Islam, Freedom, and Democracy

by D.A. Bass

Is the religion of Islam compatible with our way of life and governance? We hear, for instance, that one of our prime motivations for going into Afghanistan and Iraq – besides the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and killing terrorists – was to bring liberty and democracy to countries under the boot heel of oppression. In fact, the military campaign into Iraq was code named “Operation Iraqi Freedom!” President Bush has repeatedly proclaimed “Iraqi’s are now a free people!” As much as I would like to believe this to be true, I am haunted by a persistent question: What do we mean by freedom and can Iraq – or any other Muslim nation, for that matter – ever be free in the way in which we mean freedom? This goes right to the heart of the difference between Christianity and Islam and how both religions have shaped and determined the courses of their respective cultures and societies. Given the religion of Islam and its power to shape the worldview of its adherents, is it possible that freedom and democracy will ever take root in any nation in which Islam predominates? In order to answer this and other related questions, observe these points:

1. Religion shapes worldview – West or East, Arab or Caucasian, every rational, sentient man who walks the face of the earth answers the four basic questions which define religion: Whence did I come? Whither do I go? Who am I? Why am I here?

Every religion worthy of the name answers these questions for its adherents, Islam and Christianity being no exceptions. Even the proudest atheist (who comprise, incidentally, less than 2% of our population) cannot escape his worldview shaped by religion. His very name, a – theist, means “no-god,” which means he defines himself in relation to God, despite himself! He would have no definition if not for God. Atheism is a completely modern notion, without precedent in the ancient world. Even the so-called atheists of the ancient world were not atheists in the sense in which modern atheists call themselves. Most of them rejected the panoply of ancient gods but still believed in some supreme being or beings, but hesitated to name them or define them too closely. In the end, even the atheist must answer the ultimate questions in terms of his religion. In turn, men behave consistent with their god and the answers to those questions, embodied in their religion. For instance, if the Muslim despises manual labor – and he does – seeing it as beneath him and the work of slaves, then it will be impossible for him to nurture a work ethic so necessary for building of a sense of citizenship and belonging in a democracy. His state of being is an answer to the “Who am I?” question. As Raphael Patai has pointed out: “His state was the will of Allah, and man must obey (submit, Islam) God. Allah made him a man of the soil, and a man of the soil he must remain.” (Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, p. 116) The man who worked the soil is derisively referred to as a fellah, from which we derive our own English word “fellow.” Dignity does not accompany character, but place in life. In Arab and Muslim lands, one does not become rich and successful by hard work and frugal living, but when and if he finds or steals or inherits a fortune or finds a lamp with a genie in it who will grant him three wishes, like Ali Baba in The Arabian Nights! In contrast, the West has always cherished what has come to be known as the Protestant work ethic; that is, that God – from the very beginning in Genesis – has commanded that we subdue the earth and take dominion of it. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) From the beginning, we were created to work and find dignity and purpose in even the lowliest of tasks. As John Calvin observed, even the plowman and washerwoman bore the image of God and the call of God in their lives to their tasks. He called it a voca, a vocation, a calling. One of the reasons for the industrial revolution and unions and fair labor laws and the dignity and pride of the workingman in the West – in complete contrast to the Middle East and Muslim lands – is the Protestant work ethic!

Religion shapes culture! Again, why does science flourish in the West, and not in the Arabic/Muslim East? In part, historians have attributed much of the reason to the intrinsic worldview of the respective cultures. For example, one founding Muslim imam, al-Ashari, promulgated the doctrine that Allah is completely and utterly deterministic, and that “every event in every atom of time is the result of a direct and individual act of creation.” (Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 143) Abu Hasan al-Ashari (d. AD 945) was the founder of a fundamentalist school within Islam that was to profoundly influence generations to follow, including the radical Islamists of our own day. According to Asharism, there is no such thing as cause and effect, no such thing as natural law, according to which man can predict certain results from precedent causes. God is at work individually creating all things anew at every moment, with nothing in creation contingent upon any other thing in creation apart from the direct intervention of Allah. Bernard Lewis cites an example from a philosophy text that, for instance, a lack of food does not necessarily cause hunger, but merely accompanies it. Asharism was a reaction against the spirit of inquiry and speculation seeping in from the West, represented by the spirit of Greek inquiry embodied in the Mutazilite School. According to Asharism, to speculate, to inquire too closely into the universe God had made was not a thing of glory, but of faithlessness. To pry into the workings of the universe bred doubt as to the wisdom and order Allah had fixed. (See al-Ashari [d. 936] and atomism, Asharism; Lewis, Arabs in History, p. 142-3)

There is no doubt that at several junctures, Islamic culture flourished in the area of science and learning. The Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad or the Ottoman Turks under Sulieman the Magnificent in Istanbul both saw periods of enlightenment. The deeper question is: what did they do with that enlightenment? For example, one of the giants of the period known as the High Caliphate (c. AD 685-945) is Caliph Mamun (ruled: 813-33). Although politically ruthless and cunning, he was an astute student of science and philosophy. He founded centers of learning in Baghdad and Damascus, called Bayt al Hikmah (House of Learning). They included an immense library that collected works from all over the empire, subjecting them to comparative study. While the West was barely beginning to rub the long intellectual sleep from its eyes during the Dark Ages, scholars from all over the world gravitated to Baghdad to study, think, and dialogue. Mathematics, for example, made giant strides as not only ancient texts were collected and studied, but applied in fresh and creative ways to business accounting, land surveying, astronomy, mechanics, and military engineering. One cannot deny that the flower of genuine intellectual creativity began to blossom in ancient Islam!

None of this was done in an epistemological vacuum, however! Caliph Mamun fostered a philosophical and theological point of view whose doctrines became known collectively as the Mu’tazilah. It was open to investigation and objectivity, understanding that the human faculties could reduce the phenomena of creation to rational principles that Allah had made accessible to his creature. The regime of Mu’tazilah, often expressed in a series of questions, came to be identified with the above Mutazilite School. It is precisely this approach to human reason and creation and God that nurtured the flower of Islamic culture and learning. What did Islam, in turn, do with it? In the long run, it answered by snuffing out the very system that would have propelled it along a trajectory of discovery and advancement! In decades to come, Asharism would poison the very child Mamun and his dynasty birthed. In fact, Mamun himself was poisoned for his very blasphemy against Allah, having cultivated an over rationalistic philosophy and theology that threatened the Qu’ran’s teaching on Allah’s absolute determinism.

Perhaps the most profound exponent of Asharism was the 12th century philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 1111), whose work “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” cast a long shadow over the centuries to follow. His counterpart in the Mutazilite School, Ibn Rushd, a rationalist, famously answered, “To say that philosophers are incoherent is itself to make an incoherent statement.” His work, “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” effectively made the case for a western style rational approach to science and philosophy, but was largely ignored by his contemporaries and successors. The Asharism of al-Ghazali triumphed at this important crossroads, and Muslim science was and never will be the same.

The worldview of Islam contrasts sharply with the worldview of the West, shaped not only by the foundational inquiries of the Greeks, but also by the spirit of Christianity. The biblical worldview fostered exploration into creation and its workings. Mankind’s mandate was clear: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…over every living thing upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) God’s creation was good and worthwhile and accessible to man’s faculties. He could inquire into its workings, determine how it works, and then master it for biblical purposes. Men like Bacon and Newton had faith that God had created an ordered universe that his sentient creature, man, was expected to explore and delineate. Even Albert Einstein (no Christian, by any measure) noted about this Western perspective: “I have never found a better expression than the expression ‘religious’ for this trust in the rational nature of reality and of its particular accessibility to the human mind. Where this trust is lacking science degenerates into an uninspired procedure.” (see Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 64)

God is glorified by such science, and so much more by having it done by the creature made in His image! “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Proverbs 25:2) This was a popular proof text for the men of the Royal Society, for instance, as they became the first and most distinguished of those scientific fellowships that encouraged and nurtured the empirical, scientific spirit in the West. Integral to the purpose and end of man was his mandate to find the workings of the universe that God had hidden, but capable of discovery by the creature made in his image. Mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine, biology, chemistry, and all of the sciences were the tools taken in hand by the rational mind to accomplish these ends.

I have sampled just two examples of how religion determines worldview. Is it a mere coincidence that we find ourselves in the most prosperous, most powerful nation in the history of mankind? In keeping with our Christian bashing age, many try to explain it in strictly non-religious terms, but that fails to do justice to the evidence for the deep, strong Christian consensus at work in our nation and culture from its inception. This underlines another strong point:

2. The Christian worldview shaped the Western understanding of freedom and democracy – For the Christian, the gospel has deep implications and transforming effects not only in the life to come, for eternity, but also for this life and all of its institutions. When Jesus spoke those immortal words even the atheist likes to quote: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he did not speak them in a vacuum! Even the enemies of Christianity love to quote Jesus here, supplying their own definition for exactly what “the truth” is. However, Jesus does not leave us in doubt as to what he means by “the truth,” and it is here that most men like to edit our Lord.

There are three mitigating circumstances that bind truth and freedom to Christ and the spirituality of the heavenly kingdom. They cannot be separated and abstracted from Jesus’ context. They are:

A. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This is a very steep condition of knowing the truth! To be free as Jesus meant it, one must reside, abide, and dwell within the parameters of God’s word. He must follow in and obey Jesus and his teachings. Of course, most men conveniently ignore the protasis of this conditional sentence, supplying their own, while retaining the apodisis. They utterly reject obedience to Christ and his word, refusing to hearken unto him.

B. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34,36) Christ’s prime directive was to liberate his people from the slavery of sin and its consequence, death. It is Christ who makes holy and sets free. Those thus set free – from the tyranny of sin and death unto the liberty of righteousness and life – are truly free! No man is free in the biblical sense until he is free from sin and death in the liberty of Christ.

C. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus locates the truth within himself and his mission. Once more, his mission was to liberate his people from the slavery of sin and death through his life, death, burial, and resurrection. A lost covenant status is restored to him that he might know and see the Father. For the Christian, this meant a spiritual birth from out of a spiritual death, into which he had been plunged by his first father, Adam. Now, however, in this new life brought about by the Son, he is part of an eternal world, the world of the spirit as well as the world of the flesh.

Into the pagan world of the Roman Empire this gospel of freedom burst in the first century. When a man is liberated in the realm of the spirit – that is, free from the tyranny of sin and death and a slave to righteousness and eternal life by his liberator, the Lord Jesus Christ – he can no longer be brought into slavery by any power, no matter what his earthly circumstances might be. Though in his earthly circumstances he might be a lowly slave in a Roman household, nevertheless he was a freeman in the household of Christ and the Church! Though in his earthly circumstances he might find himself in a prison cell or slave galley or Roman legion as a forced conscript or in the Coliseum about to be slain for the entertainment of a pagan Emperor, nevertheless he was a freeman in the household of Christ and the Church! He knew to his bones that his kingdom was an eternal one, in the heavenlies, which no man could take or deprive! These realities had consequences:

3. Christianity has brought a renewed focus on both individual liberties and, conversely, covenant responsibilities to the community – Here was liberty and responsibility not seen upon the face of the earth since the theocracy of Israel. No longer was the individual merely a cog, a nameless, faceless entity that existed for the use and sake of the State. This is the essence of paganism. Instead, here was as an individual set in the midst of a community, the Church, with both liberties and responsibilities to God and his fellow men. This is what infuriated and threatened pagan Statism throughout the world today and the pagan Statism arising in modern socialist liberalism in the USA and the pagan Statism inherent within the very structure of Islam.

The very name Islam means submission – first to Allah, but by implication, also submission to the tribe, language, and book of Islam, the Qu’ran. In Islam there is no sense of a heavenly kingdom and its heavenly King Christ, to which one owes first loyalties and which consequently liberates him from fleshly tyrannies. Instead, we see what Roger Scruton calls “a creed community,” that is, a people defined by tribe, language, and Qu’ran, which stakes its destiny in the kingdom of this world, not that of the spirit. The creed community of Islam with its absolute authoritarian structure is a corollary of pagan Statism, a particularly egregious variant of the state as god. It is invested in and dependent on this world, with no vision for the world of the spirit. This may seem counter-intuitive to what we hear when Muslims are promised heavenly bliss, with virgins and oases and repose under fig trees. Doesn’t this indicate that Muslims hold a greater priority for heaven than for earth? Two observations must be made at this point:

A. For the Muslim, heaven is merely a grand extension of this life and not an entirely new creation as it is for the Christian. What he can’t have here, like a restricted child, he will be able to indulge in heaven. Sex is taboo here; there, it is to be indulged with great profligacy. Food is restricted here (i.e., pork and the fast of Ramadan); there, it is to be indulged with gluttonous excess. Work and toil plague the Muslim here; there, he will be able to lounge in idleness and sloth. In Islam, there is nothing of the spiritual realm, precisely because they are dead to the things of the spirit. Rather than a spiritual kingdom, in which one will not be sexually united to seventy-two virgins but to which the Church will be united to Christ himself, even as a bride is united with her husband, Islam merely extrapolates the world of the flesh on a grander scale for heaven.

B. For the Muslim, this world of the flesh writ large depends upon his performance here, his loyalty to the tribe, customs, and laws of the Qu’ran. In Christian terminology, it is from first to last a theology of works. One makes his own righteousness rather than having a righteousness not his own, a righteousness of Christ, imputed to him. Rather than seeing the spiritual kingdom of God as inherited as a free gift to an adopted son, given as a work of grace done by Christ on behalf of his covenant people, Islam sees the larger world of the flesh as earned here in this world. That is why Usama bin Laden and fiery imams preaching in their mosques can urge their followers to throw their lives away in suicidal missions on behalf of Islam, because it will instantly earn them a place in this extended world of the flesh. Their kingdom is essentially a this world kingdom, a kingdom of the flesh, meant to be extended by fleshly means (that is, by the sword and jihad) and meant to be extended over the governments, nations, and peoples of this world of the flesh.

Thus, with no sense of true, eternal liberty and freedom, it is no surprise that Islam cannot comprehend nor abide genuine individual liberty and covenant responsibility. In fact, Islam is threatened by our Western sense of freedom, with its roots in Christianity. Osama bin Laden calls the values and freedom and institutions of the West and the USA in particular “the enemy of Islam,” and Shammim Saddiqi, who is the leader of America Muslim radicals and the author of The Need to Convert Americans to Islam, calls our way of life and the freedom it brings, as it makes its way into the Islamic world, “the treacherous hands of the secular West.” Further, another imam remarks about Muslim’s responsibilities to the USA, “Ultimately we can never be full citizens of this country, because there is no way we can be fully committed to the institutions and ideologies of this country.” Ihsan Bagby It becomes clear that as we examine the heart of Islam that any nation with a primarily Islamic consensus will never understand nor adopt the principle of liberty and freedom as it is lived and cherished in the USA. Islam is inherently and constitutionally incapable of practicing and embracing liberty and freedom, since to do so would spell its own death.

4. Christianity has nurtured the institutions of democracy in the West – While our anti-religion, anti-Christian socialist left in the USA is desperately trying to cleanse and revise our history books of this fact, it is nevertheless there for all to see for the looking. Christianity has nurtured the institutions of democracy in the West. While it is true that Rome had contributed much of what we know of “the Rule of Law,” it was not until the advent of Christian rulers like Justinian II that law was tempered with both justice and mercy and wisdom; additionally, the precepts for the rule of law have their roots in the rile of God’s law in the Old Testament. Even the Supreme Court has a statue of Moses holding the 10 Commandments as testimony to the biblical roots of the rule of law.

While it is true that a primitive form of democracy can be found in ancient Greece, it was quickly tried and discarded as little better than mob rule, the tyranny of an ignorant and passionate rabble. It is not until democracy was taken up by our Founding Fathers and transformed into the Christian Republic that it is today that democracy stepped out of the pagan darkness of its past into an institution which properly represents its people and the will of the majority on the one hand and respects the rights and privileges of the minority on the other hand. Our democratic institutions are not strictly democratic, but republican in nature. Those passions are cooled by representative measures like these:

The passions and poor judgment of the majority are tempered by having legislation enacted by representatives, enforced by an executive branch, and adjudicated by a separate judiciary. As James Madison pointed out in The Federalist #10, human nature is fallen and corrupt to a point that it needs to be restrained by the rule of law and a separation of powers, so that power does not become concentrated into the hands of a few factions of men. The rights of the minority are protected in a Bill of Rights, appended to and a part of the Constitution, guaranteeing that the majority cannot tyrannize the minority in America.

The Founding Fathers recognized that all of these institutions owed their existence to the Christian consensus that existed amongst the population and the Christian traditions that informed even the deliberations and writing of our Constitution. In fact, many years after the exhilarating days of the American Revolution and the early days of the Republic, John Quincy Adams could say of the role of his father and the other Founding Fathers: “The highest glory of the American Revolution is this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

Islam, on the other hand, has a directly opposite view of government and rule. It is Allah who rules directly through the Qu’ran and the body of law derived from it and the traditions of Islam in the sharia. To see any law derived from any other source than Allah is blasphemy! The founder of modern Muslim fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), said of western democracy: “It is God and not man who rules. God is the source of all authority, including legitimate political authority. Virtue, not freedom, is the highest value. Therefore, God’s laws, not man’s, should govern society.”

The contrast is stark and clear: Any nation with a primarily Islamic consensus will never understand nor adopt the principle of democracy and freedom as it is lived and cherished in the USA. Islam is inherently and constitutionally incapable of practicing and embracing liberty and freedom. To do so would spell its own death! For too long, liberty and freedom have been segmented from religious faith in the USA, as if they could be treated as unrelated concepts. But we can no more do this than separate soul from body and still call us sentient human beings. One’s overarching view of reality – matter and spirit, life and death, the temporal and eternal, law and justice – are irretrievably bound with religion. In fact, one’s answers to these questions and concepts constitute religion! To say one is secular or neutral or agnostic or atheistic is to whistle in the wind. Any attempt to stretch the fabric of freedom apart from religion over the bed of nails of tyranny will do nothing but shred the fabric. This may well be the major flaw, the unseen blind-spot, in America’s attempt to bring “freedom” to Iraq. There will never be political and cultural liberty in Iraq until there is spiritual liberty in the hearts and minds of Iraqis! May the spiritual liberty found only in Christ find its way into the hearts of Iraqis and, for that matter, back into the hearts of all Americans!

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