Faith in Democracy: How the debate over religion in the West distorts our understanding of freedom in the Middle East (James W. Ceaser, 11/07/2005, Weekly Standard)

THE STIRRINGS OF A NEW wave of democracy are underway in one of the least probable regions of the world: the Middle East and Central Asia. Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territory, and Lebanon, together with rumblings of liberalization in Egypt, are tangible signs of a growing desire for democratic forms. While the ultimate prospects for success are uncertain–waves of democracy have been partly reversed before–all observers agree that the outcome will hinge in part on meeting the enormous challenges stemming from the interactions of faith and politics. The influence of religion, especially Islam, is considerable throughout the region, and it is impossible to imagine achieving a natural equilibrium between society and government without religion playing some role. Yet Western intellectuals have been strangely inhibited in honestly assessing, or even frankly discussing, the many dimensions of this issue, largely because they have been preoccupied with the role of faith in Western societies and with trying to discredit a growing influence of the religiously minded on American political life. Given all that is at stake in the Middle East, the tangle of this willful confusion deserves a closer look. […]

What passes today for examination of religion in Islamic nations is often little more than a cover for efforts by some to score points for their position in the theoretical dispute about faith in the West. Before we can begin to discuss their religious problem, we must first come to grips with our religious problem.

The Western problem with religion became apparent in the reactions to the events of 9/11. As president of the United States, George Bush had the first crack at framing the meaning of what had happened. To the dismay of many, he immediately opted to characterize the attacks as part of a “war.” But a war against whom or what? Bush sought to delimit the enemy to a group of “terrorists” or “evildoers”–he did not use the term fundamentalists. As the terrorists were all Muslims and explicitly justified their actions in the name of Islam, Bush could not avoid raising the religious question. He took pains, however, to separate the terrorists from the practitioners of the religion as a whole, arguing that the threat came from a “fringe form of Islamic extremism.” “Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith.” Bush characterized the enemy on the basis of its inveterate opposition to a free regime: Our enemies are people “who absolutely hate what America stands for, . . . they hate . . . democratically elected government, . . . they hate our freedoms–our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Bush’s defense of democracy and freedom relied on a universal set of ideas deriving from principles of nature and of religion, the latter expressed in nonsectarian terms: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

A strong reaction against this understanding of the conflict and against Bush’s characterization of the West developed. Although none denied that the terrorists opposed freedom, many claimed that what provoked the Islamic world–and would prevent a long-term solution to the conflict–was America’s own religious fundamentalism. In this view, there was indeed a clash of fundamental values, but it was not at bottom one between liberal democracy and its foes, but rather between two religious fundamentalisms: Christian fundamentalism (American style) and Islamic fundamentalism. While obviously different and conflicting, these two fundamentalisms are in another sense the same. They are both “fundamentalisms.” The most important division in the world today, therefore, is one that cuts right through both Western and Islamic societies. It is the line between those who are religiously fundamentalist and those who are not.

This last view has had widespread support among Europe’s intelligentsia. In a highly publicized account of the post-9/11 world, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that the current international situation is best summed up as “a confrontation between two political theologies.” One is found among those who identify themselves as “Islamic fundamentalists,” the other is localized in America, a nation that, despite a legal separation of church and state, has a religious culture that “relies on a fundamentally biblical (and primarily Christian) . . . discourse of its political leaders.” An equivalency of sorts exists between these two fundamentalisms, captured in the slogan “Bush and Bin Laden.” In neither case do the fundamentalists speak for all of the faithful. Islamic fundamentalists, according to Derrida, do not represent authentic Islam, “any more than all Christians in the world identify with the United States’s fundamentally Christian professions of faith.” The idea of the West as an entity of roughly shared values no longer exists. It has been superceded by the more basic division between fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists, a distinction that places America in one camp along with al Qaeda and Europe in the other camp with certain so-called “moderates.” America’s essence of religious fundamentalism is often captured by the term “Bush,” whose name now designates not so much a person as a worldview alien to Europe. Only this metaphysical use can explain why the American president has become so despised.

The picture of America described by Derrida represents a striking departure from the image that was often purveyed by European intellectuals during the last century, when the stress was placed on America’s relentless and unchecked modernizing impulse. America was decried for its disregard of tradition. America was modernity’s bulldozer, uprooting the past in every realm, from architecture, to gastronomy, to religion. A hundred years ago, Max Weber, in his celebrated work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, characterized modernity as “an iron cage” in which only “the ghost of dead religious beliefs” still lingered. Modernity was governed by a process of “secularization,” under which religion gradually loses its hold on all aspects of society and culture. The nation leading this process, Weber suggested, was America, where “the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions.”

Not all or even most of the European critics of America in the 19th and 20th century were religious, but almost all subscribed to this idea of America as the destroyer of tradition. The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, characterized “Americanism,” by this time an abstract concept, as “the still unfolding and not yet full or completed essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times.” According to Heidegger, Europe (chiefly Germany) was caught in a “great pincer,” squeezed by the modernist ideologies of Americanism and Bolshevism, which, despite their differences, represented from “a metaphysical point of view, the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man.”

In the contemporary European intellectual critique of America, by contrast, the force threatening Europe derives from religion, with the pincer squeezing Europe coming from the two fundamentalisms. Although many European thinkers still take America to task for being too modern in certain realms, the main charge today is that America is not modern enough–that it adheres to an anachronistic concept of the nation, that it still expresses a belief in a principle of natural rights, and that it is not embarrassed to rely on religion. Meanwhile, European culture and politics have moved on to embrace a post-religious ethos, in which even the slightest mention of the Almighty in an official public address is seen as fatally compromising the practice of true democratic politics. Modern philosophers see this post-religious ethos as the core of a new third force in the world, which alone is consistent with promoting democracy. This time, Europe has much more confidence that it is leading the way to the future.

This change in European thought would seem at first glance to place Europe, not America, in the position of uprooting tradition by breaking with a major part of the West’s heritage. Remarkably, however, Western European thinkers present this shift not as a break or discontinuity, but as an organic fulfillment of tradition. Derrida’s own philosophical school of deconstructionism, which once prided itself on being the intellectual enfant terrible that challenged the Enlightenment, has now settled into a comfortable middle age of bourgeois orthodoxy by achieving, in Derrida’s words, the Enlightenment’s “absolutely original mark with regard to religious doctrine,” namely a political system and public culture in which religion plays no role.

This analysis of the current difference between America and Europe curiously parallels a similar description by Alexis de Tocqueville of the situation in the 18th century. Tocqueville sought to explain how at that time “irreligion” became “the dominant and general passion” among intellectuals in France, though not yet among the public. He attributed the development to the influence of Enlightenment philosophers. But Tocqueville made clear that this was not the only path the Enlightenment might follow. He sketched an alternative, a second version of the Enlightenment, found in America, in which “the spirit of religion” was joined with “the spirit of freedom.” America’s religiosity was exceptional, but its exceptionalism offered a model worthy of consideration in promoting liberal democracy. For Derrida, American exceptionalism is a nightmare and a grave threat to democratic prospects.

From the thesis of the two fundamentalisms has come a general theory of how to approach the problems of the post-9/11 world. If there is to be reconciliation between Islamic societies and the West, it lies with the model discovered by the post-religious nations; any constructive dialogue must take place with the West’s de-fundamentalized part, Europe. The two fundamentalisms only provoke one another, clashing as ignorant armies on a darkling plain. Post-religious nations also hold the key to promoting democracy. Democracy will never be spread if it is proclaimed, as America tries to do, on the basis of a universal standard, which is only another manifestation of American religious fundamentalism. According to Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s most important contemporary philosopher, the promotion of democracy must rely on a different kind of “universalism,” embodied in contemporary European philosophy, that is predicated “on an equality that demands . . . one step outside of one’s own viewpoint in order to put it into relationship with the viewpoints adopted by another, which are to be regarded as equal.” Other cultures must evolve to join this new universalism under Europe’s patient tutelage.

Pierre Rosanvallon, one of France’s most prominent social scientists, has carried Habermas’s doctrine a step further, distinguishing between America’s “dogmatic universalism,” which is “characterized by an intolerable arrogance that is only made more so by its spontaneous naiveté,” and Europe’s pragmatic or “experimental universalism,” which makes no kind of absolute claims.

Europe’s secular

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