Neoconservatism and critics of Islam

Ibn Warraq, the well-known critic of Islam and author and editor of books such as Why I Am Not A Muslim, has left the Center for Inquiry to join the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative Washington DC think tank. [Thanks to David Harding for pointing this out to me.]

There is an interesting tendency for the most vociferous critics of Islam to get wrapped up in neoconservative politics. Perhaps (and I can only speculate here) this has to do with the tendency for both popular critics and proponents of Islam today to see Islam as a package deal.

Islam isn’t just a set of superatural beliefs. It’s also an intellectual orientation (even several intellectual orientations). It’s a civilization. It’s an inspiration for various species of politics. It’s a way of life shaping even minutiae of everyday experience. It’s even an aesthetic, and various other things I could get into if I wanted to extend the list.

As a set of supernatural beliefs, Islam is as implausible as any other set. As a collection of intellectual orientations, its is sterile. Critics of Islam do a very good job of pointing this out, particularly at the level of popular beliefs. Naturally, such criticism has very little effect on the popularity of Islamic supernatural convictions.

Islamic civilization has decayed and is decaying. Whether one loves Islamic civilization or has an attitude of good riddance, this is so. Islamic civilization has had its day, but Islam as a religion is just as clearly an impressive success in modern times. As a set of supernatural beliefs and conceptions of the sacred, Islam is flourishing and vigorously reproducing itself, even as Islamic civilization has faded and Muslim societies have trouble adjusting to modern conditions.

And then there is Islamic politics, from quietism to political Islam. Critics of Islam usually have serious moral objections to much that is associated with Islam, and react to Islamism in particular with fear and loathing. Many critics have extensive experience with the mistreatment of women or the scholarship that undermines notions that the Quran is a divine communication. That, however, is perfectly compatible with political naivete concerning the Islamic world. There are good intellectual reasons that neoconservatism is a fringe position among serious academic students of Islamic cultures and revivalist politics.

Islamic civilization is unsalvageable. Islamic religiosity is a resounding success, and will remain so. Islamic politics is, well, uncertain. Some variety of populist Islam (a kind of Islamism Westerners will label “moderate”) is very likely to represent the legitimate democratic aspirations of pious Muslim peoples in many Muslim countries. The sky won’t fall.

Neoconservatives cannot do anything about any of this. They can cook up apologia for various wars and support repressive policies within Western countries. (Ooooh, scary scary Terrorists). But even then, I wouldn’t exaggerate their influence. In terms of representing deep-seated power and economic interests, they’re relatively minor players.

Still, critics of Islam who think Islam is a package deal, and a threat as a package, will likely continue to be tempted by neoconservatism. The neocons represent the most vigorous, most uncompromising opposition to Islam imagined as a package deal. They voice the greatest ambitions for remaking Islam in an image pleasing to Western conservatives.

This is unfortunate. Ibn Warraq, for example, has done some damn useful work in bringing some otherwise obscure scholarship about the origins of Islam to public attention. Every scholarly enterprise can use such invigoration once in a while. But now, a more visible association with neoconservatism threatens to overshadow such work. This is because neoconservatism is, generally speaking, intellectually toxic. Association with neconservative organizations means hanging out a shingle as a propagandist. And from now on, I’ll have to be careful when I cite Ibn Warraq in my writing. His name will raise too many legitimate questions for any well-informed reviewer.