The Problem of Pluralism

Writing about Islam and the West, Ross Douthat over at the New York Times almost stumbles across something a great deal more interesting:

… 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. [Emphasis mine — CHF]

The question here is what is meant by pluralism. Historically, the Christian West did not believe in or practice religious pluralism — non-Christians were not allowed to exist inside the confines of Christian society, save for Jews, and their room to maneuver and exist was tightly controlled in the West (up to the point of expulsion). There were no Muslims allowed in Recinquista Spain, or in Sicily and Southern Italy in the period after Christians retook them from Muslim rule.

By comparison, Hungary was still full of Christians when a century of Muslim rule ended, the Balkans were as well, and even the Levant and Egypt were host to large Christian populations as late at the 19th century. Islam has never historically had a problem with pluralism — Western Christendom has.

(The only Christian society to effectively live with Islam in its midst was Orthodox Russia.)

However, Islam has a problem with pluralism now. And this is one of modernity’s sadder gifts to Islam. Because so does Liberalism, the ruling ideology of the West. Liberalism has inherited Christendom’s intolerance of alternative truth claims, dissolving them with all the force late medieval Catholicism demanded conversion or expulsion of its newly acquired Jewish and Muslim subjects. The only religion Liberalism will accept is one that has surrendered utterly to Liberalism — to its means, its ends, and its truth claims. This is as true of Christianity as it is of Islam, as Douthat notes.

But again, the problem is primarily a Western one that has become a modern one. (Though because the West conquered the world, it is also a global problem.) The Liberal nation-state wants domesticated religion — religion that serves the ends and means of society and the state (even as there is partisan bickering over what those ends exactly are). The church has, sadly, far too quickly obliged. The Islam that is fighting Liberalism is doing so less out of religious conviction (though it has those) than it is from a political vision — it seeks the creation of a clearly non-liberal polity, an Islamic modernity that is an alternative to the Liberal world order. Because Muslims understand, I think, that Liberalism doesn’t practice real pluralism.

There aren’t any alternatives to Liberalism that aren’t somehow grounded in Liberalism, and Islamism is the same — the caliphate proclaimed in the desert of Syria and Iraq is as much a “nation-state,” even though it pretends not to be, as the nation-states it seeks to supplant. Because there is no alternative to the order of nation-states in our world — there just isn’t.

The Liberal order — both within and among nation-states — seeks to assimilate. Mere obedience is not enough. This lack of pluralism is a mark of modernity, Liberalism’s inheritance from Christendom. And this is only going to get worse, not better, as Liberal societies increasingly demand conformity to an order that can neither tolerate nor accept traditional religious truth claims.

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