Dialogue, Politics, and the Muslim World

The wisest possible ordering of society is revealed not in sacred books, but in free and open dialogue of committed citizens.

The Muslim world has historically been subject to movements of both reform and renewal. Only the most shallow reading of its history could maintain that social, economic, and political structures haven’t changed, and along with them the way in which Muslims imagine what it means to be a Muslim in a Muslim world.

Yet Muslims, and indeed all peoples, respond to the challenges of their situation within what Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary,” the range of possible social structures that the members of a society can imagine. Even in the Christian West the social imaginary of different societies (England and France for example) were strikingly different in the 18th and 19th centuries. The development of modern democratic societies thus took place at both a different pace, in remain characterized by different institutional forms and different ways in which the citizens of these countries relate to those institutions.

The Muslim world is not only as varied as Europe was in the 18th century, but the social imaginaries found within it vary considerably from those present in the modern West. And the place where they vary most is in the concept of personal choice in relation to religiously motivated participation in public life.

Taylor points out that the “public sphere” in the modern Western social imaginary is the place where a vast variety of different opinions and viewpoints engage in discussion of social issues. In the western social imaginary what emerges from this discussion will be the most rational and representative choices for the society as a whole. And these will be legitimate precisely because of the mechanism (public discourse) out of which they arose.

For this social imaginary to have arisen at least three socially shared convictions need to emerge.

The first is that the deepest and most important religious convictions are both a privilege and a burden belonging to the individual alone. Religious convictions need not be expressed in the ordering of society for the individual to be fully his or her religious self.

Secondly the will of God for human societies must be understood to be fully public, observable by any reasonable person regardless of religious convictions.

And third and following from this, no religious community should have a monopoly on the relationship of religious truth to public life. The public sphere should possess a variety of religious opinions including the option of no religion, and no one of them should monopolize public decision making.

This social imaginary does not appear to exist in most of the Muslim world, just as it didn’t exist in the pre-modern Christian West and does not exist in much of the world outside the north Atlantic nations. The vast majority of Muslims cannot imagine that either being Muslim, or being a member of a particular Muslim sect is a matter of personal choice with primarily individual consequences. One’s sectarian affinity is part of one’s primal identity, an identity into which one is born and from which one cannot escape. It binds one fundamentally and irrevocably to others, and is the primary source of one’s social identity.

Nor can most Muslims imagine that God’s will can be adequately known for the purpose of ordering society without reference to the revelation that is particular to and definitive of their religion.

Nor finally can most Muslims imagine a social world organized on the basis of a public discussion that regards all religious views as possessing an equal right to participate. For most Muslims it is self-evident that Islam, or their version of Islam, should have a privileged place in the public sphere since it is the sole complete representative of the will of God.

Understanding this will help us better understand groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Qaeda or Hezbollah or even Turkey’s Justice and Development Party better. These parties are not problematic because they represent particular policies and behaviors that their rivals or victims dislike. That is true of all modern political parties and movements.

The problem with each of these is that it doesn’t imagine itself as one among many choices for Muslims and non-Muslims. It imagines itself as the sole truly Islamic choice, and indeed the sole legitimate ordering power in human society. Put another way, it appears that these groups can ultimately only imagine a single-party Muslim state. That each of these may be forced temporarily to “share power,” whether with other Muslim parties or with non-religious political parties is simply a pragmatic arrangement, not a commitment to pluralist democracy in which all voices always have equal access to the public square.

But these parties and movements by no means represent all Muslims, or even a majority of Muslims. We do find among many Muslims, and even broadly in some Muslim societies, a recognition that a religiously plural society cannot be governed effectively if one particular religion or sect has a privileged place in public discourse. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey (as well as countries with Muslim minorities) are laboratories where the chemistry of this modern idea in political life is being vigorously, even explosively, explored. Popular Muslim writers and speakers like Tariq Ramadan have forcefully asserted the need for a modern Muslim understanding of the relationship of religion to public discourse and the ordering of modern societies.

This is a great challenge for inter-religious dialogue in existing pluralist democracies. What is at stake in our dialogue is not just achieving mutual understanding of sometimes starkly different beliefs. It is also coming to some consensus about the basis on which our future as pluralist democracies can unfold. It is a dialogue in the midst of different social imaginaries about a shared social imaginary.

Modern democracy is not by any means simply a commitment to abide by the will of the majority and respect the rights of minorities. It depends on a commitment by all participants to always allow all voices an equal place in public discourse on the fundamental assumption that the wisest possible ordering of society is revealed not in sacred books, but in free and open dialogue of committed citizens.


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