March 16, 2016


Islamic Awakening : An ancient faith encounters modernity (Daniel Philpott, February 29, 2016, America)

Should Westerners, then, avoid altogether looking for lessons for Muslims in their own history? No; the history of the West contains a different experience that may prove a more promising model for Islam: that of the Catholic Church. The church came around to religious freedom quite late in history upon the Second Vatican Council's promulgation of its "Declaration on Religious Freedom" in 1965--three centuries after a pocket of Protestant theologians began to argue for religious freedom and two centuries after the Enlightenment did so. This latter-day awakening, though, is part of what makes the Catholic Church's road to its declaration exemplary. It shows how a religion whose authority refrained from teaching religious freedom for centuries succeeded in finding a basis for the teaching in its own tradition rather than in modern secular ideologies.

To be sure, the Catholic Church's pathway to religious freedom is not applicable to Islam in every particular. Islam lacks a single leader, like the pope, whose embrace of a doctrine would be authoritative for all believers. Still, the parallels are strong. Catholicism, like Islam, existed long before modernity. In order to arrive at the "Declaration on Religious Liberty," the church had to leave behind the ideal of medieval Christendom, where church and state worked in close partnership to uphold a thoroughly Christian social order. Heresy, in that milieu, was not merely a sin but also an act of sedition. St. Thomas Aquinas compared heresy to counterfeit money, implying that just as the king or prince could use his authority to protect the economy, so, too, he could muzzle spiritual miscreants to safeguard the spiritual ecology.

In Islam's early centuries, a doctrine of "Islamdom" came to prevail. Here, too, apostasy and blasphemy were tantamount to rebellion and merited death. Non-Muslims living under Islamic law were in many places allowed to practice their religion but were restricted in expressing it publicly and spreading it to others--something well short of religious freedom in full. While the Catholic Church eventually left Christendom behind, though, Islamdom still predominates among the world's Muslim thinkers. Its most extreme version is found in the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda.

Catholicism and Islam are also similar in having been treated as an enemy by the movements that have claimed to carry freedom into the modern world. When a few Protestant theologians warmed up to religious freedom in the 17th century, they continued to denounce the Catholic Church. The Protestant philosopher John Locke, for instance, relegated Catholics along with atheists to the category of people to whom religious freedom could not be extended in his "A Letter Concerning Toleration." In the minds of most Enlightenment philosophers, the church was the architect of the Inquisition, the silencer of Galileo and the foe of free thought. In the 19th and 20th centuries, political parties based on Enlightenment ideals in Europe and Latin America sought to eradicate the church's social influence. Anticlerical forces in the French Third Republic, for instance, exiled priests, shut down religious orders and closed the vast majority of Catholic schools in the name of a doctrine of laïcité that called for secularizing public life and privatizing religion. It was on account of the Enlightenment's hostility to the church as well as its religious skepticism that 19th-century popes denounced religious freedom as "absurd" and "erroneous."

Muslims have found the messengers of modernity to be no less hostile. 

...our job is to make sure the Sunni don't take 19 centuries to accept it, like the Church.

Posted by at March 16, 2016 5:15 AM