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How to Speak Politically About Religion

By Pierre Manent

Are Christendom and Islam at War?

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He who dares not stare fixedly at the two poles of human life,
religion and government, is but a coward
.
—Voltaire
How does one talk about religion politically? How does one discuss it objectively? We citizens of advanced Western democracies define ourselves by two ideals: The practical ideal of sincerity and the theoretical ideal of objectivity. This is the point of departure for the Western approach to religion: We seek the subjective in internal feelings, and we verify their presence with objective signs such as participation in rites. We can measure, for example, the importance of the Catholic Church in a country by the number of worshippers who attend mass regularly. “Calculators, it is left for you to count, to measure, to compare.”
‘‘Counting,” however, is insufficient, because while some see multiplying signs of decline, even an end of religion, others will discern signs of a return to religion. I do not presume to settle an argument in which all the terms, even religion itself, are the subject of fascinating but interminable debate. I only wish to observe that the way the question is asked renders it only more opaque and insoluble. As we aspire to an objective understanding of religion, it is our fate, I fear, to obey subjectivity.
If we seek objective proof of a subjective feeling, we are on a fool’s errand. What can be the objective sign of something which is, by definition, impossible to view objectively? How is it possible to believe in something that even by our own admission we cannot understand? Thus we have to seek the objectivity of religion somewhere other than in its very objectivity. Religion is rendered objective for us only as a political fact.
It is only by this light that I am able to beat a path to the question at hand. If it were just a matter of tallying the advocates of the end of religion against those of its revival, and judging which of them offers the most likely thesis, I would not find it difficult to decide in favor of the former, at least concerning Europe. Whoever has noted the consistently meager turnout for services at St. Paul’s Cathedral or the Cathedral of Marseille will hesitate before talking about “Christian Europe.” But we should remove ourselves from the churches and turn to face the world to consider, in the words of Montesquieu, “the present configuration of things.” 

How can we not see that today’s world organizes itself according to political polarities that reflect a religious divide? There is surely a conflict, if not a war, between the “Christian West” and Islam. There is surely a war, or several wars, confronting Israel. Isn’t there even an increasingly visible split between Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Catholics? To each spiritual mass one can of course assign non-religious definitions; to see only trickery and artifice in the religiosity of President Bush, to remind oneself that Zionism was originally a political and secular movement, to note that Islamists have a political agenda as much as a religious one, and so on. It is touching to see the extent to which solidly atheist observers and experts fret about the religious sincerity of the object of their expertise. Never was an inquisitor so rigorous as on this point! But all this, true or false, is beside the point. Sincerity is indeterminate as it has always been. And the distinction between what is political and what is purely religious is intrinsically fluid, since the political and the religious always and necessarily overlap. Does one imagine that King David had fewer political concerns than David Ben-Gurion or Ariel Sharon? Therefore I think it is reasonable-and scientific-to observe the worldwide drama as it unfolds before our eyes. It surely tells us something. Does the present configuration of things contradict what the doctrine of progress of the human spirit, whether in its liberal or socialist variant, had given us to expect? Let us for once believe our eyes.
The reticence to admit the religious nature of the present conflicts often derives from a fear of transforming them into inexpiable wars of religion, a truly terrifying prospect. The American general who publicly declared, “We are at war with Islam, which is a bad religion,” was fully deserving of a dismissal he did not receive. Here, the obligation to act in a responsible manner—so as not to inflame passions—does not diminish the other obligation, to try to understand what is going on. And if it were true that “We are at war with Islam,” it would be of the highest importance to know it, not only in order to win this war, but also in order to prepare seriously for the peace. I do not believe that we are at war with Islam, but I force myself to be of such a mind that I do not prevent myself from recognizing it, should it happen to be the case.
 
If we are not at war with Islam, if it is important to avoid talking about a war of civilizations, it is primarily because civilizations do not go to war with each other. This sad privilege is reserved for political bodies. And Islam’s problem is that it has not found its political form. I do not intend to offer here a thesis about Islam, for I am not qualified to do so, but only to recall a few salient facts.
A number of Europeans or Westerners, with the best of intentions, urgently advise Muslims to reform their religion, or more precisely, to carry through with religious, social, and political reforms that will allow them finally to participate fully in the world community. This advice is second nature to us because Europe has a particularly long and rich experience of profound transformations. I have already noted that this is a very special virtue of “the time of nations.” In particular the “nationalization” of Christianity after the Reformation has sheltered its “subjectivization.” As Hegel wrote, “Luther could not have accomplished his reformation without translating the Bible into German.” The capacity to be open to change and the desire to embrace the religious substance of life depend on one another. This desire is sustained by the confidence we have in our ability to maintain our personal identity despite all the changes surrounding us. Is this trait unique to “Christian Europe”?
According to Islam’s own tenets, monotheistic revelation is restricted to one definitive gospel, received and transmitted in its entirety by Mohammed. Divine law is immediately positive and self-evidently rational. Its implementation achieves the umma, or Islamic utopia, a community of equals in which there is no spiritual authority. Rather, there are only imams to direct prayer and Islamic jurists to interpret the law. Islam ignores the distinction, which belongs only to the Christian world, between the visible church and the invisible church, and thus does not observe a separation between the institutional and the spiritual. Islam is, so to say, complete in its exterior and objective brand. Evidently this absence of internal division between temporal and spiritual, visible and invisible, is a principle of great strength. Another principle of strength and objectivity is the relationship between Islam and territory; all conquered land where sharia is applied becomes Muslim, part of the “realm of Islam,” which is supposed to be geographically contiguous. Outside this region is the “realm of war,” a land where jihad and conversion are legitimate and even required.
This brief summary suffices for what I have to say. If we are looking to characterize Islam as a political form, we would have to say that it is an empire, or that it belongs to the species of empire. This conclusion, highly important despite its simplicity, does not sufficiently explain the political nature of Islam. If one can recognize the form or imprint of the empire, one cannot say that there is a political regime that characterizes Islam. What comes close to it in the majority Sunni Islam is what one calls the Utopia of Medina, the perfect political order realized in Medina from 622 to 632 when the prophet became legislator, chief of the city, and chief of war. Although this is an unattainable model, it whets the imagination. But in practice, power reverts to the caliph, a civil personage who in principle belongs to the tribe of the prophet, and who must preserve the religious foundation of the social order, sharia law, and would aim to achieve consensus through consultation. The caliphate is such a nebulous political formula—the word “regime” is not appropriate—that Muslim political life is witness to a particularly marked divide between the legitimate and the necessary: While waiting for the emergence of an impossibly perfect model, one makes do with a political life that is a far cry from the law. In this, one is able to see one of the primary reasons for Islam’s difficulty in effectively practicing democracy: On the one hand the law which cannot be disputed excludes or severely limits many of the personal freedoms that democracy demands, and on the other, the vast latitude in the behavior of political and religious rulers is incompatible with the rule of law that is a requirement of democracy. This is a debilitating chasm from which Islam is having some difficulty extricating itself.

The political form of Islam is therefore empire, of which the last realization was the Ottoman Empire. Until 1924, Muslims always thought there were successors to the prophet. But on March 3, 1924, Mustafa Kamal abolished the caliphate, and since then Islam has been an empire without an emperor.
The empire is a typical form of the ancient polity. One could say that becoming politically modern is to find an alternative to empire. What characterizes the political development of Europeans is their effort to govern themselves while at the same time consciously distancing themselves from two historical empires-the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church since it first adopted the imperial form. And at the end of the process, they have become Christian nations. The political form changed definition, from empire to nation, and the religious form, which had been substance or substantive, became attribute or adjective.
It would be beyond my purview to explore further the significance of this immense transformation. It suffices to remark that Islam has not known such a transformation or anything like it. This accounts for the political infecundity of the belated national movements in Islamic lands, and for the recourse to the idea of the Arab nation, which precisely designates what is lacking. We are thus in the presence of a gigantic imperial imprint without an emperor in a vast, geographically sensitive area without coherent internal articulation. This region is convulsed by waves of mobilization, sometimes nationalist and sometimes fundamentalist, which are feverish calls launched towards the form that is lacking, or which is unable to actualize itself, toward the nation or the empire. The Muslim body therefore possesses at one and the same time enormous strength in its numbers and extensiveness, and also, due to the stability and the objectivity of its religion, enormous weakness in the absence, so far insurmountable, of an effective political form that would extend the teachings of the prophet, and enable it—in a manner both transforming and faithful—to embrace the new world.
(c) Odile Jacob, 1998
 
Pierre Manent teaches political philosophy at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and is the author most recently of A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State (Princeton, 2006). His last essay in Azure was “Autumn of Nations” (Azure 16, Winter 2004). A version of this essay appeared in the French journal Commentaire.
 
 

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