Conservatism's shari'a, liberalism's ijtihad

An interesting meta-debate by intellectual conservatives over conservatism's future is playing out. It started with David Frum's Waterloo essay, which led to his political excommunication. Julian Sanchez observed that this represented an epistemic closing of the conservative mind, a thesis that was validated by the retribution visited upon Jim Manzi for daring to suggest that conservatives will achieve more persuasion by using honest, strong arguments instead of weak, emotional ones.

All of this has led John Quiggin at Crooked Timber to argue most wisely that as conservatism implodes, liberalism needs to find its own rationale that is more than just "not conservatism". Quiggin has a list of priorities for the liberal movement to address, and closes with the general plea,

...the left has to stand for something more than keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements. We need to offer the hope of a better world as an alternative to the angry tribalism that threatens to engulf us.

I'm sympathetic to this argument, because it was actually one of my own critiques of then-candidate Obama in the 2008 election. I consistently argued for "transformative" change because I genuinely thought such change was achievable. However, since Obama's election, and the realities of the limitations imposed by the legislative system and a staunchly obstructionist Republican minority, I've come around to the incrementalist approach. I think that Obama represents a step back from the rightmost brink, to the center, and that the time for broader strides leftwards will have to wait until after Obama has finished restoring balance. m

DougJ at Balloon Juice also takes issue with Quiggin's last point, pointing out that incrementalism is a good thing, relative to the alternative:

It's true that pragmatic liberalism has its shortcomings as a political strategy. Much of the appeal of conservatism comes from how thorough-going its dictates are. Contemporary liberal discussion (at least as I see it on blogs and in opinion columns) mostly confines itself to governmental policies. The conservosphere gets involved with what movies you should watch, what kinds of scarves you should wear in Dunkin' Donuts ads, what kinds of countertops you should have in your house, and so on. (I'm not saying liberals can't be preachy, mind you, but it's one thing for your friend to lecture you about recycling, it's another for prominent political columnists to devote multiple columns to Avatar.) That's seductive in the same way that religion is.

That's a good insighgt and it's worth exploring that religion analogy further (even though I likely disagree with DougJ on the value of religion as a whole). The analogy I would make is that movement conservatism is a lot like the stereotypical Shari'ah (as envisioned in the fevered dreams of the islamophobes). It demands total subjugation and defines all aspects of life to fall within its purview. Everything must be judged on the binary scale and assessed by the orthodoxy as Good or Evil; the good must be enjoined and the evil must be repudiated. There is no moderation or middle ground.

Liberalism, in contrast, is how Islam is practiced by ordinary muslim folk - in essence, ijtihad. We go about our lives and try to live our lives as best we can in accordance with our principles and cultural tradition. It is inherently incrementalist; there's no master Plan, but as we become aware of ways in which we can conform our actions to our beliefs, we make adjustments. It's inherently an individual movement, because of our personal interpretations and decisions - for example, I might abstain from fish oil supplements on the basis of halal rules, but eat at McDonalds, and another may do the exact opposite. There's no central authority dictating the details, though there are authorities dictating teh rules which we have to interpret and apply to the unique context of our individual lives.

Conservatism looks at Islam and sees only Shari'ah, because it projects itself there. The reality, however, is much more mundane, as it should be.


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