Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Muslims, Imams, Michael Novak, Liberty

Back in the early 1980s, Michael Novak, on publication of his The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, became for a time the West’s preeminent social thinker, who with creative brilliance revealed anew the moral underpinnings of Western social systems and thus helped put fire in the bellies of Eastern Europeans resisting Soviet domination. In 2004, Novak published The Universal Hunger for Liberty, Why The Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, from which this excerpt sums up our current conundrum well:

In early September 2002, I was asked to give five lectures to the senior field commanders of the Sudanese resistance fighting against the oppressive Islamist government of Sudan. From what I had read in the papers, I expected most of these commanders to be Christian. To my surprise, more than half were serious Muslims. All together, Christians and Muslims and representatives of ancient African religions of nature wanted me to lecture on the religious roots of human dignity, liberty, and human rights. They were willing to hear about secular justifications of these concepts (as in Hobbes and Locke), and they were attentive to a discussion of how Jews and Christians had their own religious imperatives to develop these concepts and to support experiments in institutionalizing them. But what they really wanted to hear was how Muslims could develop concepts of human liberty, dignity, and equality, including a Muslim doctrine of human rights. “We are serious Muslims,” the majority said. “We try to live as devout Muslims. Please, help us to find a Muslim theory that embraces the best of the modern world, such as democracy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

"Why," they asked, “when Bin Laden finally moved to adopt the methods of the 20th century, why did he choose as his models the worst of the century, Hitler and Stalin, rather than the best, the tradition of democracy and human rights?” “It cannot be,” one said in plaintive tones, “that dignity, liberty, and human rights are for Jews and Christians and secular humanists only, but not for Muslims!”

This vivid experiece in Asmara taught me that there is immense turmoil in the bosom of Islam these days. One of the commanders had been a professor at McGill in Canada, another a professor at the Sorbonne; both said they were serious Muslims, but not specialists in religion. The others too, most of them professional people, thought themselves to be both modern men and women and devoutly Muslim. Nonetheless, learned imams had accused them of abandoning Islam by their commitments to human rights and democracy. They could not comprehend how this could be so, but did not know how to argue against the imams. They begged me for help. Not being an expert in Islam, I could not do all they asked. I felt helpless…

Yet it did seem to me, I said to them, that Islamic belief in the Creator and in reward and punishment for our deeds on Earth must give grounds for a rich theory of human dignity and liberty, whether or not any group of Muslim theologians had yet drawn out all the relevant implications of these doctrines…

(p.191-192, my bolding)

The troubling aspect of this excerpt is that the best Novak can do is point to some elements in Islam -- a Creator and rewards and punishments -- and suggest that these might be used by someone to ground an Islamic concept of liberty and human rights. Yes, provided Islam doesn't have too many organically built-in mechanisms for snuffing out liberty. But we'll keep an open mind for now, and continue sifting evidence and counterevidence...

5 comments:

D. T. Devareaux said...

Recall Ayatollah Khomeini's famous words:

"Those who oppose the mullahs oppose Islam itself; eliminate the mullahs and Islam shall disappear in fifty years. It is only the mullahs who can bring the people into the streets and make them die for Islam-- begging to have their blood shed for Islam."

If reform within Islam is possible; if literalist readings can be made fluid and open to interpretation, then taking Khomeini's warning to heart seems to be a good first step. Indeed, an essential step.

I face these questions over at my site in a rather blunt and uncompromising manner to be sure, but I nonetheless hold out hope that there is a basic, fundamental humanity shared by all people; and that once the theocratic elites, those who hold complete and total sway over every aspect of their peoples' minds and lives are vanquished, brave steps can be made by brave people to educate those masses in the ways of liberty.

Then we cross our fingers and hope they don't start to muck it all up like we've been doing. ;)

omar malomaari said...

d.t.d., Your post seems particularly valid today for Iran. I have added your site to my links list. The Iranian government, through its tyrannical brutality on behalf of the Quran, may have made of the people it rules an apostate nation.

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