Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault
Photo by Chris Karidis on Unsplash

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Brian Stewart
Brian Stewart
7 min read

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were.

A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment.

This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks later, a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Muhammad during a class discussion about free speech. And last week a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” beheaded a woman and murdered two other people at a church in Nice.

French society has responded to these grisly atrocities with a broad measure of sympathy and support for the victims as well as the violated principles of free expression and religion. The French president has called for resistance to the forces of menace within the French Muslim community who attempt to justify these acts of barbarism, and who are laying the foundation for a “counter society.” Pointing to France’s tradition of secularism, known as laïcité, Macron has insisted that it “is the glue of a united France,” which must be defended against Islamism’s “conscious, theorized, politico-religious project” to subvert the freedom of the republic. To this end, he seeks to halt the import of foreign imams to French mosques, and require associations that solicit public funds to sign a charter on secularism. Those are overdue steps to shore up “republican values” on French soil, where they deserve to stand tall.

It is no exaggeration to say that an international Muslim pogrom against the free press and the French state is under way. The Fifth Republic has been subjected to an extraordinary campaign of hatred and violence and intimidation, including wanton incitement against French citizens and the violation of French diplomatic immunity. This is not a surprise for anyone who remembers what happened in Denmark in 2006 after a small newspaper in Copenhagen published cartoons about a certain Bronze-age prophet.

But this systematic defamation and blackmail and sabotage has received fantastic levels of support from quarters that one might not expect, not least because they cannot be counted as followers of the prophet Muhammad. These unusual suspects, in thrall to what Pascal Bruckner calls the tyranny of guilt, have recoiled at the determination of the French state to defend Enlightenment values against theocratic fascists. Truly grotesque attempts have been made in Western media to rationalize beheadings, suggesting an intelligible explanation for mayhem that puts the blame squarely on the victims. The campaign against France and free speech has even managed to break the nerve of some world leaders who cannot be found for comment or have positively thrown in with the vandals. The Canadian prime minister, for one, has argued that he will defend freedom of expression on the condition that no one is offended by such expression. Vive la liberté, mais

This spineless response scarcely approaches the unbridled viciousness on display in the lands of Islam. The leaders of Turkey and Pakistan have played especially sinister roles in stoking the embers of hatred against the people and principles of France. The Islamist strongman Erdoğan has suggested that Macron, for deigning to defend political freedom, is “in a real sense [a] fascist.” Meanwhile, in Pakistan—a nation that prescribes the death penalty for “blasphemy” and resolutely ignores Chinese atrocities against Muslims in next-door Xinjiang—Khan has argued that Macron “has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens.” Even this ignorance and hatred paled before the incitement proffered by the former prime minister of Malaysia. While the lifeless bodies in Nice were still warm, Mahathir took to Twitter to offer a breathtaking apologia for murder and religious strife claiming a right for Muslims “to kill millions of French people.”

All of this amounts to a twin crisis, in the West and in Islam. The crisis in the West is bound up with the oft-mentioned loss of faith in the institutions of democracy, and a resulting absence of allegiance to republican virtues and national duties. This condition is particularly advanced in Europe, but it is increasingly manifest in the United States where the political Left has broadly turned skeptical if not hostile toward American patriotism and the political Right has lost touch with the liberal character of American patriotism. The Trump administration, with its crude pursuit of a transactional foreign policy without a hint of principle, exhibited this lack of republican virtue. The Obama administration, whose recoil from American power will likely animate the White House for at least four more years, reflected a dereliction of national duty.

American abdication and weakness aggravates the crisis of Islam, which Bernard Lewis summarized two decades ago as the tension between modernity and an ancient faith that never made way for the separation of mosque and state. The dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, was not present in the early years of Islam. During Muhammad’s lifetime, the Muslims became at once a political and a religious community, with the prophet as head of state. And that conception of Islam’s dominion across many realms of life has held remarkably consistent for more than a millennium.

This is not a matter that presents a Manichean dimension of a conflict opposing a supposedly “civilized” West to a supposedly “barbaric” non-West. These concepts are very real, but they are not so neatly divisible along geographical or religious lines. Such a simplistic framework forgets that the history of the West includes periods of extreme intolerance and violence—the Thirty Years’ War, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the execution of Michel Servet in Geneva, the execution of Chevalier de La Barre for blasphemy in the France of Louis XV, and the persecution of Quakers, Baptists, and “witches” in North America. It also neglects the numerous examples of tolerant regimes that have arisen in non-Western societies, from the Indian subcontinent to Indonesia, where Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam have co-existed more or less peaceably.

In this conflict, certain distinctions need to be made. The enemy is not “Islam,” for the vast majority of Muslims practice forms of their faith wholly compatible with life in France and throughout the civilized world. But just as it is a mistake (and a species of bigotry) to hold all Muslims accountable for the sins of Islam, it is a mistake to indulge fantasies about Islam as a “religion of peace” when, for a significant contingent of its adherents, it is a religion of the sword. These violent Islamists are convinced that belligerence is not a perversion of Islam’s true meaning but, rather, its most faithful expression.

Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. Its adherents believe its central text was dictated by Allah Himself, and this factor has made it especially resistant to reform and renovation. In the normal course of things, such a theological position would scarcely justify being a matter of concern to governments, but when the behavior of many millions is guided by a religion whose sacred texts frequently justify intolerance and cruelty, the work of criticism and reform becomes necessary and urgent.

This is what the French political class seems to appreciate. President Macron has urged the forging of an “Enlightenment Islam” compatible with French republican values. For that modern, civilized Islam to have a chance at surviving and thriving, it must be treated as what it is, nothing more or less: a faith entitled to all the protections afforded by secular democracy but not exempted from criticism and ridicule, and by no means permitted to impose religious conformity and erect religious law in civil society.

France is not the only secular republic with a stake in the modernization and reformation of Islam. The United States, founded in large measure to advance the rights of mankind, is the proper nation to lead and rally support for this effort. In recent years, however, Americans have grown adrift from their national principles, at home and abroad. It would be pretty to think this degradation only began with Trump’s ascent and will cease to operate now that he has been voted out of office. This would be a false consolation. Recall that after the jihadist attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015, neither President Obama nor any other senior US government official bothered to attend the “republican march” in Paris that followed the outrage.

The reason for America’s abstention in Paris was not a scheduling conflict. Obama had been on record (at the 2012 UN General Assembly) arguing that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” This contention—exceedingly bizarre from the chief executive of a secular republic—contained a profoundly dangerous corollary: that criticism of religion, and the freedom of expression that sustains it, is not a value entitled to our respect and defense.

The United States has come unmoored from its founding premises and purposes, and so it will necessarily be ill-disposed and ill-equipped to wage a battle of ideas with reactionary forces at home and abroad. It will, in short, not be able to identify France, our oldest ally, as deserving of solidarity any more than they will be able to recognize an enemy in militant Islam. This is an ominous portent for enlightened Muslims, for France, and all the civilized world.

In 1823, first-term congressman Daniel Webster spoke up in support of the Greek revolution. Responding to critics who questioned how effective mere rhetorical support would prove to the revolutionaries, Webster said: “I hope it may. It may give them courage and spirit. It may assure them of public regard, teach them that they are not wholly forgotten by the civilized world, and inspire them with constancy in the pursuit of their great end.”

And in any case, Webster continued, support for those fighting for freedom abroad was “due to our own character, and called for by our own duty.” Today it is France in need of courage and spirit in pursuit of their great end. If President-elect Biden wishes to make good on his promise to rebuild America’s frayed alliances, he could do worse than paying his first foreign visit to the Élysée Palace, acting in a manner due to our own character, and called for by our own duty.

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Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy.