Speaking of Islam

Modern liberalism emerged out of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Seeking to remove sectarian religious differences from the political process, political philosophers advocated the subordination of religion and the recognition of the rights of the individual, foremost among them the rights of speech and conscience. One can see something of the handiwork of these philosophers in the Constitution and in the debates underlying its ratification. Harry Jaffa provides an extremely abbreviated lesson in the fundamentals here, including this observation:

The dominant forms of political life throughout the Middle East are, with only one exception, as barbaric as those of Europe during the wars of religion. Only a despotism, as benign as we can find, and one that can begin turning people away from sectarian fanaticism, will answer our purpose. Otherwise, they will have to fight it out among themselves, as we did.

But what happens when “they” are here? In “Speaking of Islam” in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Lee Harris considers the conundrum created by fundamentalist Muslims in Western society. Harris writes: “[W]hen it comes to speaking of Islam, there is troubling evidence that our cherished liberty of discussion may not be compatible with security of life and limb, not to mention the security of property.” One example that Harris cites is the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. (In an act of solidarity unmentioned by Harris, the Weekly Standard republished the cartoons.)
This is the context in which Harris places his consideration of the Canadian human rights proceedings against Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn. How, Harris asks, will Western societies handle grievances adduced by Muslims who reject the ideological underpinnings of Western society? Of Muslims who reject the liberal resolution of the religious wars? Harris essentially argues that something’s got to give. Unfortunately, Harris excludes the possibility that Islam might have to give, or to argue that Islam should give. Harris concludes:

[I]f enough Muslims continue to react with violence to criticism of their religion and culture, all the other nations of the West will eventually be forced to make a tragic choice between two of our highest values. Either we must clamp down on critics of Islam, mandating a uniform code of political correctness, or else we must let the critics say what they wish, regardless of the consequences, and in full knowledge that these consequences may include the death of innocents. This is not a choice that the West has had to face since the end of our own furor theologicus several centuries ago, but, like it or not, it is the choice that we are facing again today.

I reject the constrained choices presented by Harris, but he has put his finger on an “internal contradition” that is more real than any identified by Marx.


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