Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Muslim Dilemma

Ross Douthat has penned a thoughtful piece in the New York Times on what he calls the Islamic dilemma. After citing polls which show a majority of Americans believing that Islam is incompatible with "American values", Douthat writes:
But for several reasons — because we don’t understand Islam from the inside, but also because we’re divided about what our civilization stands for and where religious faith fits in — we have a hard time articulating what a “moderate” Muslim would actually believe, or what we expect a modernized Islam to become.

And to any Muslim who takes the teachings of his faith seriously, it must seem that many Western ideas about how Islam ought to change just promise its eventual extinction.

This is clearly true of the idea, held by certain prominent atheists and some of my fellow conservatives and Christians, that the heart of Islam is necessarily illiberal — that because the faith was born in conquest and theocracy, it simply can’t accommodate itself to pluralism without a massive rupture, an apostasy in fact if not in name.
This is, of course true. At the heart of Islam is adherence to the law inscribed in the Qu'ran and Hadith called sharia. To renounce sharia is, in the eyes of many if not most Muslims, tantamount to renouncing Islam, but sharia is incompatible with the freedoms guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. Sharia does not permit freedom of speech or equality of persons. It imposes a patriarchal rule of men over women, enjoins mutilation for certain crimes and makes sodomy and conversion from Islam a capital offense.

As long as the numbers of Muslims are relatively few the Constitution can be enforced in their communities, but this would get more and more difficult as their numbers and political power grows.

Thus, as Muslims see it, they have two choices, hold on to sharia, the Qu'ran, and the example of Mohammad or simply reinterpret all the problematic stuff out of existence. Douthat goes on to discuss these alternatives:
The first idea basically offers a counsel of despair: Muslims simply cannot be at home in the liberal democratic West without becoming something else entirely: atheists, Christians, or at least post-Islamic.

The second idea seems kinder, but it arrives at a similar destination. Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.

The first idea assumes theology’s immutability; the second assumes its irrelevance. And both play into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda: The first by confirming their own clash-of-civilizations narrative, the second by making assimilation seem indistinguishable from the arid secularism that’s helped turn Europe into a prime jihadist recruiting ground.
Parenthetically, it's unfortunate that Douthat reverts here to this tiresome meme. It seems to reflect a belief that whatever we do it plays into the hands of ISIS. According to this belief, we can't win. If we attack ISIS they use "Crusader aggression" to win recruits. If we leave them to their demonic deeds young men around the world see them as sweeping all before them and rush to sign up to be in on the victory over the infidels. ISIS has us completely out-foxed, so it seems that we may as well all just convert and get it over with. Perhaps we should campaign for a moratorium on the use of "We're just playing into the hands of the terrorists." Anyway, Douthat continues:
In this landscape of options, the clearest model for Islam’s transition to modernity might lie in American evangelicalism — like Islam a missionary faith, like Islam decentralized and intensely scripture-oriented, and like Islam a tradition that often assumes an organic link between the theological and political.

Of course American evangelicals are often particularly hostile to Islam — as they are to Mormonism, which also offers an interesting model for modernizing Muslims.

But this is less an irony than a form of recognition: An Islam that set aside the sword without abandoning its fervor would be working in the same mission territory, Western and global, where evangelicals and Mormons presently compete and clash.

But it has to set aside the sword.
The problem is that in order for Muslims to set aside the sword they also have to set aside 1400 years of history and tradition, they have to set aside large chunks of the Qu'ran and Hadith, and they have to stop trying to emulate their founder, Mohammad. That's a very tall order. It would mean that Islam would have to morph into something very much different than it actually is. It amounts in fact, to adopting that second idea Douthat discusses above. Given the social pressures on Muslims to conform and the sense of utter betrayal they'd feel were they to reject the faith of their family and community, it's not likely that many will find it an attractive option.