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Ethics in Society

Is Judging Islamic Culture Possible?

Terri Murray argues that ijtihad and critical debate are essential in a liberal, multicultural society.

Pluralist multiculturalism and identity politics appear to be creating a crisis of liberal values. Or perhaps I’m just the last person to realise that liberal values went out of fashion over a decade ago. Back then I was too busy crusading for LGBT and womens’ rights to notice that no one actually believes in human rights any more. After all, rights are implicit in liberal universalism and inclusivity, and as such constitute embarrassing forms of ‘cultural imperialism’.

Multiculturalism is not just a synonym for ‘cultural diversity’. Rather, it is an approach states adopt in dealing with the relationships between specific cultures and other members of society. Liberal multiculturalism – of which I am an advocate – accepts diversity within a broadly liberal framework, and therefore rejects any intolerant or authoritarian cultural practices that violate the equal rights of others (including ‘others’ from within the same minority community) to pursue their own vision of the ‘good life’. By contrast, pluralist multiculturalism is the view that universal suffrage, equal legal status and entitlements, and equality of opportunity are not sufficient. In addition, pluralist multiculturalism requires legal privileges or exclusions that enable cultural groups to maintain their distinctive practices. Its advocates believe that citizens in liberal democracies not only should be prohibited from offending cultural minorities, but must participate in protecting their sacred beliefs from criticism. Pluralist multiculturalists place a greater emphasis on cultural diversity than on equal rights and opportunities for all.

Part of the pluralist multiculturalist agenda is to push for value pluralism and moral relativism. This implies the view that moral beliefs that respect self-determination, and authoritarian, theocratic or fundamentalist ideologies that do not, are equally legitimate. Accordingly, pluralist multiculturalists argue that no one belief system must be permitted to dominate. The moral relativists who promote such a subjective understanding of ‘truth’ nevertheless assume that their relativist view on the matter is correct, or at least morally superior to that of their ‘Eurocentric’ opponents. That is, the didactic moral relativist claims that all moral judgments are relative or subjective, and then turns that claim into an objective morality that all of us should live by. From such a perspective, it becomes a kind of ‘sin’ to be anything other than a relativist. Accordingly, if one attempts to deploy an objective or universal view of human rights, one would run the risk of being accused of intolerance or colonialism.

Woman wearing burqa
Woman wearing burqa carrying shopping © Dirk Haas 2010

Arguments Against Critiques of Islamic Culture

Those who fear the rise of reactionary far-right parties in the UK and Europe rightly insist that representing Muslim people in any simplistic way is dangerous. I share this view that any constructive dialogue needs to be nuanced and respectful of the other. We must also bear in mind the hypocrisies and global political crimes committed by our own regimes. However, in practical terms there are fundamental disagreements over just how to achieve a constructive dialogue. As a liberal academic theologian and teacher of political philosophy, I want to address the question of whether Western liberals can enter into any dialogue about Islam and its impact on womens’ rights, LGBT rights and other human rights unimpeded by the kind of fanatical political correctness that has, in my view, obstructed cross-cultural exchanges and mutually empowering relationships. I want to argue, controversially, that liberal values are essential to protecting the values of toleration and diversity that multiculturalists cherish.

Let me begin by dissecting some of the arguments used by pluralist multiculturalists in defending Islam from the sort of critical examination that might be leveled against any other religion in a modern liberal state. We should bear in mind that criticisms of aspects of Islamic culture come from Muslims or ex-Muslims as well as from outsiders. So this question is also about whether non-Muslims can ever be justified in lending support to Muslims when they share critical perspectives in common.

First, some doubt that it is even possible for non-Muslims to judge aspects of Islamic culture. These cultural relativists assume that cultural barriers cannot be crossed intellectually, presumably because the concepts deployed from within one culture cannot translate to another. This presupposes that people are incapable of understanding the beliefs or values of others sufficiently to assess them. This seems to make an un-testable claim about the psychological capacities of others. I have some reservations about a relativism so sweeping that it makes the study of other cultures or other people’s experiences (their literature, their poetry, their religious texts, their films, their humour) obsolete for all but the convert. It is as though, in order to really understand another person’s outlook, you must agree with it entirely or be so immersed in it that you could not doubt any of its claims. The sweeping relativist thus seems to deny that the experience of immersion in some other (non-Muslim) culture could have significant parallels with aspects of Muslims’ experiences. Dialogue cannot be based on the outrageous assumption that we are all human after all, and so share common emotional or psychological needs quite apart from our cultural situations. For the relativist, there is no common ground of humanity or of condition that could transcend culture and custom. I tend to disagree that cultures are so incommensurable, or indeed that they are even homogeneous.

As an antidote to the allegedly ‘top down’ moral realism that liberal universalism implies, some pluralist multiculturalists argue that to judge a culture, a more complete form of respect for the other is needed than mere tolerance – a respect that goes beyond imagining oneself in another’s situation, to actually imagining being someone fundamentally different from oneself. The London-based educator John Holroyd, for example, recommends this and explains his concept of ‘dialogicality’ with reference to Giambattista Vico’s (1668-1744) notion of ‘sympathetic imagination’. The demand seems to be to abandon one’s own moral convictions and values, and to psychologically supplant them with those of the other. Even if we agree that it is theoretically possible to do this, the thought experiment seems to sidestep the problem rather than to solve it. In whichever direction it flows, this imaginative leap into the other’s sandals seems to eradicate a critical perspective completely.

However, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that an advocate for the liberal value of tolerance were able to abandon her values and supplant them with fundamentalist Islamic ones, while a fundamentalist imam exchanges his authoritarian theocratic values for liberal values such as autonomy, self-determination and religious freedom. Having adopted liberal values, the fundamentalist would lose nothing except his power to control other peoples’ lives. Within his new liberal framework, he would still be free to follow his own conscience, worship his own God, and adopt dietary restrictions and mandatory dress codes, with the one constraint that he could not impose these codes on others who do not share his beliefs. On the other hand, the liberal, having adopted the fundamentalist imam’s values, would now be forced to submit to rules that constrain her in what she can wear, what she can eat and drink, who she can associate with, what she can say, how she can behave, who she can marry, who she can have sex with, and exactly how she can do it. As many women know only too well, fundamentalist religions (not just the Islamic variant) tend to insert their legal tentacles into all aspects of life, not least of all those aspects that liberals consider private.

My opponents will say that this argument fails, since the liberal-now-fundamentalist is voluntarily subscribing to her fundamentalist religious belief, so that she doesn’t and cannot experience her religious commitments as ‘constraints’. This riposte, however, does not address my point, which concerns the relative compromise being made by each of these ideological positions. My point is that liberalism can accommodate the voluntary practice of Islamic and other fundamentalisms, while religious fundamentalism cannot accommodate the voluntary practice of anything else.

The riposte to my thought experiment also assumes what it needs to prove, which is that all Muslim women voluntarily adopt these constraints on their liberty – a claim hard to reconcile with the social stigma, honour-based violence, taboo, and economic control that often accompany dissent in places where fundamentalist Muslims hold power. As women and homosexuals know only too well, religious culture can be a form of oppression or captivity.

Many of pluralism’s left-wing academics and journalists have moved away from the core liberal idea that individuals are primary, and that their rights to self-determination and individual development trump any debt of obedience or respect they may owe to the social institutions or communities to which they belong. Instead, it has become somewhat fashionable to say that culture comes before the individual and defines her identity. A large part of what we mean by ‘culture’ is socialization. However, unless socialization is balanced by free and informed choice, it is indistinguishable from indoctrination. There are social customs and taboos that can constrain an individual’s development as completely as any form of political oppression, as John Stuart Mill saw clearly. Mill observed that society issues its own mandates that can exert a formidable tyranny over the individual, especially as it “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life” (On Liberty, Chap.1, 1859). The idea that individuals lack any existence apart from their cultural identities seems to entail the evidently false idea that no one within a particular culture ever doubts its customs or beliefs, or finds them alien to his own values or sense of self.

Cultural relativism also neglects the fact that individuals belong simultaneously to many cultures or subcultures that shape their identities. For example, within the category ‘Muslim’ exist at least two very separate subcategories: male Muslims and female Muslims. That’s without even mentioning the other possibilities, such as denomination (Shia or Sunni, etc), sexual orientation, class, generational differences, language groups, etc. The outright rejection of the possibility that I may have a great deal more in common with a Muslim woman because of our shared gender, or our shared atheism, or our shared homosexuality, than I may have with a heterosexual Christian Englishman, seems counterintuitive.

No True Islam?

Another argument says that ‘Islam’ has no clearly defined meaning, or rather, Islam’s meanings constantly shift depending upon the context and the speaker. Consequently, Westerners cannot judge Islam in isolation from historical, cultural, political and ethnic factors, and probably cannot judge ‘it’ at all.

It seems to me that liberals ought to be suspicious of this argument. My misgivings about the plasticity of Islam are not based on a wish to over-simplify it. But all too often the plasticity argument is conveniently deployed to silence all meaningful debate about Islamic practices and their effects on Muslim persons. Thus whenever a critic attempts to single out some practice (e.g. honour-based violence or mandatory female veiling) as fundamentalist or intolerant, the response is invariably that the behaviour referred to isn’t really Islamic, or is somehow not representative of Islam.

This reaction, of course, implies that there is a real Islam, i.e. an authentic interpretation of Islam to which the ‘misrepresentation’ can be contrasted. However, the defender of the practice in question often simultaneously claims, inconsistently, that there is no real Islam, since it can’t be discussed in isolation from all of its shape-shifting contexts of use. That is to say, the pluralist multiculturalist implicitly supports the idea of an accurately defined Islam if the context is defending Islam from Western critics who are caricatured as never getting Islam quite right (or not right enough to criticize how it operates in any specific context, at any rate); yet these same defenders of Islam deny that there is any accurately defined Islam when critics attempt to wield a definition of it when opposing Islamist authoritarianism, sexism, homophobia, or intolerance. What this means, ultimately, is that a definition of ‘real Islam’ can be used by its defenders but not by its detractors, even if the defenders are not Muslims themselves and not experts in Islam. Detractors, on the other hand, had better at least be Muslim, if not PhDs in Islamic theology, or they simply aren’t qualified to have an opinion. Nebulous equivocation over the real Islam reminds me of Orwellian Newspeak, invented by the Ministry of Truth precisely to make a heretical idea literally unspeakable. This preemption of any criticism of aspects of Islamic culture as inherently ‘biased’, ‘racist’, ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘simplistic’, once again forecloses all dialogue on all things Islamic except amongst faithful initiates or their defenders.

Last year I attended a public discussion about whether Westerners can judge Islam. The speaker was a white non-Muslim Englishman. When the Q&A session drew to a close, a gaggle of men gathered round the speaker to continue the discussion. Among them was only one woman, who was listening quietly, and the ‘dialogue’ was entirely between Western and Muslim men. I might have inserted my female self into that discussion, but I was in a hurry to get home and watch Leyla Hussein’s powerful Channel 4 documentary about how ‘cultural sensitivity’ is leaving hundreds of women in Great Britain vulnerable to the crime of genital mutilation.

Why are culturally sensitive anti-racist liberals so laden with guilt about their own ‘cultural insensitivity’ (racism?) while apparently seeing sexism as negligible? We must ask why the Islamists’ right to self-determination vis-à-vis Western law is more important than the right to self-determination of some who live under its legal strictures. In some cases the former nullifies the latter. The idea that sexism is only ‘wrong’ because of Western liberal culture’s assumptions, but not wrong in any universal way that could make a religion’s discriminatory practices objectively unethical, applies equally to the West’s taboo of racism. The liberal value of egalitarianism that makes racism an abomination is, according to the relativist’s outlook, just a cultural ‘construct’ with no independent validity and no objective moral claim on anyone else. This being the case, relativists really need to stop being so ‘culturally insensitive’ towards racists. It is almost as though they want to colonize the whole world with anti-racist ideas, God forbid!

It is often pointed out that criticism of Islam should only be allowed if it is informed criticism. While this is certainly preferable for commentary on any subject, all too often the demand for more accurate or complete information again forecloses debate over the most contentious beliefs or practices by sliding into the perfectionist fallacy: that unless you know everything about Islam, you can’t know anything about it. The censorship of Tom Holland’s documentary on the birth of Islam that prevented a public screening in 2012 was a key example of this approach to informed ‘debate’: unless you have the ‘right’ information, from the ‘right’ institutional sources, you are unqualified to speak on the subject.

J.S. Mill, the architect of liberal political philosophy, defended freedom of expression on all matters, even for partial truths or mistaken views, because we seldom posses the entire truth and the clash with other viewpoints, no matter how unpopular, affords us an opportunity to fill gaps in our knowledge. Even if we are supremely confident that society has got it right on some particular question, and that the alternatives are ludicrous, it is healthy to withstand the expression of the false viewpoints. If we regard our most reasonable values in the manner of Holy Scripture, with unquestioning obedience and blind faith, we risk becoming as narrow-minded as the acolytes of Westboro Baptist.

While it is preferable for non-Muslims to speak to Muslims themselves about Islam, rather than assuming we know all about their experiences, the kind of cultural sensitivity that is supposed to inform genuinely respectful relations between Westerners and Muslims apparently does not apply to relations between Muslims themselves. Does any anti-racist lefty liberal ever suggest that Muslim men ought to interview a wide cross-section of Muslim women and then, based on that inductive process, draw conclusions about women as a group? No. Rather it is accepted that, if a select group of all-male Islamist ‘experts’ begin from deductive, a prioritheological accounts of what women (as a group) are like, this definition is acceptable. These too are stereotypes, but ones that apparently don’t bother those lefty liberals that defend authoritarian Islam from its evil racist detractors. The point here is that while culturally sensitive liberals have a commendable desire to end the stereotyping of Muslims by Westerners, they fail to apply the same standards to the stereotyping of Muslims by one another, and they fail to see that there are many motives for wishing to criticize Islamic teachings or practices other than latent racism.

A British survey of people’s perceptions of the word ‘Islam’ revealed that a large majority of respondents recorded negative associations with the word. This is most unfortunate, but I would wager that if you did a similar survey about peoples’ perceptions of the word ‘feminism’, you would get an overwhelmingly negative response there too. Each year in my classroom I do survey my students on their perceptions of ‘feminism’. Students of both sexes, and from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, consistently express an overwhelmingly negative set of connotations with the word (doubtless partly a legacy of the Judeo-Christian patriarchy that shapes their culture). Yet no one from the liberal ‘Islam defenders’ camp has ever suggested that feminists can’t be ridiculed or publicly scorned.

My point is not that we have to choose between one form of bigotry and another. Western liberals need not remain in a deadlock over whether or not tolerance and respect for religious minorities trumps respect for women. After all, religious women fall into both categories. Instead, liberal multiculturalism offers a framework within which all people can live their faith, be prevented from coercing others into doing so, and remain free to offend, and be offended by, others in an open, dynamic, sometimes uncomfortable (but genuine) dialogue.

© Dr T. M. Murray 2014

Terri Murray has a Master of Theology from Heythrop College, London, and a PhD in social & contextual theology from Oxford Brookes. She is a recovering Catholic and has taught Philosophy & Film Studies at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London for over ten years.

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