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 the legal problem of upholding Muslim’s constitutional rights, but a vexing 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.