Moral sensibility and modernity

By Lorenzo

Religions have rituals and doctrines: mechanisms of participation and belief. They also engender moral sensibilities that provide ways of normatively framing the world regarding people, places, social arrangements. Most Swedes, for example, are not believing or actively participating Lutherans, yet centuries of Lutheranism being the overwhelmingly dominant flavour of religion has deeply influenced Swedish moral sensibility.

When folk try and divide human societies into civilisations, it is typically done so at least partly on the basis of religion (Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox) or some other normative philosophy (Confucianism) or combination of such and geography (Latin American) or has such religion-derived sensibilities lying behind it (Shinto-Buddhist for Japan, Judaeo-Christian for the West).

The most famous recent example of this is the taxonomy of civilisations used by political scientist Samuel Huntingdon in his “Clash of Civilisations” thesis. As I have explained before, I do not agree with Huntingdon’s overall analysis–in the international state system, cooperation and conflict are not symmetrical. But that religions generate moral sensibilities that can outlast adherence to their specific doctrines and rituals is clearly true. As is that shared religious histories can generated shared (or at least convergent) moral sensibilities.

Religions can also affect people’s attitude to time, or temporal orientation: whether people tend to be future-focused or present-focused or past-focused. Being future-focused, for example, tends to make people both more reliable, and more willing, cooperators. Protestants, and those who have Protestant-derived moral sensibilities, tend to be future-focused, for example, while Catholic-derived moral sensibilities tend to be past or present-focused; hence Protestant-majority countries tend to have lower risk premiums on their public debt than Catholic-majority countries. These differences in moral sensibilities and typical temporal orientation extend to historically Protestant countries tending to have lower rates of corruption and higher rates of trust than Catholic ones.

So, religions do not only matter as generators of rituals and doctrines, they also matter in the way they deeply influence moral sensibilities, attitudes to time, ways of looking at the world; and do so even without regular attendance to the rituals or strong adherence to doctrines. The sensibilities, temporal orientations and other framings can remain after belief and participation has departed. Anglo-Indian economist Deepak Lal makes a useful distinction:

It is useful to distinguish between two major sorts of beliefs relating to different aspects of the environment. These relate to what in my recent Ohlin lectures I labeled the material and cosmological beliefs of a particular culture. The former relate to ways of making a living and concerns beliefs about the material world, in particular about the economy. The latter are related to understanding the world around us and mankind’s place in it which determine how people view their lives-its purpose, meaning and relationship to others. There is considerable cross-cultural evidence that material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones. Material beliefs can alter rapidly with changes in the material environment. There is greater hysterisis in cosmological beliefs, on how, in Plato’s words, “one should live”. Moreover the cross-cultural evidence shows that rather than the environment it is the language group which influences these world-views.

What Lal calls cosmological beliefs are both persistent and derived from religion or other, deeply historically embedded, normative philosophy. Hence, for example, the World Values Survey can be used to usefully group countries.

Islam’s modernity temper tantrum

Of the existing civilisations sharing this planet, only one is prominently having an extended temper tantrum about modernity; an extended temper tantrum with a distinctly homicidal edge.

The West essentially invented modernity, Japan has long since embraced it; China et al are very much up for it (the Beijing regime would just like to indigenise a congenial-to-it version); Russia et al ditto; Latin America is trying to get there (despite an unfortunate institutional legacy and outbreaks of really bad policy ideas); sub-Saharan Africa is struggling under bad boundaries and poor institutions but is also trying.

It is only Islam that is producing significant murderous insurgencies against modernity (and especially against the egalitarian cosmopolitanism which is such a strong strain within modernity–there is nothing like attacking schoolsuniversities, cafessoccer matchesrock concerts, along with beheadingscrucifixions and killing bloggers while re-introducing slavery to say “we hate modernity”).

Which makes the jihadis the Islamic equivalent of the Nazis–a modernising (in technique) revolt against modernity that hates Jews, fetishises warriors and violence, invokes a past age of warrior conquest–as I have discussed before. (Indeed, all the totalitarianisms are somewhat atavistic.) Though the jihadis are adherents of a master belief rather than members of a would-be master race.

But Nazism was let loose by the disaster of the Great War followed by the Great Depression. In the case of Islam, it is modernity itself which is the problem; no great crisis was required to let loose the revolt-with-strong-homicidal edge against it from within Islam.

Salafism, the attempt to return to the origins of Islam by “purifying it” of subsequent accretions, is in large part a revolt against modernity by retreating further into Islam. Deobandi is the South Asian equivalent and dates back to the later C19th: Salafism outside Saudi Arabia arose in the C20th. Though the intellectual roots of both go deep into Islamic tradition and the response to the demographic and cultural disaster of the Mongol invasions, which itself reprised Mohammad’s response to the Muslim defeat at the battle of Uhud.

One needs to be aware the Salafism comes in various flavours (quietist, activist, jihadi) which overlap with Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf). Moreover, its “quietist” tradition is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism–political Islam–has Salafist versions. Islamism also comes out of the later C19th but does not reach much in the way of organised form until the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. This confusing welter of responses is itself a sign of the difficulties modernity poses for Islam as religion and as a source of normative framings.

Comparing revivalisms

Christianity also has a revivalist movement seeking to return to the origins of the religion. That is Pentecostalism which, in terms of gaining adherents, is notably more successful than Salafism. Salafism likely has around 50m adherents, and there are over 70m Deobandis, while Pentecostalism has around 270m adherents. Add in Charismatics, and Christian revivalism, attempting to re-enchant the world, has over 580m adherents.

A reasonable estimate for Islamists is about 10-15% of Muslims. There are about 1.6bn Muslims, so that suggests 160m to 240m Islamists (most of whom are Salafis, Wahhabis or Deobandis). Thus, Christian revivalist movements have considerably more adherents than Muslim revivalist movements (revivalism whether as purification or as political activism). But the Christian revivalism goes largely unremarked and un-newsworthy because Christian revivalism does not have remotely the homicidal edge Islamic revivalism does. For what one is attempting to return to, makes a difference.

The ongoing Christian revivalism has not generated any equivalent to the specifically religious political engagement of Islamism or the homicidal activism of the jihadis, both because early Christianity is very different from early Islam and because the moral sensibilities that Islam generates are very different from the moral sensibilities derived from Christianity; differences that go back to doctrine.

Christianity as it has evolved, that is. Evolution being something which is easier for Christianity to do than Islam; for, as a friend noted in conversation:

Islam has a complete, literal and authoritative source to bootstrap the original religion from. [Christianity and Judaism] don’t.

Quite. The Gospels don’t give anywhere the detailed rules and doctrines that the Quranhadith and life of the Prophet do. There is no Christian equivalent of Sharia.

Not merely because Christianity accepts the legitimacy of human law–even canon law is acknowledged to be law-making by human authority, albeit one seeking guidance from revelation–though that is a huge difference in itself. But because the defeat of Aristotelianism within Islam, with the triumph of al-Ghazali and the intellectual tradition he represented, meant rejection within mainstream Islam of the notion that there was any grounding for moral judgement apart from revelation.

This rejection continues to have force. It led Islamic states to issue their own version of the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam–not something states from any other civilisation have felt the need to do. A declaration with, as Wikipedia puts it:

provides an overview on the Islamic perspective on human rights, and affirms Islamic sharia as its sole source.

Because there is no grounding for moral judgement beyond revelation. Which creates serious difficulties if one wants to “update” Islam, for there is no widely accepted place to rest the lever to “move” the religion and civilisation other than revelation. A problem that Christianity has not had to grapple with. Thus, when Pope Paul III, in his 1537 papal bull Sublimus Dei, banned the enslaving of the inhabitants of the Americas, he was grounding the claim as much in natural law thinking as in Scripture (indeed, arguably more). Two centuries later, the Enlightenment attempt to put religious authority in a box could argue on grounds outside revelation, and look to pre-Christian (classical) thought, and not have the entire effort ruled as automatically illegitimate.

When considering how to treat non-believers, Islam presents its followers with the following words of Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. Then invite them to migrate from their lands to the land of Muhairs and inform them that, if they do so, they shall have all the privileges and obligations of the Muhajirs. If they refuse to migrate, tell them that they will have the status of Bedouin Muslims and will be subjected to the Commands of Allah like other Muslims, but they will not get any share from the spoils of war or Fai’ except when they actually fight with the Muslims (against the disbelievers). If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim  4924).

Christians are people of the book, but are often taken to be polytheists because of the Trinity. The contrast with Sublimus Dei is profound. Especially on the matter of slavery, taking first the words of Allah in the QuranSura 4:24:

And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. And lawful to you are [all others] beyond these, [provided] that you seek them [in marriage] with [gifts from] your property, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse. So for whatever you enjoy [of marriage] from them, give them their due compensation as an obligation. And there is no blame upon you for what you mutually agree to beyond the obligation. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The phrase “what your right hand possess” is about what the sword hand takes. There is explanatory hadith (i.e. words of Muhammad) clarifying the point:

Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:” And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end) (Sahih Muslim 3432).

It is particularly ridiculous for non-believers to go on about Islam as a “religion of peace” because because, to the extent it has any meaning in orthodox Islamic usage, it only applied to those who had accepted Sharia rule: Islam is “the religion of peace” for territory where Islam, (specifically) Sharia, rules–including the subordinating restrictions of the Conditions of Umar for non-Muslim “people of the Book”.

Sharia is the law of Allah, the sovereign of the universe, sought by the process of fiqh undertaken by considering the Quran, the hadiths and the life of the Prophet, plus attention to other scholars’ grappling with the same. Which means the moral and social judgements of Islam are grounded in the notion that the peak of human understanding of social order was reached in C7th Arabia: a society of slavery, raiding and conquest. Again, there is no equivalent in Christianity: while the Gospels may represent the peak of moral behaviour, no Christian is going to think that the C1st Roman Empire reached the peak of social understanding, as the most significant-in-Christian-terms it did was to crucify Christ. These differences go “all the way down”, as Christianity is a religion of individual salvation, whereas is Islam about building a righteous community, correct participation in which is the path to Paradise.

All of which also means that the further modernity moves away from C7th Arabia (in every dimension, social and technological) the greater the tension with Islam-derived moral sensibilities and framings. Hence modernity creates a deep problem for Islam in a way that has no equivalent for any other civilisation. Hence the temper tantrum with serious homicidal edge that Islam is having with modernity.

Made worse by the fact that many folk of Muslim heritage have no particular problem with many aspects of modernity: it is no accident that most of the victims of the jihadis have been fellow Muslims–they are both the closest targets and those whose compromising “treachery” from their obligations to follow the laws of Allah (as defined by the jihadis: which is very much contested within Islam) is most egregious.

Zealots rather than radicals

There is also a problem with the language of “radicalisation”, as the jihadis have very little in common with the radicals of any Western tradition. They are far more like the religious “enthusiasts” of the C16th and C17th that C18th Enlightenment folk so strongly reacted against. They have even more in common with the original Jewish Zealots: true believers homicidally enraged that human law is permitted to trump God’s law and whose murderous ire falls particularly intensely on “wickedly compromising” fellow believers. As Australian political scientist David Martin Jones puts it:

Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism.

… any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. … Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.

The revelation gap

The jihadis are the most dramatic manifestation of the tension between Islam and modernity, yet they are far from the only manifestation thereof. The grounding of morality so thoroughly in revelation creates a profound gulf between believers and non-believers; between those who accept the revelations which are the only true grounding of moral judgement and those who do not. This is the basis of an Islamic supremacism or triumphalism that has seeped into the moral sensibilities of Muslims over the centuries. It is why, for example, there is so much persecution of religious minorities across the Muslim world; persecution which follows recurring patterns.

Attitudes that do not magically disappear simply by migrating to the West. Particularly when migration to the West cuts people off from the various evolved mechanisms for softening the harsher elements of Islam. One woman of Muslim heritage, doctor Suraiya Simi Rahman, expresses that quite vividly:

What in the world were we doing? We were training our children to kowtow without questioning an authority that we believed would keep them safe from evil western ways. And so the community’s children went to Sunday school, wore hijab, prayed and fasted. They were enveloped in a Muslim identity that was unlike any that I had experienced before.

I was raised in a Muslim country in the Middle East and religion was something we kept in its place, somewhere after school, soccer and cartoons. Here was a more distilled, pure and, most dangerously, a context-free Islam. There were no grandmothers here to sagely tell us which parts of the Quran to turn a blind eye to. There were no older cousins here who skipped Friday prayers and goofed off with their friends instead. Oh no. This was Islam simmered in a sauce of Midwestern sincerity, and boiled down to its dark, concentrated core. This was dangerous.

This centring of all moral judgement in revelation, reducing the role of reason to supporting revelation, creates huge dilemmas. Suraiya Simi Rahman experienced that also:

I attended ISNA [Islamic Society of North America] gatherings, met with educated, professional people like myself who were also asking the same questions. They were looking to their faith for answers. And sure, there were efforts made to modernize Islam, but they were only superficial. We couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it because there is a logical dilemma at the core of Islam. And that is, that the Quran is the last word of God, that it is perfect and unchangeable. And to even suggest such a thing is blasphemy and apostasy.

And so, to understand the moderate mind, you have to envision it on a continuum from radical to middle, but the closer you get to liberal, there is a wall. It creeps up on you, in the condemnation of homosexuality, in the unequal treatment and subjugation of women, but it’s there. Beyond that wall that they are afraid to look over, for fear of eternal hell fire and damnation, is where the answer lies though. So being a Muslim moderate these days is like running a race with a ball and chain attached to your feet. A handicap. Unless you can imagine what the world beyond that wall looks like, you can’t really navigate it. If you’re so terrified of blasphemy that you refuse to look over, you’re forever stuck. Right here. And behind you is the jihadi horde, laying claim to real Islam, practicing it to perfection, as it is laid out in the Quran. A veritable rock and a hard place.

The combination of Sharia as a civilisational legal system that does not need a state to enforce it, yet claims trumping authority over any mere human law, along with deeply embedded attitudes of Islamic supremacism, generate potential enclave problems which have no parallel for any other migrant group. Hence reports from current and former UK police officers about Islamified areas where police operations are significantly inhibited; areas which have parallels in FranceSweden and Belgium.

The US and Australia are unlikely to experience similar problems because their Muslim minorities are less than 2% of the population: at that level, it is rational for Muslim communities to cooperate with local security forces. There are still the problem of “lone wolf” attacks, as there is significant jihadi social media activity aimed as recruiting and grooming such. But, as the US in particular already has a home-grown mass shooter problem, that is a comparatively minor law-and-order issue.

Once Muslim minorities start heading towards 10% of the population, then enclave problems are much more likely to develop and cooperation with security forces is likely to be much patchier and resistance to the agents of the state is likely to develop. Accepting a Muslim minority of that sort of size is also, effectively, a decision to export one’s Jews.

Significant Muslim migration is also somewhat distressing for Middle Eastern Christian migrants, who came to the West to escape Muslim persecution and find their persecutors following them; in the case of the current refugees waves into Europe, quite literally, as there has seen a series of anti-Christian incidents by Muslim refugees, including two cases of mass drownings at sea. (There has also been a series of comments by folk from religious minorities of now Muslim majority countries of the “you will be sorry” variety.) Muslim (male) migrants are also the only migrants with any tendency to become less integrated in their host society over time.

The notion that there are no issues specific to Muslim migration is nonsense on stilts. Of course there are: it is very different, religiously-defined civilisation with very different presumptions and framings. Yelling “racism” does not change that, although it does close down debate: so is precisely the sort of shouting polarising that is not in any way helpful.

No, it is not merely a matter of Islamic doctrine, though that has plenty of problematic aspects. It is also the effects of centuries (indeed, over a millennium) of Islamic doctrine, ritual and teaching on the moral sensibilities and framings, the cosmological outlook, of Muslims, of people of Muslim heritage: the notion that their religious identity is at once terribly important to people of Muslim heritage yet has no problematic content is nonsense–it is turning people into abstractions for moral points-scoring between Westerners.

As the experiences of Europe in its various difficulties with Muslim migrants and migrant communities demonstrate, you cannot just wish that heritage away and shouting at people because you don’t wish it to be so may be satisfyingly childish but does not change anything except to make the development of intelligent, well-grounded responses that much harder and leave far more ground for political entrepreneurs to garner support from frustrated, concerned and angry voters left with nowhere else to go.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted December 18, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    “Of the existing civilisations sharing this planet, only one is prominently having an extended temper tantrum about modernity; an extended temper tantrum with a distinctly homicidal edge.”

    I wouldn’t say that. The US and Russia have been finding places to have defacto wars with each other whenever the opportunity arises and other Western countries were constantly fighting through the 20th Century? It will be interesting to see how the current situation pans out in Syria. It seems to me the main difference is they still have tantrums with homicidal edges, it is just they are happy to do it with modern weapons.

  2. Posted December 20, 2015 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] State competition is not a temper tantrum about modernity. State competition is normal, and often has a homicidal edge. It’s “true believer” attacks by non-state actors which is more revealing.

  3. Lynne Newington
    Posted December 21, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    At the moment I think they all need to back back to the drawing board….

  4. conrad
    Posted December 21, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t see such a distinction — these are simply social groupings based on different criteria. The fact that some groups don’t like some things (e.g., some forms of technology, different races, certain royal families, people across imaginary borders…), just gives people different stupid reasons to kill each other.

    If you were an alien that came down to Earth, for example, you might well be be surprised that people were more willing to die for an imaginary line vs. something else, whether that be an intangible illogical belief such as religion, or a tangible physical characteristic due to genetic relatedness. To me it’s this latter one that is the surprise — that it can be trumped so easily.

  5. Posted December 22, 2015 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    [email protected] But they are not “different stupid reasons to kill each other” but systematic murders of people who ain’t killing nobody. One of the features of rage at modernity is that it is a lot less discriminate, since it produces such a range of targets.

    On genetic relatedness, that surely is only about immediate kin connections. Beyond that, and “genetic” identity is much an ideological construction as religion or Leninism.

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