Ross Douthat should look in the mirror: He’s got medieval beliefs, but has the gall to lecture Muslims on how to modernize. By Amanda Marcotte. Salon, December 14, 2015.
UNLIKE Donald Trump, or at least the demagogue he’s playing, most Americans probably don’t want to seal our borders against Muslims.
But most Americans do look at Islam and see a problem. It isn’t just Trump supporters or Republicans. In a poll the Public Religion Research Institute conducted before the Paris attacks, 56 percent of Americans agreed that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values.” In a more recent YouGov poll, 58 percent of Americans viewed Islam unfavorably, just 17 percent viewed it favorably.
But what should devout Muslims see when they look at America, or at the wider West?
This is the issue lurking behind a lot of Western anxiety about Islam. On the one hand, Westerners want Islam to adapt and assimilate, to “moderate” in some sense, to leave behind the lure of conquest, the pull of violent jihad.
But for several reasons — because we don’t understand Islam from the inside, but also because we’re divided about what our civilization stands for and where religious faith fits in — we have a hard time articulating what a “moderate” Muslim would actually believe, or what we expect a modernized Islam to become.
And to any Muslim who takes the teachings of his faith seriously, it must seem that many Western ideas about how Islam ought to change just promise its eventual extinction.
This is clearly true of the idea, held by certain prominent atheists and some of my fellow conservatives and Christians, that the heart of Islam is necessarily illiberal — that because the faith was born in conquest and theocracy, it simply can’t accommodate itself to pluralism without a massive rupture, an apostasy in fact if not in name.
But it’s also true of the ideas of many secular liberal Westerners, who take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in.
The first idea basically offers a counsel of despair: Muslims simply cannot be at home in the liberal democratic West without becoming something else entirely: atheists, Christians, or at least post-Islamic.
The second idea seems kinder, but it arrives at a similar destination. Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.
The first idea assumes theology’s immutability; the second assumes its irrelevance. And both play into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda: The first by confirming their own clash-of-civilizations narrative, the second by making assimilation seem indistinguishable from the arid secularism that’s helped turn Europe into a prime jihadist recruiting ground.
The good news is that there is space between these two ideas. The bad news is that we in the West can’t seem to agree on what that space should be, or how Christianity and Judaism, let alone Islam, should fit into it.
Devout Muslims watching current Western debates, for instance, might notice that some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment.
They also might notice that many of the same conservative Christians who fear that Islam is incompatible with democracy are wrestling with whether their own faith is compatible with the direction of modern liberalism, or whether Christianity needs to enter a kind of internal exile in the West.
And they might notice, finally, that all of the models for reconciling ancient faith to modern life tend to lurch between separatism and dissolution. The ghettoized “fortress Catholicism” of the 1940s gave way to the hemorrhaging “modernizing Catholicism” of the 1970s. The Americanized Judaism of midcentury is now polarized between a booming Orthodoxy and a waning liberal wing. The liberal Protestant churches have emptied, while Protestant fundamentalism remains a potent force.
In this landscape of options, the clearest model for Islam’s transition to modernity might lie in American evangelicalism — like Islam a missionary faith, like Islam decentralized and intensely scripture-oriented, and like Islam a tradition that often assumes an organic link between the theological and political.
Of course American evangelicals are often particularly hostile to Islam — as they are to Mormonism, which also offers an interesting model for modernizing Muslims.
But this is less an irony than a form of recognition: An Islam that set aside the sword without abandoning its fervor would be working in the same mission territory, Western and global, where evangelicals and Mormons presently compete and clash.
But it has to set aside the sword.
Ross Douthat pulls a Sean Hannity, lecturing Muslims about being “illiberal” while giving Christians a pass.
Last week, Sean Hannity, in his usual brain-dead fashion, rolled out a guffaw-worthy argument: That Muslim immigrants weren’t liberal enough to move to the United States. Laughable, of course, because of the hypocrisy necessary to stump for the virtue of reactionary, right-wing Christianity day in and day out, only to get fussy if someone does the same thing while using an Arabic word to describe God.
Enter Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Douthat’s role in the right-wing nut ecosystem is to take some of the dumber talking points and goals of the right and putting a pseudo-intellectual spin on them. This being the era of Donald Trump, he has to apply himself to the unenviable task of pushing the idea that Hannity was stabbing at, that conservative Islam is fundamentally nasty and irredeemable, while simultaneously maintaining the belief that fundamentalist Christianity is a benign force of good.
Douthat uses a few more five dollar words, but his basic strategy is the same as Hannity’s: Simply pretend that conservative Christianity means no harm to anyone, a task that requires not only ignoring the facts but ignoring his own opinions. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to launch strawman arguments against liberals, preferably in the most sneering way possible.
Liberals “assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary” he argues. “Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.”
You can really feel the hands slapping khaki-clad conservative thighs in delight. Those stickers sure are annoying!
But the underlying meaning behind the weak attempt at humor is just more Douthat-esque nonsense about how depth of spiritual meaning must be inversely proportional to willingness to treat your fellow human beings with decency. You get the feeling that it’s not really Islam that’s he’s really try to defend here against those dastardly liberals. Why else so angry at Unitarians, unless their existence offends you by suggesting that one does not need to hate women and fear modernity in order to be religious?
Indeed, he gets more explicit about using his Islam cloak in order to complain about those meanie liberals and their anti-theocratic mission. “Devout Muslims watching current Western debates, for instance, might notice that some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment,” he smugly writes.
It’s a slightly more sophisticated gotcha game with the liberals than Hannity was playing, but the aim is the same: Trying to imply that liberals have some double standard wherein they believe that Christian theocracy is wrong but that Islamic theocracy is awesome. Except that Hannity casts the imaginary pro-sharia liberals are hypocrites, but Douthat instead thinks they are fools, people too stupid to understand that Islamic fundamentalism is no more benevolent than Christian fundamentalism.
At this point, it would be nice if conservatives would actually start bothering to quote liberals, just once, that both oppose Christian theocratic measures like bans on abortion or gay marriage while simultaneously claiming to be cool with, say, mandating that all American women wear the hijab. You’d think, since conservatives from Hannity to Douthat seem to believe said liberals exist, they could produce at least one for evidence.
Of course, Douthat is projecting here. It’s not really liberals who feel some complicated sympathy for Islamic theocrats here. It’s Douthat whose theocratic longings come across loud and clear, especially when he whines that conservative Christians “are wrestling with whether their own faith is compatible with the direction of modern liberalism, or whether Christianity needs to enter a kind of internal exile in the West.”
You’d think someone who is so fond of claiming to have found a middle path might suggest such a thing to his fellow Christians: You don’t have to live in exile, but maybe you could lay off trying to force everyone else to follow your religion’s illiberal dogma. But to Douthat, being unable to, say, force a stranger to have a baby against her will is the equivalent of living in exile. Minding your own business is too painful a prospect for him to bear.
Which is why his condescending lecture to Muslims on how to deal with their supposed dilemma of living in the modern world is especially entertaining in the lacking self-awareness department. “In this landscape of options, the clearest model for Islam’s transition to modernity might lie in American evangelicalism,” he writes, no doubt while stroking his own beard with pleasure at his supposed insight into this. But, he warns, “it has to set aside the sword.” Cue scary music.
Take a moment to think about the American evangelical model actually means: Organize in explicit opposition to a secular government. Choose leaders who openly promise to build their policy around your religious beliefs, with an eye towards forcing the non-believers to follow your religious rules, even as you pretend to be magnanimous by not forcing them to convert all the way. Use government resources like schools to confuse the public about the difference between facts and your religious dogma. Focus your efforts especially on oppressing women and LGBT people, making sure the reach of your religious power goes all the way into the bedroom, interfering with people’s most personal choices about how to live. When you don’t get your way through above-the-board methods, turn to unsavory tactics like stalking, harassment, and in some cases,violence to get your way. Shamelessly lie about your secular opponents.
Oh yeah, and pick up the sword yourself by pushing a “clash of civilizations” narrative wherein you angle for a religion-inflected war between your nation and one dominated by a faith that you disapprove of.
How, exactly, is that modern? Sure, they haven’t gotten as far as the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but that’s likely due more to external checks on their power than because of a willing embrace of modernity. A true compromise modernity wouldn’t look anything like this, but would, in fact, look closer to the way that most conservative Muslims in the U.S. live: By following their faith in private but not trying to impose it on others. Perhaps Douthat should lay off the lectures and instead listen to people who are already handling this conflict far better than he ever could.