On Saturday mornings at Middle Ground I teach a class entitled, The Dr. Sherman Jackson Reader, in which we explore his various articles, books, and essays. Currently we are reading his piece, The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism & Atheism On The American Mosque. In it, Dr. Jackson reminds us of a point that is not only worth considering but also provides some strategy in how Muslims might address the challenge of liberalism as well as to how we might address our own community members who have been enchanted with its claims.
Undoubtedly liberalism (in distinction to liberal thought) is one of the biggest challenges facing (American) Muslims today. Many Muslim leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals have taken to deconstructing its theories, some better than others. And while this is all fine to do I find one overarching aspect missing to these critiques, namely the setting up of liberalism and Islam as equals or peers. I do not mean equals or peers in a hierarchical sense: That Islam is better than liberalism or vice versa. No, what I mean here is the false-equating that essentially we’re talking about two things in a manner which implies they are of the same species. As Dr. Jackson points out, liberalism,
“…aspires to [be] a political theory, not an overall philosophy of life. In other words, its primary aim is to regulate relations between individuals and the state and between individuals and each other in the political sphere. In theory, therefore, liberal commitments need not govern life outside the political realm.”
This point is very important as we contrast it, liberalism, to Islam (and to any religious tradition for that matter) which, at its core, is a truth-claim. These two things are very different animals and their differences must be accentuated, not dulled, if there is to be not only any meaningful critique of liberalism by American Muslims, but also any reconciliation between Islam and liberal thought.
Liberalism, by process of dissemination, often takes on the psuedo-form of a truth-claim, undoubtedly the source of what mucks up the waters of our understanding. As Dr. Jackson says again,
“…even if political liberalism does not set out to be an overall philosophy of life, it turns out to be virtually indistinguishable from such in terms of its actual effect, not only in the political sphere but everywhere.”
It is this masquerading of political philosophy as a truth-claim that is one half of the issue. We receive notions of a “liberal life” through various American institutions such as schools, universities, and even government agencies, as well as popular culture. But if liberalism is guilty of masquerading as a truth-claim, many Muslims are equally guilty of masquerading Islam as only a political ideology, the other half of our issue. As we shall see, it’s not that Islam cannot have political assertions, as it were, but that any such assertions are secondary to its truth-claims. Simply put, Islam may have something to say about political/secular/mundane things, and it may not. The result of this conflation leaves American Muslims, more often than not, talking past liberalism as much as they are attempting to speak to it. In doing so, American Muslims unwittingly give a misplaced credibility to the notion of liberalism as a truth-claim by treating it as such, versus addressing it for what it is: a means of negotiating the individual with either other individuals, or the State.
The reason for this conflation, in my opinion, is likely due to the fact that many American Muslims themselves (leaders included) have been coopted by, or, bought into, liberalism, as manifested by younger Muslims who “see little value in anything beyond the ability to pursue personal interest”, according to Dr. Jackson. In many ways this is a re-articulation of the “unmosqued” generation-X Muslims who often feel estranged in Muslim spaces that do not cater to their every whim.
What is muddling up the contention between these two (political philosophy versus truth-claim) is as much the fault of liberals as it is Muslims (these two camps are not mutually exclusive). To address the Muslim perspective, all too often modern Muslims, influenced by liberalism and secularism, attempt to take Islam into arenas it is not meant to go. For example, let us have liberalism ask the questions, “What is a good life?”, “Where do we come from?” as well as, “What’s for dinner?” As a political philosophy, whose main goal and objective is to negotiate the individual against other individuals/the State, liberalism would have nothing to say to any of these three questions in as much as it remains truthful to being a political philosophy.
Let us ply the same questions to Muslim scripture and tradition. If we ask, as Muslims, “What is a good life?”, or “Where do we come from”, there are numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic narrations (hadith) that can adequately address these inquiries, at least from a Muslim point of view. However, when it comes to “What’s for dinner?”, the same truthful commitment (liberalism above) has to be equally applied now to Islam, if Islam is to remain a truth-claim: Muslims must concede that neither the Qur’an nor the life of the Prophet can adequately tell us “What’s for dinner”.
The contrast here is important: liberalism, a philosophical commitment which privileges the self as the “ultimate decider” of authority, would be unable to render an answer as to what to put on your dinner plate. In essence, its response would simply be, “what ever you like”. Islam, as a truth-claim, while being able to tell us what we cannot eat, or what is impermissible to drink, is not the same as telling us to choose a Whooper over a Big Mac, let alone whether we ought to even eat a cheeseburger in the first place. My point being, all too often we drag things into areas that they have no means to speak authoritatively on. The result in this case is to reduce Islam to a secular or political ideology, incapable of speaking to the question at hand. In the case of liberalism, when we move it beyond the pale of negotiating our realities, we make it a false truth-claim. And as for Islam, we reduce it to a false secular/political ideology. The danger here with Islam (and religion in general), is that if I can coerce or force Islamic sources to articulate that a Whooper is “what’s for dinner”, then my eating a Big Mac is not simply me exercising my right to choose one over the other, but is in fact a move against the Will of God.
So where does this leave American Muslims in their stance towards liberalism? The first is to advocate that liberalism be treated as a thought process versus a truth-claim. In fact, many of liberalism’s claims (autonomy/self-law vs. heteronomy/external-law) can be demonstrated to not be truthful to itself! As a crude example, when one stops at an intersection, obeying tacit commands from a traffic signal displaying “red”, we stop. This is most certainly an external authority that inhibits our freedom (of movement), yet liberals express no qualm over stopping at a red light or decrying their individual rights of self-determination/movement have been infringed upon. While some liberals would claim this is nothing other than what John Rawls argued in what he called “public reason”, when it comes to something a bit more sophisticated than traffic rules, Rawlsian liberalism* often privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless. What it does show is that (American) Muslims need not be entirely opposed to liberal thought: as yet to date I am unaware of any Muslims filing complaints about traffic lights impinging on their religious or secular freedoms. In fact, this turns on its head the common misnomer that “Muslims are not compatible with the West”, “democracy”, or other such nonsense. What American Muslims can do is demonstrate the fallacy of the ‘ism in liberalism: (American) Muslims can commit to the common good, as (truth-claiming) Muslims, while still calling into the question the scope to which liberal thought is applied, especially in instances when it does not render a common good.
In the end, this moves American Muslims to a much better social position by which they can engage their fellow Americans, even those who do not share their truth-claims to La ilaha ill’Allah, “There is no god except God”. It also preserves Islam (and religion in general in America) as a truth-claim, saving their religion from being misused, misapplied, and mishandled, and instead, used and applied towards answering the most enduring and meaningful questions.
* Rawls feared that people might not be able to find enough common ground to resolve their differences. If A is able to invoke his ideology against B, B will fear that he cannot get a fair hearing and walk away from negotiations, leaving the conflict outstanding, perhaps to the tune of violence. As a solution, Rawls proposed that all parties be made to argue their positions on the basis of what he called “public reason,” and that only arguments based on public reason be accepted. Public reason is not indebted to or based on any of the competing parties’ concrete ideological commitments; rather, it draws upon what they all share in common. For example, Muslims, Jews and atheists might disagree over the authority of the Qur’ān, but they can all agree to ban crack-cocaine, based on the mutually shared value of health-preservation. See the rest in Dr. Jackson’s article.
Religion As Part of a Good Life. A khutbah delivered on January 20th, 2017.
Generation X-Box. An episode from the Middle Ground Podcast.