Epicurus and Islam

This is the first in a new series of posts titled, Epicurus and Modern Philosophy. Robert has done an excellent job of covering the issues of the day, but given that Epicurus was a philosopher, I wanted to write a series of posts on the biggest ideas affecting the modern world- from a Epicurean perspective, of course. These will be political philosophies, economic models, or merely teachings from wise people. But today, I thought I’d start with a religion, and given that the nature of Islam is so contentious in today’s political and national security debates, I believe I should start with it first. For the most part, these posts will run every fortnight, with a more usual post on the weeks when a Modern Philosophy post is not due. Finally, I’d add that next week’s post will also be different, because I’ll be covering a emotional, yet quintessentially Epicurean issue, so look out for that!

There’s a certain tendency on much of the political Right to ascribe the primary cause of terrorism to Islamic doctrine. For these anti-Islam conservatives, the violence contained in the Qur’an, the Hadith, as well as in the Prophet Muhammad’s life, proves that Islam itself must take responsibility for the actions of its extremist adherents. They argue for explicitly anti-Islam policies, such as state-enforced monoculturalism, restrictions on immigration and even travel for Muslims, and in some extreme cases, deportation for the Muslims already living in the West- all in the name of national security.

Having taken international relations modules (amongst other things) at Exeter University for two years now, I have spoken to no academic or professor who shares this view. The consensus amongst international relations scholars is that parts of the political Right overemphasise Islamic theology when explaining why Jihadi terrorism occurs. For instance, why is Jihadi terrorism such a modern phenomenon despite the fact that Islam has existed for hundreds of years? Rather, political and socioeconomic factors- the increase in anti-Western sentiment, nationalism, poverty, and disillusionment with peace as an ineffective means of political reform- are far more effective at explaining terrorism. The question of whether Islam itself is a religion of peace is neither here nor there. The fact is that most Muslims are peaceful people, and deserve the right to be presumed innocent as much as anyone else. Any attempts to curb the rights of the civilian Muslim population as part of a counter-terrorism strategy are likely to be ineffective as best; they are likely to reinforce the impression that Western policymakers are prejudice against Muslims, fuelling a violent backlash amongst a small minority.

However, just because most Muslims are peaceful and have as much of a right to migrate as everyone else, doesn’t mean that Islam is Epicurean or even liberal. Fundamentally, Islam is about submitting oneself to God, a perfect supernatural being. The God of Islam demands absolute obedience, with the threat of hell for those who resist his will. This leaves little room for individual discretion when making moral decisions- if its God’s will, it must be done. So if you were a Muslim, you couldn’t decide for yourself that sex outside marriage may not be so bad. If God forbids it, it cannot be done. I personally find this a frightening way of thinking. It places faith in the infallibility of the divine above the reasoning of the individual, thus robbing the individual of the right to make decisions for themselves and take responsibility for them. Having the obedience to rules be at the heart of a belief system makes the life of the individual unfree. This is reflected in wider society: Islamic societies and cultures tend to be authoritarian and patriarchal, with those who command and those who are commanded.

Now Islam is far from unique in demanding full obedience to the supernatural: Christianity and Judaism do too, and even polytheisms encourage their followers to obey the gods, though the reward and punishment system tends to be far more sophisticated than the heaven/hell afterlife. Equally, the socially conservative (by Western standards) values of Islam are largely shared by Orthodox Jews, practising Catholics or dedicated Hindus. My frustration with the debate concerning Islam is that there are many on the political Left who claim that this isn’t the case: that virtually all Muslims are Western-style liberals who love feminism and gay rights. That simply isn’t the case at all. For instance, all beaches in Spain are currently clothing optional- you can enter any of them completely naked legally, should you choose to. Now suppose there was a very large influx of Muslim immigrants into Spain, so that Muslims were now the majority religious group. Would that law permitting such widespread nudity survive? I have my doubts. Again, the same could be said for many other conservative religious groups.

The point is that for too long, much of the Left believes the Islamic world can be just as liberal as the West, given time and enough of our money. This is a delusional fantasy, as recently shown by Turkey’s (albeit narrow) embrace of an executive presidency led by an authoritarian strongman, Recep Erdogan. The reason why the West has become more liberal is because Christianity has declined, and the Christians that remain have largely compromised and secularised their religion to the point where it would be longer recognisable to the Christianity our forefathers practised even just a century ago. The only way for the Islamic world to become as liberal as the West in its social attitudes and political practises, is if Islam reduces in its popularity and influence on public policy. But that isn’t going to happen. Unlike in the West, the Islamic world is not becoming more secular- much of it is actually becoming more Islamic. And unlike Christianity, Islam has no major tradition of secularism anyway. From its founding, Islam has been used as a political ideology as well as a religion. Conversely, most Christians see at least some value in secularism. Jesus saw a clear distinction between church and state, as evident by his desire not to get involved in political affairs. Most Muslims will always want Islam to play a prominent role in government, even if they don’t necessarily support an Iranian-style theocracy. The desire for Western-style secular government is scarce amongst Muslims, especially those living outside the Western world.

In conclusion, the point of this post was not to dissuade Muslims from adhering to their religion. I have a great respect for the Islamic world and its people. I don’t believe it is inherently prone to violence, and its rich history and culture shows that there is hope for what is currently a troubled region. Going forward, I am hopeful that Islam will make a success of itself. But I don’t accept the absurd logic of Western liberals, that Islam will be a success on the West’s terms. The Islamic world is not the West, and can take pride in that. We have different ways of thinking: the West is very much based on individualism, which Muslims understandably reject as being antithetical to God’s will and a harmonious society. Therefore, we should stop pretending we share the same values, and work to build a better world with our differences in mind.