A Conservative Islam For a Liberal Society
By Ross Douthat
December 15, 2015
My Sunday column, on Islam’s future in the West, tried to imagine how Western debates about faith in a pluralist society look to a devout Muslim trying to imagine how his religion might modernize and moderate without dissolving its essentials in a relativizing/secularizing sea. At the end, I tentatively suggested that American evangelicalism and Mormonism offer interesting models for a conservative Islam’s future in the liberal order: The analogy in both cases is necessarily theologically inapt, but the distinctive balances that American evangelicals and Mormons have struck between assimilation and self-segregation, between ecumenism and proselytization, between adapting to egalitarian norms and maintaining forms of hierarchy and patriarchy, all have relevance to what lies ahead for Islam in the West.
(Is the unstated implication of this analogy that I think Evangelical Protestantism has more in common with Islam than does my own Roman Catholicism? Or is it that I think Catholicism’s models of adaptation to modernity are in more serious difficulties than evangelicalism’s models at the moment? Draw your own conclusions, reader.)
One alternative, provocative analogy that I didn’t have room to discuss was offered by Michael Brendan Dougherty in a piece last week — namely, that a particularly tradition-minded Islam might flourish in the West on the kind of social and political terms we associate with communities of Orthodox Jews. Here’s Dougherty elaborating that point:
… America’s liberal bargain, more than Europe’s, is capacious and could accommodate a variety of expressions of Islam, just as it accommodates a variety of other religions, some of which build communities that strike us as illiberal …
Consider the community of Samtar Hasidic Jews at Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, which has historically fallen within my own Congressional district. This community of Jews sees huge increases of its population because of its incredible fertility rate and welcome attitude to its own co-religionists. Nearly 90 percent of the community speaks Yiddish at home. Nearly half cannot speak English competently. It is widely reported that religious authorities in Kiryas Joel can swing the vote of the town and with their vote, the divided Congressional district in which it sits. Kiryas Joel’s residents have an awkward and sometimes legally combative relationship with their Monroe neighbors over planning and development.
There in Kiryas Joel is much of what people claim to fear about Islamic integration, a separate, “unmeltable” group, one that keeps to its own language and folkways. And yet Kiryas Joel’s peaceful existence with its neighbors is a testament not only to that community’s genius, but the genius of America as well. There is simply no pressing reason for New York to tear up its very generous legal settlement to assimilate Kiryas Joel on its own terms.
The interesting question is why the Islamic versions of Kiryas Joel, the communities of unmelted Muslim immigrants on both sides of the Atlantic, are often seen as more of a challenge to liberal values than are the Hasidim — or, to pick another unmelted and illiberal community, the Amish. The issue might be simply Islam’s greater exoticism, as some anti-Islamophobia crusaders tend to assert; it might be specific issues, like honor killing or female genital mutilation, that are associated with certain Muslim-immigrant communities; it might be the threat of terrorism and radicalization.
But the issue also might run deeper. An Islam purged of the terrorist temptation would still have to understand itself differently than Hasidic Judaism, because it would remain a missionary faith, possessed of what it believes to be a revelation intended not only for a holy minority, a chosen people, but for the entire human race. So an Islamic version of the permanent separatism that defines Kiryas Joel, an acceptance that Muslims will be strangers and sojourners in modern society for so long as the modern world endures, would seem to cut against certain basic Muslim commitments in a way that a life fully set apart does not for many tradition-minded Jews.
Which is not to say that such an acceptance is impossible — for the time being. Near the end of Graeme Wood’s much-discussed Atlantic article on the theology of ISIS, he spent time with Salafi Muslims who, despite sharing a great deal of theology in common with the Middle East’s would-be theocrats, practice a kind of political quietism that does somewhat resemble the Hasidim:
Instead, Pocius [a Salafi imam in Philadelphia, and a convert from Catholicism] … believes that Muslims should remove themselves from politics. These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. “The Prophet said: as long as the ruler does not enter into clear kufr [disbelief], give him general obedience,” Pocius told me, and the classic “books of creed” all warn against causing social upheaval …
Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.
In a world without ISIS and Al Qaeda, without the spectre of terrorism driving suspicion and distrust, it might well be that flourishing quietist-Salafi communities in the West would gradually achieve the kind of half-integrated, uncomfortable-but-mostly-settled accommodations of a Kiryas Joel.
But I also wonder if the quietism itself will always make this vision an insufficient answer to the pull of Islamic radicalism. For a faith founded on missionary zeal to establish norms of peace and tolerance, to permanently set aside the sword, that zeal needs an obvious outlet, a channel or channels through which its most zealous adherents can imagine actually winning the world for Allah, and not just persisting in holiness within it.
And those channels in turn would necessarily make any deep or semi-permanent separatism impossible. As the history of both Islam and Christianity makes plain, you cannot convert the world without a certain amount of inculturation, without going into a wider, profane culture more fully than the Yiddish-speakers of Monroe, New York go into the modern America that surrounds their illiberal religious enclave.
Which is where, to return to my starting point, evangelicalism and Mormonism seem to make a certain (albeit, again, limited) sense as models for the Islamic future — especially for the many religious Muslims in the West who, while devout and conservative-leaning in their faith, are less austere and absolutist than the Salafists that Wood interviews above.
An Islam that gradually integrated along something somewhat like evangelical or L.D.S. lines would remain exotic in many ways, it would retain illiberal customs and hierarchies and demands, and it certainly wouldn’t eliminate all hostility and suspicion in the wider culture. But then evangelicals, too, are regarded with a great deal of suspicion by a vocal and influential segment of (mostly secular and liberal) Americans, and Mormons of course reap mockery from secular America and theologically-rooted aspersions from more orthodox Christians. And there’s a clear sense in which any Westernized but still Islamic Islam wouldn’t want to fully eliminate hostility and suspicion, because those would be signs of its vigor, its distinctiveness, its fidelity to something older than America and more demanding than modern spirituality.
(Again, please feel free to find a Straussian message about the current state of Catholicism in the above.)
Is this balancing act possible for Islam, given its theological and historical distinctives? I understand why some observers are skeptical, but yes, I think it probably is. (My comments in this post on ISIS and the Muslim past have some relevance here.) I think the harder question is whether the intense pressures on Western Muslims — from their co-religionists outside the West, from a secularism that’s patronizing to traditional religion when it seems weak and hostile when it shows any sign of strength, and from a conservative Christianity uncertain whether to see conservative Muslims as possible allies or just as our ancient foes come round again — are so strong that any successful balance, while possible for certain communities, will not be long sustained.
But then again liberal modernity won’t be permanently sustained either.