Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Serious reading on Islam and the democratic left

The magazine/website Reset: Dialogues on Civilization has a most interesting exchange of views between Nadia Urbinati and Michael Walzer on what approach the democratic left should take toward Islam. Four letter essays by Urbinati urging dialogue and three by Walzer saying there are limits to dialogue. Read them here. Warning these are not the easiest reading, but well worthwhile.

Here's a paragraph by Walzer that I like (from this essay.)

So, where does this leave us in the 21st century? What should Western leftists be doing with regard to Islam today? We should be strong critics of jihadist radicalism—and since we are, most of us, infidels and secularists, we are bound to be disconnected critics, focused on issues like life and liberty, which have universal resonance. We should befriend Muslim critics of religious zealotry, both inside Muslim countries and in exile, and try to understand the reasons for their critique and the experience out of which it comes. We should be happy to talk to Islamic intellectuals and academics—though we are not bound to “dialogue” with people whose public position is that we should be killed (or who make apologies for the zealots who hold that position). We should be tolerant of Islam in exactly the same way that we are tolerant of Christianity and Judaism—even as we maintain a general critique of, or skepticism about, religious belief. We should be connected critics of Western intellectuals who make excuses for religious zealotry and crusading fervor (Paul Berman provides an excellent model of how to engage in this critique). And we should defend leftist principles of democracy and equality on every possible occasion. Of course, we should also try to understand the material conditions of democratic politics, as Nadia urges, but we should not neglect the importance of polemical engagements with the defenders of oligarchy and clericalism. Democracy in Europe depended on engagements of that sort, and so does democracy in the world today. I don’t see anything intolerant or Manichean in this political position.
I have two reservations about the dialogue. First, it is a dialogue about a dialogue between Islam and the left. Urbinati, in particular, seems more concerned with the attitude that the left should have towards Islam, rather than actually beginning a dialogue. An example of one side of a real dialogue between liberal, Western values is Andrew F. March's, "Reading Tariq Ramadan: Political Liberalism, Islam, and 'Overlapping Consensus'".

A second reservation is that both Walzer and Urbinati draw a line between jihadi terrorists and the rest of Islam without confronting the pervasive and deeply-rooted opposition in Islamic theology and society to elementary rights of free citizens. The International Humanist and Ethical Union recounts the latest attacks on human rights by the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the UN.

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