims here and abroad after 9/11, and ordinary Americans joined in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in part because of a lack of empathy for the prisoners.  

Americans can never win the war against Islamofascism when their self-image can be punctured by the feeble logic that there is a noteworthy connection between Christian fundamentalism and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Never mind that the neither the Gospels nor “Glorious Appearing” provide any justification for Christians to hurt or kill non-Christians. Never mind that jihad ideology served to expand Muslim territory from the 7th century until the route of the Ottomans in Vienna on September 12, 1683. Never mind that no Muslim leader has apologized for this millennia of aggression, as the Pope apologized for the 200 years of Crusades. Never mind that according to a 2003 Pew survey based on Muslim populations in Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, bin Laden was one of the three "leaders" most trusted. Why in the face of such evidence are columnists of prestigious newspapers like the New York Times fatuously pondering moral equivalencies between Christian fundamentalists and Muslim terrorists?

The persistence of this double standard even three years after 9/11 is not lost on Sam Harris (A Dialogue with a Secularlist, Townhall, 8/24/04), who takes his fellow secularists to task for their surrender to political correctness: 

 I think it’s profoundly ironic that most sensible statements about Islam to appear in our culture have come from our own religious dogmatics.  

Proponents of multiculturalism may find it difficult to credit people critical of other cultures with the redemptive notion that the learning environment is more important than race and pedigree, but in the debate of nature versus nurture the empiricists of Diderot’s era believed that newborn minds are a blank slate. If modern liberals believe that the condemnation of Nazism does not necessarily imply malice towards the German people or even all members of the Nazi party, by what rational basis do they refuse to apply the same standard to a non-Western religion? No liberal would believe that righteous people like John Rabe (who used his Nazi party membership to save the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese during the Nanjing massacre) could ever exonerate Nazism for the evil it represents. Yet how many modern liberals who buy into the “Islam means peace” platitude even bother to think beyond the good behavior of their Muslim friends and colleagues to take a critical look at Islam’s 1400-year history?

Just as the word “Islam” implies “peace,” the word “liberal” implies “freedom.” Even the political labels “right, left, and conservative” lack the distinction of having a meaning that is independent of context. We owe so much of our freedom to the first liberals who lived up to this definition. At that time, conservatives derided liberals for questioning the birthright of aristocrats. Today’s liberals are derided for overlooking the procrustian reality of cultures and ideologies whose sole appeal is their claim of providing a “just” alternative to the status quo. If the self-styled liberals of today cannot muster the cultural self-confidence to put Islam and Islam-related political movements under the same microscope they currently apply to Judaism, Christianity and the Christian Right, then the liberal label will become as farcical as that of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Some will never give up on using the preponderance of right-wing voices in elucidating Islam’s problems as further evidence of their bigotry, but more significant than the unilateralism of these conservatives is the deafening silence of liberals in these discussions. It isn’t easy to participate in a dialogue that makes minorities feel uncomfortable, but to spare an entire people the painful privilege of soul-searching is both patronizing and degrading. A Google search of the name Walid Shoebat shows that by far, most interviews of this Palestinian ex-terrorist have been conducted by news sources that lean to the right. It’s not that the New York Times and National Public Radio have no interest in what Mr. Shoebat has to say: Imagine the recriminations they would have to face from their patrons after asking why this ex-Muslim had turned to evangelical Christianity!

As we enter a conflict that may surpass the Cold War in both duration and horror there is still time to redeem liberalism to the greatness that made it stand so tall in the 18th and 19th centuries. One the most moving tributes to the late Ronald Reagan was written by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa (Opinion Journal 6/11/04). Granted, the Reagan administration had its flaws, but the liberals who ignore the Shoebats and latter day Walesas will only have themselves to blame if they are once again upstaged by conservatives in the cause of freedom.  



















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