It is a world in which millions of people, particularly in the Muslim orbit, believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs. This belief shapes the politics of important Muslim nations, and it also shapes the attitudes of vast numbers of believers who find themselves living in Western countries — and non-Western democracies like Turkey and Indonesia — founded on the alien principles of the Great Separation. These are the most significant points of friction, internationally and domestically. And we cannot really address them if we do not first recognize the intellectual chasm between us: although it is possible to translate Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush from Farsi into English, its intellectual assumptions cannot be translated into those of the Great Separation. We can try to learn his language in order to create sensible policies, but agreement on basic principles won’t be possible. And we must learn to live with that.
Similarly, we must somehow find a way to accept the fact that, given the immigration policies Western nations have pursued over the last half-century, they now are hosts to millions of Muslims who have great difficulty fitting into societies that do not recognize any political claims based on their divine revelation. Like Orthodox Jewish law, the Muslim Shariah is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands. It is an unfortunate situation, but we have made our bed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Accommodation and mutual respect can help, as can clear rules governing areas of tension, like the status of women, parents’ rights over their children, speech offensive to religious sensibilities, speech inciting violence, standards of dress in public institutions and the like. Western countries have adopted different strategies for coping, some forbidding religious symbols like the head scarf in schools, others permitting them. But we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.
VII. The Opposite Shore
This is not welcome news. For more than two centuries, promoters of modernization have taken it for granted that science, technology, urbanization and education would eventually “disenchant” the charmed world of believers, and that with time people would either abandon their traditional faiths or transform them in politically anodyne ways. They point to continental Europe, where belief in God has been in steady decline over the last 50 years, and suggest that, with time, Muslims everywhere will undergo a similar transformation. Those predictions may eventually prove right. But Europe’s rapid secularization is historically unique and, as we have just seen, relatively recent. Political theology is highly adaptive and can present to even educated minds a more compelling vision of the future than the prospect of secular modernity. It takes as little for a highly trained medical doctor to fashion a car bomb today as it took for advanced thinkers to fashion biblically inspired justifications of fascist and communist totalitarianism in Weimar Germany. When the urge to connect is strong, passions are high and fantasies are vivid, the trinkets of our modern lives are impotent amulets against political intoxication.
Realizing this, a number of Muslim thinkers around the world have taken to promoting a “liberal” Islam. What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent. These are brave people who have often suffered for their efforts, in prison or exile, as did their predecessors in the 19th century, of which there were many. But now as then, their efforts have been swept away by deeper theological currents they cannot master and perhaps do not even understand. The history of Protestant and Jewish liberal theology reveals the problem: the more a biblical faith is trimmed to fit the demands of the moment, the fewer reasons it gives believers for holding on to that faith in troubled times, when self-appointed guardians of theological purity offer more radical hope. Worse still, when such a faith is used to bestow theological sanctification on a single form of political life — even an attractive one like liberal democracy — the more it will be seen as collaborating with injustice when that political system fails. The dynamics of political theology seem to dictate that when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam.
The complacent liberalism and revolutionary messianism we’ve encountered are not the only theological options. There is another kind of transformation possible in biblical faiths, and that is the renewal of traditional political theology from within. If liberalizers are apologists for religion at the court of modern life, renovators stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates. Luther and Calvin were renovators in this sense, not liberalizers. They called Christians back to the fundamentals of their faith, but in a way that made it easier, not harder, to enjoy the fruits of temporal existence. They found theological reasons to reject the ideal of celibacy, and its frequent violation by priests, and thus returned the clergy to ordinary family life. They then found theological reasons to reject otherworldly monasticism and the all-too-worldly imperialism of Rome, offering biblical reasons that Christians should be loyal citizens of the state they live in. And they did this, not by speaking the apologetic language of toleration and progress, but by rewriting the language of Christian political theology and demanding that Christians be faithful to it.
Today, a few voices are calling for just this kind of renewal of Islamic political theology. Some, like Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, challenge the authority of today’s puritans, who make categorical judgments based on a literal reading of scattered Koranic verses. In Abou El Fadl’s view, traditional Islamic law can still be applied to present-day situations because it brings a subtle interpretation of the whole text to bear on particular problems in varied circumstances. Others, like the Swiss-born cleric and professor Tariq Ramadan, are public figures whose writings show Western Muslims that their political theology, properly interpreted, offers guidance for living with confidence in their faith and gaining acceptance in what he calls an alien “abode.” To read their works is to be reminded what a risky venture renewal is. It can invite believers to participate more fully and wisely in the political present, as the Protestant Reformation eventually did; it can also foster dreams of returning to a more primitive faith, through violence if necessary, as happened in the Wars of Religion.
Perhaps for this reason, Abou El Fadl and especially Ramadan have become objects of intense and sometimes harsh scrutiny by Western intellectuals. We prefer speaking with the Islamic liberalizers because they share our language: they accept the intellectual presuppositions of the Great Separation and simply want maximum room given for religious and cultural expression. They do not practice political theology. But the prospects of enduring political change through renewal are probably much greater than through liberalization. By speaking from within the community of the faithful, renovators give believers compelling theological reasons for accepting new ways as authentic reinterpretations of the faith. Figures like Abou El Fadl and Ramadan speak a strange tongue, even when promoting changes we find worthy; their reasons are not our reasons. But if we cannot expect mass conversion to the principles of the Great Separation — and we cannot — we had better learn to welcome transformations in Muslim political theology that ease coexistence. The best should not be the enemy of the good.
In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen.
Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.
Mark Lilla is professor of the humanities at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” which will be published next month.
And for the former Clevelander in me, some religious scandal. I guess if you are going to take advantage of the suckers in some religion, you might as well pick a wealthy one and do it up right.