Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Future of Progressive Islam? Part I

Islam is not known for being progressive, that is, embracing the modern world, more liberal values, and human rights. Although not an inherent part of the religion, Sharia law, wahabism, and the practice of covering for women have become identified with Islam. Over the last month, I have read some interesting articles and heard some podcasts that hint at what a modern, progressive Islam looks like.

Let's start with how political arrangements, societies, and authority in Muslim countries are fundamentally different from those that follow the Western European tradition of separating Church and State. There was a podcast on CBC's Ideas on "The Stillborn God" featuring an interview with Mark Lilla, author of a book with the same title. Lilla is a historian of ideas and is a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York. In the book and the interview, he explains that Islam follows a doctrine of political theology which is at odds with post-Enlightenment political philosophy.

Political theology is the doctrine that establishes the legitimate exercise of authority based on divine revelation. In other words, we are governed according to the word of the divine and by people who are divinely privileged. In contrast, Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, argued that government and rule of law should be based on consent. In other words, the populace assents to be governed in a rational manner, because the benefits outweigh the costs. Therefore, government derives is political authority from the people. This is the beginning of the separation of Church and State; one reason that people consent to be governed is so they can be granted freedom to worship as they wish and guarantees on that freedom. (This is important because branches of the Christian church had been in extensive conflict for many years, e.g. the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in England. There were conflicts between religions, but they had less impact on Western Europe than intra-Christian ones.) In political theology, political authority derives only from God. Moreover, the idea of rule by popular consent is a sinful rebellion against the proper place of God in the world. Lilla's main point in drawing attention to this difference is to remind us that the decision to separate Church and State is not inevitable. We in the West should not be waiting around for Islamic states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to "wake up" and realize that our way is a better way to organize things.

Given that we have two cultures that disagree so fundamentally over the ground rules over how government should be organized, how can they co-exist in a globalized, networked world? What is the place of second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe? How can post-Enlightenment cultures explain themselves to Muslim countries? How can a Muslim country participate in the world economy?

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