You can add my name to the list of people who are getting sick and tired of hearing about how Islam is a ”œreligion of peace.” Anyone who agrees with this sort of claim is basically abandoning the most power- ful argument for liberal democracy, and agreeing to play by a set of rules that are stacked in favour of funda- mentalists and fanatics.
The unspoken assumption is that there is some fact of the matter when it comes to the ”œcorrect” interpretation of Islam (which somehow Islamists or Jihadists have failed to grasp). Yet the primary problem with religious doc- trines is that their adherents are con- stitutionally incapable of coming to an agreement about a correct interpreta- tion. The history of religion is nothing but a long tale of apostasy, schism, and heresy, not to mention ”œnew” divine revelations. It is worth remembering that both Christianity and Islam arose as schismatic movements within the Jewish monotheistic tradition (in very much the same way that Mormonism arose in the 19th century).
If these people were capable of sorting out their disagreements, set- tling on a ”œcorrect” interpretation, don’t you think they would have done so by now?
This is why religion and politics make such dangerous bedfellows, and why liberal democracies insist upon a strict separation of church and state. Because religious doctrines simply lack the intellectual resources required for the adjudication of rival interpretations, ”œpeople of faith,” when given access to political power, have had a tendency to use the state to impose their own partic- ular interpretations upon others.
This is, of course, something that we already know, just by looking at the history of Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas, the most milquetoast theolo- gian of the Middle Ages, and the stan- dard-bearer for contemporary ”œmainstream” Catholicism, thought it obvious that heresy should be pun- ished by death. After all, heresy cor- rupts the eternal soul of the individual. If attacks on the body are punishable by death, should not attacks on the soul be punished even more gravely?
Yet if any religion is entitled to call itself a ”œreligion of peace,” Christianity must clearly have a strong claim to the title. After all, Jesus is the one who insisted that his injunction to ”œlove one another” superseded all pre- vious commandments, principles and edicts. (This is why the bumper sticker that asks, ”œWho would Jesus bomb?” is humorous in a way that ”œWho would Mohammad bomb?” would not be. Mohammad may have been a prophet, but he was also a warrior and a king.)
Yet Christianity, in spite of being a so-called ”œreligion of peace,” served as the dominant ideology of some of the most aggressive and militaristic soci- eties in the history of the world (e.g., France circa 1429). Even today, it is easy to find televangelists justifying the American invasion of Iraq through direct scriptural references. Are they misinterpreting the Bible?
In the aftermath of 9/11, Ann Coulter suggested that the United States should find those responsible, ”œinvade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Does this make her a bad Christian, or at least one with an ”œincorrect” interpretation of the Bible? Who is to say? She is certainly a very common type of Christian.
One of the major forces underlying the drive toward liberal democracy was the recognition that these interpretive issues could not be resolved, and that given the intractable nature of religious disagreement, it was better to keep such doctrines out of the political arena altogether.
Thus anyone who grants that there is such a thing as the ”œcorrect” inter- pretation of Islam is essentially agreeing to play ball in the enemy’s court. After all, if there is one correct interpretation, then why should it not serve as a basis for public policy? Or why should coun- tries with an overwhelmingly Islamic population, such as Iran, not have a sys- tem of countermajoritarian institutions that reflect this Islamic consensus? The way that the Council of Guardians func- tions in the Iranian political system is, after all, not that different from the way the Supreme Court functions in our own ”” it’s just that our judges overrule dem- ocratic majorities in the name of ”œrights,” whereas Iranian guardians over- rule democratic majorities in the name of explicitly theological doctrines.
How do we avoid such uncomfort- able parallels? We should insist that there is no such thing as the correct or incorrect interpretation of any reli- gious doctrine. We should insist that Wahhabism is just as legitimate an interpretation of Islam as the mildest, more reformist version on offer, just as we should insist that Ann Coulter’s reading of the Bible is just as legitimate as Phil Donahue’s.
Indeed, it is only by seeing that any one of these interpretations is as good as any other that we can see why they are all unsuitable as a basis for public policy or political argument.