Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”
-Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics
I have spent much of my academic career in that borderless space known as Political Theology, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the differences between philosophy, theology and political theory. This will be a work of Political Theology. Yet I am nonetheless venturing out of my depth and so I must provide some sort of apologia, both in the technical sense and in the more colloquial sense, since it is not a work of Christian political theology, but Islamic.
First a defense: The idea of writing such an article arose out of a prior discussion concerning the establishment of an Islamic state. In this discussion I was merely a reader and critic, pointing out what I saw to be flaws in the proposal and questioning, in particular, the legitimacy of any State that did not have freedom of speech and the press. Without those, claims to legitimacy would have to be accepted entirely on the authority of those whose interests were most at stake. I was then asked my thoughts on the possibilities of a liberal Islamic state. What follows will constitute my reply.
Second an apology: This article is in danger of being the voice of yet another non-Muslim telling Muslims what Islam ought to be. This is not my intent. And, in advance of offending someone of faith due to gross errors of fact, my complete and utter lack of knowledge of knowledge regarding the tradition and the long history of its interpretation (which I am not even going to discuss), and the history of the political life of the Islamic faith, I wish to make clear that I am not prescribing what Islam should be. I wait with anticipation to see what Islam will become. All I wish to do here is outline what I (and who am I after all?) see as a possibility open to Islam in the present historical moment. I find it an interesting possibility because, as I will mention further in a moment, it is not a possibility that is open to Catholicism.
Political Liberalism emerged in an attempt to overcome certain social tensions, particularly religious tensions, that were present in various states, and presented itself as a way of subsuming and managing those tensions without completely evacuating or nihilating the differences out of which the tensions arose. This meant that social and political peace could be purchased without having to eliminate the contending parties. Instead, differences that had been politically decisive were reinscribed as civic divisions that did not extend into the public political sphere. In this way the divisions remained, but were demoted in importance, or rendered unimportant from the standpoint of the law.
Two key ideas were indispensable to this reinterpretation of previously political categories into civil categories. The first was abstract justice, or what Rawl’s terms ‘justice as fairness’ or the priority of Right over the Good. Abstract Justice is doctrine that all citizens are equal before the law. This is an abstract claim because it does not address equality in the day-to-day lives of its citizens. Instead it says that in the eyes of the government all the citizens are of the same importance and will be treated the same. Justice is blind. The other side of this is that everything that divides one person from another is allowed to remain at the level of civic discourse and practice: Jew or Greek, Rich or Poor, Male or Female; the divisions that structure private life are of no interest to the political entity.
The second important idea was that of negative freedom. For most of theological, philosophical and legal history, it had been assumed that the freedom to choose was really the least important understanding of freedom and the lowest kind of freedom. True Freedom was about the ability to do the Good. Even in figures such as Kant, whose politics are entirely liberal, one sees this idea persist in his account of autonomy. Autonomy is present when the will acts in accord with its own principles, and is not guided by outside forces which would enslave it. This meant that questions of the Good were inseparable from the establishment of freedom. It led to some of the grossest violations of the human person, embodied in the Inquisitorial dictum that “Error has no rights”.
Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint. The State would allow, inasmuch as it was possible, for persons to pursue whatever Good they saw fit. The State would be indifferent to this. The State would simply provide the framework within which persons were safe to pursue their freedom and did not live in fear of having their freedom arbitrarily violated or constrained by other citizens or the State itself.
Since the wars of religion provide such an important mythological underpinning, even to this day, for the justification of Political Liberalism, I will simply use religion as an example of the way in which these two doctrines served to eliminate political unrest. First the State became blind to the professed religion of its citizens because of Abstract Justice. In a court of law, if and where one attended religious services, or what one believed was irrelevant to one’s standing in the eyes of the law. This likewise meant that the law itself could not be written in such a way as to promote or protect one religious body over another. Secondly, people were then allowed, on the basis of negative freedom, to pursue whatever religious affiliation they desired as a civic or private matter. The question of the Good was left to individuals and to voluntary civic organizations to work out as they saw fit, as long it did not disrupt public order.
In all that has been said in this section thus far we have simply presupposed the State, but let us say one final word about the Political. Liberalism, taken on its own, is at least super- if not anti-political. The claims of Liberalism concerning the Rights of Humanity arising out of the abstract equity that has been described and its ability to exercise its freedom independent of the interference of others conceptions of what ought to be done, is universal. Nonetheless, the turn to the Political recognizes the need for some body capable of providing the public order within which freedom might be pursued and a power capable of rectifying the situation should one’s freedom be violated. This political body can only be legitimate if it provides the necessary conditions of the possibility for individual persons to live out their freedoms and thus does not violate their inherent equity. As long as the Political provides this, to violate the laws of the State would be to violate one’s own person because one would be undermining one’s own freedom and equity.
A Liberal Islamic State?
Let us make a quick and clear distinction between elections and liberalism. The choosing of governments by elections is a secondary phenomena and is not of itself Liberal. Government’s based on elections, whether they be democratic or republican, etc., are not necessarily liberal. Nor does State need to have elections in order to be meaningfully Liberal, though elections are a handy way of allowing the people to ritually express their solidarity with the government which represents them. There is no inherent contradiction between democracy and the Islamic state. Recent elections in the Middle East should be ample enough proof of this.
Nonetheless I am going to argue that there is a contradiction between Liberalism and an Islamic state. Interpreted in a manner that is most benign, Liberalism misinterprets the nature of religion. It treats religion as if were merely a matter of the human spirit which is internal and private. Freedom of religion becomes simply a subdivision of freedom of conscience. Since the state deals in the material of human actions and religion deals with the internal human spirit, than can, by definition, be no conflict between the Political and Religious. Likewise, the religious institution is interpreted by Liberalism as a purely civic and voluntary society. Its actions do not and cannot, by definition, extend beyond the civic sphere. Its attempts to address social issues must act within the framework already provided by the state. Political life is, in no way, religious.
This in turns shows a rather fundamental anthropological misinterpretation on the part of Liberalism. Liberalism treats religion as if it were not a matter that concerns the human person in the whole of its being. Religion is merely one activity among others: one is a Muslim, a Girl Scout and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In fact, important Liberal theorists call anyone who allows their belief in God to underlie the totality of their actions a fanatic and insane (e.g., Rorty’s treatment of Ignatius of Loyola; or the Rawlsian discussions of how to interpret the Amish and why the government does not suppress them).
This error shows up in a more fundamental way even at the point at which Liberalism is closest to granting religious belief its full determination. Religion is a question of how human beings will pursue the Good. But by making it a private matter, Liberalism likewise reduces religion to an individual matter. Even if we do come together in some sort of voluntary society, e.g., the mosque, to ask the question together, the answers that might be given are denied to have any ultimate importance or address humanity at the level of its universal destiny. The determination of human beings according to the doctrine of negative freedom essentially denies that humanity has, as such, a purpose or goal beyond what the individual arbitrarily chooses to take up as a task. Understood this way, any claims that Islam tried to advance within a Liberal setting about humanity in its universality, about the orientation of humanity in the fullness of its being towards God, or that all are Muslim by birth, must inevitably be viewed as mere opinion and gross fanaticism, even if it is allowed as a matter of free speech.
Interpreted more perniciously, this is to say that Liberalism only allows religions insofar as they further the goal of Liberalism itself. Liberalism tolerates religions because for Liberalism the religions are Liberal institutions aimed the formation of good private citizens: thus the reduction of religion to morality that is characteristic of Liberal discourse. They direct the citizen toward particular types of social activities and deal with problems in the civil sphere which can not be easily addressed by the Political. Religions and other voluntary institutions are the ways in which Liberalism organizes and forms its citizens through everyday activities.
Pushed even further, Liberalism cannot allow the interpretation of Islam or any other religion to bear upon the totality of the human person, to raise questions of Ultimate or transcendent concern because Liberalism is itself an alternative religion. Liberalism itself is that which sets the terms for the totality of the human being. While it claims to allow human beings the free pursuit of private goods, the fact is that religious pursuits in the private sphere must conform to the preconditions set by public order: they must conform to the formal definition of being human that is already given at the level of the Political and which the Political enforces since any breach by the private sphere is condemned as an encroachment upon the rights of others. If this is true than it is not the case, as with the benign interpretation, that Liberalism is unable to address the totality of human existence. Instead, Liberalism does address the totality of human existence and considers the questions already answered. Liberalism is itself a form of religious dogmatism.
This interpretation is reinforced once one realizes that the public/private split that is enshrined by Liberalism is a mirror of the Protestant division between works and faith. Public works are not important to the salvation of the human spirit. Works are meant merely to conform to the law. What works one does is a matter of indifference before God, God only cares what is in the heart. Understood this way, Liberalism is a form of Neo-Protestantism or post-Christian Protestantism.
The Hegemony of Liberalism
Yet, one might still say that if there is to be an alternative to Liberalism and its constant companion, Capitalism, the only place that one can look for it, in the present moment, is from within Islam. I expressed this idea once before, though, as I said at that time, I find it highly doubtful that it will be able to organize itself into such an alternative. But doubt is not the same as impossibility, and I do think it is imaginable. So I will briefly outline certain seeds that might allow one to think an alternative.
Normally I argue that there is no outside or beyond with regards to the Liberalism-Capitalism complex. This does not ignore that there remain segments of the globe that have not been fully integrated into that complex, but says that this lack of full integration is indicative not of the incompleteness of the hegemony of Late Capital, but of the way in which those segments which are not yet integrated lag behind from a production standpoint. But this only means that they offer ripe territory for the expansion of Capitalism as the Liberalism-Capitalism complex are driven by its constant need to create new markets.
That supposed alternatives have not offered real resistance is becoming increasingly clear. One can see this especially with respect to the (former-)Soviet Union and with China. Neither the USSR nor China represented Marx’s dream of what a revolution should look like. In neither case did Marxism arise as the revolutionary overthrow of an industrialized society, but instead it arose in these largely rural societies as an expression of frustration by the peasant class against corrupt and decadent rule. Soviet Marxism especially had to engage in a kind of apologetic to explain how it was indeed possible to skip over Capitalism and arrive at the Worker State, while the Chinese Cultural Revolution unapologetically sent its urbanites out into the country-side for re-education. The truth was that the new order was not post-Capitalist at all, but was instead a way of beginning to overturn outdated feudal economies and begin to incorporate industrial power. They were playing economic and political catch-up. This process continues in Russia and China, each in its own way: perhaps more smoothly in China where the government has gradually brought its economic apparatus into contact with the world markets and thus also gradually introduced Capitalist and Liberal reforms.
One might make similar observations about Chavez, for instance. Once again one is looking at a region which does not have the economic apparatus in place, nor the political and cultural infrastructure, to avoid being swept up in the rush of Capitalism and so, in the name of socialism and populism, Chavez is using temporarily available financial resources to try to protect his country from untimely incorporation and act as a buffer against Capitalism and Liberalism. One must likewise recognize that the Venezuelan economy, even more drastically than the Soviet and Chinese economies that came before it, is not sophisticated enough to maintain this resistance for any length of time.
I see two reasons to hold out some hope that Islam will stand and offer a real, progressive, alternative to Liberalism-Capitalism. The first lies in the power of Islam itself. Islam is a rich and complex tradition that is the heart and soul of millions of people world-wide. This is not a Marxism that was thrust upon large populations who suddenly had to re-write their entire histories in order to understand the new ideas. State incarnations of Marxism have always been, to a certain degree, the attempt to create a cultural identity from scratch. Islam on the other hand carries with it a long history of discourse about the nature of being human, an understanding of justice and mercy, freedom and law, etc. which are capable of extension and explication in very diverse ways, and thus of adapting themselves to new and unforeseen circumstances.
Second, Islam is the dominant cultural force in parts of the world which are either under-Capitalized or resistant to Late Capital. At one level, one can express suspicion that much like South America and the pseudo-Marxisms of Russia and China, these are regions which are trying to adapt their modes of production in such a way that they can at once protect themselves against advanced Capitalist economies and catch up to them. I will return to this idea in the conclusion with some sympathy. But one must note that they do stand in an interesting position nonetheless. The center of gravity in Islam has always been Arabia and it is difficult to foresee this changing soon. The Middle Eastern economy (and allow me to include Iran in this picture) has largely been a mono-economy based on oil. Egypt is an excellent example of the struggle faced by Arabian states without significant oil reserves. Yet such a mono-economy is endangered. Technology is eventually going to push beyond fossil fuels and that future is probably none-to-distant. Second, oil is itself a dwindling commodity. Even if technology does not overtake these economies, time will very soon. The time is coming very soon when the Arabian economy is going to have to reorganize itself in a massive way or face complete devastation (this quite frankly is one of the major instances of short-sightedness in the United States’s plan to reduce its reliance on foreign oil; and in the massive waste of money that one finds especially in Saudi Arabia). This will be a moment of social and economic redefinition. Assuming that this is done with some foresight, that the Saudis and Kuwaitis, the Emirates, etc. still have significant cash reserves at the moment in which this begins, assuming that they can break free of a client-patron model of relationship between the state and its citizens, then they will have the opportunity to reorganize themselves in a truly progressive way. Unlike China or the Russians, the imminent and foreseeable demise of the Arabian mono-economy provides the motivation to undertake such a large scale project.
The Possibility of a Modern Islamic State
What we are envisioning then is not a Liberal Islamic state, but nonetheless a thoroughgoingly modern one. By modern we still make reference back to the tradition of Continental Philosophy. Negative Freedom was not the only doctrine of freedom to arise out of the modern period. Negative freedom was simply one doctrine in an era fascinated by the idea of human freedom. Many recognized the limits of negative freedom and continued to advocate an idea of freedom that saw an intrinsic relation between freedom and the human Good.
Much of what the Muslim world resists in the spread of Liberalism-Capitalism is the inability of Liberalism to judge the good, the inability of its people and culture to evaluate the values of their projects in any other language than that of Capital. In short, they do not experience the encroachment of the Liberal tradition as being liberating because they see no connection between it and their centuries long reflection on the relation of humanity to God. Thus far the response to the spread of Capitalization and Liberalism has been reactive. It has brought about a rigidifying of old forms, a kind of cultural ossification. Religious authorities have attempted to resist the invasion by holding tight not only to power but to forms of life that pre-date the encounter with Capitalism and Liberalism.
I implore Islamic leaders not to make that mistake. This was likewise the path chosen by Catholicism in resistance to the spread of modernity, Liberalism, Capitalism and the growth of freedom. As a result they lost their legitimacy as the voice of freedom. Moreover they created a situation in which they drove their members, who looked to them for guidance, into the waiting arms of Liberalism-Capitalism because they refused to come to terms with the changes and only reacted with condemnations and anathemas against the new. By the time Rome was willing to enter into conversation with modernity, some 300 years after the fact, modernity had lost interest in the conversation and Catholicism is now left trying to situate itself a socio-political world in which it is a marginal voice and in which Christianity has largely been absorbed into the mainstream of Liberal society with all the implications mentioned above.
The Modern Islamic State then would be a place in which the people of the State would understand the purpose of the Political to be communal quest for that which transcends the Political. One could not avoid, of course, supplying the basic needs and comforts as well as security for the people, but having done that the people will not understand the State to have fulfilled its purpose, but merely to have laid the foundations for its role. Following those basics, the discussion can begin among the people concerning the nature of the Good and how that Good will be sought in the contemporary context.
The Ummah, the nation, is not then a closed entity. This is true on a number of levels. First the Ummah is capable of embracing the totality of humanity and it seeks and promotes a Good that is not limited in its scope. Further the universality of the Ummah points to the manner in which the State is not defined by a particular culture, set of customs or race. Islam is capable of rich embodiment and harmonic constructions of society. As a project of pursuing the Good it does not view Muslims as abstractly equal, but instead sees the equity of humanity to exist in the concrete particularity of their being. Thus it does not have to pretend everyone is the same in order to deal justly or fairly. This means it is capable of sustaining a wide variety of practices and traditions which it is nonetheless able to interpret as a common and universal project.
Since the Ummah is a communal project that interprets humanity in its totality as directed toward God, the Islamic state must not fall into the dogmatic political-fundamentalism that is characteristic of Liberalism-Capitalism. Liberalism-Capitalism assumes a universal and ahistorical human nature. Thus it believes that all humanity can be satisfied by the expansion and repetition of timeless government which is inherently desired by all. This dogmatism drives Liberalism’s colonialist attitudes and leads of its very nature to the consumption of that which it comes into contact with until all that is left is the abstract, cultureless and inchoate humanity on which Liberalism thrives. The Ummah, precisely because it is a not-yet completed project must remain open to hearing the voice of God anew. The Ummah will have to wrestle with its tradition and treat it as something living. It cannot look solely to the past, but understand the past to be the foundation of an as yet unforeseen Future. The Ummah is in motion.
Here, two mistakes must be avoided at all costs. One cannot treat the tradition as if it contained a deposit to which one merely needs to return. A deposit is dead. The God of the Qur’an is a God who speaks. God’s revelation is not the possession of anyone; it does not belong to humanity. To claim to have revelation in one’s hands is to claim to hold and contain God: it reduces God to a thing. Instead the Islamic state would be one which recognized that its existence is an attempt to hear God anew. It is not the possessor of the Word of God, but it continually awaits the Word of God and together listens to the Word which God speaks through the Qur’an and through the tradition. Anything less than this denies the very essence of the Islamic state because it makes God into the possession of the State instead of the State the possession of God. It means that, since the State holds the revelation of God, humanity lives for the State instead of living together a life toward God. It means the State blasphemously makes itself into a theocracy, thereby identifying State power with God, instead of a self-giving in which humanity surrenders itself over to God.
Moreover one cannot under any circumstances stifle free speech. This has been a temptation on the part of States throughout history, especially those that believed their purpose was to direct humanity toward the Good. Partly this was because the State often mistook itself for a direct embodiment of divine power. But more fundamentally it understood dissent to be damaging and a threat to the faith of the people. One must counter on two fronts. First, the only way that the State is going to fulfill its mission as the place in which, together, the people pursue the Good, make worship their common project, is if the people are able to engage in a discussion concerning the nature of the Good.
Second the quashing of dissent is not what is a danger to the faith. Instead, it is the stifling of dissent that is the greatest danger to faith because it suggests that the Truth is somehow unable to withstand critique. That which can be critiqued is not the Truth and therefore deserves criticism. The State which bans dissent mistakes itself for God, and becomes, thereby, worthy of even greater criticism. To allow dissent is to trust that the Truth wins out. God, who is Truth, is impassible: i.e., God is that which cannot be critiqued, divided, or threatened by any power. If something falls to criticism, then it was only a relativity in any case. This is part of what it means to insist that the Ummah is a project. To say this in another way, one must recognize that while the liberal freedoms are, in the end, the most trivial kinds of freedoms, they are nonetheless an essential part of freedom.
This leads us finally to the question of religious freedom. One must say that insofar as one is willing to participate in the Ummah and its project, the pilgrimage of the State toward God, one will be Muslim. Those other voices, whether they be Christian, Hindu, Liberal or atheistic, which will no doubt be heard in the public square, will, if they are untrue, find themselves in a marginal and uninfluential position. This is to say they will for all practical purposes exclude themselves from the common political life of the people. To set aside one’s dissent and enter into the political life of the community is also to declare common cause, a common faith. This may perhaps, in certain settings, mean the incorporation of certain goods that one finds among those who wish to make common cause. This brings us back to the rich, complex and universal nature of the faith. There is nothing good which is foreign to the Islamic state and which it can not appropriate.
I have attempted to outline a vision of the State that exists in a living relationship with the God who speaks, as it is understood within Islam. This thought experiment is an offering in which I envisioned a future for Islam that does not contain a repetition of the mistakes that Catholicism made over the course of the previous three centuries: ally itself with the powers of social conservatism and religious ossification.
But I end with a challenge; and this gets to the issue of why i do not ultimately believe there is an outside-Liberalism-Capitalism. The question is what will an economic alternative to Capitalism look like. Without this Liberalism will inevitably continue its hegemony. Such an alternative will also have to find its roots and practices, it will have to find its possibilities already present within the historical moment. It is this that I fail to see anywhere present. Where are the roots of an other-economy to Capitalism? Where in Capitalism does something new already appear? Or is there, already within Islam, some habit of economy waiting to emerge into explicit and self-conscious rational economic being?
It is for these reasons among others that I maintained in an earlier text that "We are trapped in a conversation with Liberalism which we cannot escape."
And God knows best...