Editor’s Note: this was first published in the fall/winter 2014/5 issue of The Islamic Monthly
The recent dust-up involving notorious “new atheist” Sam Harris and popular anti-religionist HBO comedian Bill Maher, on the one hand, and popular movie star Ben Affleck, on the other, has reopened debate that first came to the public fore in the immediate wake of 9/11: Is Islam inherently violent or inherently incompatible for contemporary liberal political norms? Is it, in the words of Harris, “the mother lode of bad ideas” in today’s world? If it is, then it would seem that public intellectuals who fail to denounce it — as they did in the case of communism or fascism — are failing in their obligations as intellectuals in fundamental ways. Affleck’s response was that the position advocated by Harris and Maher is dangerous insofar as it threatens to stereotype, marginalize and even dehumanize almost a fifth of humanity and is deeply wrong insofar as neither Harris nor Maher can claim to know the content of Islamic teachings on these various issues in an authoritative fashion.
Affleck’s response is correct as far as it goes, but it does not respond to the charges laid by Harris and Maher: If in fact Islam is as they describe, should the propriety of our response to those terrible ideas be influenced by the quantity of the number of people in the world holding them? Indeed, one might say that to the extent profoundly destructive ideas have a grip on larger (rather than smaller) numbers of people, the responsibility to denounce such ideas becomes even more pressing. Likewise, saying that their description of Islamic doctrines is reductionist is not responsive to the legitimate concern that certainly some Muslims hold to the doctrines that Harris and Maher criticize, nor does it provide an answer to the question that many people genuinely wish to know, namely, what is the content of authoritative Islamic teaching regarding a familiar range of contentious issues that are held to be important by mainstream liberals? Affleck’s response implies that the only way we can legitimately know Islamic doctrine so we may responsibly criticize it is to engage in a rigorous empirical examination of what actual Muslims believe and how actual Muslims act. Such an empirical investigation, at its extreme, would require surveying of millions of Muslim individuals all over the world before conclusions about Islam could be reached. Not only would such a study be practically impossible, we generally don’t demand such precision in empirical studies before we accept the results of social scientific studies, even if we realize that the conclusions that can be drawn from such studies are, by their nature, incomplete, tentative and open to methodological criticisms.
Reza Aslan, who was not on the show, also intervened in the debate, dismissing Maher’s comments as evidencing a lack of “sophistication” with respect to religion. Aslan, while correct to point out mainstream media’s consistent conflation of the actions of particular Muslim countries with the practices of all Muslim countries generally, also fails to respond to the core of Maher and Harris’ argument. Their position, ultimately, is that while it may be true that most or a large proportion of Muslims do not engage in the conduct that is generally condemned as “extremist,” it is nevertheless the case that such practices are often a normative part of Islamic teachings. Stoning of adulterers, of course, is only one such example. Aslan, however, is not interested in discussing the normative content of Islam or even other religions, asserting that there is no connection between formal doctrine and conduct, thereby reducing religion into purely a reflection of non-religious factors. Thus, instead of responding to Maher and Harris’ claim about the illiberal content of Islamic teachings, he instead dismisses that critique as irrelevant, while maintaining studious silence on the contents of orthodox Muslim belief.
To take up Harris’ claim that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,” I would say that if such a claim is true, in fact, it is trivially so. The same point can be said about any tradition of thought, particularly, one that originated in late antiquity and has survived into modernity. It is a trivial exercise to pick up standard works of Islamic law and find ideas that are repugnant to the modern world. But, it is also a trivial exercise to pick up classics of Western philosophy and law and find the same thing. Even Thomas Jefferson the most egalitarian of America’s founders, expressed views on gender equality that would disqualify him today from entering public office, or might even get him dismissed from a public office were he to express them openly. In this respect, Maher and Harris reflect the all too common historical amnesia common among liberals, who are too quick to forget the recentness of the egalitarian achievements of the liberal West — many of which only came into existence as part of the post-World War II settlement and have yet to become settled social realities, even among the relatively privileged — and too slow to acknowledge the radical changes that have taken place in most Muslim countries and even Islamic discourse regarding issues such as gender equality over the last one hundred years.
Why can’t non-Muslims such as Maher or Harris recognize these changes? Perhaps for the same reason that even Muslims can’t: The profound weakness, or even the non-existence, of a credible institutional expression of Islamic teachings in the modern world means there is no objective source from which an outsider (or even Muslims) can know what authoritative Islamic teaching is. In the absence of such an expression, one can hardly blame non-Muslims — who wish to “know” what Muslims believe — for turning to the same sources that Muslims themselves do, such as pre-modern treatises of Islamic law that continue to be taught in seminaries in the Muslim world and are also translated and studied by Muslims in the West. It ought to come as no surprise then that Islamophobes, such as the Center for Security Policy, often cite passages from works like The Reliance of the Traveller as proof of the subversiveness of Muslim attachments to sharia. It makes no difference that modern Muslims may dismiss many of the rules found in such texts as not representative of their own views, or perhaps reflecting an Islamic teaching that might have been appropriate in a previous age but is not appropriate now; in fact, if a Muslim makes such a claim, he might be dismissed as engaging in taqiyya, or dissimulation of “true” Islamic teachings in an effort to protect Islam or spread it among unsuspecting non-Muslims.
In this context, it behooves Muslims to keep in mind the adage that “not only must Justice be done; it must be seen to be done.” As long as Muslim doctrinal change remains undocumented in authoritative doctrinal statements — such as the treatises of Islamic law that serve as the formal basis for the study of Islamic law in Muslim religious institutions — that appear only in particular and occasional fatwas that rise and fall with the authority of the mufti who authored the opinion, then they appear, or risk appearing, as merely the idiosyncratic views of a particular Muslim. Indeed, it may even give the appearance of an insincere attempt at revising controversial Islamic doctrines by dressing them up in new garb to ward off criticism unaccompanied by a real commitment to change. Indeed, if Sunni Muslims are too indifferent to their law that they fail to articulate a meaningful expression of its content in the modern world, then the best that Sunnis can plead in their own defense is that historical Islamic law is irrelevant to their beliefs and actions. But it is this very nihilism that produces the ethical and political vacuum that authoritarian political regimes, corrupt oligarchies and religious millenarians have filled and created the political circumstances justifying Islamophobia.
The fundamental problem that has given rise to both Islamophobia and ISIS is that in the modern age, after the collapse of the authority of Sunni madhahibs, Sunni theologians continue to claim that Islam provides the moral grounds for the regulation of Muslim societies, but they have lost the ability and ambition to make this claim effective. As a result, a radical legal pluralism has taken root in the Sunni world, particularly in its Arabic-speaking regions, where every individual has become entitled to express an interpretation of the content of Islamic law. In the absence of a modern Islamic theory of the legitimacy of the state, law and democracy, it is no surprise that Muslims and non-Muslims repair to pre-modern texts when seeking to determine what the normative Islamic baseline on any particular issue is. When this normative vacuum is combined with the profound failure of the Arab state system to produce citizens willing and capable of cooperation in the context of a common political project, it should not be surprising that some Muslims take up interpretations of Islam and Islamic law that are apocalyptic in their scope and claims as an answer to the catastrophic failures of those states.
The problem with Maher and Harris — despite their claim that they are taking liberals to task for their alleged silence about Islam — is that they are not asking the right questions from a liberal perspective: Why, after more than a century of theological and legal reform that has generally moved toward greater recognition of rights of women and non-Muslims, for example, has a brutally atavistic movement like ISIS found a home (even if one hopes it is only temporary) in the Nile-to-Oxus region, which was once called the heartland of the Islamic world by the great American historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson? In my opinion, this is not because a reified Islam is teaching Muslims to reject liberal values as such, but is a simple and predictable reflection of the fact that political orders prevailing in the Islamic heartland have no interest in promoting liberalizing political values. The promotion by Arab ruling elites of a politically neutered, state-dominated Islam that is disabled from holding power accountable to a moral standard serves their authoritarian political project well, even if the cost is quite high: The failure to produce a reasonably acceptable political theology that can serve the needs and further the aspirations of modern Muslims inevitably will create groups like ISIS, at least as long as religion remains socially salient. Neo-traditionalist Sunni theologians, such as ʿAli Jumuʿa of Egypt, or al-Ḥabīb ʿAlī al-Jifrī, who believe that it is possible to re-create in the modern world the division of labor of late Sunnism — in which the state, usually military elites, provided coercive resources and the ʿulamāʾ provided moral legitimacy, binding the public to the state through a regime of taqlīd — will inevitably, even if belatedly, discover that modern Muslims will not willingly cede their moral autonomy to them. Instead, it might produce more theological radicalism, either in the form of increased atheism or religious apocalypticism.
Sunnism was historically a centrist tradition that rejected the messianism of Shiʿism and the unforgiving puritanism of the Khawārij. Its centrism, however, was not born of a kind of ad hoc reasoning that called on Muslims simply to take middle positions between extremes. It was a centrism based on firm adherence to certain moral principles, including rejection of armed rebellion combined with a refusal to recognize as valid the illegal conduct of rulers; a readiness to overlook moral shortcomings of individuals constituting the community, whether rulers or ruled, combined with an insistence on holding each person accountable before the law for their conduct, even if that accountability was deferred and only theoretical; a recognition of the superior piety and learning of some, and even the possibility that some people may receive particular spiritual favors from God, but a rejection that such distinctions could result in the suspension of the law. In short, the political theology of Sunnism was centered on the sovereignty of law and respect for authority (not power as such). The historical tradition of Sunnism, however, assumed a certain kind of relationship between political leaders, religious leaders and the public that no longer exists and will not return. Until a new political theology is established that adapts the historical principles of Sunnism to the realities of a democratic age, we can continue to expect the persistence of groups like ISIS and the Islamophobic New Atheists. The failure of the Arab Spring to usher in a new democratic moment in the Arab world has deferred the day when the historical center of the Muslim world will be able to contribute productively to solving the challenges facing Sunni Islam in the modern world. It also means we have no reason to believe that the assaults of figures like Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Islam, or their influence on the public perception of Islam, will cease or decline in the near future, no matter what Ben Affleck says.