A stirring call for truly liberal tolerance

Brian Lee Crowley’s editorial this weekend in the Citizen is, on the whole, reasonable, but I find his notions of tolerance, however admirable, miss the point of Islam. His analysis of Islam is that it is essentially a religion, that it deserves toleration, and that, if a person carries out jihadist acts, he should be punished.

On the bottom line, Crowley is suitably tough-minded.

The right balance requires that occasionally we must act in ways that make us uncomfortable. We must ensure that our houses of worship, schools, prisons and other institutions are not being used to promote illegal acts, no matter what thin veneer of religious respectability their proponents may fashion for them. We must do this for the same reasons we take vigorous steps to ensure anti-Muslim extremists cannot act on their beliefs.

All well and good. But is Islam a religion as we understand the concept? Or is it more?

My contention has always been that we have as much right to call Islam a political ideology as a religion. We need to see it in its own terms, not in ours, which have been fashioned on the basis of a religious toleration we took centuries to achieve, largely because we fought ourselves to exhaustion over it in the Thirty Year’s War, and because we have learned not to care about Christian doctrines and the institutions that sustain and teach them.

Islam does not recognize a distinction between church (mosque) and state. Every word of the Koran is the word of God. If the Quran tells people how to cook their food, or what foods to eat, or how to cut their hair, or with what hand to wipe one’s ass, or the conditions under which one sets out on holy war with the unbelievers, than those statements are God’s Word for all time, and may not be altered by merely human law. Everything is religious.Everything is the Word Of God. Human law, the kind fashioned in parliaments, is by definition invalid to the extent it deviates from God’s Law.

Several important features follow from this, which make Western discussions of Islam close to irrelevant, because westerners are still trying to understand Islam in Western terms.

But when everything is God’s Law, I would argue, then essentially every action becomes procedural, religion is merely a set of behaviours one adopts. Practice the behaviours, and you are a good Muslim. When the Ayatollah Khomeini was handing down fatwas, the style of reasoning was exclusively concerned with procedural strictures: whether one should wash if you showed up at prayers with sweat on one’s forehead from running  to the mosque as opposed to having just had sex. The style of legal reasoning that constitutes Islamic law is wholly procedural in that sense. If you robbed a bank owned by Christians, and arrived late at prayers, the issue is not that you ought not to rob a bank owned by Christians, but that you ought not to miss prayers, or show up sweaty. One issue – how to appear at prayers -has been ruled upon by God, the other – robbing Christian-owned banks – has not been subsumed in a rule regarding the sanctity of property of the unbelievers.

Thus when Brian Lee Crowley talks of a “thin veneer of religious respectability” for jihadist actions, I commend him. Muslims, however, do not regard the Quran’s dicta as a “thin veneer”; they regard them as the Word of God, who spake to the Prophet in the original Arabic. And that’s that.

Consequently, some of Brian Lee’s points avoid the central issue: what is Islam?

We may believe whatever we want; our minds are private and not the province of legislators or police. But we are not entitled to act on beliefs or ideas that impinge on the protected sphere of rights and personal security that we promise to all other members of society. I cannot insist on this too strongly: it is not illegal, nor should it be illegal, to be a radical Islamist, to believe that infidels are a disgrace in the eyes of God, or to believe that the Quran supersedes human-made law. What is illegal is to act on these beliefs when doing so infringes on the rights and freedoms of others.

While I agree with the nicety of the distinction between thought and action in criminal matters, the practical issues arising from this are much more complex.

Why, given a statistical propensity for some Muslims to engage in jihad in the western liberal societies to which they have immigrated,

  • should we not take appropriate collective measures to discourage them from immigrating?
  • review the contents of published sermons, fatwas, and websites for jihadist encouragements?
  • apply test acts to ensure that they renounce jihad before they take up public offices of significance?
  • deport immigrant Islamic agitators calling for jihad, and jail the Canadian-born for same?

Why should we not take preventive measures in education, immigration, and other state policies, to control, suppress, and discourage jihadists?

Do you think I am being illiberal? Try this thought experiment. Replace jihad with “class warfare” and jihadi with “communist party member”. Western powers have, at various times, deported Communists born abroad, held inquiries into their loyalty, imprisoned them for treason, required oaths of loyalty to the constitution, and kept police files on communist infiltration. Class warfare is the practical essence of Marxism, together with collective ownership of the productive resources of society. We just got through the century-long Marxist threat; now we are back at the thousand year Islamic threat, and they are here, now, living among us. That a vast majority is trying to adapt and be reasonable is good, but not the point. It is the propensity of the religion to preach war against us, and for some proportion of its advocates to betray their host society in the name of their religion/ideology. Against that, we have to arm ourselves intellectually.

As soon as we allow ourselves to lose the western fixation on Islam as a “religious” phenomenon as we understand religion: tepid, tamed, and generally benign, and see it as a religious/political/social ideology as Muslims perceive it, we will gain the necessary insights into what we are dealing with. Until then, the liberal clueless press will still be asking what occult forces caused young Hamid, Walid and Khalid and more recent converts to slaughter people on the street.

My difference with the estimable Mr Crowley, to the extent there is one,  has to do with the nature of the thing we are up against. His firmness in  defending the rule of man-made non-Quranic law is greatly appreciated. I could wish, however, for a broader understanding of Islam than one that tries to confine it to western liberal categories.