Islam and democracy: the crucial questions

At a recent conference on Islam and democracy, I was privileged to meet several of the brightest Muslim scholars in America — some native-born, some immigrants, all committed to developing an Islamic case for religious tolerance as a building block of civil society and democracy. My colleagues were also men and women of courage.

One woman had fled Iraq during the 1991 post-war persecution of the Shiites and was now active in shaping the post-Saddam future of her native country. Others had been under pressure here in the United States. One law professor’s UCLA faculty office had been ransacked by Islamist radicals. Others, teaching at upscale colleges, had had their credentials as Muslims challenged by students religiously formed (and malformed) in radical Islamist academies (here, not in Afghanistan). One specialist on Islamic just war theory explained that he had been expelled from the Muslim student association at Harvard during his graduate studies because his girlfriend (now his wife), another devout Muslim, wanted to join the discussions.

The aggressive intolerance fostered by the Saudi-based and Saudi-funded Wahhabi form of Islam now touches many of the complex worlds of Islam in the United States. There are things that can and cannot be done about this. That Wahhabi literature is frequently the only Islamic religious literature available in prisons is a problem that can be addressed; ditto for the dissemination of Wahhabi tracts in the armed forces. Christian and Jewish groups should not form interfaith alliances with Islamic groups that have not put theological, political, and financial distance between themselves and the Wahhabi network. The United States government must re-examine its blind-eye approach to the Saudi regime’s support for the international Wahhabi apparatus.

Still, over the long haul, the millenarian allure of Wahhabi Islam may best be countered by developing a more compelling Islamic argument for the free, prosperous, and virtuous society. What are the key questions on that front?

Princeton’s Bernard Lewis makes an important point when he notes that Muhammad was his own Constantine: Muhammad was both prophet and prince. Christianity, by contrast, emerged in the midst of another polity. So the early Christians had to develop a Christian understanding of the Roman Empire, meaning a Christian understanding of temporal authority and a Christian understanding of the difference between society and the state. In Islam’s formative period, however, an energetic religion convinced that it was the bearer of God’s final revelation had no experience of a “polity” of which it was one “part” — the religious community and the political community were one and the same. So Islam did not have to develop an idea of “polity” or “politics” in that crucial period of its existence, a period many Muslims now revere and imagine to be the Islamic ideal of the way things ought to be.

It’s often said that the crucial question for Islam in its relationship to democracy is whether Muslims can articulate, from within their religious and legal traditions, a persuasive Islamic case for religious toleration, and thus for pluralism. Muslims who wish to be democrats should not have to become Enlightenment liberals in the process, relegating religious conviction to the private world. The issue is whether faithful Muslims can construct a genuinely Islamic argument for this proposition: “It is the will of God that we be tolerant of those who hold different views about what constitutes the will of God.”

That would be an important development, which the Catholic dialogue with Islam should deliberately try to nurture. (Catholics, after all, took rather a long time to evolve a Catholic case for religious freedom, and there may be something our Muslim colleagues can learn from this experience). But I’m now wondering if, parallel to this development, another question has to be pressed: can Muslims make an Islamic case for politics, for the independent integrity of the political community, for a distinction between “society” and “polity” (or “state”)?

According to the Second Vatican Council, “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system.” Could Islamic religious authorities persuasively affirm something similar? A lot of 21st century history will turn on the answer to that question.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.