The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations in Not Inevitable
by Michael Novak
Basic. 281 pp. $26.

Political freedom remains alien to most of the world’s Muslims, in both theory and practice. It would be good for that to change, because political freedom is a universal good which should be universally embraced. Such a change will not come, and will not endure, unless it is principled and voluntary; it cannot be forced from abroad. American politicians have less ability than they think to push global Islam toward freedom”though they have considerable power to foul things up by discrediting freedom among Afghanis and Iraqis as they already have among Russians. But perhaps some immigrant teenager in Detroit will grow up to become the Islamic equivalent of John Courtney Murray, crafting a persuasive theology of freedom within his own tradition and inspiring his coreligionists worldwide.

One wonders what such a teenager would think of Michael Novak’s The Universal Hunger for Liberty . One hopes that he would appreciate Novak’s tactful irenicism and would welcome this invitation to revive the long-dead dialogue of a millennium ago, when Plato and Aristotle were better known to Islam than to Western Christendom. Novak recognizes that Islam will never develop a culture of freedom unless it builds a theological foundation for that culture with its own “magnificent intellectual resources.” He warns against despair but does not always avoid wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, the late-medieval Islamic world so decisively rejected its own great commentators on the ancient Greek philosophers that it is almost impossible to imagine that intellectual tradition being revived today. Novak would have done well to note that most of the philosophical commentaries of Averroes, so beloved of Thomas Aquinas, have not even been preserved in their original Arabic; they survive today only in Hebrew or Latin translations. Anyone seeking to build an Islamic theology of freedom today is going to have to base it on the living tradition, including not only the Koran but also the hadith , or sayings, attributed to Mohammed and used as spiritual guidelines down to the present. That work can be done successfully only by thinkers who live and pray within that tradition”not by outsiders or heretics. Islamic equivalents of Hans Küng will find it easier to attract Western audiences and funding than to convert their fellow Muslims.

Sensitive to his status as an outsider, Novak steps gingerly. He looks for points of classic Islamic doctrine that seem to offer potential for development into a mature theory of freedom”dormant seeds that may someday blossom into “a delayed springtime for worldwide Islam.” Among these, he suggests, are Islam’s great stress on the dignity of all men and their fundamental equality before God. Also noteworthy is the sense of Allah as so utterly transcendent “that his greatness is a warning to any mere mortal spokesman about his own shortsightedness and inadequacy in the face of Allah. In other words, the greatness of Allah relativizes all known pretensions. It opens the human mind to the possibility that only Allah knows all the paths that lead to him and that human agents would do well to respect the freedom of religious conscience both in single individuals and in the public free exercise of other religious groups. For Muslims, Islam is the one true religion, but no single Muslim can claim to know all the mysterious paths along which Allah leads all the other peoples of the Earth.”

More concretely, Novak sees hope in the Islamic tradition of shura , by which a ruler is supposed to seek consultation and consensus before acting. This, too, might provide a germ of democratic theory”but shura has been around for a long time without producing much more real democracy in practice than Russia’s analogously named “soviets.” Another precedent, often cited by today’s Muslim reformers, is the “constitution of Medina,” by which Mohammed himself set up a government based on explicit written consent and the granting of civic freedoms to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including Jews.

This very early pact should indeed be better known”but to me it looks like a mere tactic, a temporary accommodation until the prophet and his followers could gather enough strength to crush the infidels and turn them into permanent second-class citizens. It would be tremendously reassuring to see a concrete example of an overwhelmingly Islamic society with a tiny, powerless minority that enjoys reliable freedom of conscience purely because of that society’s principled commitment to liberty”a minority such as the Amish in Pennsylvania or Virginia. But so far no such example exists. As measured by human-rights indices such as those of Freedom House, the planet’s forty-seven Muslim-majority countries have less freedom than any other major part of the world”less even than sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamic world has never repudiated its many wars of religious aggression, including those led by Mohammed himself, in the way that Christian leaders have offered public repentance for the Crusades.

Even more dubious is the question Novak poses to Muslims: “Does human freedom make us more like God”that is, if any comparison with God, no matter of what kind, is not blasphemous?” I cannot imagine a faithful Muslim seeing such a comparison as anything other than blasphemous. For Christians, deification is the obverse of incarnation; as St. Athanasios said sixteen centuries ago, “The Son of God became man so that we might become god.” Islam would seem to be required by its core principles to deny that”and also to deny the New Testament distinction between duties to God and duties to Caesar, which is the basis for all subsequent thought in Christendom on relations between church and state.

Indeed, the most pacific and tolerant Muslims are generally those who have practiced, or have submitted to, the very thing that serious Christians resist when it is done to their own tradition: the dilution of the tradition by incompatible elements brought in from other religions or from secular culture. The Tatars and Slavs have generally good relations in Tatarstan, but that is impossible to separate from the fact that Tatarstan has been ruled from Moscow for nearly five centuries”and violently secularized during most of the last century. And even extreme secularization has failed to guarantee genuine freedom: for instance, the repressiveness of Turkey’s government would get far more critical attention from Washington if Turkey were not an ally of the U.S. and Israel. Precisely because Washington has set such ambitious Wilsonian goals in its “war on terror,” it has less scope than it did a decade ago to lobby allied or neutral states on human-rights issues. Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov has clearly calculated that his grotesque persecution of both Muslims and Protestants will not upset his increasingly cozy relations with the U.S. government, and so far he has been right.

Perhaps Washington can do to the Arabs what Moscow did to the Tatars? Novak optimistically calls the March 2004 interim Iraqi constitution “a bright beacon of hope.” But that constitution bars enactment of any “law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam.” These tenets include not just metaphysical and ritual teachings but also the sharia legal system which lays down detailed rules for both public and private life, including drink and dress. One “universally agreed tenet” prescribes the death penalty for any adult male who converts from Islam to any other religion. By indirectly incorporating such tenets, the constitution gives Islamic clergy a powerful role in the judicial system and in vetoing secular legislation.

That role clearly contradicts the document’s Western-style provisions, such as one that ostensibly “guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.” One member of the committee that drafted the Iraqi constitution reassured his fellow Muslims last year that there would be nothing to prevent a democratically elected government “from practicing Islamic sharia .” He and many other Iraqis clearly see democracy simply as a mechanism for choosing rulers”not as a broad network of protections for individual freedom and the rule of law. (In general, Novak worries too little about the tension between democracy and freedom; in much of the world, more of the former means less of the latter.)

Moreover, it now seems probable that future generations of Iraqis will remember the interim constitution not as an achievement of their own people but as a legacy of alien occupation. One bellwether is the relatively moderate Shiite ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has largely cooperated with U.S. forces. Sistani has specifically reaffirmed traditional rules forbidding a woman to leave her house without her husband’s permission and barring Muslims from bequeathing their estates to non-Muslims. The more “democratic” Iraq’s future government becomes in the literal sense of that term”the more accountable to an indigenous popular majority”the more precarious will be its constitutional safeguards for minority and individual rights. The 2004 constitution may turn out to be as meaningless in practice as those which previous generations of democratic optimists drafted for decolonized Africa in the 1960s or the former Soviet republics in the 1990s.

Yet for all that, one yearns to reach out to serious Muslims. Traditional Christians ought to feel viscerally uncomfortable about allying ourselves with secular modernists against Muslims; on major issues such as abortion we have more in common with the latter, as Peter Kreeft vividly reminded us in his 1996 book Ecumenical Jihad. Decent, civilized men and women from Islamic ethnic groups are well represented in Russia’s dissident intelligentsia”such as the surgeon Khassan Baiev, who in his 2003 book The Oath gave us the most balanced, humane eyewitness account thus far of the war in Chechnya. A century from now Christian-Muslim coalitions may seem as natural as Christian-Mormon coalitions today. Muslims will have to change a great deal for that to happen, but religions and religious cultures can evolve in unpredictable ways. Who in 1630 would have predicted that Massachusetts, John Winthrop’s Calvinist “city on a hill,” would become one of the most anti-Christian polities in the Western hemisphere?

Michael Novak, one of the most distinguished Christian scholars of our time, has especially distinguished himself by writing correctives to gloom. His works on Christianity and capitalism and on Christianity and environmentalism”many of the essential points of which he elaborates in The Universal Hunger for Liberty ”have confounded the postmodern cultists of despair and have left all of us in his debt. But his new book, like much current thinking in Washington, is so naïvely optimistic about the prospects for universalizing American-style democracy that it borders on utopianism. Christians should understand that even if the global victory of freedom were inevitable, it would still turn out to be only temporary; original sin would ensure that. In both East and West, fallen men are so constructed that they do not always and everywhere hunger even for universal goods.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch, http://www.irfw.org .