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Dec 15, 2017

Among the Disbelievers

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Andrew March

Andrew F. March

University of Massachusetts

Andrew F. March’s research interests are in the areas of political theory, contemporary philosophical liberalism, Islamic political thought, Islamic law, and comparative political theory.

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Among the Disbelievers

How Should Muslims Explain Atheism?


Most modern and postmodern systems of political ethics presume that humans will not all share a single conception of ultimate happiness or of the best form of life. But more importantly, it is commonly held that it is reasonable for humans to disagree on the best way to live and that justice, therefore, must not be founded on the identification of the ultimate human good but on what humans are entitled to in political and social life. Since the good is a matter of reasonable disagreement, and many forms of good lives can be pursued within a single society, modern liberal theory paradigmatically asserts that what we owe each other takes priority in law and politics over what we owe ourselves in matters of political justice (or what is sometimes referred to as the “priority of the right over the good”). Such theories thus seek to ground accounts of social goods and contracts on a rational basis that does not rely on a single, shared conception of the purpose and meaning of life, such as that of a faith tradition. Of course, many ethical projects in post-Enlightenment modernity—from Marxism to recent revivals of natural law—do not yield to such constraints. But theories that prioritize the protection of individual and group rights and religious and cultural freedom, and that trust in individuals’ capacities to develop and validate their own conception of the good, are characteristic of modernity.

But the commitment to pluralism results in well-known paradoxes or dilemmas. How valuable are liberal rights or autonomy if they do not contribute to some particular kind of well-being? Is it possible to take sides in the defense of bodily and intellectual autonomy without taking sides in the dispute between the truth or falsity of certain doctrines? Can there be a common public account of why political life should prioritize the right over the good, given the commitment that many have to the truth of their ethical and metaphysical doctrines? Can the reasonableness of pluralism be articulated without a positive declaration of skepticism about knowledge of the good?

There is a core problem that we cannot simply sidestep: shared political life requires some consensus about which differences amongst humans we should struggle to remove from the world and which we should accept as likely to be enduring for good reasons. We cannot avoid inquiry into which moral and intellectual differences are reasonable and which are not. For example, two persons who agree that race is morally arbitrary, and that thus we must struggle for a world without racial supremacy, might disagree about whether social differences based on gender should be allowed to persist. Similarly, two persons who agree that political struggles over what justice and welfare require are inevitable because of the social embeddedness of reason might disagree on whether revealed religion is so manifestly contrary to reason that the world would be a better place if religion faded away.

This, in brief, is the problem of “reasonable pluralism.” It is the difference between mere toleration and reciprocal recognition. We tolerate what we find distasteful or even immoral, but we recognize and accept what we find valuable. But there are some puzzles here. How do we understand what lies between disapproval and full acceptance? Indifference is one possibility: I do not tolerate your taste in footwear, nor do I value it; I am simply indifferent to it. But that is not the case with areas of common concern: I am not at all indifferent to your opinions on health-care policy or the new legislation to cut taxes. What then determines whether I regard views contrary to my own as dangerous and wrong, but not criminal, and therefore demanding toleration, or rather as somehow wrong-but-reasonable and therefore demanding (reciprocal) recognition? Does the difference rest in the quality of the other’s views? (For example, does some definable range of reasonable use of evidence and moral consideration of others exist, such that views can either fall within or outside of that range?) Or does the difference rest in my own level of certainty about the view I hold? (I am presently persuaded by it, but I recognize that my reasons for holding it fall somewhere short of demonstrative certainty.) Or does the difference lie in the nature of the matter in question? (Some issues admit of clear, demonstrable truth or falsity; others are matters of indeterminate and inconclusive evidence; and still others are matters of mere taste.)

The important point here is how the question of disagreement on matters of metaphysical and ethical conviction fits into this scheme of toleration-versus-recognition. Some contemporary Western political philosophers believe themselves committed to a distinctive position on religion that is neither skeptical about truth-claims nor merely utilitarian or instrumental in its approach to social difference. They do not assume that the persistent attachment to religion is evidence of a failure of reason and then focus on how it might nonetheless support, sustain, or at least not interfere with this or that secular vision of political justice or emancipation. Rather, they justify self-restraint in politics (i.e., “We do not just articulate what we think is true or ideal for all persons and then seek its realization”) by referring to the way human reason and moral psychology tend not to converge on universally shared beliefs. The most famous articulation of this approach is, perhaps, that of James Madison in “Federalist No. 10”:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.… The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice… have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
John Rawls

John Rawls (1921 - 2002)

But present-day liberal political philosophy is more likely to take its bearings from the twentieth-century American political philosopher John Rawls. His views on reasonable pluralism ground his efforts to distinguish a “political liberalism” from a kind of perfectionist, Enlightenment liberalism.

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines. No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime.1

Why does the normal exercise of human reason result in this kind of pluralism? Rawls advances an account of the conditions under which humans form beliefs about matters of ultimate truth or value, conditions he refers to as the “burdens of judgment.” In making various kinds of theoretical, practical, and moral judgments, we are confronted with the facts that (a) evidence is often conflicting and complex; (b) we may disagree about how much weight to give different kinds of evidence; (c) our concepts are often vague and indeterminate and reduce to human interpretation; (d) how we assess evidence and weigh various values is shaped by our life experience, which is different for each of us; (e) different kinds of normative considerations of varying force are brought to bear on both sides of an issue; and (f) not all values can be pursued in any given context of social action, and thus hard choices must be made, about which reasonable people will differ.2

This epistemic and psychological approach to difference represents an attitude toward religion that atones for some of the moral arrogance and historicist hubris to be found in the post-Enlightenment secular tradition. As Rawls notes: “There is, or need be, no war between religion and democracy. In this respect political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity.”3 In a crucial passage, he writes that when “political liberalism assumes the fact of reasonable pluralism as a pluralism of comprehensive doctrines, including both religious and nonreligious doctrines, [t]his pluralism is not seen as a disaster but rather as the natural outcome of the activities of human reason under enduring free institutions. To see reasonable pluralism as a disaster is to see the exercise of reason under the conditions of freedom itself as a disaster.”4 Rawls insists that the “evident consequence of the burdens of judgment is that reasonable persons do not all affirm the same comprehensive doctrine… [and] will [thus] think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable.… Reasonable persons see that the burdens of judgment set limits on what can be reasonably justified to others, and so they endorse some form of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought.”5

But that atonement is not unilateral disarmament. For it is precisely the commitment to publicity—a shared, public rationale for coercive legislation—that also makes enormous demands on the religious. In retreating to a reasonable form of liberalism and secularism, Rawls also hopes for a reasonable form of religion. This reasonable religion need not be a rational religion in the sense of removing all mysteries and miracles, but is to be reasonable in its moral attitude toward others because of the basic epistemic condition reflected in the burdens of judgment; it must recognize the reasonableness of others not sharing the same religious beliefs, or any religious beliefs at all. Rawlsian liberalism respects and recognizes religious moral lives for fundamentally epistemic and psychological reasons (“There but for the grace of Darwin and my progressive education go I…”) but hopes that all other reasonable doctrines, including religious ones, can articulate parallel accounts of toleration, respect, and restraint, grounded in an account of why all rational people will not necessarily converge on the same metaphysical and moral doctrine. That is, they will have explanations for the disbelief of others that give reasons for regarding unbelievers as something other than a-necessary-evil-until-truth-prevails, and ideally those reasons will involve an acknowledgment of the burdens of judgment.

With that as a prelude, we can approach the problem of reasonable pluralism through a very specific question posed to Islamic moral psychology and theology. Given that the foundation of Islamic ethics and moral agency is the rational verifiability of the existence of God, can the acceptance of moral and doctrinal pluralism extend all the way to recognizing that rejection of theism itself might be driven by something other than ignorance, divine spite, or willful neglect of manifest signs? In other words, is this kind of radical moral pluralism something the theist might be able to see as other than tragic or temporary in the social world?

Let us pose the question of toleration within Islamic political ethics more sharply than is usual in the substantive existing literature. Let us ask: How does the epistemic and moral-psychological vantage point of the “radical other”—the unbeliever, and not merely the wayward Abrahamic cousin—figure in Islamic discourses on toleration and coercion, if at all? Can there be reasonable pluralism based on an understanding of why various people fail to become Muslim? Do any prominent Muslim theologians see the social and epistemic conditions of modernity and postmodernity as raising distinct and novel challenges for the universal validity of religious truth-claims?

The Rationality and Reasonableness of Islam

Not only do Muslims hold their beliefs to be true, as all believers do, but the Islamic tradition tends to assert both the rationality and reasonableness of the basic doctrines of Islam. This poses an obvious challenge to the hope of modern secular philosophers for an Islam sensitive to Rawls’s “burdens of judgment” and thus able to make sense of radical pluralism from the standpoint of Islamic theology and ethics.

The classical scholars, whether proponents or opponents of kalām (dialectical/discursive theology), held that knowledge of God’s existence could be attained with certainty, both intuitively and through rational inquiry. The Qur’an speaks about a primordial covenant (¢ahd, mīthāq) with God, of which humans are innately aware, most notably in 7:1726 and 30:307, but also in 2:27, 3:77, 6:152, 9:111, 13:25, 16:95, 33:23, and 57:8. These passages led many theologians, including al-Ghazālī and Ibn Taymiyyah, to regard knowledge of God as something embedded in innate human nature (fiţrah) and not in need of rational demonstration.8

However, this innate awareness is often triggered, and fortified, by rational reflection on the world and the cosmos, which are populated by certain “signs [āyāt] of God.” The Qur’an not only speaks of the knowledge God has implanted within each person, but also points to evidence of His handiwork throughout creation, which leads mankind to “be certain in your innermost that you are destined to meet your Sustainer” (13:2). The numerous verses that refer to the signs of God invariably stress the rationality of believing in God. “Verily, in all this there are messages indeed for people who use their reason [ya¢qilūn]” (13:4). “In this way God makes clear unto you His signs, so that you might use your reason” (2:242).

If God’s universe is populated by mysteries, which should awe and humble the human mortal, it is no less populated by clarities that should, while not failing to awe and humble, give humans all the comfort and certainty they need to know that the world is the creation of an active and purposive agent. Medieval theologians and philosophers did not fail to provide supporting apodeictic proofs of the existence of God.9 Indeed, Ash¢arite theologians claimed that rational reflection on the existence of God (nażar) was the first religious obligation. The detailed structure of these arguments is not important here. Suffice it to note that they included arguments from design, from creation ex nihilo,10 and from contingency.11

The important point is that the demand posed by modern secular philosophical ethics—to see radical moral disagreement as something internal to reason, rather than a clear failure of reason—runs counter to the long-standing traditions of religions such as Islam and Christianity, which have always held that reason and revelation are in harmony on the most important matters. These traditions acknowledge reasonable disagreement in many areas of theological and legal doctrine, or about the success of certain specific rational proofs for the existence of God or the veracity of revelation, but they view the denial of an active, creating deity as nothing less than a complete betrayal of one’s reason and one’s natural state.

The Qur’anic commentaries of Muhammad Asad, a modern Muslim thinker (and a convert) committed to integrating certain aspects of the early rationalist traditions of Islam into modern teaching, speak very eloquently to this. Commenting on Qur’an 57:8 (“And why should you not believe in God, seeing that the Apostle calls you to believe in your Sustainer, and He has taken a pledge from you if you are able to believe [in anything]?”), Asad writes: “God’s ‘taking a pledge’ is a metonymic allusion to the faculty of reason with which He has endowed man, and which ought to enable every sane person to grasp the evidence of God’s existence by observing the effects of His creativeness in all nature and by paying heed to the teachings of His prophets.”

Similarly, regarding Qur’an 2:27 (“Those who break their bond with God after it has been established [in their nature], and cut asunder what God has bidden to be joined, and spread corruption on earth: these it is that shall be the losers”), Asad writes:

The “bond with God” (conventionally translated as “God’s covenant”) apparently refers here to man’s moral obligation to use his inborn gifts—intellectual as well as physical—in the way intended for them by God. The “establishment” of this bond arises from the faculty of reason which, if properly used, must lead man to a realization of his own weakness and dependence on a causative power and, thus, to a gradual cognition of God’s will with reference to his own behaviour. This interpretation of the “bond with God” seems to be indicated by the fact that there is no mention of any specific “covenant” in either the preceding or the subsequent verses of the passage under consideration. The deliberate omission of any explanatory reference in this connection suggests that the expression “bond with God” stands for something that is rooted in the human situation as such, and can, therefore, be perceived instinctively as well as through conscious experience: namely, that innate relationship with God which makes Him “closer to man than his neck-vein.” (50:16)

While speaking in a slightly different context,12 Ghazālī’s search for deliverance from what he termed “the darkness of conflicting opinions” (al-Munqidh min al-đalāl) seems to perfectly encapsulate the chasm separating the theological understanding of moral disagreements from the secular aspiration to see disagreements “not as a disaster but rather as the natural outcome of the activities of human reason.” Indeed, the charge that the ideas of “reasonable pluralism” and “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” are overly demanding to religious citizens; unnecessary for achieving toleration and solidarity in a diverse society; and erosive of the distinction between a purely public, common political morality and comprehensive ethical doctrines has been addressed by many political philosophers, even by those sympathetic to Rawls.13

However, this acknowledgment—that it will be much harder for most religious doctrines to recognize reasonable disagreements about such basic matters as the existence of God and the veracity of prophets—only underscores the need for theological answers to the conundrum of persistent unbelief in the face of a rational, reasonable, and natural summons to believe.


Explanations of Disbelief in the Qur'an

The Qur’an provides a range of explanations for the stubborn resistance to the Prophet’s message, which track later theological reflection. While there is evidence of some evolution on the question of unbelievers,14 the Qur’an tends to respond to the puzzle of kufr in two conjoined ways: first, by locating the source of the unbeliever’s resistance not primarily in his mind but in his heart, and second, by attributing the unbeliever’s hard-heartedness to God.

In a few places, the Qur’an seems to entertain the idea that the recipients of the Prophet’s message responded to it with a combination of materialist cynicism and rationalist skepticism. Regarding the unbelievers, 6:29 reports that “some say, ‘There is nothing beyond our life in this world, for we shall not be raised from the dead.’” The unbelievers’ skepticism about the resurrection of the body is reported also in 17:98, 13:5, 50:2–3, and 51:12. Similarly, the idea that a mere man, “one from among ourselves” (54:24) “who eats food and goes about in the market” (25:7), could be the messenger of God is treated with derision and mockery (50:2–3, 37:15, 38:7, 43:31). The Qur’an even asks directly whether rejection of the Prophet’s claims is based on rational reflection: “Is it their minds that bid them to this?” (52:32).

But the answer the Qur’an gives to this question is unambiguously negative. The unbelievers’ pretenses to rational skepticism are but cover for their “overweening arrogance” (52:32) in thinking themselves self-sufficient (96:6–7, 80:5, 92:8). Even “if they were to see part of the sky falling down, they would say, ‘A mass of clouds!’” (52:44). While these passages do tend to invoke the various “signs” that prove the existence of God, these are not occasions for rational disputation with the unbelievers. Rather, it is simply stated that they will come to see their error on the Day of Judgment (54:26, 6:30). The implication is that the unbelievers reject the truth not because of any reasonable disagreement about the origins of the cosmos but rather because of certain psychological and emotional defects; that is, defects of the heart.

The Qur’an makes numerous references to the ingratitude, arrogance, worldliness, injustice, obstinacy, hypocrisy, deafness, and blindness of the ones who reject revelation.15 But why is it that some people have these defects and others do not, if we are all born with the same innate disposition (fiţrah)? The Qur’an nods both to the force of social custom16 and to free will17 (which are analogous to the idea of “burdens of judgment”), but the predominant answer is that God has caused this state of affairs. He has sealed, veiled, or hardened the hearts (9:93, 6:25, 5:13, 17:45–46), blinded the eyes, and deafened the ears (22:46; 8:20–23; 25:44; 27:80–81; 10:42–43; 2:171) of some people but not others.

The cause of unbelief was, of course, one of the earliest theological controversies in Islam, and the doctrine that belief or unbelief is created by God, though still an exercise of human choice, was the doctrine that was to gain currency as the orthodox one.18 However, does the belief that unbelief is caused by God—not only generally, but in particular, in humans—lead to any specific moral or political attitude toward those unbelievers? In some verses, the Qur’an draws on the claim that certain humans have been predestined not to attain to belief in order to stress their vile characteristics and the awful punishment in store for them. However, in the shadow of the view that God curses unbelievers lie the views that their unbelief is not their fault and that God has decreed it intentionally, possibly with some wise plan in mind that is unknowable to mortals.

Religious Disagreement as Divine Will

A number of these verses speak of religious diversity in a way that seems to call not for despair or enmity but for mutual restraint. Furthermore, as many of them come from the pre-hijrah, Meccan period, when Muĥammad’s adversaries were not Jews and Christians but pagans, these verses do not seem to presume religious belief or a monotheistic revelation in the Abrahamic tradition as a condition for forbearance:

If it distresses you that those who deny the truth turn their back on you, why then, if you can go down deep into the Earth or ascend a ladder to heaven and bring them a [more convincing] message, [then do so, but remember] if God had so willed then He surely would have gathered them all under His guidance. So do not be one of the ignorant. (6:35) The final evidence of all truth lies with God alone, and had He so willed, He would have guided you all to truth. (6:149)

Had your Lord willed, all those who live on the Earth would surely have attained to faith, so could you then compel the people to believe, despite the fact that no one can attain to faith except by God’s leave and that He leaves this evil upon those who do not use their reason? (10:99–100)

If your Lord had willed He could have made mankind a single people, but they do not cease to disagree, except for those [upon] whom God has bestowed His mercy. And for this He has created them. (11:118–19)

Say: “O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship, and you do not worship what I worship. And never will I worship what you have worshipped, and never will you worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine!” (109:1–6)

In Islamic ethics today, reference to this set of verses, especially 10:99 and 11:118, is among the most common ways of prefacing an argument in favor of religious and moral pluralism, possibly more common than the well-known verse, “There is no coercion in religion” (2:256). This being so, a certain convergence exists between Rawls (and German philosopher Jürgen Habermas) on the one hand and Muslim thinkers on the other, insofar as both base their justification of self-restraint toward others on an explanation of why others have differing truth-claims. These verses are, moreover, particularly relevant to our inquiry because, whereas the later Medinan verses address inter-communal relations primarily with Christians or Jews, these Meccan verses address the life of Muslims living as a minority, without access to a state or coercive power, among polytheists, with whom no religious affinity whatsoever is to be had.

Certain Meccan verses could thus be invoked to give a Muslim potentially authentic and powerful reasons to regard religious disagreement as inevitable and divinely ordained, and to see pluralistic societies as the field of important activities; namely, bearing witness to the Islamic message, inviting unbelievers to Islam, defending Islam’s virtues through reason and in good will, and standing for justice. Clearly, such beliefs have been held to be compatible with a variety of political arrangements. However, acknowledging that all societies will have unbelievers, and that this state of affairs may be divinely ordained, is not inconsistent with preferring a political system based on religious doctrines that give social advantages to believers. The belief in “pluralism as divine injunction” is not strong enough to result in a doctrine of full civic equality, without regard to religious belief, particularly in a Muslim-majority society. However, in diverse societies, the belief that living with nonbelievers is both God’s will and a prerequisite for performing certain acts vital to a virtuous life (calling to Islam, defending it in a rational manner, advocating justice) is an important pillar of a doctrine of egalitarian citizenship.

The Limits of the Pluralism-as-Divine-Injunction Doctrine

A critical question for political liberals is whether it is necessary to recognize the “burdens of judgment” in order to make a principled affirmation of the fact of reasonable pluralism, and thus whether that recognition is necessary for a doctrine to be reasonable. As noted, Rawls not only uses the fact of reasonable pluralism to explain why political liberalism is not a concession to existing social facts but also defines a “reasonable citizen” and “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” partly based on whether they recognize the burdens of judgment. Rawls holds that it is unfair to a diverse citizenry to uphold a doctrine of skepticism as a shared, public basis of justification, because skepticism is a controversial philosophical doctrine that rejects the truth-claims of other metaphysical systems. He thinks that it is reasonable to ask all citizens to affirm the burdens of judgment as an explanation for the persistence of moral and metaphysical pluralism. But are the burdens of judgment any less controversial or alienating for citizens who affirm the truth of their own metaphysical worldviews? Like skepticism, doesn’t it in some way require of those citizens that they regard their worldviews as less than certain? The questions within political philosophy might arise: Ought we to include recognizing the burdens of judgment as one of the necessary reasons that doctrines give for tolerating fellow citizens, recognizing them, and establishing bonds of solidarity with them? Or rather, should we be open to various traditions providing their own account of the relationship between certainty and toleration?

There are good reasons for searching beyond the doctrine of the burdens of judgment for arguments that may justify accepting pluralism and radical disagreement. A common feature of traditional moralities is that they often rest on a body of cumulative tradition, rather than on a set of first principles that can be rethought or reconfigured. Not all comprehensive doctrines present themselves as ideological clusters of concepts that can be contested, redefined, and rearranged, even if it is possible to derive such concepts and values hermeneutically. We would do well to remember that religious communities are dealt a different hand than are secular ones: they may choose a language to speak about the status of theological commandments that differs from ours. Metaphors, loopholes, qualifications, re-descriptions, silences, and creative acts of forgetting are all tried-and-tested methods for religious communities to change their relationship to sacred text and other communities.

So what does the pluralism-as-divine-injunction argument amount to as an approach to moral disagreement in modern conditions? It seems ambiguous on its fundamental attitude toward unbelievers. The idea of a “fact of reasonable pluralism” is intended to do two main things: first, to assert that moral disagreement is an enduring feature of free societies and not likely to disappear under ideal circumstances; second, to provide a strong normative reason for why political justification must be public in a particular way; namely, in that it restricts itself to beliefs and values that are presumed to be widely held in society.

By way of a “case-for,” the pluralism-as-divine-injunction doctrine clearly serves for Muslim scholars to explain why moral disagreement is likely to be an enduring feature of human societies, and it clearly gives strong reasons for accepting this feature as something other than a failure of Muslims to create certain sociopolitical conditions, or a failure of unbelievers to use their reason and listen to their innate fiţrah. Furthermore, the conscious motivation for reinterpreting these Qur’anic verses seems to be to support a pragmatic political ethics, one that does not seek out conflict merely over the manifestation of beliefs scandalous to a Muslim sensibility. It is only in the modern period that exegetes have extracted from these verses (10:99, 11:118) lessons about coexistence in the conditions of difference and disagreement.19

However, this basic attitude of tolerance does not necessarily imply that Muslims should think humans unable to create the conditions and circumstances for as many persons as possible to accept the truth of Islam. Neither does it follow that the public language of justification ought to be limited in order to accommodate those who hold errant views, albeit understandably. Axiomatic or inferential reasoning in religious traditions functions in a different way than in philosophical doctrines. The fact of “pluralism as divine injunction” does not necessarily result in a doctrine of justificatory neutrality (as it might in a secular, philosophical system), if the same texts that declare pluralism to be a divine injunction also command that morality be promoted, that moral judgment be referred to God, and that His revelation be spread.

Thus, while it is often argued that contemporary liberalism derives its commitment to public justification from its foundational value of respect for persons and recognition of their moral personality, we cannot be so hasty as to assume that all statements of recognition, respect, or toleration in other traditions will lead to a commitment to neutrality of justification. To be sure, those values of recognition, respect, or toleration themselves are crucial components of a doctrine of citizenship, but to fill them out in a satisfactory way from an Islamic perspective will require more than the basic idea that moral pluralism is a divine injunction.


Solving the Puzzle of Religious Pluralism

It seems to me that three responses are available to non-Muslims interested in the puzzle of religious pluralism. Let us term these responses or approaches the theological, the agonistic, and the realist.

The theological approach would be the standard response from Rawlsian or Habermasian theory. Since that approach puts great weight on consensus and social solidarity, and takes seriously the role of ideas (secular and religious) in shaping political motivations, the response to ambiguous accounts of pluralism (such as the divine-injunction account) is to keep pressing for moral dialogue. The theological response would be to insist that it is important that all participants in moral dialogue in conditions of diversity accept the priors of that dialogue, which is to adopt what Habermas calls the “moral point of view,” by recognizing the reasonableness of all modern ethical perspectives that are willing to extend the same courtesy to others. Insofar as orthodox Islamic discourses seem ambivalent about the ethical reasonableness of non-Abrahamic or non-theistic perspectives, the task is to persuade them to move toward a theological position that would allow them to endorse pluralism as an inescapable fact of modernity. When someone accepts that fact and exhibits a large degree of epistemic and moral respect, the response might be to reciprocate and try to show that his own account leads necessarily to more liberal conclusions than he is ready to acknowledge.20

The realist approach is to recognize that the official doctrine of a religious tradition is likely not important in political matters. What matters is its political and sociological strength in specific contexts, and the fact that religious actors, when they do care about influencing or wielding political power, are likely to be as pragmatic as any other actors. Thus, leave the theology to the theologians and the moral theorizing to the philosophers, and simply engage with the religious as parties interested in achieving political and social harmony.

The agonistic response would lie in between the previous two. Agonism purports to be more realistic than consensus-driven or deliberative conceptions of politics in that it recognizes that disagreement is the natural state of matters in morality and politics no less than in ethics. However, it is more moralistic than strict political realism in that it sees politics as often a struggle for competing conceptions of the good and the valuable. Agonism also valorizes politics to an extent that can only be regarded as moral. Not only is politics better than violent conflict, but agonistic engagement and competition are a valuable way of living and of relating to one’s “others.” It is thus not boundlessly indifferent to consensus and deliberation; the agonist needs political competitors, and this requires that one’s others are not enemies—that they, too, accept politics as superior to war.

The agonistic response simply accepts that followers of any religion worth its salt believe it to be true and believe infidels to be in a deep state of error and self-deception, and so consider it a fool’s errand to push them to do what they cannot do: both affirm their revelation to be true and affirm that others may be reasonable in holding to some other truth. As long as the believers are content to pursue their aims through politics, persuasion, and social competition, the rest of us are better off meeting them on these fields and not asking them to submit to theological decommissioning in order to be welcomed into the club of the reasonable.

These three approaches are not easily kept apart, despite the deep academic investment in their distinctiveness. Agonism easily slips into mere political realism or willingly enters into metaphysical and philosophical disputation with the other. Similarly, the theological approach contains both the possibility of militant democratic responses to illiberal doctrines (which can appear both realist and agonistic) and also of more rough-and-tumble public-philosophical sparring than the image of public reason deliberating on the basis of merely public values sometimes suggests.

Clearly, the Islamic account of how to “explain disbelief” is far from the most urgent political problem of our day, but the problem of toleration for “the other” is a worthwhile pursuit and remains interesting.21 Does the other see me as fundamentally unemancipated, an agent of my own self-enslavement? Does the other see my disbelief as a contingent fact about the world, and the eradication of my disbelief as something to be imagined and hoped for? Or if wrong belief and misguided ethical projects are seen as inevitable in the world, what does this reveal about the world itself: that it is fallen, and so imperfection must be tolerated but not embraced? Or is there a way in which we can all see doctrinal and ethical difference as something permanent in the world but somehow less than tragic?

Thus, an important project for the study of toleration is a pluralization and democratization of the theory and genealogy of toleration itself. What might change in our understanding of toleration when those who are often seen as objects of toleration are refigured as subjects of toleration? After all, we cannot simply assume that toleration is a response to unreasonableness or failures to form deeper bonds of sociability. The question that hovers above any relationship that is governed by the practice and sensibility of toleration is this: What is preventing that social relationship from attaining more exalted forms of human sociability or emancipation? When do we resign ourselves to toleration for now, and when do we see toleration as unlikely to be superseded by something better?

We should not forget that religious communities, especially Muslims in these times, are often called upon in public to reassure others of their toleration and to provide us with their theological account of it, and that this is a common form of disciplinary power. But in the right circumstances, these concerns point to a potential agenda for reinvigorating our theoretical and academic discussions about the relationship between toleration and other aspirational moral and political relationships. They also point to a way in which we can democratize not only the public, political discourses of toleration but the philosophical exploration of toleration itself.


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