Islam, Toleration, and Terror

There may be a problem with our tolerationist stance towards Islam. It is rooted in our intellectual strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda, who claimed authority on the basis of interpretation of scripture–it was a “rabbinical” authority. But one man’s fatwa is another man’s intemperate, misguided bullshit. Since many Muslims simply ignore the claims of religious accuracy offered by such groups (which can be either Shia or Sunni), our stance, which was that this is an interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself, was a powerful one.

But ISIS does change the equation in a way that Western liberals have not quite caught up with. ISIS does not claim to be interpreting scripture and tradition more accurately than other, more temperate interpreters; ISIS claims to be the Caliphate. That is, they claim their leadership has immediate religious authority, and that it is simply all Muslims’ duty to obey it directly, whatever it demands. There’s no room for interpretive controversy here. You either accept that they are the Caliphate or not.

The problem that this poses is that we can’t contest the claim by saying that they don’t represent the real ethos of Islam because whether they do or not is actually religiously irrelevant. You can only contest it by saying that (Sunni) Islam is false, and no one is ever the Caliph, or by saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not himself the Caliph, though perhaps someone else someday could be; in other words, by asserting a contrary religious claim. You see, subsuming a group under tolerationist separation of church and state is made awkward when the group itself does not accept the very idea of separation of church and state. As soon as ISIS goes away, we can return to the liberal narrative, because no Muslim owes any special loyalty to any particular group or individual, absent a Caliph, and can in the meantime give their political loyalty to secular Western states as needed. But ISIS has not yet gone away. (And to say that this whole topic is unimportant because so few people accept that al-Baghdadi is the Caliph is to misunderstand the nature of the problem; “33% of young British Muslims expressed a desire to see the resurrection of a world-wide caliphate.”)

Although a lot of Westerners are not aware of this, this problem does not arise with Shia Islam, which does not accept the idea of a Caliphate at all; as a result, all Shia religious authority is “rabbinical.” This would seem to suggest that if we are going to undertake the fool’s errand of playing the Great Game in the Middle East, we might want to rethink our attitude towards Iran, which is Shia, and thus in principle more open to reform via interpretation. Since in effect what is going on in the Middle East today is a grand Sunni versus Shia war, we might at least consider rethinking our strategy, which appears to be to be on everyone’s side, so that we are guaranteed to win… and lose, come what may.

Welcome to the clash of civilizations. The problem with trying to reconcile our own preferred liberal attitudes with framing Islamophobia as xenophobia is that it is conceptually dependent upon a religious dialogue with Islam itself which secular liberals are loathe to take seriously, being secular, and incompetent to pursue in any case. But the time has already come when saying “reasonable people can differ about what Islam requires” is inadequate. That claim itself presupposes that we are still in a world in which there is no Caliph. The claim to be the Caliphate is an ideological claim of an entirely different order, and Western liberals are forced into the awkward position of rejecting it in order to restore the status quo ante in which our tolerationist rhetoric still made sense. The ultimate source of our tolerationist ideals, John Locke, understood the problem well himself, when he said: “It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”

For an alternate view, see my old friend Juan Cole on the same subject.



One comment on “Islam, Toleration, and Terror

  1. Chad Larsen says:

    I was looking for your thoughts on the election. It was this or David Bowie.

    I’m not taking the side of ‘tolerationism’, but being Sunni is not logically equivalent to belief in a caliphate; there is inevitable variation in beliefs among those who identify or are identified culturally as Sunni. Ultimately, an Islamic *state* isn’t about the truth of its ideology, it’s about securing power, and this is actually a better justification for the view that we should defeat ISIS. The ubiquitous counterarguments insist that we stoke radical ideology with any military solution, but these arguments all assume that ISIS is entirely driven by ideology as opposed to the opportunity that was created by destabilization. To the extent that the infrastructural damage has been done, it is more dangerous to allow the territorial state to persist than to risk inflaming Islamist ideology. This is a younger and dumber group, off of the insurgency bandwagon, waging a *social media campaign* that would have been deemed wildly imprudent by the generation of jihadists who weren’t hiding in plain sight. Suffice it to say that pure religious devotion matters less to ISIS than it did to a Bin Laden. Our own ideological motives are simplified from our post-9-11 confusion, when we didn’t really know where or how to declare war.

    So: if what you’re saying is that we don’t need to be too careful not to offend Islam, then I agree, but because of the separation of state and ideology and not in spite of it. We need to think strategically, which is easier if we are dealing with a more traditional enemy. I agree that our strategic foreign policy generally fails to take account of the actual power structures (we want to support or export western-style democracy, religion notwithstanding.) Regardless, our own ideology is what impedes our strategic thinking if, for example, we can’t countenance alliance with Russia or Iran against ISIS, or we seem to place Assad on the same level as ISIS. The Syrian Civil War was merely the opportunity for ISIS in Syria, whereas Obama seemed to think that enabling Assad temporarily had something to do with motivating ISIS. What is more important? Avoiding strategic alliance with those we deem too aggressive? Or defeating ISIS? The use of force is never a ‘democratic’ option. And so our arrogant pretense of goodness persists. It is best if we are honest about the balance of power and forget about ideology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s