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Does Tocqueville Offer a Solution to Islam's Internal Conflict?

Image by Dielmann via Pixabay. Image by Dielmann via Pixabay.

The organization and the establishment of democracy among Christians is the great political problem of our time.

—Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

You might say the great political problem of our time is “the organization and establishment of democracy among Muslims.”

Pundits and scholars accurately assert that most Muslims neither support nor participate in terrorism–and Muslim terrorists have murdered more Muslims than any demographic. We should bear this in mind, but not at the expense of another dynamic: internal clashes over how to interpret Islam.

The Islamic State wants to assert the leadership of Sunni Islamism and competes against groups like the splintered Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. While their strategic and tactical approaches differ widely, they each embrace the core feature of Islamism: the conviction that Islam (as they understand it) plays a central–the central–role in shaping law and society.

One influential Sunni Islamist was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). 117 years after Tocqueville, he visited America and studied education for almost two years. His caricature of America as representative of materialist, inhuman Western civilization supplements a deeper, affirmative dimension of Islamist thought: Unity.

One of the characteristic marks of this faith is the fact that it is essentially a unityIslam chose to unite earth and heaven in a single system…for the center of its being and the field of its action is human life in its entirety, spiritual and material, religious and worldly.

Qutb’s “Islamic concept” was influential; as Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid notes, the idea of “intertwining religion and politics” has “widespread appeal that goes well beyond Islamists” in the Middle East and Europe. Hamid also observes that the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Islamic State’s attraction for Western Muslims have raised questions about religion and society in European society. Hamid disapprovingly recounts French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s reactive reaffirmation of France’s “uniquely assertive secularism, or laïcité.”

Like Hamid, George Weigel and William McGurn question laïcité as the dominant principle of Western civilization. Weigel bluntly states: “You can’t beat something with nothing–perhaps better, you can’t beat something with nothingness.” Tocqueville likewise challenges laïcité. For him, the Americans were an anomaly because they merged “the spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” into a harmonious balance. Paradoxically, they managed this by disentangling religion from politics, freeing Christianity to shape mores, unclaimed by the ephemeral political institutions. Reclaiming a robust, Tocquevillian vision of religious and civil liberty will not merely help “beat” radical Islamism, but could help Western Muslims maintain religious identity in pluralistic societies, decreasing the appeal of militant Islamism.

The manner in which Muslims will “make their piece with modernity” is uncertain and largely an internal matter. But, as Hamid and Ali Mamouri argue, the manner in which the West responds to the challenge of Islamism will affect its posture vis-à-vis the larger Islamic world, including Western Muslims. To respond appropriately, we must understand its appeal, simultaneously reclaiming a robust vision of “human liberty, source of all moral grandeur.”


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