“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Well, to judge by the commentary over the last 48 hours Trump is a fool – and a chaotic and illiberal one to boot. Whatever the many issues with his latest Executive Order, it could just as easily be said that only a fool would rush in to opine. But at the risk of looking foolish, one criticism of the Trump approach is that it looks at the issue from the wrong end. The risk of terrorism is not the primary problem and, paradoxically, a policy which appears rather crudely to discriminate on the basis of religion / birth place lacks effective discrimination, if its stated purpose really were to minimise the risk of terror (why no ban on Saudi nationals, for instance? Saudis were, after all, rather more prominent in the most deadly act of terror in the US than Syrians.)
So here are three factors worth thinking about.
i) Credal cultures sit uneasily with secular democracies. If you think that a polity, that your right to be a citizen, should be determined by membership of a particular creed, it is hard to square this with a democracy. Even harder if you believe that a country’s laws should be determined by the rules of a particular God. How can laws be democratically changed as a result of peoples’s votes if laws enact the will of God? Surely only God (or His earthly representatives) can do so?
And where is your one person-one vote democracy then? And why should members of a minority religion obey laws based on a religion they don’t share, may even think profoundly mistaken or, at worst, abhor? Note that this is not just an issue associated with Islam. A look at our own history: (both European and American) provides countless examples of such conflicts (Becket and Henry II, the Puritans fleeing to the American colonies, Britain’s treatment of Catholics, the Huguenots and the Treaty of Nantes) and the varying solutions adopted, some of them very bloody indeed.
Our current solution has been the adoption of secularism and a belief that religion is for the private rather than the public sphere. But that solution does not work easily – or indeed at all – if the religion does not wish to be confined to the private sphere, indeed does not recognise the difference. And that is a problem which the presence of significant Islamic communities has brought Europe: the demand for sharia law (a legal system which it is worth saying was declared as long ago as 2003 to be incompatible with the principles of the ECHR) is one such example of this conflict.
ii) Much has been made of the principle of toleration. But toleration of the different, the eccentric, the unusual, the minority comes from self-confidence. And it requires an implicit understanding by all, not just the majority, that all are fundamentally part of the same wider group, share at some level similar or, at least, compatible, basic values and that toleration is reciprocal.
If those are missing, then toleration of those who are actively hostile to those values (and we need to accept that some groups do despise Western liberalism) is not so much toleration as feeble-minded and dangerous appeasement. The different stranger is not seen as a threat to a group confident in its own values and strength, willing to be open to the outsider and clear about the implicit terms of its hospitality. But sometimes the outsider is a threat and tolerating those who are or may be a threat is a weakness, a dangerous one. Fundamentalist Islam does pose a threat to Western liberal democracies. Pretending that this is not so is foolish.
iii) Secular societies find it hard to understand how important religion is to believers and to those for whom religion is part of their culture, even if they are not believers or only intermittent ones. At a time when identities of all types are given an elevated importance in political debate, it is curious how religious identity is so often dismissed. It is dismissed because, having largely abandoned religion (other than as a ritual for ceremonies) we have little understanding of why it matters to others and little language in common.
It seen as an archaic curiosity, a historical remnant from less enlightened times, something which people will grow out of and, if they don’t, fundamentally the same as our own rather etiolated national religion. But Islam is not just some exotic version of the CoE. To think of it thus, to assume that Muslims in Western societies will somehow abandon their religion over time as they realise how silly it is, is condescending and insulting to those for whom their faith matters. Nor is it inevitable that Islam will go through the same challenge and development as happened over centuries to Christianity.
Some consequences of this:-
- We have no effective language for debating sensibly these issues and thinking about possible solutions. The challenges which religious extremism pose to liberal secular societies cannot be addressed by ritual chanting of “diversity” and similar mantras. If we do not find such a language it will be the extremists who will set the terms of debate. A society confident in its own values should not – would not – permit this.
- It has led to a focus on visible symbols – burqas, burkinis, halal meat, minarets in Switzerland etc – as a substitute for a real debate about how whether societies should welcome large groups of people from very different, strongly credal cultures and, if so, in what numbers and what the expectations/requirements of them (and the host society) should be.
- Terrorism is seen as the threat. But the solutions to terrorism are not necessarily the same as those needed for successful integration of minority cultures/religions. And the risk is that the debate can get sidelined wrongly into a “Muslims are/are not terrorists” meme, both offensive and pointless. Furthermore, this ignores the challenges we would still face even if there were no terrorism e.g to our concept of freedom of speech from those who think that limits should be placed on how one discusses their God.
- It results in ad hominem policy-making: bans on Syrians or Iranians, failing to discriminate between those who are a risk (ISIS sleeper agents vs Iranian refugees from the Ayatollahs) or, more shamefully, attacks on individual Muslims.
Critically, a policy such as Trump’s latest provides so much basis for criticism – that it may be unconstitutional, that it may well be ineffective, that it is illiberal, that it is immoral, that it will dismay America’s friends and embolden her enemies, that it could be counter-productive by providing another reason for the young to be recruited to violence, that it stands in sharp contrast to the best of American values – that what risks being lost is any chance to have a thoughtful and intelligent discussion about this most sensitive of topics. The challenges which the growth of Islamic communities in the West pose to Western societies, particularly a time when Islam is and has been since at least 1979 subject to extreme and fundamentalist winds of change, will still be there long after Trump’s Executive Order has been modified or overturned.