In the three and a half decades since the Iranian revolution, I have been watching my friends and neighbors (and distant neighbors) on the left struggling to understand—or avoid understanding—the revival of religion in what is now called a “post-secular” age. Long ago, we looked forward to “the disenchantment of the world”—we believed that the triumph of science and secularism was a necessary feature of modernity. And so we forgot, as Nick Cohen has written, “what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny.”1
BV: Two comments.
First, what might the triumph of science be if not the triumph of scientism, which is not science, but a philosophical view according to which the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge? (I provide plenty of nuance as to the definition of 'scientism' in my Scientism category.) After all, if science triumphs, it triumphs over something, and what would that be? If you say 'religion,' then I will point out that science and religion are not in the same line of work and so not in competition; hence science cannot triumph over religion any more than religion can triumph over science. But scientism can triumph over religion because scientism and religions are worldviews. Scientism is logically incompatible with religion; this is particularly clear in the case of theistic religions. Scientism is the epistemology of naturalism, the ontological doctrine that reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents. If naturalism is true, then of course there is no God, and contrapositively: if there is a God, then naturalism is false. But there is nothing in science that rules out the existence of God. If you think there is, then you are confusing science with scientism.
Second, while it is true that most if not all religions in their extreme forms carry the possibility of tyranny, this is also true of non- and anti-religious ideologies such as communism. If one fails to point this out, as Walzer does fail to point it out, then then one can be suspected of a lack of intellectual honesty. Communist tyranny alone led to the deaths of upwards of 100 million in the 20th century.
Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf. So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist “the possibility of tyranny?” Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called “Islamophobic.” Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.
My main evidentiary basis for this claim is the amazingly long list of links that comes up when you Google “Islamophobia.” Many of them are phobic; I focus on the anti-phobic links, and so I have entered the online world of the left. It is a large and exciting world, highly diverse, inhabited mostly by people new to me. It’s also a little disheartening, because many of the pathologies of the extra-internet left haven’t disappeared online. Obviously, there is no left collective, on or off the internet, but the people I am writing about constitute a significant leftist coterie, and none of them are worrying enough about the politics of contemporary religion or about radical Islamist politics.
For myself, I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.
BV: I wonder if Walzer's fear extends to every form of ideological militancy, including anti-religious militancy such as communist militancy. If not, why not? If not, why the double standard?
Walzer needs to be reminded that we conservatives also harbor a rational fear, a fear of leftists who have no problem with using the awesome power of the state to destroy the liberties of individuals.
There is also a distinction that needs to be made and I don't see Walzer making it. It is the difference between 'rampaging,' say, because your religion enjoins such behavior and 'rampaging' in defense of your life and livelihood and religion. Islamic doctrine enjoins violent jihad; there is no Buddhist equivalent. This distinction at the level of doctrine is crucial and must not be ignored. Doctrine is not mere verbiage; doctrine is at the root of action.
Walzer is equivocating on 'religious militancy.' If some Buddhist monks go on a rampage, then, that could be called religious militancy, but not in the same sense in which Muslim destroyers of Buddhist statuary or Muslim beheaders of Christians are religiously militant. For in the latter case the militancy flows from the tenets of their religion -- which is not the case in Buddhism.
Can Islamist zealots best be understood as today's crusaders? Hardly. For one thing, this ignores the fact that the Crusades were a response to Islamic jihad.
[. . .]
The Christian Crusades have sometimes been described as the first example of Islamophobia in the history of the West. The crusaders were driven by an irrational fear of Islam.
This is absurd. The Crusades were a defensive response to a Muslim land-grab. If someone grabs your land, is your fear of that party irrational? There is no point in going on with this. While Walzer is not a bad as the typical leftist loon, he has already made enough mistakes to justify my wishing him a fond fare well.