False Conservatism in Modern Islam and a Case for Moderation

In recent years I’ve come to believe that a large percentage of “conservative” Muslims living in the West suffer from what psychologists would term cognitive dissonance. That is, a psychic state in which there exists a disharmony between what one articulates as the true and correct way to live one’s life, and how one in fact lives one’s life in practice. Of course, titles of any sort are nebulous and slippery concepts and can often do more to obscure than edify. However, for purposes of this post I mean to define a conservative as someone who adheres to the five pillars of Islam and generally espouses a conservative position on issues such as the hijab, gender relations, the death penalty, hadith reliability, as well as a literalist reading of the Qur’an and Sunnah and opposition to music, dance, and film, which are thought to promote a life of sin and impropriety.

The comments that follow most certainly do not apply to all conservative Muslims, but rather a narrow subset whose world view, I believe, is riddled with confusion, contradiction, dishonesty and duplicity. Nor is this a criticism of conservative Islam per se, which has a rich and varied history spanning many centuries, and which produced Muslim intellectuals of great distinction, including Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim Jawziyyah, and Ibn Hazm. Rather, it is a critique of one strand of modern conservative Islamic thought and the remarkable absence of intellectual and moral integrity that exists among its “practitioners” in the West. One may go so far as to say that it arguably represents one of the greatest farces in all of modern Islam; the unique danger of this movement is that it has deceived itself into sincerity. In a forthcoming post, I hope to address what I regard as the profound shortcomings of the counterpart “secular Muslim” camp, or subset thereof, but here I will focus my discussion on conservatism, or more accurately, false conservatism.

The defining characteristic of this brand of conservatism is advocating beliefs that one does not sincerely hold. False conservatives living in the West often speak in theoretical ideals about the necessity of “establishing an Islamic state,” that the Islamic legal system is paramount to any other, and the need for Islam to be practiced according its black letter tradition in all walks of life, both at the individual and state level. However, when asked to explain how they hope to see such ideals come to fruition, especially while maintaining fidelity to progressive notions of human rights and individual liberty, of which they have been life-long beneficiaries, they search in vain to provide coherent answers. When challenged to point to a contemporary example of an Islamic state that governs its citizens in a morally responsible manner, obscure references are sometimes made to countries such as Turkey and Indonesia, nations that are in essence secular with only nominal Islamic attachments. Even more, there is a profound reluctance on the part of false conservatives to acknowledge that post-Enlightenment ideals of democratic governance, women’s rights, freedom of conscience, and opposition to cruel and unusual punishment are desirable ends in themselves. Rather, they insist that any ideals “not compatible with the Qur’an and Sunnah” must not be considered ideals at all.

Despite these outward declarations, my belief is that, in reality, false conservatives aspire to live in a world not unlike that envisioned by liberal and secular-minded Muslims, and even non-Muslims. Indeed, conservatives often come from families in which their sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, and wives do not adhere to the theoretical ideals they themselves espouse. Nevertheless, when attention is brought to the fact that theocratic nations like Saudi Arabia are engaging in gross human rights abuses by forcing women to veil under threat of punishment, or not allowing men and women work in gender-neutral environments, or prohibiting women from driving, or subjecting citizens to corporal punishment if they are found on the street during the call for prayer, they react with reflexive defensiveness, often expressing strong sympathy for such practices. Indeed, great intellectual effort is spent, either explaining away such inhumane practices or, in more extreme cases, demonstrating that they in fact comport with the Islamic tradition. It should be noted that “sympathy” is often expressed with great tact and subtlety, including remaining silent in the face of incontrovertible knowledge that Muslims are a party to human rights abuses. In contrast, when sincere efforts are made by moderate Muslims to interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah in novel and creative ways, or even merely to ensure that a law’s underlying purpose is met, conservatives respond by condemning such efforts as heretical. For instance, if, as general proposition, Islamic law permits the death penalty, any attempt to understand a modern theory of criminal justice within an Islamic context, and demonstrate why capital punishment may now be an obsolete practice, is considered a superfluous exercise. It’s part of the Qur’an Sunnah, we are told. Thus one may not say that the death penalty is un-Islamic, so goes their reasoning.

In spite of these “principled” stances, the irony is that false conservatives partake in many of the secular practices for which they express disdain. Here I am largely speaking on personal observation, but one hears comments to the following effect: going to the cinema on Friday nights and watching movies riddled with nudity and vulgarity is considered a “safe and acceptable Islamic alternative” to going to a nightclub; co-ed hangouts among unmarried Muslim men and women are permissible, since “we are Muslim,” after all; allowing one’s wife and mother to go uncovered is okay, because at least we acknowledge in our hearts that it is mandatory; not having a beard is permissible because some scholars say that it is not obligatory; listening to music is not so bad, since at least we are not drinking; dressing in western clothing is a benign transgression, so long as one does not expose one’s aura; and on and on. In other words, their adherence to Islam is quite often not in accord with black letter Islamic law (which must not be confused with Islam’s far richer and more comprehensive moral tradition), yet they’ve come to believe that their lifestyle is Islamically acceptable by drawing comparisons to their more liberal Muslim counterparts. Although such a clumsy comparative jurisprudence has no basis in Islamic law or scholarship, and represents an obvious departure from their otherwise literalist tendencies, these anomalies appear to be of no consequence to false conservatives.

In light of the many secular “excesses” conservatives engage in, it must be asked, would these individuals be willing to subject themselves and their loved ones to living under a theocratic government anywhere in the modern Muslim world? Would they want their mothers forced to wear a veil under the threat of imprisonment or even physical abuse? Would they wish to see their sisters told that they cannot pursue a college degree because it would result in unlawful interaction with men? Or that their mothers may not drive themselves to the supermarket? That their fathers and brothers will be beaten if they do not respond to the call of prayer by immediately prostrating their foreheads to the ground? That if they are caught watching western films, or listening to music, or spending time with Muslims of the opposite sex, they will be censured in the worst way? If conservatives do not wish to subject their families to such a wretched existence, why then do they lend so much intellectual, political, and moral support to these inhumane practices? Why do they condemn well-intentioned Muslims who make an effort to show that the elasticity and richness of the Islamic tradition is such that valid differences of opinion may be had on these matters?

Ironically, conservatives exercise great liberty in Qur’anic interpretation when they find their pre-formulated doctrines at variance with black letter law. For instance, a literal reading of the Qur’an makes it clear that one may not commit suicide (Qur’an 4:29). However, false conservatives exhibit an almost hero-like worship of Muslim scholars who engage in a highly sophisticated, and even, liberal jurisprudence, to posit exceptions to the Qur’an’s categorical prohibition against taking one’s own life in the case of suicide bombings. In other words, they are willing to abandon black letter law when their doctrine demands it, yet react with indignation when moderate Muslims employ a progressive jurisprudence to arrive at morally acceptable legal doctrine on other matters. Why the double-standard?

This same duplicity exists in the arena of secular politics. False conservatives often cite the authority of leftist writers and liberal organization when such authority conforms to their conservative prejudices. Thus when the United States, Europe, Israel, and India are the object of political scorn, they express unreserved agreement with writers such as Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein, as well as organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. However, they would not dare cite these same sources when their self-serving politics are called into question; when has a conservative cited Noam Chomsky’s damning indictment of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia? Because NATO and the United States were intervening to protect Bosnian Muslims, military intervention must necessarily be morally justifiable. The same held true in the 1980’s when the United States and Pakistan were supplying Afghan rebels with arms to repel the Soviet invasion; criminals such as Zia ul-Haqq and Ronald Regan were lionized by false conservatives to the point of apotheosis.

In adopting such a hypocritical stance, conservatives fail to realize that they are subverting the entire political philosophy of morally conscious intellectuals who encourage activists to criticize their own nations, people, tribes and religions before hurling blame upon others. This was the standard practice of all great men and women in history, both secular and religious, including the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who condemned the abominable practices of his own tribe of Qur’aish, in the face of great persecution, well before he criticized the Jewish or Christian communities of Arabia. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to analogize the Prophets of the Old Testament (pbuh) to modern-day intellectuals; that is, individuals who condemned injustice, hypocrisy, the abuse of power, and spoke of society’s moral duty to uplift the social condition of the weak and oppressed. A brilliant insight, particularly coming from a secular-humanist.

In short, it is clear that a high degree of inauthenticity permeates this brand of conservative Muslim thought; such individuals are, in essence, engaging in a false dialectic by arguing in favor positions that they inwardly acknowledge do not square with the dictates of their moral conscience. When confronted with this contradiction, the line of apologia most often invoked is that “we recognize the many shortcomings in our own adherence to Islam but we acknowledge them as such.” However, this response is simply farcical. If conservatives sincerely believed, in the tradition of Ibn Hazm, that a literal black letter adherence to Islamic law was desirable, they would have no compunctions in admitting that they would prefer to live under a theocratic system in which such a practice holds true. It goes without saying, however, that almost none of these Muslims would willingly subject themselves or their families to the kind of heavy-handed governance they so vociferously defend. Such phoniness is all the more contemptible when one considers that real human beings are presently suffering under these regimes every day. Rather than allowing for an intellectual culture in which these issues can be vigorously debated, false conservatives become defense lawyers for modern Islamic theocracies, in effect perpetuating the misery of innocent human beings throughout the world. Some conservatives go so far as to come to the “moral defense” of groups like the Taliban, which represent the most extreme and barbaric example of Islamic conservatism in the world today–indeed, conservatism is far too kind a term. They maintain that the Taliban are “perhaps misguided, but they are, in the end, sincere Muslims”; or, at a minimum, a willful blind eye is turned to atrocities committed by extremist groups through which false conservatives, in effect, become accessories to crimes. Such gross moral negligence is motivated by the false notion that individuals who pray, grow beards, and make their religiosity known in conspicuous ways must necessarily be sincere practitioners of Islam. That is a classic non-sequitur.

There is a remedy to the self-imposed dilemma of false conservatism: rather than silencing dissent and condemning those who engage in a non-literalist jurisprudence, conservatives would do well to join hands with moderates and try to arrive at doctrinal and legal compromises; compromises that would not only be compatible with the Islamic tradition, but also bridge the chasm between one’s words and actions. Creative Muslim thinkers who depart from convention should be supported, not maligned, when they undertake sincere efforts to fuse a modern concept of justice and human rights with the Islamic tradition. However, in order for such an alliance to materialize, conservatives must come to a preliminary realization that their narrow understanding of Islam is not the only not valid understanding, and that there is generous room for diversity of opinion on virtually every controversial issue confronting modern Islam. It is, of course, true that some matters are not amenable to Islamic justification—alcohol consumption, for example, which I personally regard as a social evil even without recourse to Islamic doctrine. However, even on these matters there are more appropriate ways to deal with Muslims who indulge in such vices; to date, the conservative response has been one characterized by an attitude of sanctimony and condescension, which often descends into outright slander (another example of an opportunistic violation black letter law). This type of self-righteousness is precisely what sows division in the ranks of Muslims, often to the point of causing non-conservatives to abandon Islam altogether.

My intention in bringing public awareness to what I regard as false conservatism is not to disparage fellow Muslims for mere sport. Indeed, conservative Muslims will necessarily play an essential role in the governance of future Muslim countries all throughout the world. Rather, it is to point out that an insincere insistence upon an uncompromising interpretation of Islam makes meaningful dialogue about the need for a more progressive Islamic jurisprudence all but impossible. Muslims must speak in a way that is consistent not only with their outward practice, but also the dictates of their moral conscience. Going forward, perhaps a useful thought experiment would be to place oneself or one’s family in the scenario one is advocating for. That would ensure a degree of intellectual and moral integrity. Perhaps if false conservatives spoke with their hearts rather than their egos, they would find that the degree of doctrinal separation between them and their moderate counterparts is more chimerical than they may have hitherto imagined.

Do righteous deeds properly, sincerely and moderately…Always adopt a middle, moderate, and regular course through which you will achieve your end of Paradise.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh); Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith 470.

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6 Responses to False Conservatism in Modern Islam and a Case for Moderation

  1. Imran says:

    no comment awesome one !

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  3. Donald Stark says:

    Here is spiritual insight appropriate to any religion, such as mine–Christian. Thank you and God speed.

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