It’s always seemed bizarre to me that liberals love to champion Islam. Doesn’t Islam represent everything liberals love to hate? Islam assigns women subservient social roles. It condemns homosexuality and other "sexually deviant" practices. At least in recent years, it has given rise to numerous violent extremist movements, and, even more alarming, a non-trivial percentage of Muslims seem to be supportive of them. Nothing remotely comparable has been seen from Christians or Jews in the modern era.
So it seems like liberals should despise Islam with a white-hot hatred, but instead they love to defend it, to label it the “religion of peace”, and to champion the rights of Muslims to religious freedom (even while they remain indifferent to the other two Abrahamic faiths in their struggles for similar freedoms). I’ve often wondered about this, but yesterday I had an “insight” into the question. I use scare quotes here because I’m not certain whether my theory is actually true. But here is my thought: liberals love Islam because it represents their idea of what religion is supposed to be.
In saying this, I am drawing mainly on my experiences living in the Muslim world (mainly in Palestine and in Uzbekistan), and on the numerous conversations that I had with serious Muslims there about how they understand their religion. I am not an Islamic scholar, so I won’t attempt to quibble with those who want to claim (as some do) that the religiosity of actual Muslims today is a far departure from what Islam was intended to be. This could be true. I wouldn’t know. And I recognize that there are limitations to what one can learn from the rank-and-file faithful of any religion. A person who simply talked to 50 lukewarm, liberal Catholics about their faith might get some very funny ideas.
Still, the people I have in mind did not regard themselves as lukewarm. And, in my experience, living Muslims take a markedly fideist approach to their faith, meaning that they don’t expect that rational evaluation should yield greater insight into its teachings. The Koran should be followed because it is God’s word; to expect more understanding than that is folly and even possibly a sacrilege. Islamic resistance to textual analysis of the Koran is legendary by now. And it's also true that Islam has many, many concrete rules; unlike Christianity, it has little flexibility for adapting to different political systems. Muslims, in my experience, are far more concerned about external action than they are about internal spiritual states. Christian and Jewish attention to virtue seems strange to them.
One Muslim friend actually told me that she found the Christian focus on thought and feeling to be alarming. “I don’t want God looking into my head and heart all the time,” she said. “If I do what I’m instructed to do, that should be enough. My thoughts should be my own.” She was horrified by my admission that evil thoughts might be the sort of thing a Catholic would feel moved to report to her priest in the confessional. I thought that was interestingly revealing of differences between the religiosity of Christians and that of Muslims.
Corresponding to this, Muslims expect to be rewarded or punished for their religious practice in fairly external and obvious ways. Carrots and sticks are very central to the Islamic understanding of obedience and submission to God. So, for example, the pleasures of Islamic heaven seem to be straightforwardly sensual. My Muslim friends were tickled when I told them about the Beatific Vision. “You just get to look at God?” They wanted something a little more tangible, like a harem of virgins.
Islam doesn’t offer many resources for finding redemptive value in poverty or suffering. I actually think that the rage of the present Muslim world is partly related to this defect in Islamic spirituality. Their faith gives them no constructive paradigm through which to view their own material and political struggles. It makes no sense to them that the West should prosper while they, the practitioners of the true faith, languish under poor and corrupt regimes. Some very normal-seeming (which is to say, not visibly crazed or violent) Muslims offered this to me as a rationale for violent jihad. “How could God not enable the true faith to prosper? If only we had the will to fight, God would necessarily hand us the victory.”
This is the picture of Islam that I developed through my years in the Islamic world. Fideist, rule-oriented, and focused on the material advantages that God has promised to those who obey without question. Now, doesn’t this sound like the liberal vision of what religion should be?
Of course, that still doesn’t explain, per se, why liberals love Islam instead of just despising it from top to bottom. I wonder, though, whether the story is something like this: liberals like to think of themselves as the enlightened teachers and leaders of benighted, backwards religious people who cling to their gods and guns as a lifeline in an insufficiently-liberalized world. Christians and Jews keep defying them by proving themselves to be far more rational than the liberal narrative would suggest, and by showing that their religiosity is, contrary to expectation, generous, fruitful and humane. This is maddening, and makes it difficult to bring Christianity and Judaism to heel. But Islam seems to fit the paradigm much better, and, conveniently, there aren’t enough Muslims around (at least in the United States) to burst the liberal bubble when they imagine themselves condescendingly plucking their benighted Muslim brethren out of the muck of their broken undemocratic regimes and their backwards faith.
Is it plausible, or no?