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Religious Islam vs. Political Islam

There’s one final point I need to explore before I launch into a longer discussion of the events of last month, and that’s a debate I had in the comments about the difference between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political force. The former refers explicitly to Islam as I have described it up to now – the scripture-based, dogmatic, supernaturally-connected philosophy that all Muslims claim to be following (although arguably none actually do). The latter is the sense in which we have “Islamic countries” – a fusion of religion and politics and culture and history that is broadly referred to as “Islam”.

This difference is not semantic, and it is (I imagine) the latter type of ‘Islam’ that the most vociferous critics think of as they alight their soapboxes. That is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – cultural criticism is important, even if it’s someone else’s culture you’re criticizing. The problem arises when criticisms of a culture fail to take all the relevant elements into account and fixate on a single one. So, for example, there are legitimate criticisms to make about “black culture”*, and black critics make them all the time, but when those criticisms focus on race and fail to factor in things like racialization, poverty, historical exclusion, and a litany of other relevant factors, the crticisms land far wide of the mark.

Indeed, it is usually this exact thing going on when members of majority groups complain that it’s only ____-ist when they do it. That’s maybe a conversation for another time, but the double standard is only true in a very superficial and inaccurate way.

As has been noted in many of the conversations that preceded this series of posts, when we talk about ‘political Islam’, we are usually talking about political systems in which the religion of Islam has infiltrated the political systems, and the secular institutions are subordinate to the religious ones. It is from this that we get the fear of ‘creeping Shariah law’, and the associated (and ridiculously paranoid) moves to ban Islamic law as being recognized by the formal court system. Many states that use some iteration of Shariah law do, in fact, see horrific abuses and blatantly unethical and brutally retrograde punishments for things like theft and adultery, and it is right to resist and criticize that. However, the question remains whether or not that is a problem with Islam.

When governing institutions are made subordinate to religious authority, problems inevitably arise. It is arguable whether these problems are in fact different from cases in which governing institutions are made subordinate to oligarchies or racial hegemonies or rampant nationalism, but that is a discussion for another time – a discussion that must include the ways in which those kinds of systems are often justified in religious terms.

It is certainly not my position that we should not criticize political Islam. It is basic humanist understanding that suggests that secular institutions must be strengthened, and that the inclusion of religious prescripts as codified laws is a terrible idea. Laws should be grounded in ethics and evidence, not invocations of the will of a mercurial and ineffable supreme being. To the extent that ‘the Muslim world’ is theocratic, we should absolutely make solid criticisms about the erosion or replacement of secular institutions, and about the use of faith as a substitute for evidence when deciding public policy.

There may be, in fact, a perfectly reasonable argument to make that Islam as a religious doctrine specifically and uniquely calls for the abolition of secular institutions. Some theological historians find the origin of the idea of separation of church and state found specifically within Christian doctrine - it probably goes without saying that I am skeptical of such an assertion. Regardless, it may be the case that while there is some recognition of secular authority in Christian scripture (for example) that is not present in Islamic scripture, that is almost never the argument I see put forward. Rather, it is that Islam uniquely or in some special way deserves scrutiny for its theocratic bent. Again, I am open to seeing that demonstrated, but I have not been presented with convincing evidence.

Indeed, when we examine the history of Europe, or even the actions of the ‘Tea Party’ in America (which is really nothing more than the evangelical Christian right-wing base with tri-corner hats on) and the fights over gay marriage in contemporary France, we see that there is a force of ‘political Christianity’ that is hard at work to enact many of the same regressive policies that we decry in ‘political Islam’. The difference between ‘political Christianity’ and ‘political Islam’ seems to be, for the most part, a difference of degree rather than kind, as most European and North American democracies have (relatively) strong and intact non-religious institutions that tamp down the more dramatic Christian theocratic urges.

If we, as atheists with no real scholarship of Islamic doctrine to speak of, wish to make criticisms of Islam on political grounds, we need to be similarly careful to identify and define what it is we’re talking about when we talk about ‘Islam’. Are we talking about the religious beliefs that people hold? Are we talking about the religious beliefs encoded in scripture? Are we talking about the actions of states with large Muslim populations or Islamic theocratic rulers? Or are we, as I suspect is most frequently the case, defining ‘Islam’ as a melange of all of the above, and then erroneously claiming that they are necessarily concomitant?

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*The fact that there is no monolithic ‘black culture’ sort of belies that statement, I suppose