Author - John Owen

Let’s Do Pile on Trump
An Islamic Enlightenment? It’s Been Under Way for a While.
The Prospects for Islamic Democracy: Good and Bad News
Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say
Islam and Democracy in 2015
ISIS Is Modern, Not Medieval
Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?
Muslim leaders challenge ISIS
Religious freedom is for losers…
ISIS and Religion, continued

Let’s Do Pile on Trump

One problem with the degraded discourse on our college campuses, social media, and so on — the cheap shots, the shrunken vocabulary — is that that once-powerful words are so plentiful that they have lost their meaning.  A “fascist” has become someone more conservative than you are; a “communist,” someone more progressive than you are.

There are still communists in the world — check out Pyongyang — and it has become increasingly clear since this past summer that there is at least one American politician veering quite close to fascism as well:  Donald Trump.  Ross Douthat of the New York Times published two columns recently, here and here, using Umberto Eco’s criteria to decide whether Trump is really a fascist. The answer?  He comes awfully close to being an heir of Mussolini, but comes up short because he is not particularly attached to tradition.

But let us not let arguments over whether Trump is Roderick Spode distract us from the main issue, which is that Trump is proposing measures that would gut American religious freedom.  We are now in the realm of constitutional principle, not political tactics.  We also are in the realm of national identity.  The story we tell about our country is a large part of who we are.  It also is a large part of who others think we are and think about how we relate to them.  I am spending this year in Berlin, and last evening my daughters and I were picking up some Turkish food from a nearby kebab stand.  The manager had the TV tuned to a Turkish channel, and Trump’s “no more Muslims” speech was a top story.  The world is watching us, and what they see is ugly.

Trump’s America cannot be the true America.  So let’s keep piling on the man.  Not just liberals and secularists, who were doing so anyway.  Conservatives and religious people — and I am both — must clearly repudiate Trump and make clear to our brethren why.  Give reasons.  We rightly say that Muslims must do most of the work of persuading other Muslims to repudiate radicalism.  The burden of defeating Trump and his reptilian politics falls mainly on us.

An Islamic Enlightenment? It’s Been Under Way for a While.

Calls for an “Islamic Enlightenment” are frequent.  J. Judd Owen and I just published on some thoughts on these calls.  We argue that, if you look at the early decades of the European Enlightenment — in particular the phenomenon of Enlightened Despotism and the reactions from traditionalists — you’ll see a family resemblance to what the Muslim Middle East has been going through for roughly eighty years.

Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say

Dan Philpott and I both have posted on how to think about the relation of ISIS to Islam, and noted that President Obama has presumed to declare that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” The President has made similar proclamations since – saying last month at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that: “They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.  (Applause.)  And we are not at war with Islam.  We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” President Bush made similar statements, e.g., on September 17, 2001: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”

Nor has the Obama administration limited its doctrinal pronouncements to Islam. Early in 2012, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, President of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, published a letter reporting discussions the Council had with White House staff over the “Obamacare” mandate that employers pay for contraception and other procedures to which the Catholic Church has grave objections. According to Dolan, White House staff “advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation …. The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so … now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.”

As Reihan Salam wrote in a trenchant article last month at Slate, it really is not for an American President to say what is or is not Islamic. It is not simply because Obama is a Christian and hence an outsider to Islam. No more does the Head of State of the United States have any business telling Christians what is true Christian teaching, or which clergy are authoritative.  It is for the faithful to decide, without state coercion, what they believe and who their authorities are.

When a President tells the faithful what does and does not constitute a particular religion, he would seem to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Statements such as those of Obama and Bush also are likely to be self-defeating. Ultimately, the faithful – Christians, Muslims, and others – will see state attempts to establish religious doctrine as illegitimate, and they will side with their religious institutions over the American state.

Islam and Democracy in 2015


In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gradual but unmistakable centralization of power continues apace. Turkey, Egypt, Iran – all have at various times tried one kind or another of hybrid between Islamism and democracy. Which raises what may be the most vital long-term political question for Muslims: Is Islam compatible with democracy? The question is vital not just because non-Muslims frequently put it to Muslims. It also is the case that people the world over, including a vast majority of Muslims, aspire to live in democracies. More than two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of History” thesis declared liberal democracy the winner in humankind’s age-old contest of ideas. Fukuyama’s declaration was premature at best, but it remains true that words such as “democracy” and “freedom” continue to have a grip on billions of people. The late Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi probably spoke for most jihadis when he rejected democracy as “a religion and disbelief.” But in most majority-Muslim countries, people emphatically reject the Zarqawi thesis: they say they want democracy (even if they do not trust the United States to help them achieve it).

As anyone who lives in a democracy knows, however, the word “democracy” is, empirically speaking, a container into which all manner of content can be poured. Some (too few) social scientists, such as Frederic Schaffer, have explored the subjective aspect of democracy – how people in different times and places mean different things by it. Precisely what various Muslims mean by it is in need of further investigation. But it is clear that for at least large numbers of devout Muslims, liberal democracy, at least as currently practiced in the West, is a stumbling block.

When North Americans, Europeans, and, increasingly, Latin Americans say “democracy,” they mean “liberal democracy.” Liberal democracy takes various institutional forms across countries, but in general it is an attempt to marry individual rights and popular government. As has been pointed out many times, both of these things cannot be maximized all the time: sometimes the majority wants to violate individual rights, and sometimes certain notions of individual rights go against popular opinion. In such moments, a polity must choose one or the other. But it is the sustained, consensual attempt to keep individual rights and majority rule together that defines liberal democracy.

Already, some cultures have difficulty with liberal democracy for its attachment to individual rights – as opposed to group rights, or to a strong notion of rights at all. Lee Kwan Yew, éminence grise of Singapore, is famous for saying that Westerners value individual freedoms, whereas Asians value honest and effective government.

The matter becomes even more complicated for many faithful Muslims when individual liberties are interpreted in the 21st-century Western manner. When the United States was founded in the late 18th century, the chief threat to liberty was thought to be government, which possessed coercive power and tended toward centralization. Thus the American Bill of Rights lists rights of individuals against the state. In the 21st century, by contrast, most Western elites hold that the chief threats to individual liberty come from society – traditional institutions such as churches, families, even cultures – and that the state ought to safeguard liberty from those things. Hence the culture wars that we are perpetually reassured do not exist.

A traditional Muslim may want to have a guaranteed voice in who governs, but will likely not want to live under laws and courts that seek to weaken the role of Islam – including clergy, mosques, and schools – in public life. Democracy, then, must take on a different modifier – perhaps constitutional, which denotes the rule of law.

I consider this question, among many others, in my new book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past. By “West’s past” I mean not encounters between the Western and Muslim “worlds,” but rather the West’s own internal ideological struggles over the past 500 years – between, among others, monarchism and republicanism in the 19th century and communism and liberal democracy in the 20th. One lesson is that hybrid ideologies and institutions may emerge from a long struggle. Such happened in the late 19th century as “conservative liberalism,” a fusion of monarchism and republicanism, emerged in most European states. We may hope for another kind of fusion – Islamic democracy – in the Middle East. But the degeneration of democracy in Turkey over the past two years bodes ill.

ISIS Is Modern, Not Medieval

Fraser Nelson has an astute article in the Daily Telegraph arguing that ISIS is not, as we like to say, a throwback to the Middle Ages.  To say so is, in fact, to slander the Middle Ages.  ISIS is a modern movement, with much in common with twentieth-century totalitarian movements that sought complete control of populations.  Most discouraging, perhaps, is that, like fascism and communism, ISIS’s radical Islamism is, on its own terms, progressive.

Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

It may be narcissistic, and in poor taste, to talk so soon about how the Charlie Hebdo massacre relates to the rest of us. But of course American pundits are doing it anyway, and I’ll join the fray long enough to note four things.

First, although freedom of speech and of the press have been in the U.S. Constitution since the beginning, and were adopted in European countries at various times, religious blasphemy has not always been protected speech in the West. It is only in recent decades, as our societal elites have become more skeptical of religion, that courts have come to protect speech that ridicules religion.

Second, it took many people in the West a long time to make peace with the right to lampoon religion. Here is a fascinating video clip from 1979 of some of my favorite Englishmen – Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese, and Michael Palin – arguing vehemently over the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, whose final scene is taken by many (me included) to be ridiculing Christ’s crucifixion.

Third, one can agree with Muggeridge, who was a fearless journalist, and the Bishop of Southwark in the video that the Monty Python film is blasphemous and ought not to have had the crucifixion scene, and at the same time maintain that Monty Python must be allowed to make and distribute that film without fear of state prosecution or private violence. The same goes for Charlie Hebdo and the lampooning of Muhammad. We have arrived at a point in Western culture where almost nothing is sacred, and maintaining our constitutional freedoms requires that we not carve out exceptions for blasphemy.  We must not flinch.

Fourth, as David Brooks notes in a brilliant column today, this goes for campus speech codes as well.  As we have de-sacralized religion, we have sacralized the tender feelings of students, and censorship is rife on campuses.  The horrific events in France and our reactions to them expose our silliness and incoherence.

Muslim leaders challenge ISIS

In an earlier post I wrote that “although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.”  I’ll have more to say about this soon, but for now I’ll note that one practical reason why is credibility.  Muslims who are with ISIS or are nonplused will — all else being equal — take more seriously arguments from their fellow Muslims, particularly those who are devout.

It is encouraging, then, that on September 24 a distinguished international group of Muslim leaders published an open letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, and to the Islamic State’s “fighters and followers.” The letter is an impressive document, covering proper rules of exegesis of the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and engaging in a great deal of its own exegesis that counters the textual interpretations of ISIS.  This is all to the good — for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  That said, Ayman S. Ibrahim puts some probing questions to the document, including its ambiguity regarding Muslim violence against non-Muslims and its attitude toward restoration of the caliphate per se. This kind of probing is important, and one hopes that the signatories of the letter will consider them and issue some kind of postscript.

Religious freedom is for losers…

… so says ethicist James Mumford.  What he means is that, when we look across history, we see that religious groups that are in the minority, or fear they soon will be, tend to favor liberty.  It is they who lose from persecution.  Majority religions tend not to favor liberty, because they win without it.  Many Americans will be familiar with how Baptists, a persecuted minority in 17th-century New England, pioneered freedom of conscience.  Mumford shows that the story of how European Catholicism came to be the world’s leading proponent of religious freedom is similar:

What is most powerful in this account, I think, is that Félicité de Lamennais in the 19th century, and Luigi Sturzo and others in the 20th, pressed for religious freedom even in countries where Catholics formed a majority of the population.  Like other religious people, they learned from suffering and elevated religious freedom to a principle.

Note, too, Mumford’s conclusions for the United States and other countries where religious skeptics are enjoying more cultural power than ever and are starting to use it on some university campuses to exclude some religious groups.

ISIS and Religion, continued

On September 10 President Obama delivered a televised address on the “Islamic State,” a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL, and America’s determination to defeat and destroy it.  At the outset the President stated that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

It may seem presumptuous for a U.S. President to pronounce on what is and is not true to a given religion – particularly since this President does not adhere to the religion in question.  Political leaders, however, use words not primarily to describe the world as it is, but to move and steer people.  A President must be a rhetorician or he is not much of a President.  So we must receive this as a savvy piece of rhetoric, designed both to persuade non-Muslims and Muslims alike that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam.

But what is the truth?  Is ISIS Islamic?

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is grounded in sacred texts, some passages of which call on the righteous to kill the unrighteous, others of which depict them doing so.  Over the millennia, in various times and places adherents to all three of these religions have used these texts to justify their own violence.  Yet, most Muslims, Christians, and Jews never kill innocent people, and the leading theologians and clergy of all three today certainly do not condone their doing so.

Modern history has been plagued by a number of ideologies that do condone the killing of innocents – although these took pains to portray the innocent as guilty.  Nazism is the first to come to mind.  Communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also is on the list.  These were grand narratives that told people that their discontents were caused by some malignancy in the world, personified in a group of people, and that they needed to kill those people to rid the world of the malignancy.

We might think of these murderous ideologies as branches of trees.  The branches sprout and flourish when some of the faithful come to believe that God’s plan requires, in the here and now, direct violent action by them to purify the world.  Genocidal communism was a secular ideology, growing out of less lethal (although still oppressive) forms of communism.  Nazism is best thought of as a pagan ideology, appealing to a mixture of pre-Christian myths and a de-Judaized “German Christianity.”  Radical Islamism or violent jihadism, as practiced by ISIS, is an ideological branch of Islamism, itself an ideology that declares that the faithful must live under state-enforced Sharia.  In turn, Islamism is a branch growing out of the religion of Islam.

Looked at in this way, Islam does not reduce to ISIS, nor does ISIS somehow express or reveal the essence of Islam.  At the same time, it does grow out of Islam.  President Obama’s attempt to separate the violent ideology from the religion could actually be harmful, because it implies that the West can defeat ISIS just as well as Muslims can.  If it is nothing but a nihilistic movement, a collective psychopathy unrelated to Islam, then Arabs may as well stand aside and let America handle it.

The truth, then, is that although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.


© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.