Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam?


by Abdal-Hakim Murad.

Must one be liberal to belong to the West? For all the polite multiculturalist denials, this question is being put to us more and more insistently. The European Union, as it struggles to articulate a common cultural as well as economic vision, regularly toys with grand statements about Europe as a vision of human community, whose success underpins the universal model now being urged upon the rest of humanity. European liberals, with their Enlightenment, civil society, democratic institutions, and human rights codes, sometimes seem to self-define as a secular Messiah, willing and ready to save the world. To resist is, by implication, to align oneself with an unregenerate, sinful humanity.

Yet we Europeans are in fact in the middle of a difficult argument. We are constantly quarrelling with ourselves over definitions of belonging. We can unite to build an Airbus, but will we really unite around a moral or cultural ideal? What, after all, are the exact historic grounds for European cultural unity? And – this now looks like the continent’s greatest concern – how can Muslims fit in?

Perhaps it helps if we look at Europe’s distant roots. Homer, long ago, told us how Europa, the daughter of the King of Phoenicia, was abducted by Zeus, duly ravished, and borne off to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to the Europeans. There is something emblematic and transgressive about this myth of origin: a Lebanese maiden torn from the breast of Asia and deposited in a corner of the continent which eventually bore her name. The beginning of our story is a violent European raid upon Asia, an unhappy immigration, and a confiscation of identity.

Perhaps we can trace back this far – and Europe’s literature in fact begins with Homer – Europe’s ambiguity about its self and its values. But Europa only finds herself, and discovers the limits of her soul and body, long after this classical prologue. For the Romans, it was the Mediterranean which defined the core of their terrain and their commercial and religious life. Rome equally embraced the European, African and Asian shores of the Middle Sea. But while it saw itself as superior, it rarely sought to impose its philosophy or social values on others. So we will hesitate to accept the common cliché that in our time, ancient history has been reborn: America is Rome, Europe is Athens, while Islam is an endlessly troublesome Judea. Ancient Rome and Athens had no systematic programme of universalizing their values, even within the bounds of their political sway, and still less did they encourage other nations to accept their social beliefs.

When Islam appeared in the seventh century, the African and Asian shores were lost. Thrown back on its own resources, Europe sought to define itself, then as now, as the prolongation of the rather small remnant of antiquity that the Saracens missed. From that time on, it developed ideas of its unique and universal social rightness.

The historian Fernand Braudel insists that it was the electric shock of the Battle of Poitiers in 732, when the Arab and Berber advance into France was finally stemmed, which gave the Franks and hence the Europeans their sense of self. Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen seemed symbolically to straddle both banks of the Rhine, making a nonsense of the old Roman borders. The German barbarians who brought down Rome, and who now ruled in France and Germany as they had ruled in Italy and Spain, now claimed to be heirs of the imperium. The almost obsessive cult of the Latin language and classical mythology which characterised European education until well into the twentieth century shows how anxious the Germanic and other ‘European’ peoples were to see themselves, rather than the Saracens who controlled most of the Mediterranean, as heirs to the Roman Empire. When the Ottomans captured and sacked Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II claimed the title of Roman emperor, but Europe rejected this absolutely. Rather as the Bible rejects Ishmael in favour of Isaac, so Europe has been united in nothing so much as its rejection of Islam’s claims to legitimate participation in the blessings bestowed by antiquity, and by those other patriarchs, Plato and Aristotle.

As a matter of fact – and this is not widely noticed by liberal advocates of European uniqueness – Islam was for much of its history the principal heir of Hellenism, geographically and intellectually. Yet Europe will no more see Islam as a rightful inheritor of Athens than it will allow Ishmael legitimate authority over Jerusalem. The reason was Christianity. Christian monks saw themselves as the true interpreters of Hellenism, for all their borrowings from Ibn Rushd and Ghazali. Rome, the only remaining Christian metropolis of the classical world, was assumed to be the inheritor of that world’s riches, which had moved West, rather than remaining in their place of origin in Antioch, Ephesus, Cyrene and Alexandria. The Saracen was an interloper, an upstart. Thanks to the same furor Teutonicus which baffled and brought down Rome, the Franks kept the false inheritors at bay, and even, during the Crusades, found themselves united as Europeans in a counter-attack that brought Jerusalem again into Christian hands. From that time until the present, Europe, followed by its children in the ethnically-cleansed Americas, has been sure of its sole proper possession not only of ancient Semitic prophecy, but also of the legacy of Athens with which it coexisted in such a complex and often unstable marriage.

An older Orientalism will claim that Islam, the major Semitism, sniffed briefly at Greece but then turned away from it. This is the notion of the theologian al-Ghazali sounding the death-knell of Greek philosophy in the world of Islam. Hellenism, according to the likes of Leo Strauss, could only find room in the European inn; Islam, with its burden of scriptural literalism, treated it as a resident alien at best. This applies not only to metaphysics, but also to political theory – Plato’s brief Muslim apotheosis on the pages of al-Farabi. Strauss has had many admirers: ominously, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were among them, together with various thinkers on Europe’s new Islamophobic right. And Pope Benedict’s famous 2007 lecture at Regensburg likewise seemed to present the Muslims as improper heirs to the classical legacy of rationality and rights which, according to this heir of the Holy Office, is Europe’s alone. But the best recent scholarship, such as the work of Robert Wisnovsky, has blown this apart: we are now more likely to see Juwayni, Ghazali and Razi as the great advocates of a selective but profound internalising of Greek reason. Greek ethics lives on powerfully on the pages of Miskawayh, al-Raghib al-Isfahani, and al-Ghazali. In political thought, particularly, the old themes also lived on in manuals of statecraft studied carefully by Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul emperors and their grand viziers. And if Plato was modified drastically by the Sira, that was no bad thing, given that Plato has so often been an enemy of the open society.

The internalising of ancient philosophy, including those strands from which modern liberal thinking ultimately takes its origin, did happen differently in Islam and in the Western world. That is one reason why Athens, in Europe, finally defeated Jerusalem, and philosophy of an increasingly secular bent defeated theology. Aquinas, whose Summa Contra Gentiles was written to help secure Christian theology in lands conquered from Muslims, proposed a symbiosis of philosophy and scripture which has, for most Europeans, now outlived its credibility. The same Christian interval in Europe which laid claim to the classical age by virtue, strangely perhaps, of the overlaps visible in the Greek New Testament, has faltered, to be replaced by vibrant paganisms, or an often militant secular officialdom. Hence the decision by the drafters of the European Constitution to include a mention of Thucydides, and to pass over the Christian centuries in silence.

A new class of triumphalist atheists – Richard Dawkins, Anthony Grayling and others – now assails faith for its inability to deliver a peaceful and just society. Ethical liberal arguments against religion are now much more commonly heard than older objections to faith grounded in the problem of evil, or the improbability of the Book of Genesis. Probably this began in the late 19th century, when all reasonable people seemed to oppose Pope Pius the Ninth’s Syllabus of Errors, which anathematised the Enlightenment notions of religious freedom and the separation of church from state. As article 80 of the Syllabus proclaims, one may be excommunicated for holding that ‘the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization’.

Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, such anathemas are hard to imagine, and even the Vatican is reinventing itself as an advocate of precisely the liberal opinions – or many of them – that a century ago would have resulted in the withholding of the sacraments and hence a sentence of eternal damnation. Its opposition to the death penalty, and its support for religious freedom, are two iconic examples. Liberalism’s triumph is so complete that many today can hardly recall the old and fierce Christian opposition to it.

Thanks to such capitulations, the Europe that historically made itself a unit by keeping Muslims at bay, or by expelling them, in Spain, France, Sicily and the Balkans, has now substantially let go of the distinctiveness of the religious vision of society that allowed that to happen. Liberalism, whose crooked genealogy stretches back to distant concerns in ancient Athens, and whose Biblical tributaries, claimed by some Americans, are perhaps only imaginary, has replaced the older theocratic thinking, which lingers on only in fringe rightwing and royalist circles. Secularity is largely the invention of the continent which was the cradle of Christian monarchism; today, indeed, in a world where there may be secularism abroad, but not secularity, it is almost a European monopoly. God’s continent has been transformed into the crucible of an increasingly assertive materialism.

Partly for this reason, as the desk pilots in Brussels think ahead, they know that the future expansion of their Union must always be to the East, not the South. The drang nach Osten of Euroland may within thirty years bring Europe, intelligibly enough, to Vladivostok, but Tangiers, only twenty miles across the sea which in classical times was a thoroughfare and not a barrier, is generally admitted to be psychologically a far foreign land. Hence we find that today, as regularly in the Christian past, Europe’s arguments about itself, whether right-wing or libertarian, usually end in terms of its relationship with its significant Other, the Saracen and Turkish realm.

Following Europe’s breaking of its own bounds after the great geographical discoveries, the Islamic world was progressively made to submit to European patterns of government and economic interest. Today, the elites in the postcolonial Muslim world are, substantially, Europeans themselves, rather than adherents of local values. Sometimes their fervent dislike of the indigenous makes them seem more royal than the king. With such converts Brussels has no significant quarrel, although it regularly puzzles over the deep corruption and often the cruelty of the westernised classes in the former colonies. But dealing with those regimes is no more than a human rights issue. The elites must adhere to the constitutional norms, as well as the secular forms, of Europe. Yet as the Eurocrat is nervously aware, and as current events show, those elites can resemble a fragile skin stretched over a sea of cultural difference. The Muslim world, perhaps the non-Western world, can look like a geologist’s model of the Earth. The planet, not far down, is alive and moving, a mass of liquid magma; but on the surface, plates of congealed rock uneasily coexist. Tensions between, say, Morocco and Algeria, are tensions between the cold, Europeanised classes, not the often passionately religious populations beneath, for whom the boundaries drawn by past generations of colonial mapmakers do not correspond at all to local linguistic and ethnic difference. Secular elites, claiming liberal values, hold down a mass of illiberal religious sentiment. The holding-down can be so violent that on occasion traumatised terrorists can emerge to horrify the world, and to confirm liberals in their uneasy support for the regimes.

This tension, between the autocratic elites supported by European liberal governments, and the still substantially religious masses with their desire to enter the public square, has now become so intense that the lava is emerging in very many Muslim states. The result is often a type of crisis for the liberal conscience, or a sudden and carefully-timed volte face: as we saw when on January 14 of this year, the French president offered President Ben Ali of Tunisia a contingent of riot police to shore up his rule, while the next day, when it became clear that the popular uprising had triumphed, France refused Ben Ali the right even to enter its airspace. Des qu’on a des ennuis, elle n’est plus votre amie …

As they panic over demography and immigration, Europe’s theorists are well aware of this. Hence the difficulty of, for instance, the current European debate over Turkish membership of the European Union. The Erdogan government presents liberals with a paradox. Less secular than its predecessors, it is more committed to human rights and democratic pluralism, and is keen to curb the military’s projection in the political realm. The generals, with their tight-lipped laicism, claim to be the guardians of Ataturk’s project to recreate Turkey in Europe’s image; yet Europe is no longer the nationalist, often fascistic continent it was in the 1920s and 1930s when Kemalism took shape. Hence the conundrum for the Eurocrats. Many European liberal statesmen, particularly in the core ‘Charlemagne’ states of France and Germany, oppose Turkish membership on grounds that are clearly to do with Europe’s ancient habit of self-definition as something that, ultimately, is not Muslim. Europe may be economically inclusive, and passionately liberal and libertarian, but ultimately, to be itself, it must be exclusive of non-Christians, and of Muslims above all. The old Crusading cry of ‘Christians are right, and pagans are wrong,’ has been modified by replacing the ‘Christians’ with gay activists and human rights commissioners.

It is not impossible that Turkey will be admitted, perhaps after two or more decades. Yet the current proposals envisage Turkey’s exclusion from the Amsterdam Treaty in respect of Turkey’s Muslim population. EU citizens will be able to live in Turkey, but to allow Turks to emigrate freely to Europe would be too much for electorates to contemplate. This, currently, seems the kind of compromise that Ankara will be compelled to accept. Other arrangements with Muslim areas such as Albania, Bosnia, and perhaps Azerbaijan, may well impose the same condition. A Europe increasingly at ease with minaret and niqab bans will be happy to see such odd-handedness as right and proper.

Having thus charted our odd situation, let us deal with the question. To be Europeans, must we be liberals? Does liberal Europe’s insistence when drawing its outer borders on the partial or total exclusion of Islam have implications for internal definitions of belonging? If we bother to look at the bland Euro banknotes, the product of extended searches in the 90s for a shared European symbol, we find that the key symbol that was finally used is the outline of the continent itself, which blurs into nothingness wherever it reaches places inhabited by Muslims. The vague bridge symbols are drawn from ‘seven ages’ of European culture and design, but naturally there was no risk of annoying Europeans with any trace of a Moorish arch. For Brussels officialdom, there is implicitly no more appropriate symbol of Europe than one which indicates non-Muslimness. What, therefore, does a European Muslim think about himself or herself when using this currency? Does a conscious exclusion at the frontiers on religious grounds have implications for internal solidarity and belonging? Must liberal Europe create an internal firewall against Muslim migrants and their bafflingly religious progeny?

Despite all the brave talk of European unity, the reassuring reality on the ground is that there is no consensus at all. The French model, rooted in Enlightenment anticlericalism, is absolutely exclusive of religious affiliation of any kind from its sense of belonging. This is not just about Islam: it was made clear more than a century ago in the Republic’s response to the Syllabus of Errors: a law was passed preventing priests from mentioning the Pope’s document from the pulpits. Thus was a process established whereby liberal secularity could win victories over freedom of speech. And Catholicism, though the victim of deep anticlericalism, was at least seen as indigenous. In the republic’s more recent travails with Islam, memories of Crusades and the dirty war in Algeria have made the exclusion of Muslimness in the name of Republican laicity particularly easy and emphatic. The broad-based consensus among liberals that women who wear the niqab should be arrested by the police is only the most recent example of this.

In fact, it is probably the case that the so-called far-right parties, such as Mirine Le Pen’s Fronte Nationale, are in fact not far to the right of the political spectrum at all. They are best seen as coercive liberal parties, their social and fiscal policies placing them somewhere in the centre-right of the political spectrum, but so passionate about the unique truth of liberalism that they seek to punish those who fail to comply with present liberal social beliefs. An example would be Geert Wilders, perhaps Holland’s most popular politician. Wilders is in most key respects somewhat to the left of centre politically. But so passionate is he about liberalism that he wishes to impose a 1000 euro annual tax on hijab wearers, ban the sale of the Qur’an, and forbid the construction of new mosques. In Switzerland, too, surveys indicate that the current ban on minaret construction is more likely to be supported by left-leaning voters, than by voters on the traditional right.

It may turn out that just as Europe defines its natural boundaries as coterminous with the frontier with Islam, that its emerging definitions of citizenship, and the various tests applied to those seeking citizenship, will engage primarily with Islam as the significant alternative, as the model for what is un-European and unacceptable. A good example is the 76-page manual which guides officialdom in assessing applications for German citizenship. Formal citizenship tests in Germany include questions about freedom of religion, sexual orientation, and the status of women, to allow officials to exclude individuals whose social beliefs are considered to conflict with the liberal mainstream. In some provinces, such as Hesse, the Muslim-specific questions are very insistent. For instance: ‘Should a woman be allowed to appear in public without a male relative’? And a question in Baden-Wurttemberg asks: ‘Imagine that your adult son comes to you and says he is homosexual and plans to live with another man. How do you react?’ Another, predictably, asks: ‘What do you think if a man is married to two women at the same time?’ And again: ‘ In Germany, sport and swim classes are part of the normal school curriculum. Would you allow your daughter to participate?’

The regulations give officials the right even to revoke citizenship if a very conservative religious orientation is suspected, or if a citizen’s subsequent opinions or behaviour indicate that he or she lied when taking the test. No conservatives will be allowed to get in under the radar; if they do, their passports may be confiscated and they will be deported. According to Eren Unsal, of the Turkish Union, ‘these tests are presupposing, negative, and anti-Islamic. We’re seeing a more restrictive immigration policy whose face is anti-Muslim.’ And another Muslim representative even says, ‘The constitutional assumption of innocence no longer applies to Muslims.’

Such Muslim objections were generally brushed aside by German commentators, until the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published

a leaked internal memo from the Interior Ministry sent to immigration officials. According to this document, immigration authorities should have what it calls ‘general suspicion’ about the loyalty of Muslims to Germany. It goes on to explain that ‘inner devotion to Germany’ should automatically be doubted in the case of Muslim applicants for citizenship. The leaked government guidelines then go on to say: ‘Europeans, Americans and citizens of other countries who are otherwise free from suspicion should not come into contact with the test.’

A further example of liberal intervention is provided by the German government’s attempts to create a class of Muslim religious leaders whose values conform to those of the country’s liberal majority. The government set up the country’s first imam training programme at the University of Münster, to promote this liberal agenda, but appointed as the programme’s director the historian Sven Kalisch, whose books claim that the Prophet Muhammad did not exist. The four main Muslim organisations in Germany withdrew from the programme in protest, drawing criticism from the government for alleged ‘conservative-fundamentalist tendencies’. In this case, however, some liberals did agree that to appoint a man who did not believe in the existence of the Prophet to the directorship of an imam-training programme was probably a misjudgement on the part of the authorities. As with the Muslim-test, the Münster experiment generated not only resentment, but a good deal of mirth at the expense of liberal interventionists.

Overall, in Germany, deep volkisch impulses are quietly being reignited, dressed up in the language of liberalism, rather as Nazism in the 1930s justified itself to the unobservant as a kind of socialism. Just as the debates which led to the Nuremberg laws were preceded by passionate debates about true and pure Germanness, so too the far-right assumptions are percolating into the mainstream. In March 2011, the Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich announced: ‘To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history’, thereby invoking perhaps the most ancient theme in German self-understanding. The old ‘Semite within’, obliterated under the Third Reich, has now been replaced by the ancient Semite ante portas, who has now acquired citizenship, but can, in Friedrich’s view, never belong.

In France, as Muslims generally know, the liberal campaign to restrict Islamic practice, sometimes supported and sometimes opposed by the right wing, has generated an interesting paradox no less informative than that produced by bungling Germans. Vehemently defending the right, in 1989, of a publisher to print a French translation of Salman Rushdie’s novel the Satanic Verses, in 1994 the French government enforced a series of interdictions which threaten with imprisonment anyone found in possession of the booklets of the South African writer Ahmed Deedat. Those who have read his pamphlets may find this strange, since he never advocates violence of any kind; but liberal France is clear: the law of 31 May 1994 described his book Jesus in Islam as likely to produce ‘des dangers pour l’ordre public’, because of their ‘violently anti-Western tone and their incitement to racial hatred’. Muslims timidly pointed out the contradiction, but the liberal establishment was clear: Deedat is dangerous, and Muslims who own his booklets must be punished.

The United Kingdom, which would not dream of banning Deedat, is generally more cautious in its attempts to encourage liberal beliefs among its minorities. But the recent British Ofsted assessment of the poor quality of ‘citizenship’ training in faith-based secondary schools may indicate the shape of things to come. Even without the Muslims, Ofsted has its work cut out for it. ‘Citizenship’ has been part of the National Curriculum for only ten years, and Ofsted confirms that teaching of this rather numinous subject is extremely patchy across the board; in fact, it is said to be the worst-taught subject in the nation’s schools. So bad is the situation that one in ten pupils in Britain apparently do not even know what citizenship classes are, even though they have attended them. Few engage actively with the liberal issues raised in citizenship training. The reason seems to be the general apathy towards politics and ideology current among many teenagers, the result, perhaps, of the escapist content of mass youth entertainment, together with larger social perceptions that old definitions of sovereignty and national selfhood are being inexorably eroded by globalisation and the Internet. Only 64 percent of pupils nationwide identify themselves as ‘British’.

In the Muslim schools, where citizenship training is apparently in even greater disarray, Ofted says: ‘We must not allow recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. We must be intolerant of intolerance.’

Here, I think, the official finger rests on the Achilles heel of secular liberal ethics. If we must be intolerant of intolerance, then can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? If Europe defines citizenship in terms of adherence to a set moral template, with all else defined as intolerable, how can Europe ever positively experience real difference, which more often than not is bound up with good, or bad, religion?

An icon of European exclusiveness was supplied in 2004 when the Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to resign as a European commissioner when it emerged that he supported the Vatican’s line on homosexuality. Despite his insistence that his belief in the sinfulness of the practice would not affect the decisions he took in public life, the consensus of European officialdom obliged him to resign. The Italian Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli, objected in a futile way, by calling the ban ‘a decision which shows the real face of Europe, a face which we do not like. It’s fundamentalist, which is absolutely not on.’ But his view provoked only frowns.

Muslims have watched with concern this striking proof of how categorically Europe has walked away from its traditional Christian values and authorities. It is interesting, also, as proof that European citizenship appears to be a matter of conformity to certain sacrosanct social beliefs, in this case, the historically anti-Christian belief that conscientious opposition to homosexual practice is so wicked that those who hold such beliefs must be excluded from public office. As Buttiglione himself remarked, ‘The new soft totalitarianism which is advancing wants to be a state religion. It is an atheistic, nihilistic religion, but it is a religion that is obligatory for all.’

It is possible that this imposition of social beliefs will become more intense, despite its apparent clash with principles of freedom of conscience. In 2009, Nick Clegg (now the British Deputy Prime Minister), said that children attending faith schools should be taught that homosexuality is ‘normal and harmless’. Special lessons, he opined, should be required of such schools to encourage tolerance for this practice.

It seems reasonable to predict that the concretisation of such social beliefs and their imposition through law and a media monoculture will continue. Many will recognise in this a reversion to historic European norms, alien to Islam, of imposing a standard belief pattern on the king’s subjects. Cuius regio, eius religio. Liberalism of a particular socially prescriptive kind seems to be filling the void left by religion, and, Europe being the historic land of the divine right of kings, religion here is often more closely bound up with politics than in traditional Muslim states. In this case, the condemnation of sodomy functions as a blasphemy, or a ‘speech violation’. Other blasphemies include, for instance, the idea that men and women are suited for different tasks, that the death penalty is a just punishment for murder, that parents may use corporal punishment to discipline their children, and that unbelievers are less pleasing to God than believers. The list is quite a long one, and it seems to be growing.

Societies hate value-vacuums. After the Second World War, Europe and America went very different ways regarding truth: Europe lapsed into what the philosopher Heidegger called gelassenheit – just letting things be, a mood which eased the transition to postmodernism. America, whose heartland did not suffer RAF bombings or Nazi death camps, remained confident, in a rather simple way, about God and family values, allowing a continuing religious alternative to the secular monoculture. But as the European continent increasingly defines itself not as the splintered wreckage of war, but as a potentially mighty unit, it needs shared values. Like America, it has fixed on Islam as its significant Other, but while America’s foreign wars are religiously driven, Europe is preoccupied withinternal cohesion, framing laws that in America would be strange: to shut the hijab out

of sight, to ban minarets, and to prohibit in general the public expression of conservative morality. In other words, the federal and racial unity which in America is brought by external wars against Muslims, is possible in a less jingoistic Europe only by putting Muslims at the centre of an internal war of values.

On both sides of the Atlantic, liberal or religious intolerance of Muslims has now risen to worrying levels, and further restrictive legislation seems possible in many places. 9/11 intensified this atmosphere of inquisition. In the United States, a Cornell University survey concludes that 44% of Americans now support a selective abolition of civil rights for Muslim citizens, and the King Enquiry now underway in Washington may make some recommendations in this regard. Significantly, some liberal and neo-liberal public intellectuals, welcoming the results of this survey, denounce the current American mood of regret over the concentration of Japanese-Americans in camps during the Second World War.

If Europe is once again finding a kind of unity in its allergy to Muslimness, can Muslims find any allies in this landscape? Tariq Ramadan, in his book To be a European Muslim, implies that a marriage is possible with environmentalist and left-wing groups who are dismayed by the rise of anti-immigrant feeling. Pim Fortuyn’s assassin was, after all, a militant left-wing vegetarian who wished to defend Holland’s Muslims from Fortuyn’s plans for a liberal persecution. And many of the emerging British and European Muslim organisations seem to sympathise with Ramadan’s approach. After all, when marching against the invasion of Iraq, or campaigning against arms sales to brutal elites in the Middle East, one usually finds oneself sharing an umbrella with Fabian or CND types, not the Young Conservatives. Hence the popularity of the likes of George Galloway among Muslims.

Such an alliance, however, is likely to be, at best, a tempestuous marriage of convenience. Muslims and the left may converge on Iraq, or Israel, or globalisation, but on domestic matters they stand at opposite poles. The Green movement, and virtually all on the Left, are fiercely pro-homosexual and feminist. It seems clear, then, that European Muslims are unlikely to forge a stable relationship with the Left. Similarly with the environmentalists: Muslims are often forgetful that the roots of the green lobby in Europe are not monotheistic, but often implicitly or explicitly pagan. Nazism was very keen on the environment: Sigrid Hunke, the German feminist and green theorist of the 1930s who is still viewed as a founder of the green movement, was revered by several Nazi ideologues.

Many Muslims, from their vantage-point in Europe’s ghettoes, intuit this correctly. But they then conclude that the true believers by definition have no allies. Some Salafist perspectives, in particular, seem unable to accept the possibility of partnership with non-Muslims. One recalls the embarrassing cases of Shaykh Faisal in Britain, and Anwar al-Awlaki in the United States; whose followers, mesmerised by the slogan of ‘Back to the Qur’an’, had to spring back in dismay when the political views of these preachers reached the media. Yet such paranoia and xenophobia seem both scripturally unnecessary and practically unwise. If Europe continues to secularise, while Europe’s mosques remain full, then Islam is likely, without any planning or even forethought, to become the principal monotheistic energy through much of the continent, a kind of leaven in Europe’s stodgy dough.

Yet we should note that the pressure being brought to bear on Muslim communities relates to social, not doctrinal, beliefs. No-one in Brussels is greatly concerned about Muslim doctrines of the divine attributes, or prophetic intercession; but they do care about whether or not Muslims believe in feminism. This places Muslim believers in a historically new position. It should be possible to forge close friendships with other Europeans who also have the courage to blaspheme against the Brussels magisterium. We may differ with conservative Catholics and Jews over doctrine, but we are all facing very similar challenges to our social vision. Signor Buttiglione could easily have been a Muslim, not a Catholic, martyr.

Here, I believe, a burden of responsibility rests upon the shoulders of Muslim leaders. It is in our interests to seek and hold friends. We are not alone in our conscientious rejection of many liberal orthodoxies. The statement by Bishop Michel Santer of the French church condemning the official punishments imposed on women who wear the niqab is an important sign of the possibility of cooperation. The challenge is going to be for Muslim, Christian and Jewish conservatives to set aside their strong traditional hesitations about other faith communities, and to discover the multitude of things they hold in common. To date, clearly, the interfaith industry has failed to catalyse this, partly because it tends to be directed by liberal religionists. We are more and more willing, it seems, to discuss less and less, and to conform more and more to the moral consensus of a secular and individualistic world.

However an alliance sacrée between orthodox believers in different religions would, I think, deflate the potentially xenophobic and Islamophobic possibilities implicit in the process of European self-definition. If Europe defines itself constitutionally, as I believe it should, as either an essentially Christian entity, or as one which is at least founded in belief in God, then the fact of Muslim support for core principles of Christian ethics will give Islam a vital and appreciated place. But a purely secular Europe will always see Muslim values as problems on the margin, to be tolerated or punished according to the whims of the currently elected politicians. The relationship with European Jews is no less critical. If Orthodox Jewry – currently gaining in strength – can make common cause with Islam over core moral issues, chauvinisms and suspicions which currently exist on both sides will be seen as self-defeating.

Abdal Hakim Murad

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10 responses to “Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam?

  1. Gosh. That was quite a read. If it could be made a little shorter and more punchy, it could be a LA paper, which deserves publication separately (with attributable refs also I hope)…Unless it is already – I have not yet checked having only just seen it.

  2. It is an interesting read.

  3. A very interesting essay.

    One interesting thing touched upon within it to which I have given much thought is the question of who is the heir of Mediterrenean civilisation. A while back it suddenly struck me how very odd it is that if you ask a European- in particular, an Englishman of education- what his heritage is, he will invariably say, “Judaeo-Christian” and “Graeco-Roman”. He traces his origins to people far away not just in time, but also in space. Does this make any sense?

    Another way to look at it is this; why should anyone want to be the heirs of what we call the Ancient World? Its most obvious feature is that it failed and disappeared; buried under mud and sand, we had to go and dig it back up again. So I would assert this; in seeking the European genius, we should ask not what Europe inherited from the Orient, but what it did not and thus, perhaps, wonder whether Europe’s luck was to be removed sufficiently from the first stab at civilisation that when that failed, we could have another go at it of a different character.

    It thus may well be that Islam is indeed the inheritor of the ancient civilisations of the Orient, not us- and that is why it is a failure.

  4. westernesse

    Timothy John “Tim” Winter (born 1960), also known as Abdal Hakim Murad, is a British Sufi Muslim researcher, writer and teacher. His profile and work have attracted media coverage both in the Muslim World and the West. Conversant in both traditional Islamic scholarship and Western thought and civilization,[citation needed] Winter has made contributions on many Islamic topics.

    Tony

  5. “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
    And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
    But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
    The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
    Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
    But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
    And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
    And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
    So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
    Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
    Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
    And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
    So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
    Jesus

  6. Pingback: Barrel Strength » Blog Archive » Can liberalism tolerate Islam?

  7. Can liberalism tolerate any thing? Prison sentence on football fan who made offensive remarks upheld on appeal.
    Very interesting article on the state of free speech in Britain by;http://libertylawsite.org/post/freedom-of-speech-wanes-in-britain/

  8. Modern liberalism is generally intolerant.

    A better question for this blog (if not one that is likely to be tested in practice within our lifetimes) is whether libertarianism can tolerate Islam.

    Certainly a libertarian state couldn’t tolerate the aggression and coercion that is prescribed in the Koran (or the bible, for that matter).

    At the same time, a libertarian state would be inclined to tolerate all manner of speech, including “hate speech”. It would allow parents to educate their children as they see fit (at their own expense). It would not expect Muslims to allow dogs in their restaurants, nor would it require them to employ women, homosexuals, or kafirs. It would allow all citizens to have as many wives (or husbands) as they like (the state would get out of the marriage business). To the extent that public property remained, people would likely be free to wear whatever they like (helmets, veils, balaclavas and bear suits; Nazi uniforms, kaftans, or bikinis). On private property (including hotels, restaurants, and businesses), proprietors would be free to impose whatever dress codes they like on employees and guests. Landlords might forbid tenants from consuming alcohol, or engaging in any other activities of which they disapprove, but any violations of the rental agreement would be handled as any other breech of contract. The landlord would not be free to mutilate the tenants (unless they consent to it?), and it would have to allow them to leave.

    A libertarian state would not allow a modern-day Mohammed to take slaves in armed raids. Would it allow adults to sell themselves into slavery?

    For a time, a libertarian state could probably accommodate many of the unpleasant features of Islam (though by no means all). The danger would come if the Muslim population grew to a significant size while retaining their intolerant beliefs. This would be a risk whether or not the libertarian state was democratic.

    • I agree it would be a question of numbers. A Moslem minority could be accommodated in the same way as we’d accommodate Mormons and leather fetishists. A rapidly increasing number of enthusiastic authoritarians, attracted by the opportunities of a free society, though not sharing its basic non-aggression principle, might mean trouble.

      Of course, not all Moslems are violent authoritarians. Indeed, Islamic states before the 20th century were generally far more tolerant in all respects than our own were. But, bearing in mind the nature of modern actually-existing Islam, the question is worth asking.

  9. “Of course, not all Moslems are violent authoritarians.”

    I’m sure you’re right. It’s possible to be a good person by being a bad Muslim (i.e. by ignoring or creatively reinterpreting large portions of the Koran). The same is true, to varying degrees, for other religions and their holy books.

    I suspect many British “Muslims” don’t really believe in Islam any more than than most British “Christians” believe in Jesus. I once had a “Muslim” friend who drank alcohol, ate bacon, and only went to the mosque to meet women (his “Muslim” father apparently went to the mosque to steal shoes and car batteries).

    “Indeed, Islamic states before the 20th century were generally far more tolerant in all respects than our own were.”

    I’ve heard this too. Can you recommend any good books on the subject?