Contemporary discussions on Islam and the West, are usually made in the service of dismantling any supposed distinction that would be useful to make between these terms. They are vague, often ill-defined and used to construct harmful political narratives that Muslims are some alien force attempting to destroy all that is democratic and free in todays world. Huntington’s 1990’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis receives particular attention as reflective of this dangerous tendency, to otherize or to make alien entire groups of people with specific beliefs as this is divisive and generalizes these groups. However, what follows from this are political sentiments that are more difficult to justify and equally disturbing, namely, What Byung Chul Han refers to as “the terror of the same”. In collapsing these categories as many opponents of the clash of civilization narratives do, either by deconstructing the use of the terms “Islam” and “The West” or by positing that there are no meaningful differences between these ideals anyway, we create a new set of political challenges in regards to fundamentally understanding pluralistic relationships between people who adhere to an Islamic faith and those who do not. Today Islam is seen through this lens of sameness or homogenization. When a Muslim speaks of something such as prayer for example, we immediately link this to meditation or yoga. Statements such as “yeah everyone needs to meditate honestly. Very good to destress” are common. Even more bizarre are when these religious edicts are related to a modern scientific rationality which is meant to justify them – for example if a Muslim fasts in Ramadaan, it is common to hear “yes science has proven that intermittent fasting is so good for you, I should really detox just like you guys are”. What was once considered a kind of religious and God-conscious ritual, is now understood in relationship solely to its non-religious aspects. We lose even the ability to maintain a kind of fetishistic fascination towards it, let alone some form of respect. The collapse of the binary opposition between “Islam” and “The West” is useful therefore in one sense for illustrating that these terms are themselves complicated and not easy to generalize, however simultaneously prevents us from forming independent ethical spaces from which Muslims can conscientiously practice their religion outside of a totalizing ethical paradigm. Most Muslims consciously understand themselves as different both to non-Muslims and to Westerners, and fundamentally we must retain a sense of negativity or otherness, not just in Islam, but any ethical tradition that seeks to escape the “terror of the same”, totalizing narratives which undermine our ability to maintain independent ethical worldviews. Beyond this, I claim Islam is fundamentally at odds with the modern world as we experience it today, in the paradigmatic triptych of secularism, scientism, and capitalism – and to collapse the binary opposition between Islam and the West does not give us license then to assume complete commensurability between what are still varying and complex ethical paradigms. Thereby we must also analyze the limitations of liberal universalism and consider the necessity of adopting a value-pluralist conception of political difference – which allows for the existence of independent ethical value formulations which allow for negativity to exist. Finally, the question of otherness is crucial, in that it allows for what Han refers to as the “politics of beauty” where a variety of ethical precepts we already find valuable can exist only in relation to this negativity.
Initially, the deconstruction of the terms “Islam” and “The West” appears to be a useful genealogy of terms that appear to structure violent foreign policy or general misunderstandings about some supposed essential difference. Indeed there is already intertwined into the history of the West, the Islamic encounter – the Muslim presence in Spain geographically and the massive intellectual influence Muslims have had on phenomena such as the renaissance already illustrate that such a supposed binary in its crude form is unhelpful and incorrect, as these terms intersubjectively constitute one another. Paradoxically however, Derrida mentions how deconstruction is a process of both questioning, and yet maintaining often the necessity of a concept. It involves often a determined effort to maintain “the survival of those concepts that one is in the process of questioning” (Cherif,53). As in not just the survival of the terms, but a remaining insight into why they had been opposed in that fashion to begin with, and what it would mean to engage in a deconstruction. In collapsing distinctions regarding the “West” into the American West vs European West for example that have different characteristics, and “Islam” into the variety of contexts that can be considered Islamic, such as the Middle-East, South Asia, South-east Asia etc. We provide the useful tool of deconstructing certain binary oppositions that orientalists may find essential to these concepts, as unchangeable and static essences which can never be reconciled. However, simultaneously we cannot then throw these concepts together – there remains a fundamental distance between even an indigenous understanding of what it means to be Islamic as opposed to Western, although these concepts are in flux. For example, can Islam be integrated into the triptych formula that Cherif offers that for him categorizes the modern? Namely the tripartite combination of secularism, scientism, and capitalism (Cherif, 49) which according to Cherif have caused the mass alienation and conflicts characterizing modern society. By this we mean the regulation and removal of Islam from public life and all religion from public life under the name of secularism, as France is attempting to do for example, the scientism of assuming that only scientific inquiry provides acceptable knowledge about the world and must be the only epistemological framework we consider in any given public discourse (as opposed to say even moral philosophies), and finally a strong commitment to global capitalism in all its forms which often contradict the spiritual ethic of Islam. Cherif and Derrida both support secularization, as a process and ideal, but in direct contrast to a kind of violent attack on religion in the public space – again which in our current contemporary context such as in France is justified more and more in relation to something like secularism.
Islam, it seems according to both thinkers cannot easily be integrated into these categories without seriously reconsidering them. Although Islam can be for them secular, scientific, and universal it cannot be in the violent state-enforced removal of public religious imagery, the scientism which assumes the inability of any other attempt at understand the world and social life, and finally a globalizing capitalism which seeks everywhere to create markets and commodification as opposed to pursuing some higher moral ideal. In all these cases, what is Islamic cannot be easily mapped onto what is “modern” or “Western” in the way that a deconstruction of the initial binary between Islam and the West would lead us to think. There is one more fundamental difference between Islam and a more contemporary neoliberal global system that must be referenced as well – the inability of something like neoliberal market rationality to encompass religious ethics and decision-making. Wendy Brown mentions in regards to the political rationality of neoliberal governance, borrowing from Foucault, that neoliberalism is not solely some abstract set of policies implemented in the economic sphere. Rather as Foucault says, modern norms of governance seek to construct the “conduct of our conduct” (Li, 1) – we are taught to behave in certain fashions, while experiencing this as a form of free expression, that is in reality according to the precepts of governing rationalities. Since it is difficult to explicitly regulate large populations down to the most minute details, governmentality relies on a kind of public culture or education towards certain goals, behaviours, and ideas which are beyond the uniform realm of a given regime or state apparatus exerting power but exist dispersed throughout different contexts and discursive spaces (Li, 2). We orient ourselves around certain values in the neoliberal era which require a kind of implicit and often unconscious self-policing and regulation. The state does not engage us in a kind of explicit repressive fashion because neoliberal governance occurs through norms which we ourselves integrate into our relation with the world – by this I mean that the whole of lived experience is governed by market rationality which we ourselves are the agents of. It is this inability to escape the political rationality of neoliberalism, that equally replaces the ability to meaningfully relate to religion. Religion is not one of the rationalities by which we make sense of the world – instead religious experience comes into a direct conflict with a market rationality that at every point attempts to make certain cost-benefit analyses of everything from ubiquitous questions on why we dress a certain way to more fundamental questions such as why do have human relationships at all.
This in my view directly contradicts religious rulings and precepts which at many points seek to escape rationality altogether – take the famous Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him “Charity does not decrease wealth, no one forgives another but that Allah increases his honor, and no one humbles himself for the sake of Allah but that Allah raises his status.” This is a transactional relationship that could be considered at the outset neoliberal for the one who believes in the divine recompense. Sure they are giving, but it is because they believe they will receive divine recompense. This reading from the neoliberal market rationality is aided by certain conceptions of Islamic ethics which seek to maximize their relationship to modern values. For example, I read an interesting journal article which mentioned that this exact Hadith on charity speaks to self satisfaction, psychological comfort, blessings from God, and most importantly the joy of giving itself (Baqutayan, 88-92). This seems almost perverse however. We seem to be giving, only in that we will receive in return something greater. Even our interpretation of religious edicts seem to be limited to this kind of transactional relationship – which escapes a kind of larger question on why we have human relationships to begin with. Ethically it seems untenable for example that our relationships with our loved ones are transactional – a kind of unfeeling commitment to someone only in relation to the good it brings back. However, we see that our contemporary relationships do tend to be transactionally related in this fashion. Take something like Tinder for example – the entire idea being that one can have casual no-strings attached relationships without the need for strong commitment. It is pleasure without risk – you organize entirely what you want from the relationship, namely sexual pleasure, without any of the resulting pains and risks associated with something like love. As Badiou mentions, we remove from love its otherness and alterity, we reduce it to a kind of error or risk we rather not engage in. For Badiou however, it is this chance, this ability to engage in “the event” which itself creates the possibility for difference and authenticity. Badiou says “Provided it isn’t conceived only as an exchange of mutual favours, or isn’t calculated way in advance as a profitable investment, love really is a unique trust placed in chance.” (Badiou, 17). More fundamentally this risk, this element of non-transactionality allows for experiencing the world from the perspective of difference (Badiou, 17) an alterity which cannot be found in transactional logic, due to the inherent risk of the proposition.
It is not surprising then, how often in modern culture you see this kind of escape from love, itself as a transactional instance. I have too much work to do, I am busy all the time and stressed, being in love is time-consuming, expensive, painful, I much rather just not do it to begin with. Whatever emotional responses or relationships I have will only be those that I carefully curate myself with no essence of spontaneity – I will swipe left and right on all the relationships and events in my life, to escape this anxiety of risk. To return to the edict on charity, this exact neoliberal transactional logic seems to be occurring here as well – not only do you gain something from engaging in charity but equally you save yourself from risk to a great degree. You are guaranteed some sort of return on investment, and thereby you give charity under the assumption that you will be returned on investment. But, fundamentally I disagree with this interpretation of the Islamic ethic. Although, returns on investment are a common and fruitful idea in Islamic thought, so too is the idea of a love that transcends, as Badiou says, beyond the exchange of mutual favours. The Muslim saint Rabi’a Basri, renowned for her contributions both to the Sufi ethical tradition in Islam, and her poetry enjoyed by all Muslims, intuitively understood the revulsion towards something like the neoliberal rationality. Thereby, it is not necessarily new, the idea of a transactional logic, only that today this transactional logic encompasses a kind of unconscious governing of the self through certain norms and values that we take to be “common sense”. Instead of just some individual flaw in a given individual it exists as a kind of governing logic each individual exemplifies through a process of governmentality, generalized throughout society. In her poem, “Oh my Lord” Rabi’a offers two possible scenarios through which she would desire punishment from God, specifically due to them characterizing this logic. The first, if she worshiped Him out of fear of hellfire, in which case He should burn her in hell. The second, if she should worship Him out of hope for paradise, then He should bar her from its gates. Rather, only and only if she worships God out of love for God then she requests He grant her the beauty of His face (Rabi’a, lines 1-7). The first two propositions occur almost as demands, while the final one is a request – to grant. Demands cannot be made on the lover, the way they can be stipulated in a contract, they are requested. It is this kind of suprarational logic that escapes the market rationality Muslims are offered today in the globalizing regimes of neoliberalism. And it is this exact difference, the inability of the sentiment Rabi’a has said here to be integrated into a market rationality, that characterizes the difficulty in assuming that simply by refuting the crude binary forwarded by orientalists and fundamentalists, we can somehow escape the difficult questions of otherness altogether.
Although it is true you are religiously rewarded for charity, imagine if instead of some material benefit in this world, or even the promise of a heavenly abode, you are given only the pleasure of God. It is likely then that less people would be charitable as it removed an important material incentive which promotes righteous action – the Hadith engaging in this practicality functions on two levels then. There is the material incentive for which some people will be charitable, as not everyone can be Rabi’a, and there will also be the generalization of charity which is beneficial for society. However, equally there is the lover’s incentive, the incentive of servitude towards the beloved that escapes market rationality, even if we could rationalize it in some other sense. Interestingly the last two points of the Hadith mention two direct acts by God, the increase of honour and the raising of status. These are two acts which don’t necessarily confer material or even worldly benefits onto a person – this honour and status could solely be that which is for the hereafter, or that which the lover retains for the beloved. The rationality escapes a worldliness or relation to immediate cognizance. What is that honor or status for – and if it is its own reward, is it necessarily in lieu of some other reward, or is the idea of being honored in Gods eyes to begin with the ultimate goal, regardless of whether this results in some further benefit? This ethical question is one of importance here, namely that it is difficult to make sense of spiritual decisions through market rationality.
Attar in his seminal work “The Conference of the Birds” offers us a character emblematic of this problem. The peacock once an inhabitant of the garden always longs to return to the physical space of the garden itself. He engages in all his actions with this kind of rationality in mind, a cost benefit analysis of whether this will further aid him in his goal towards heaven, and thereby ignores the spiritual ethic of that which would bring him closer to God for the sake of God, and not some external context (Zargar, 247). We can see thereby that what is imperative to a moral question of heaven and hell isn’t solely the physical context of bliss as opposed to suffering – but the pleasure of the lover as opposed to the displeasure. The reward of heaven is that you are aware you have pleased God, and the punishment of hell is knowing you have displeased Him. There is no exchange of mutual favours such that by loving Him for example you gain heaven. The love is itself the purpose above pleasure and pain entirely. One could argue that love itself is a form of pleasure and therefore even this is a result of self-interest. However, it is a different kind of self-interest than the previous one. Because self-interest here is also conceived of as a multiplicity – the seeing from the perspective of two as opposed to one, a kind of self-interest beyond the self (Badiou, 23). The happiness of the lover is already fully integrated into the immediate idea of “self-interest” such that it exists simultaneously as self-interest, and other-interest. Can this kind of ethic be integrated into firstly a neoliberal rationality which seeks to impose certain economistic values into every aspect of lived experience, and the secondly a regime of subtle governance through norms of physical and psychosocial self-regulation that make it inescapable? It may be coopted successfully, but this ethic cannot authentically function under the ethical values offered to us in the form of neoliberal rationality, which we are unaware of as they are constructed as a discourse of common sense and intuition.
Thereby, this fundamental distance between Islam and the triptych mentioned earlier of secularism, scientism, and capitalism cannot be overcome by collapsing these categories of otherness. To do so would be to essentially remove the possibility of even responding to the totalization of these norms and values to begin with. Especially since there are not explicitly state process’ carried out to violently force us to adhere to these norms it becomes even more difficult to oppose them through a politics that is centered solely on sameness, homogeneity, and ironically inclusion. We construct what Han refers to as a “same Other” (Han, 21).
That other who has easily assimilable differences, which can be superficially magnified for discussions on diversity and its commodification, and yet remains fundamentally tied to the same value and belief systems as everyone else. The other is stripped of any possibility for difference and integrated into the same. Thereby we are also removed of the possibility for alternative centers of knowledge and experience – the triptych of secularism, scientism, and capitalism continue to function unimpeded as we homogenize everything that attempts to defy into the same. Diversity itself becomes the cudgel with which we homogenize all difference, all of life itself. It is not enough to say “Muslims are just like us”, a common phrase in todays political environment in attempting to “normalize” Muslims against hostile social, cultural, and political forces. But this response itself misses something fundamentally unethical about the proposition – it would not matter even if they were not like us. The Muslim cannot be reduced solely to whatever is already normative or totalizing and thereby integrated more smoothly into Western society. Muslims cannot be seamlessly integrated into the secular, if this means the often violent regulation or public degradation of religious life as happens today in France or happened historically in Iran under the Shah. Neither can they agree to a crude scientism which does not allow for alternative ways of seeing the world – similar to Heidegger’s notion of enframing, the idea that the relationship between us and technology isn’t limited solely to the artefact, but the approach between us and the world. The limiting of all things to a standing reserve from which we extract resources, creates a “calculative thinking” which reduces all things in experience to whatever use they offer for production or consumption (Heidegger, 32). He relates this also directly to a specific idea of science we have as well, since scientific and technological progress is often viewed as interrelated – and yet the enclosing of alternative ways of viewing the world is a precise result of a generalization of this worldview (Heidegger, 53). In this way the scientism of the modern as Cherif refers to it, varies tremendously from how a Muslim would consider the world and experience. And global capitalism which seeks to implement a kind of neoliberal rationality or market logic onto all forms of life and decision-making equally is at odds with an Islamic ethic that is above all related to the love of the divine, and not in the sole production of economic benefit or transaction. Everywhere, Muslims are the same as Westerners, in their fundamental humanity and dignity, we find also between these two vague categories, certain distances which cannot be bridged, even in our deconstructive meditations. To address this concern, of how Muslims can remain fundamentally different and yet respected and respectful, in dialogue, community, and understanding with other faiths and ideologies is the question of the other that cannot be addressed in the aforementioned empty platitudes.
Baudrillard speaks of the Islamic other in a more insightful fashion than offered in the platitudes of popular culture. 9/11, the height of the otherization of Islam was an instance in which the prophecies of the 1990’s orientalist narratives on the Clash of Civilizations had supposedly been confirmed. There were now two polar opposites remaining after the fall of the Soviet Union – the modern democratic Western world, and the barbaric Islamic other who sought to destroy it. However, even this barbaric other represented in the collapse of the twin-towers was for Baudrillard fundamentally the twin-towers themselves committing suicide (Baudrillard, 7). In the totalizing project of globalization, American and Western dominance had unleashed such violence against the world that the attack against the twin towers was solely the echo from which totalization itself inevitable suffered (Baudrillard, 8). It did not make sense to separate the Islamic other and the Western metropole, when the Islamic other is itself the product of the totalizing of the Western metropole (Baudrillard, 9). For Baudrillard this is a question of positionality – if Islam was the dominant hegemonic ruling ideology of the world, there would be terrorism against Islam. Thereby there is nothing inherently Islamic by which one could refer to the Islamic other, it is a contingent sprouting of the process of totalization that globalization itself foreshadowed, recognized, and then executed (Baudrillard, 9). It may seem at the outset then, that Baudrillard is collapsing the categories of “the West” and “Islam” in the same way that someone like Said is. However, his conscious mention of his own political fears reveals the opposite to be the case. In fact, what Baudrillard is most afraid of is a kind of totalizing homogeneity of culture, belief, knowledge, and difference across the globe. Which is exactly what collapsing these categories would do – as in even though these categories do not meaningfully reflect difference in and of themselves, as much as they reflect the attempt to structure certain political others, it is also not desirable to have homogenous categories which do not allow for difference.
This is more strikingly presented by his statement that his fear is not terrorism, but the state that can put an end to terrorism. This isn’t to say he necessarily supports terrorism, a vacuous and ill-defined word itself, but rather that difference is more fundamental to an attempt to propose alternative political projects than something like homogeneity.
This is the response “of any power incapable of bearing the spectre of opposition” Baudrillard, 30). How can the Other, Baurdillard asks “unless he is an idiot, a psychopath or a crank, want to be different, irremediably different, without even a desire to sign up to our universal gospel?” (Baudrillard, 30). It is this anathema to the idea of opposition which so much so characterizes the other that is an “intellectual construct” of Western thought according to Cherif. The other, who does not exist solely as different but seeks to attack and reject the totalizing regime which seeks to coopt him is what our current ideals of homogeneity or “normalizing” also agree with – far from seeing Islam and the West are reconcilable categories, by stripping the other of their alterity we are already in agreement with the orientalist and fundamentalist assertion that there are essential differences in these categories which we must somehow fight against or oppose to one another. Instead, as Baudrillard hints to and captured in the political musings of Cherif and Derrida (Cherif, 87) in any resistance to a globalized homogenic culture we will be required to utilize difference itself, the vision of the other that is distant and unable to be rationalized and yet must be completely respected and dialogued with. This is the political vision offered by Derrida, who builds on the political possibilities and alternatives which Baudrillard does not delve into. What does it mean to have an other which we recognize as an other – and yet are able to have dialogue with, and to respect as they are in their alienness, and vice-versa.
Thereby we can see two problems in assuming that we can collapse the categories of “Islam” and “the West” or the idea that they are entirely commensurate and mappable onto one another. The first, is that fundamentally what we consider to be “Islamic” in an ethical sense, such as profound moral and spiritual questions, cannot be integrated into neoliberal rationality, or the triptych of secularism, scientism, and capitalism that dominates the modern world (Cherif, 49). And secondly the homogenizing process of reducing and diminishing the alterity of the other, to make it a “same Other” as Han says, removes the possibility for authentically answering questions of difference and plurality. Reasonably however, one might ask, what is the problem with homogeneity to begin with? What is the need to maintain difference? And why should we maintain a model of alterity such as what these thinkers propose, if this can create division between people? The first problem, for Han and Baudrillard is that this homogeneity, as mentioned earlier encompasses its own violent counterpart. “It is the terror of the global itself that produces terrorism.” (Han, 15). For Han and Baudrillard both, it is the totalizing of the global project, the inability to let the other exist, to see it naturally as a kind of opposition to be eliminated, that itself creates terrorism. Terrorists are in some pathetic and misguided fashion attempting to assert difference, The idea that there is an Islam and a West, however diverse in forms and instantiation, that are fundamentally irreconcilable. However, we should not mistake then that this otherization is somehow the cause of this violence. This extremist otherization is the consequence of a globalizing attempt at sameness. Thereby, the need to have an other is not solely an abstract philosophical principle. It reflects the need to have dialogue and not violence. Bin Laden in his infamous interview with Jim Miller in 1998, laments on how it is the global violence of the West, the attacking and pillaging of Muslim nations in a global context, that structures his call for war and violence. The inability to allow authentic opposition to exist, the other which exists in dialogue, creates the very extremist tendencies which undermine the cause of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And again, it is not only the terrorist under the guise of Islam, (often rebuked by traditional Ulema on legal and theological grounds, although such normative Islamic thought is rare in Western media), but the terrorist under the guise of the global, under the American and European flags that worsen our situation today.
The second is a more fundamental ethical question – can we have differing conceptions of ethics and the ethical good, or a true sense of plurality today? To what extent is something like plurality viable or desirable? If we assume that plurality and diversity are goods, worthy of pursuit, we will necessarily have to concede certain ethical grounds that we as a culture may find inalienable, to cultures that may not find them inalienable. Attempts in modern Islamic thought to rationalize or overturn traditional Islamic legal and theological tenets on homosexuality are a good example of this dilemma. Commonly, something akin to the sentiment “Islam is a religion for all times” is used to justify more socially progressive reinterpretations of classical Islam law or theological tenets. This is true – Islam engages in a universalism which upholds the idea that its tenets and structures of faith will last forever, yet simultaneously what lasts is the specificity of some of its commands, while others may be historically contingent. If homosexual relations must be reinterpreted in light of modern ethical standards, or something such as interfaith marriage, what about something like the command against interest? Can any Muslim country today avoid the international banking system which at every turn contradicts their religious beliefs? What system then do we create to determine which beliefs are universal and which are specific, and how we sort through which commands can be reformulated for the modern sense and which cannot? This is a hermeneutical question which is outside both the scope and capacity of this paper to address but reveals one more important question – what are our underlying motivations for a reformulation of certain Islamic ethical concepts?
I propose we can have two possible understandings of reformulating an ethical concept – the first being to claim that the traditional understanding was simply mistaken, due to the particular inability of exegetes or jurists to determine the correct view which was possible to determine at any given time as ethical precepts protruding from the source texts. And the second is a more interesting conception – the idea that our ethical standards are constantly progressing and thereby we must constantly re-evaluate scripture to uphold new understandings, which although correct were not able to be perceived by the traditional scholars due to historical and social pressures, as opposed to simply a lack of insight into the source text. Obviously, this is not a strict dichotomy and there was never an abstract place at which only interior readings of the text, removed from social context have been possible. Rather the use of social context is important for offering exegetical readings to begin with. However, I do think we can observe two general strands in regards to the degrees in which we can differentiate between interior readings as opposed to exterior readings. For example, it seems unlikely to me that someone diving into the source texts of Islamic law and theology and using these solely as their basis for ethical reasoning would come to the conclusion homosexuality is not ethically unlawful – as in to claim it is morally permissible, the claim must have some external basis to it in my view. This doesn’t mean its necessarily wrong, I want to be clear about that. But the entire situation is radically different than the first point. In the first case, we understood ethics as resulting from source texts and thereby we are simply pointing what was at some point simply missed as internal to the texts, where in the second case we have new conceptions about what is ethical external to the source texts and are now re-evaluating source texts to confirm our new ethical understandings. In fact, this is consciously understood by the scholars engaging in the emerging Queer readings of the Qur’an (Siraj, 91). Queer Muslims are offering alternative reinterpretations, generally through adhering to the idea of a “spirit” of Qur’anic ethics, which a negative view on homosexuality would supposedly contradict, and scholars such as Kugle are leading the charge against heteronormative readings of the Qur’an. Siraj mentions that “Queer Muslim theology and interpretation has progressed from “apologetics toward proactively queer reading, grounded in activism” (Siraj, 93). Thereby, it is specifically in reference to an external sense of justice which the scripture must necessarily represent in its “spirit”, that reinterpretation towards some commonly accepted ethical standard becomes possible, by consciously understanding it as supporting Queer readings.
Homosexuality, a modern proponent of its Islamic permissibility can easily claim, can fall easily under the first category of interpretation posited earlier, if we assume that it is indeed permissible from the source texts – but it is much more likely and even consciously referenced that it is first externally presumed to be moral (due to progressive cultural developments) and then retroactively justified by the re-evaluation of aspects of the source texts that may justify it, based on this external ethical judgement . This isn’t to say again that the second view does not then lead to the confirmation of the first view (indeed the goal of the second type of moral re-evaluation is to be affirmed as having always inherently been internal to the text itself) or that it is thereby necessarily incorrect, but only that this opens up the possibility that whatever is already homogenously considered moral in larger culture can be read into the source text as already being there. Islam can become without any difficulty then, the harbinger of a variety of ethical doctrines that we have already agreed to as “universal” or “undeniable” such that the source texts themselves will be used solely as a kind of fodder to confirm the homogenized ethics of the totalizing system, as opposed to being themselves independently responsible for defining the ethical good. For example, in Siraj’s work she speaks on the need to “reconfigure the Hadith” (Siraj, 90) which for both the scholarly class and the general population, forms an important part of their understanding of the religion not just as a legal source but as a divine source. The words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, for them are not simply a kind of legal code but the ethical reflection of divine virtue. Thereby, we not only lose a sense of interiority or the ability to posit difference in regard to the ethical good, but even require often a complete deconstruction of the ethical and theological tradition that people deeply cling to and rely on, and that often may not even be theologically founded. For example, often we reinterpret Islamic law from the basis that new conditions exist today where more traditional understandings of something like a caliphate may not be possible. This is a question of practicality, that some rulings practically functioned for some given rationale that either is no longer relevant or applicable. However, other questions such as that of homosexuality raise a question of ethical good – as in it wasn’t necessarily some practical purpose for which homosexuality was historically considered a sin in Islamic law and theology. It was proposed as a normative understanding of the ethical good – to reinterpret this second kind of value is more difficult theologically, since there is a general understanding that “the former peoples” were more ethically knowledgeable and virtuous than “the later peoples” (Ibn Kathir, Volume 9, 413-417). Ibn Kathir in his seminal exegesis, expands that the mots virtuous and knowledgeable people amongst the Muslim Ummah (community) are from the earlier generations – something confirmed by all traditional and contemporary understandings of Islamic theology. Therefore although it is easy to both claim and substantiate that on practical matters of applicability Islamic law should be reinterpreted, and I hold this position as well, however in those matters that seem ethically grounded there is much greater theological difficulty. Often these reinterpretations come, at the expense of the religious tradition and by assuming its own infallibility, something that the majority of adherents would not agree to.
The question of how we respond to ethical interiority or exteriority in regards to deriving ethics from scripture is a more complex discussion than I can engage in – but the concern remains for our purposes, that the ethic of exteriority even if inseparable from interiority, exists in greater degrees in regards to some ethics than others due to a social milieu in which such a re-evaluation might be necessary. It becomes imperative, for a Muslim who sees themselves as a pursuer of ethical perfection, to reconcile why something generally considered to be ethically acceptable in modern culture, is not so in their traditional legal and theological frameworks. A strong divide between solely internal as opposed to external extractions and derivations of ethics from scripture is not possible, but it is true that certain social contexts have a greater degree of external ethical pressure than others. For example, the need to reconcile religious justifications of slavery would be stronger in African-American communities than Anglo-American.
Unfortunately, this is a situation where it would come down to the intention of the interpreting subject, something which is itself difficult to ascertain. We can imagine without difficulty, someone who completely unfeeling towards the social context and pressures of todays ethical paradigms, legitimately believes from a kind of interiority of the source texts, that they justify the ethical permissibility of homosexuality. He is engaging in what traditional scholars would consider the normative journey of ascertaining and attempting to identity normative moral standards and legal derivations from source texts. But we can imagine with the exact same ease, in fact much more, someone ascertaining ethical values from larger culture first due to social context and pressures, regarding issues such as the permissibility of homosexuality and then reading these into source texts or finding ways to justify them. Again, traditional scholars have had to use both of these tools pragmatically, and there is no idealist reality in which only the first method was used, indeed the second method is just as traditional. However, generally the justification for reinterpretation occurs following the idea that some ethical precept or legal derivation was acceptable at some given time period for some given rationale. And now, in a different time with different rationale’s we no longer need to, nor can rightfully implement or refer to those ethical concepts and laws. The difficulty or lack we find in todays reinterpretation is this exact cause of rationale – for example what rationale was historically fulfilled by saying homosexuality is sinful? And in what way would that rationale not be present today? In essence, there is a conflation occurring between what is contextually ethical, practical, and necessary as opposed to what is universally so. No Muslim would claim for example that the prayer is somehow no longer mandatory because we spend more of our day working than we have historically – thereby it is universally ethically mandatory. Homosexuality thereby would have to be justified from a strange position then – either it was somehow ethically justifiable in the past but no longer, or more controversially that it has always been ethical and the theological virtues of the former peoples, are not something Muslims can rely on as a given or as normative.
The further concern with the second method is of course the disturbing aspect that we are simply finding a variety of perspectives from which to justify what is already homogenously considered ethically acceptable. While there was previously a kind of unanimous agreement in the Abrahamic faiths for example on the sinful nature of homosexuality, all three are now having discussions on its permissibility – are we to assume all of them, simultaneously underwent a realization akin to the first method? Or, as is most certainly the case, do we assume the second method of re-evaluation is occurring here. Again, the problem with the second method isn’t it being supposedly non-traditional. Only that the second method, when concerning statements of universal ethical good or normative ethical understanding, is much more susceptible to legitimizing a kind of totality of morals, beliefs, and values – such that there is no ability for true negativity to exist. The Islamic other is simply a different perspective of looking at global values we have already conceded to be undeniable. There is no alternative place from which morals, values, or beliefs can arise. There is no ability for a true pluralism to exist – where through individual autonomy for example, we independently reach or willingly adopt ethical conclusions deviating from any popular accepted ethical precept in modern culture. Progress, rationality, and individual freedom for example are just some of the vague terms that now occupy a kind of global ethical paradigm which all particular paradigms are expected to adhere to despite these terms meaning different things to different people fundamentally, and often defined in regards to the interest of any given hegemonic group. When the plurality of ethical systems must necessarily comply to a uniform idea of the ethical good – this undermines the ideal of private religious inclinations and freedom to religious belief altogether (Kutty, 2014). Just as the LGBTQ community deserves full constitutional and legal protections as a result of their right to foundational human dignity, so too Kutty argues we cannot compromise the religious persons access to their religious conscience without undermining the essence of difference itself.
Thereby, this moves from a question largely of otherization and ethical agency, to one of how the overarching political order can deal with something like negativity or difference, particularly in regards to ethical ideals. What we generally consider to be “liberal” societies such as Western European countries, the United States, Japan etc. have a certain universal ethic regarding liberalism and democratic governance. This is not to be confused with the neoliberal rationality that exists simultaneously and for some thinkers such as Wendy Brown threaten the basis of the liberal democratic state in its essence. It is difficult to separate often the varying terms we use to describe modern society – for example the UK is undeniably a liberal country, yet simultaneously neoliberal, secular and yet also has sacred tenets regarding its economic functioning or history. What I mean by liberalism in this context however, is the overarching idea of a state that promotes civil liberties, individual rights, freedom in various forms, political representation, and democratic ideals. The question then becomes more complicated however, when we consider thereby that liberalism has certain ethical ideals it values, as any given ideology does. However, equally important to the liberal tradition is a certain tolerance present in them, of ideological, political, and ethical differences; an artefact of their separation from religious dogmatism in which this tolerance is assumed to be non-existent. Yet can liberalism allow for the complete realization of such a pluralism – a pluralism which some communities would understandably find non-liberal and intolerant? Without this pluralism however, “Islam” in all its varieties would have to be conceived of almost entirely as just another coordinate from which prevailing social norms or ethics are confirmed, as opposed to a situation in which Muslims are able to forward their own conception of the ethical good. Otherwise Muslims could not reasonably practice their ethical conscience in liberal society.
George Crowder addresses this issue in relation to the work of Isaiah Berlin and other “value-pluralists” and their relation to this inability within liberalism for pluralism to emerge completely. For Berlin, values are intrinsic goods which are incommensurable and difficult to be weighed – they cannot be compared by some objective standard whereby different rational means of achieving the varying goods that different people pursue in life, don’t have a reference to some comparative process of prioritizing (Crowder, 122). Thereby, a completely universalist liberalism is not possible and rather we must hold some conception of value-pluralism in relation to our liberalism, which is a basic fact of human life in his view. Crowder relates this idea of value pluralism then to a conflict between two ideals of liberalism – the first being the idea of an individual autonomy which must always be protected, and the second being the group tolerance of non-liberal regimes. Individual autonomy is the idea that every individual should be free to pursue the ethical good as they see fit. And that liberalism is meant above all to not interfere with the free-pursuit of ethical good from the perspective of individual agency and autonomy (Crowder, 122). Opposing this is a kind of maximum toleration liberalism, which looks to tolerate as much as possible the existence of non-liberal societies, whereas the previous ideal would even call for at certain points conflicts with non-liberal societies (Crowder, 122). It is evident that from a toleration perspective, a different other could reasonably be allowed to exist, as could something like value-pluralism, whereas from an individual autonomy perspective, any ideological formation that did not value individual autonomy as its highest value reflects its inability to reflect liberal values and thereby may need to be regulated, removed, interfered with etc. For Crowder however, value-pluralism necessarily means we must actually promote individual autonomy above other values, because part of a group tolerance is the ability of individuals to leave said group, which requires individual capacity and agency. And furthermore, we must value diversity not solely in regards to different groups, but as a value required within the groups themselves (the group must internally be diverse), and again individual autonomy thereby must be posited as a value more important than other values. Thereby, even from a value-pluralism perspective, it becomes necessary to promote individual autonomy liberalism as opposed to solely maximum toleration. The idea of a truly pluralistic existence then, of varying peoples pursuing varying ethical goods as they see fit, would be severely undermined by Crowder’s arguments. However, Crowder’s arguments are themselves somewhat inconsistent, and rather we should maintain Berlin’s concept of value-pluralism (which does not imply relativism only that they cannot be ranked in relation to some common denominator value, which for Crowder here is individual autonomy). It is also important to note, that a person rationally could have the freedom to themselves be a monist, or someone who believes there is a common-denominator value, and value-pluralism could be maintained in functionally agreeing to disagree regarding the different conceptions of monism across groups.
Firstly, to address Crowder’s arguments against value pluralism we would be required to perform a genealogy of terms as he does. He mentions for example, that it is difficult to conceptualize what it means to be “free to leave a group”. He says there are various empirical factors that make it impossible for someone in a marginalized position, such as a woman reliant on her husband, to leave their circumstances easily and freely even if no explicit legal force is preventing them (Crowder, 128). For him, its unthinkable for many of these group members to leave the group even if they have the freedom to do so – it is the akin of the “legendary freedom of the poor to dine at the Ritz” (Crowder, 128). This view is correct, that simply not having some legal barriers to exit does not suffice as a capability to do so. However, this same criticism would then apply to the supposedly free, rational, and autonomous agent of the liberal society. How do we relate to a situation in which for example, the expansion of mass freedoms under neoliberalism themselves create the basis from which mass self-exploitation can occur (Han, 12) such that the empirical standard of free autonomous decision making is interrupted and subverted. More crucially, manipulation by Big Data and the ability to use our own correlative psychology against us serves as another problem. For Zuboff, this is not only data collection but behaviour modification and instrumentarian power (Zuboff, 15). New “smart” technologies and big data provide ample data on our general correlative tendencies such that they are able to unconsciously guide us towards certain ends which uphold economic interests for example, while we are completely unaware of the instrumentarian power at work. Already academic and private research is being done at an extraordinarily fast pace to create systems of predictive capacity whereby our own engrained norms of behaviour will be used not only to predict behaviour – but to shape it using the collection of this data as well. (Zuboff, 284). Through certain process’ referred to as tuning and herding for example, even the shape or architecture in the home “nudges” people towards certain acceptable forms of behaviour. These utilize both psychological and also social data, to create subliminal cues from which are behaviour is slightly moulded repetitively towards company-friendly imperatives. The long-term consequences are a “conditioning” towards a certain kind of behaviour (very much reminiscent of a kind of governmentality, now just exaggerated into a mass technological and digital architecture of subtle control creating norms of behaviour the subject then accedes to). Thereby, if we look to question the “free ability” of people to leave society in a non-liberal regime, surely the same “free ability” of people to be autonomous rational beings capable of making independent choices in Liberal regimes must equally be questioned. If non-liberal societies cannot have a simple lack of legal impediments to exist as a sufficient category for liberal recognition, can the liberal state even recognize itself, in relation to the equally difficult empirical questions facing autonomy today?
Thereby, if liberal societies are free to even intervene in societies where the standard of freedom to leave isn’t truly present, can non-liberal societies equally do the same when standards of individual autonomy are threatened? The ability to determine which actor is capable of engaging in this kind of decision-making, is also left out of the discussion. How do questions of unequal political and economic power for example affect our ability to make these judgements? Further Crowder unlike some pluralists believes that we actually can weigh what are incommensurable values. What creates difficulty for other pluralists is that there is no universally adhered to primary value which would undermine all other values in relation to it. Thereby individual autonomy is desirable for Crowder, serving as an important tool in ethically organizing and prioritizing incommensurable values some of which may be more appropriate or useful at given times, subject to practical reason (Crowder, 125). For Crowder, societies require individual autonomy to promote a kind of internal diversity within members, as opposed to just a diverse set of uniform cultures. Although this is a strong ideal, how do we conceive of diversity in this context? In a given Muslim society for example you will find people adhering to different theological schools, different legal schools, different sects, and following often radically different ethical paths (the Sufi path as opposed to that of the Wahhabi for example). There is often a strong public consciousness and debate on these issues – would this suffice as the standard for internal diversity? If we mean necessarily that there has to be a large amount of secular thought present, it equally opens the question then, in a largely secular society whether religion can then be present in the public space in the same fashion. According to Crowder eventually we must use practical reasoning and the pursuit of individual autonomy to address these questions of incommensurable values to privilege one over the other when they are in conflict (Crowder, 138). Presumably, this can apply to a toleration-pluralism as well where eventually it may have to undermine its own toleration and engage in something like violent behaviour. Again however, the positionality of who is able to make the “rational judgement” is never considered. For example, in contemporary France one can easily say there has been a rational judgement that to curb terrorism, we must ban the hijab, because we must value safety more than personal liberty even though both are important to us. Yet left out of this kind of autonomy and practical reasoning is the Muslim voice itself.
Once again this leaves us unable to answer the empirical question of whether this would promote pluralism to begin with, or only further entrench the capacity of some large culture to rationally weigh its own incommensurable values in whatever fashion it found reasonably advantageous. In this case some monistic value may even help found more just decisions, than a kind of pluralistic weighing. Crucially however, Crowder is claiming that value-pluralism itself implies liberalism, as liberal individual autonomy is the basis for preserving value-pluralistic socities. However, this conception of plurality simply seems too focused on some autonomous rational agent that may well not exist. As in this marriage between a kind of universalist liberal assertion of individual autonomy and value-pluralism is founded on the idea that this individual autonomy exists to begin with – whereas if it doesn’t, to assert this individual autonomy we may even need some group solidarity against behaviour modification process’. The very tension between the inability for liberalism to fulfill its own universalist ideals, leads us to question why it should be a basis for value-pluralism to begin with.
Similar arguments in favor of liberalism, even in value-pluralist contexts are common. Galston argues that since we cannot actually morally justify imposing our values on any other group, we must at least prefer liberal societies to non-liberal ones, in that they allow for the expressive liberty of citizens to pursue the ethical good as they see fit and thereby reflect the possibilities of plurality itself (Moore, 1). Crowder then argues that liberal societies promote the greatest amount of values to be pursued, which are intrinsic goods and thereby are morally preferable to non-liberal societies. (Crowder, 131). Gray argues that the previous two arguments are incorrect, as non-liberal societies may allow for the expressive liberty of citizens or a wide array of values more successfully than liberal ones (Moore, 2). This argument is quite interesting, as we see again “expressive liberty” is for Galston just assumed as an empirical fact of liberal society, as is supposedly the ability to pursue as many values as possible by Crowder. Whereas, our discussions of auto-exploitation from Han, governmentality from Foucault, and behaviour modification from Zuboff complicate the foundational assumptions of these arguments. Instead, as Moore argues, the fact is itself impossible to somehow compare or rank what are considered incommensurable values, or to argue for simultaneously value-pluralism and liberalism (Moore, 2). This is further complicated by the monistic retort that the value-pluralist assertion of incommensurability is itself stated as an objective fact, which functions as a monistic ethic. Thereby, any criticism of monistic values must self-reflexively also not take their own criticism as valid or applicable.
As a result of the aforementioned criticisms, we can conclude that we do not under conditions of value-pluralism need to opt for liberal societies vaguely defined as opposed to non-liberal societies. The concern here for me is not so much that repressive, authoritarian societies are thereby good - only that if liberal societies are themselves unable to fulfill the qualifications they offer, and other societies by their own standards believe they do, from what place of morality can we dictate to non-liberal societies, vaguely defined, the ethical good as they pursue it? Especially since something like an Islamic society that agrees with traditional legal and theological views on homosexuality can be seen as illiberal, while simultaneously offering more religious protection and expression to minority groups than has historically been offered to minorities in Western liberal democracies at many points in time. The essentialist idea present here is that a society can be entirely liberal or non-liberal further complicating our ability to tolerate negativity and similarly to engage in a true pluralistic relationship with the other, which is more complex than homogeneity or binaries allow for. Equally straining is the concern of the triptych referenced earlier – liberal society as understood today consists in large part the aspects of modernity that Cherif mentioned - secularism, scientism, and capitalism, three ideals which broadly understood as they are today are often used to justify strong antagonism towards religion as opposed to understanding or dialogue. It is not that liberalism is entirely related to them, but historically the development of liberal democracies has been in relation to these ideals, and the development of neoliberalism in the 1970’s continued this relationship which is itself structured through a larger relation to modernity itself. Necessarily then, there is a difficulty in reconciling an Islam which could present alternative ethical ideals (themselves subject to rational criticism and dialogue), and a liberal universalism which may politically undermine such an ethical other, without some recourse to a value-pluralism that does not inherently, as Crowder desires, already prefer the liberal to the non-liberal (again terms defined often in discursive spaces non-liberal societies are not able to engage in).
At this impasse it seems impossible to fulfill the dictate of both recognizing negativity, otherness, and difference, while simultaneously asserting a shared humanity amongst all of us, a shared respect. What kind of political order could fully recognize this is also beyond the scope of this paper – however it may prove useful to consider some of the following. Civilization itself is the function of plurality for Derrida – as in what does not have plurality can equally not reasonably be considered civilization (Cherif, 81). Equally no one has the sole ownership of the idea of the “universal” this is something which has to be negotiated amongst us – however, cannot be done so in todays current positionalities. The Muslim world for example is often not in a position to engage in the negotiation of what could be considered universal or shared amongst people, but is often in a position to be imposed a universal from an external place. Even then, the politics of the future in regards to this otherization will have to deal with complex questions of difference. We see today neo-racist movements utilize the language of difference and the right to assert themselves as such – the idea that Europe is for Europeans, and not migrants. But inherent in this idea is a kind of globalizing sameness that Europe is itself undeniably experiencing, in a blending of experience that does not allow for the place of friendship or reconciliation. Han refers to xenophobia as ugly” – it lacks the politics of beauty (Han, 12). In that there needs to be a difficulty in the approach by which our conception of the other functions – this alone is what allows reconciliation to happen, for trust to occur. Where there is complete legibility there is no trust, a concept shared by Han and Derrida. As in many of the ethical values or intrinsic goods we find useful, such as friendship, justice, trustworthiness, wisdom etc. are directly related to the intersubjective capacity for ethical action. There is no friendship in sameness, or justice without the need for reconciling differences, no trustworthiness without a lack of legibility, no wisdom without the relationships of passing wisdom on. In that sense, it is hospitality itself – the aspect of friendliness that defines civilization (Han, 12) the idea of human society as existing and developing for more than just bare-life principles. Rather the Prophetic edict “None of you truly believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” assumes already the inherent absurdity in accommodating the other – it requires a reformulation of what is authentic subjectivity. One can easily offer the other what he has, for example to share his wealth when he has it. However, to constitute one’s subjectivity as actively desiring this, seems impossible – and thereby it constitutes a fundamental ethical, political, and social project. Although, again it is not in the scope of this paper to address this political formulation of the future, the political capacity for difference does not inevitably mean simply justifying any immoral atrocity but rather the recognition that the very possibility for friendship, trust, justice, selflessness and a variety of other ethical precepts we find valuable, already themselves assume the risk of the other. As in there is no selfishness without the other, but there is also no selflessness without the other. Both possibilities of our ethical horizon are possible only in relation to negativity. The goal of an Islamic ethics today should be exactly to complete this demand of loving the other as oneself, and yet maintaining the distance of negativity, that the other is not oneself and cannot be understood as such for any of this to be possible. If I see my brother as myself, and then love him, this is only the narcissism of reconstituting sameness , the Lacanian mirroring of the “neighbour” as whatever is already constitutive of my own ego. The possibility for civilization itself and the politics of beauty only occurs at the level of friendship -for which the horizons of true and even incommensurable difference are necessary to maintain.
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