Real Islam and Democracy


During the last few months I’ve seen on TV and read in Newsmax the views of an earnest American patriot, Zudhi Jasser. A onetime naval officer, distinguished cardiologist and more recently, an inspired leader of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Dr. Yasser has been second to none in denouncing Islamicist terror and in exhorting his fellow-Muslims in the US and throughout the West to turn in suspected terrorists. It pains me to criticize such a decent fellow, but much of what I hear him saying about purifying Islam of Sharia and making Muslims accept “human rights,” “gender equality” and “secular governance” as part of their belief system is arrant nonsense. I make this point not because I wish to savage Islam, in either its Sunni or Shiite form, but because it is hard for me to imagine that anyone who accepts the claims of a traditional religion could in good conscience adopt Yasser’s position. Biblical or Koranic religion antedates by many centuries the modern principles or attitudes around which Yasser proposes to restructure his faith tradition (Yes, I have availed myself of this insipid commodified term).

A believer may try to accommodate himself to the new order but it is foolish to insist that his millennial faith and the rules that it enjoins are entirely compatible with the latest version of American liberal democracy. Why should a devout Muslim care if Dr. Jasser wishes to put him “on the right side of History”? Like Rabbinic Judaism or Canon Law, Sharia dictates a way of life for those who accept the authority of their faith. Are we to say, as Dr. Yasser sometimes seem to be suggesting, that pious Muslims should now accept only those of their precepts and injunctions that don’t conflict with the concept of democratic equality and with the ongoing feminist revolution?

I once had friends who were members of the American Council for Judaism. These friends would insist that Judaism, at least as they understood it, was a universal ethical religion that had nothing to do with accepting Israel as a homeland. From my own more thorough knowledge of the subject, it seemed to me that what they said was hot air. Being Jewish is about observing complicated dietary laws and rituals, which only in some cases have a relation to ethics. Moreover, there is no way that national identity can be viewed as extraneous to being Jewish. Jewish prayers and Hebrew Scriptures abound in references to Israel as the Jewish homeland. Jewish messianic hopes center on having all Jews return to Zion. While my friends in the American Council for Judaism were expressing feel-good sentiments, these sentiments do not belong to traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Like Yasser’s plan to make secular democratic equality the basis of Islamic religion, the ACJ was (and is) equating an inherited religious and communal faith with certain modern notions.

There is of course nothing wrong with groups disputing our late modern form of democracy or our current worship of the equality principle. I myself have been ripping into these idols, as an old-fashioned American constitutionalist, for many decades and can cite other authors who do the same. But there is a critical difference between me and those devout Muslims who are waging Jihad. My contrarian views do not lead me into being violent; nor do I have any desire to set up a caliphate on this continent or in Europe. What makes Muslims different from others who question certain modernist dogmas is the possibility that they may turn violent and that they may want to impose their way of life on others by force.

This certainly justifies the “extreme vetting” that President-elect Trump has suggested that Muslim visitors or incoming Muslim residents undergo. But it may be far more important to consider the potential for violence among those undergoing this investigation than whether they provide politically correct answers when asked about democracy and equality. Thomas Hobbes addresses this need for order in Leviathan, when he speaks about the conditions necessary to avoid civil strife: Anyone seeking to join civil society should have to give up his natural liberty and abide by the established order of the state to which he seeks admission. If there is reason to believe that the applicant will destroy the civil peace, then the political authorities shouldn’t admit him. And if those delegated to protect civil society decide for safety reasons not to accept visitors from dangerous regions, so be it. Sovereign nations do have this right and should be able to exercise it.

I’m also not sure how many correct answers the person interrogated will be expected to give in order to pass the “democracy” test. Let’s say the respondent doesn’t believe that women should vote (which was the situation in most American states up until less than a hundred years ago). Will the Muslim who expresses this once widespread judgment flunk the exam? What about accepting “marriage equality,” which the Clintons and President Obama didn’t accept until a few years ago, when they decided to impose it on the unwilling through judicial fiat? How much of the democratic belief system that now exists in the West will the Muslim respondent be expected to affirm in order to be let into this country?

This effort to make sure that Muslims entering the US fully affirm our “values” seems far less useful than the “loyalty oath” that public employees were expected to take in the 1950s, in order to prove that they weren’t Communists or Communist sympathizers. Unfortunately this oath, as formulated at the federal and state levels, never kept a Communist agent from lying. Or thoroughly hypocritical leftists who have never hesitated to shut up their opposition on the Right, from bellyaching about their loss of “civil liberties.” But unlike our democracy boosters, those who conceived of such oaths were being reasonable about what they demanded. They hoped to prevent those working in our universities and government from seeking the violent overthrow of the government. Every sovereign state has a right and indeed a duty to demand this of whomever it employs or lets in.

Paul Gottfried is an American political philosopher and intellectual historian, and former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

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