Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hitchens on Assimilating Islam

I’m grateful to reader sfwoman for pointing me to Christopher Hitchens’s fine essay on the subject I addressed yesterday in connection with the Ground Zero mosque, viz., the assimilation of the authentic practice of Islam into the American regime of religious liberty. As you’d expect, Hitchens has done a better of job of making my point that this presents us with not just a legal problem of upholding Muslim’s constitutional rights, but a political problem (my emphasis):
“Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present.”
So far, so good. But Hitchens makes things a little too easy for himself by pretending conflicts between religion and politics have to be adjudicated purely from a secular standpoint. Granted, he has a lot of American history on his side. Just as Mormons had to give up polygamy and Christian Scientists had to assume a legal obligation to secure medical treatment for their children to take their place in American society, he argues that American Muslims will have to swallow hard and give up their religiously inspired sexism, their contempt for non-Muslims, etc. The only thing threatening to make the assimilation of American Muslims an intractable problem, on Hitchens's view, is the prospect of uncivilized Muslim resistance to the worldly bargain presented by the secular social contract.

That’s an easy thing for a militant secularist to say. Hitchens can speak unambivalently about “taming” and “domestica[ting]” religion because he’s oblivious to the stakes a believer attaches to the performance of religious duties. Yet no believer conscientiously trying to reconcile his religious duties with his civic obligations could apply those terms to his own religion. From his standpoint, the stakes of not measuring up to religious duties are incomparably greater than the benefits and costs of political citizenship. If religious imperatives were politically negotiable they wouldn’t be genuinely religious in the first place.

That didn’t stop Mormons and Christian Scientists from taking their place in American society. Evidently they collectively decided that the religiously inspired practices they had to renounce weren’t essential to their religious practice. But they didn’t decide to subordinate religion to politics; the judgment that religious duty comported with political obligation had to be made by Mormons and Christian Scientists from inside their faith.

The assimilation of the practice of Islam into the American polity will have to make sense not only from the secular perspective of non-Muslims, but from religious perspective of Muslims. That perspective isn’t available to me, so I can’t know whether Muslim assimilation on terms I deem acceptable makes religious sense to Muslims. Neither can Christopher Hitchens.


Dave said...

I'm with Hitchens on this one (although he could have used gentler terms than "taming" and "domesticating"). You wrote:

"If religious imperatives were politically negotiable they wouldn’t be genuinely religious in the first place."

Religious imperatives may not be, in the most direct sense, politically negotiable. But, as Hitchen's examples demonstrate, they are definitely malleable and responsive to community standards (including laws). And this malleability cannot be avoided, because despite the existence of a written Holy Word, and/or an official governance body (e.g. the Pope), ultimately all religion is personal: every individual will decide for themselves what they believe, and how they want to practice those beliefs. And individuals change their minds.

That's not to say that "top-down" doctrine doesn't influence individual beliefs: clearly it's a very powerful influence. But I would assert (albeit based on only casual study in this area) that real shifts in religious doctrines rarely, if ever, are initiated in a top-down fashion (e.g. with the Pope leading the charge), but rather bubble from the bottom up. First, many individuals form a view that is contrary to official doctrine: e.g., "homosexuality is not a sin", "women can be priests", or "hell doesn't exist". Slowly, these views become mainstream in select congregations. Individual churches change their official policy. And only when the tide of opinion is overwhelming will the "official" pronouncement be made. (And frankly, that pronouncement doesn't even matter -- what matters is what's being believed in practice.)

Individuals *do* assimilate, whether they intend to or not (see: children of immigrants). And individuals do want to avoid legal punishment. Thus community standards, and laws, influence individuals' religious interpretations and practices, which in turn influence religious doctrines.

I don't see how any of this suggests that the revised doctrines were "not genuinely religious in the first place". Perhaps that argument would hold if you imagine that "politically negotiable" translates into the President and the Pope sitting in a room and hammering out a treaty. But that's not how social change works.

I may be misunderstanding your point (I may be misunderstanding Hitchens's point, for that matter); if so, I apologize. But I do believe that non-Muslim Americans have a strong voice (if they choose to) in the future of the Muslim religion as practiced in America. In some cases, they have outright veto power; in others, they have moral influence. That doesn't change the fact that each individual Muslim will of course be in complete control of what he or she believes; but via natural selection, those beliefs that are most easily assimilated into the broader culture will flourish, whereas those that are incompatible will fall by the wayside.

Anonymous said...

for us Muslims---Islam IS civilization and the role of "civilization" is to tame barbaric, egoic desires.(such as the arrogance of a manufactured Pre-emptive war....)
There is also no "Top-down" in Islam as there is no single authority. Scholars are the authority in Islam---their knowledge commands respect.
religiously inspired sexism and contempt for non-muslims---this is a myth. The Quran is pluralistic and egalitarian. if there is any discrimination---it is cultural not religious.

Anonymous said...

That's great - that means that discrimination that is cultural and not religious would be fairly easy to shed as part of the assimilation. In a sense, it is a religious duty of every Muslim to defend Islam from distorsion foisted on it by local cultiral practices that should have no place in 21st century.