A number of friends have pushed and probed, wondering if I’m not being overly simplistic when I say that Islam is largely irrelevant to the future of America.
First of all, I am being overly simplistic. Islam and America—these are extraordinarily complex cultural realities. When I wrote about the mosque controversy here in New York, I asserted that Islam is relatively dysfunctional. I should have been more precise. By my reading, whatever its strengths, Islam has a relatively dysfunctional relation to modern political realities, not so much in the West, but rather in Islamic countries themselves.
As an example I point to the recent news that the ruling elite in Iran is currently embroiled in a controversy about the role of clerics in the theocratic vision of an Islamic state, with allies of President Ahmadinejad arguing that clerics are not necessary.
Whatever one makes of the political infighting in Iran, or the theological details if Shi’a theology, the conflict—which is very likely far more important than most Western journalists realize—suggests the central fact I am trying to emphasize. There is an unstable relation between Islam and the modern forms of state power, forms that, as the West discovered to its horror in the modern bloodbaths of nationalism, have a logic of their own.
The situation in Iran has a familiar feel to me. I’m reminded of the agonies of the Catholic Church from the French Revolution through the Spanish Civil War. My point is not that Islam cannot achieve a stable relation to modern political realities. Many thought Catholicism intrinsically incapable, and they were proven wrong. Instead, my point is that Islam, whatever its spiritual and cultural strengths, is presently both a source and victim of political turmoil, not, I hasten to add, for or in America or European nations, but rather for and in Islamic countries.
(I want to anticipate readers eager to pen a doom and gloom notes about Europe. Switzerland, France, Sweden—these and other countries are experiencing cultural strains that have political consequences, but they are not teetering on the edge of disintegration or revolution. It is imperative that we recognize how deeply the roots of post-war democratic institutions have gone in Europe.)
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ll muse about the future nonetheless.
I don’t think Islam will end up taking over Europe, or even exerting a sustained influence in the near future. The dangers there (as here in America) are largely Western in origin, e.g., a soft nihilism.
To exercise influence, Muslims need a theology of secularity and the legitimacy of secular authority. Smart Muslims in America are trying to think this through, for example at the Zaytuna College in Berkeley, which I’ve highlighted in the past.
I’m hopeful that they succeed.
Christianity of course is in a better position, not the least because it was forced to grapple with secularity over the last three hundred years, and longer if one goes back to the investiture controversy in the eleventh century.
But perhaps more important are the resources for imagining faith at the margins rather than center. Christianity sees political and cultural rejection as part of its Christological core. A catacomb view of the relation of faith to society is, in some ways, the most obvious reading of the New Testament, as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder have pointed out again and again.
What this means is that, even abstracting from the sophistication of its political theology, Christianity has a self-image that allows it to flourish in a secular society that pushes (sometimes aggressively) to the margins. And not just flourish but also influence and leaven.