Should I slam Islam?

Islam continues to fascinate. Whatever the value of suggestions that it emphasizes will over reason and therefore leads to mere assertion and violence (I think there’s a lot to that view), it seems clear that discussions about it mostly generate more heat than light.

To my mind it seems important to discuss something as basic and enduring as the conflict between Islam and Christianity at least sometimes from a speculative point of view—from one that puts disinterested contemplation before action—and from one that focuses on basics like the nature of God and revelation rather than non-pervasive accidentals like female genital mutilation. If you don’t do that on occasion then you’ll lose perspective and act stupidly.

Some aren’t so taken with the thought. The disagreement might be due to personal outlook. Some people are more polemically-minded than others, and it takes all kinds. It also might be due to the degree of importance attributed to basic metaphysical decisions, like whether God exists or not, and if He does what His basic nature is and how we know about it. I think such decisions are very important, but there’s a tendency today to say they don’t matter much at all, that they’re mostly just a summary way of dealing with other concerns, and are perhaps just epiphenomena. That view is evidently connected with the view now common that things don’t have essences, but just are whatever they happen in fact to be, so that “Islam” or “liberalism” simply mean the collections of things that have been known by those names. (The opposing view is that Islam and liberalism are each at bottom a functional system of basic commitments and concepts that give it an essential form toward which it tends that however is never perfectly realized in actual social life.)

Online discussions aren’t a good way to work through such issues. An email or blog entry is clumsier than an exchange held in person, and is less thoughtful and comprehensive than an essay or treatise. It follows that blog discussions of big inflammatory topics never seem to get anywhere. Once you get to issues that are more subtle and go deeper than the sort of thing online libertarians talk about people mostly end up either talking to themselves or chatting with the like-minded and yelling at opponents.

It’s my weblog and I can put up whatever I want. So with that in mind, here’s an edited version of comments I made elsewhere that provide an example of me talking to myself:

It seems to me that whether a question like “which is worse, Islam or liberalism” makes sense depends on the inquiry.

The comment that kicked off the discussion of my views on Islam, after a delay of several years, had to do with the question of which general system of understandings is better as a basis for social order. I then went on to other issues on the grounds that abstract speculations don’t tell us what to do practically.

Still, the remark wasn’t made completely thoughtlessly, and general speculations do matter because they have to do with basic features of things. It’s important to discuss basic issues dispassionately on occasion, even in the midst of a civilizational struggle, especially when the struggle lasts many centuries. Not all thought should be subordinated to current needs and strategies.

From that point of view, it seems to me helpful to view Islam and liberalism as radical simplifications of Christianity. Islam keeps God, but leaves out the Incarnation and the divine rationality in which man can participate, while liberalism gets rid of God, at least as anything objective, knowable and authoritative, but keeps the ideal of rationality and man as somehow divine. So Islam, from the speculative standpoint I adopted, is belief in an absolutely transcendent God not bound by reason who reveals his arbitrary will for us in the Koran, while liberalism is the belief that man’s will is the standard for the good, man’s reason the standard for the true, and the principle of cosmic order, now understood as something we create ourselves, is construction of a rational technological system for the maximum equal satisfaction of preferences.

From that perspective, it seems that Islam has an advantage, since loving God is the first commandment. In addition, each system must rely on some remaining presence of what it rejects, and it seems easier for Islam than liberalism to do so. Islam needs God to be somehow knowable and therefore present among us if it is to have anything to say, and it needs rationality if it is to say anything comprehensible. It therefore accepts and relies on the various Islamic sciences and on the Koran as the uncreated word of God available to us here and now. It doesn’t have to explain how those things can be since it can just say God makes them so.

Liberalism likewise needs something it denies if it is to have anything to say. Specifically, it needs a moral order transcending human desire, since otherwise it can’t say how its precepts can be binding. I think it has a harder time coming up with what it needs than Islam does, because it’s hard to come up with much of anything if you deny the first principle of all first principles, which (by definition, I think) is God. Liberalism can say that if you don’t act morally then by definition you’re not acting morally, but so what? The result in the end is reliance on abuse and obfuscation, for example defining liberalism as the mainstream and as simple rationality while denouncing opposing views as extremism, oppression, hate, ignorance, pathology and whatnot.

So it seems to me Islam as a general system is better suited than liberalism to supporting social order and therefore human life. That makes it better in a sense that is not at all trivial. In support of that conclusion I’d put forward the actual survival of Islam for 1400 years, its ability to arouse loyalty and devotion among very different people in very different settings, the artistic and intellectual achievements of Islamic civilization, and so on. Liberalism of course has existed in some form since maybe Locke or thereabouts, but until the 60s it wasn’t clearly viewed as the sole legitimate basis of social order—its function was largely critical rather than constructive—and post-60s trends don’t point toward its continued success. For one thing, it tends to put an end to the continued coherent existence of any people that adopts it as the social and moral outlook organizing and directing their common life.

It seems to me clear that nothing in the foregoing is a call for any sort of alliance with Islam or a denial of my interlocutor’s assertion that “both Islam and pro-death modern liberal culture are exceedingly bad … that they are … evils both of which right-thinking men should resist to the best of their ability in the various spheres where they operate.” Each of the two has alarming features of its own. An enemy is more of a danger if he has virtues than enable him to function and endure than if he doesn’t. On the other hand, the enemy within is likely to be more dangerous than the enemy without, especially when he makes it much harder to resist the enemy without and he’s adept at borrowing virtues he lacks himself and in fact systematically destroys.

It should also be clear that the foregoing is not a discussion of particular societies. There are good features of actual liberal societies, for example generalized social trust, that depend on a nonliberal heritage than liberalism takes advantage of but systematically destroys. And there are bad features of many Muslim societies, for example honor killings and female genital mutilation, that are not required or (so far as I can tell) specifically supported by Islam. It seems to me that liberalism has mostly arisen in very successful societies that have let their success go to their heads. If things go your way too much you start thinking you’re God. It has mostly been less successful and radically divided societies that have succumbed to Islam. Such societies already had bad features. Islam didn’t invent extreme honor codes or female genital mutilation, and the failure of Islam to oppose every evil does not show that every tolerated evil is a feature of Islam. In both cases, that of Islam as well as that of liberalism, actual social life reflects contingent heritage as well as basic principle.

My own interest in what little I’ve written on such topics has been to look at the most basic principles of Islam, as of Christianity and liberalism, and try to understand how they differ and the effects of those differences. It seems such principles ought to matter a great deal. It’s not easy to come up with a world religion or world-conquering philosophy, so when one comes along that’s able to find a footing, prevail, endure and maintain its coherence in a variety of settings and in the presence of other world religions and philosophies for a very long time you’d expect to find at the center of it some absolutely fundamental principle that accounts for a lot of human reality together with a generally coherent way of applying that principle to the main lines of social life as well as shifting particular situations. If you take that approach it’s likely you’ll end up saying something positive about almost any general system of life that’s lasted a long time. After all, if whole civilizations that at the margins and therefore in the long run had other choices available have devotedly lived and died by some particular system for centuries you’re probably missing something if it seems to you simply stupid and evil.

The most important purpose of all this is to understand what a complete system of truth would look like, what goes wrong when something important is left out, and why less complete systems nonetheless survive and often prevail. That’s a grandiose inquiry, but it seems that each of us must engage in it to some degree if we are to be intelligent about our own basic beliefs. So far as I’m concerned, Catholic Christianity is the complete system, and Islam and liberalism are important examples of systems that leave out something necessary. The world around me doesn’t agree, so to maintain and make sense of my own beliefs I have to ask the big questions.

Ultimate principles obviously don’t explain everything about particulars, so if you take my line you’ll downplay some things that seem important to those whose interests are more immediate and play up some things that seem less so. Also, you’ll try to put the strongest construction on opposing systems, since presumably it’s a system’s virtues rather than vices that enable it to maintain itself and endure, and in any case your interest in the inquiry is how to attain the good rather than how to ward off threats. All that seems legitimate to me. The biggest questions have to do with what to favor rather than what to oppose, so it makes sense on occasion to carry on inquiries oriented toward them.

2 thoughts on “Should I slam Islam?”

  1. I posted this over at
    I posted this over at “What’s wrong with the world”, but the comments are embedded, so you may not have had the chance to see it.

    I humbly think your questions are legitimate….


    What can you mean by the claim that societies that fall to Islam have always already had “bad things like female genital mutilation”?

    Perhaps all Mr. Kalb is saying is that inherently weak societies are more susceptible to falling (almost voluntarily) to Islam than are stronger ones.

    I am always astonished at the Persians’ capitulation, which by historic accounts was swift and complete. They appeared strong, but their inner systems were full of hedonism and grandeur.

    This could be the same for individuals who convert. There seems to be a character flaw in them pre and post conversion.

    Also, 1,400 years of a social structure is nothing to scorn. It reminds me of these Scientology movie stars who have become incredibly successful once they entered that “cult.” Something in the system lets them flourish.

  2. Should you slam Islam?
    No. There’s a plentiful supply of people that are good at doing that.

    Even I managed to “get” what you were doing. You aren’t just talking to yourself.

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