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As minorities, Muslims in the United States and other Western countries face extreme pressure to conform to “liberal” values. This pressure typically comes in the form of both antagonism, premised on our presumed inability to assimilate into “Western society,” and a warm expression of trust that we (or the “vast majority” of Muslims) have, in fact, managed (or at least are trying) to conform.

Being “liberal” is a conspicuous criteria of inclusion for Muslims. What, then, does it mean to be liberal and embrace liberalism? In Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre summarizes liberalism as follows:

Initially the liberal claim was to provide a political, legal, and economic framework in which assent to one and the same set of rationally justifiable principles would enable those who espouse widely different and incompatible conceptions of the good life for human beings to live together peaceably within the same society, enjoying the same political status and engaging in the same economic relationships.[1] 

In their many failures (both historical and current), liberal societies have especially failed to make good on the claim that liberalism welcomes “widely different and incompatible conceptions of the good life.” Consider the common complaint that, while liberalism promises a system that is neutral with respect to the values of diverse religious communities, self-described liberal societies nevertheless privilege certain values over others. According to MacIntyre, the failure of liberal societies to achieve a sense of authentic neutrality follows directly from the liberal ideal, itself:

Every individual is to be equally free to propose and to live by whatever conception of the good he or she pleases, derived from whatever theory or tradition he or she may adhere to, unless that conception of the good involves reshaping the rest of the community in accordance with it. And this qualification of course entails not only that liberal individualism does indeed have its own broad conception of the good, which it is engaged in imposing politically, legally, socially, and culturally wherever it has the power to do so, but also that in so doing its toleration of rival conceptions of the good in the public arena is severely limited. What is permitted in that arena is the expression of preferences, either the preferences of individuals or the preferences of groups, the latter being understood as the preferences of the individuals who make up those groups, summed in some way or other.[2]

For Muslims today, perhaps the most pervasively lived liberal failure is the seemingly contradictory demand that we embrace liberal values, so that we may be included in a society where people are free to espouse widely different values. Does this failure simply represent a contradiction between liberal ideals and liberal behavior, or is it evidence of a deeper contradiction within the liberal ideal itself? If the liberal ideal is internally contradictory, then its stated goals are inherently impossible to fulfill. In that case, what sense is there in criticizing liberal societies for failing to achieve this ideal? Indeed, to criticize liberals for “not being liberal” in this sense problematically assumes that the liberal ideal is not only possible, but normative. It presumes that societies ought to be liberal. In this way, we become the champions of liberalism, rather than its critics.

Muslims in the “liberal” West must reckon with this problem. In particular, in negotiating our place in society, we must decide whether to: (a) demand delivery on the liberal promise (which requires we take it as both possible and desirable), (b) advocate for a different political framework, or (c) withdraw from politics altogether. Rejecting liberalism precludes (a), and therefore leaves us with either (b) or (c). Assuming that withdrawal from politics (c) is not an option, then we are left with the question of an alternative political framework (b).

To pursue option (b), Muslims must clarify what they can reasonably expect to achieve from politics in the first place. Only a political objective that is possible, desirable, and different from the liberal ideal can serve as the basis for rejecting liberalism for an alternative politics. If the liberal ideal is indeed impossible, then understanding that it is, and why, is crucial for clarifying this alternative objective. If we fail to do this, we will merely resurrect the same impossible hopes in new garb.

Because liberalism privileges some values over others (and hence cannot possibly deliver the kind of neutrality it promises) Muslims, along with everyone else living in a pluralistic society, are better served by engaging, rather than evading, the question of which values ought to be privileged and why.

Neutrality In Liberalism

One might claim that the “failure of neutrality” described above is insignificant. Obviously, a society based around preventing people from imposing their values on others must necessarily privilege the values of the majority who possess no “impulse to impose” over the minority (like Muslims) who presumably do. The idea here is that those whose values are less privileged in this arrangement are in no position to complain about the lack of neutrality, since they oppose neutrality in the first place. The liberal conception of the good is, as such, as neutral and inclusive as a society can be. 

If that was all there was to it, then this argument might be compelling. But, of course, there is more happening here. In practice, liberalism privileges a conception of the good far beyond this hypothetical minimum. The contradiction between this fact about liberalism and its aspiration to neutrality has led to a crisis in liberal culture (or the “liberal tradition” as MacIntyre calls it), which has played out in the form of the “the Muslim Problem.” For one faction of liberals, acceptance of Islam constitutes the ultimate proof of liberalism’s tolerance and inclusiveness, and acts as a litmus test to distinguish “real” liberals from phony ones. For another faction, however, Islam represents the limit of liberal tolerance, and its acceptance is a dangerous form of moral relativism.

Through the example of philosopher John Stuart Mill, we will see how a lack of neutrality itself is not the problem, since no legal-political system can be neutral in the sense liberalism claims to be. The real problem is liberalism’s concealment of this fact, and obscuring its hierarchical ordering of values from rational scrutiny. If this inevitable hierarchy of values were duly acknowledged, and the question of how (and why) these values should be ordered were open to public discussion, liberal societies would perhaps be far more “liberal.”

The Harms Principle

In his classic tract, On Liberty, Mill famously expresses the liberal creed, in the form of the “harms principle.” He stated that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

While this seems simple enough, without a clear definition of harm, it says nothing and can justify anything. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) thinks lynching blacks prevents harm. I, on the other hand, believe the KKK is the one doing harm in this picture. One of us must be wrong, so we need an objective standard to distinguish what really is a harm from what someone merely thinks is a harm. In other words, a theory that provides objective standards for determining what is good and bad is essential.

According to its very terms, the harms principle cannot provide this neutral, objective standard, even in the minimal sense suggested above, for every application of the principle involves deciding whether something is a real, objective value as opposed to a subjective preference. Similarly, no system of defining justified coercion can be morally neutral. This is where the theory of utilitarianism comes in.

Like Mill, most liberals turn to utilitarianism for defining harm, as the good and bad, respectively, in terms of pleasure and pain. The only intrinsic good, according to Mill, is pleasure and the absence of pain, while the only intrinsic bad is pain or the absence of pleasure. Since everyone experiences pain and pleasure, regardless of their religious or moral beliefs, utilitarianism seems to secure the required neutrality. However, it does so by surreptitiously trading off its objectivity, ultimately equivocating on both.

To understand this, consider the fourth chapter of Utilitarianism, where Mill attempts to prove that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. The only proof that something is desirable, he argues, is that people desire it. People desire pleasure, therefore, pleasure is desirable. If you think there is something other than pleasure that you value for its own sake, he claims, that is in fact part of your pleasure. In other words, Mill is simply defining pleasure as whatever one desires for its own sake. Therein lies the strength of the argument, but a strength purchased at the cost of committing oneself to an entirely subjective notion of the good. The intrinsic good is just whatever anyone happens to desire for its own sake, and this can of course differ from one person to another.

While Mill’s approach avoids privileging any particular set of values, it greatly complicates the application of the harms principle. When it comes to the application of this philosophy, certain pleasures and pains are inevitably distinguished as objective, while others are labeled as subjective. But when one inquires as to the rationale for this, then claims to neutrality obscure and shield liberal edicts from scrutiny. If the law is morally neutral, and only concerned with preventing “harm,” and if harm is just whatever hurts, then no reasoned discussion is possible about why we privilege the values that we do, and whether they are in fact uniquely objective. The result is a distinctly “liberal” situation. 

If, instead, we were to give up the pretense of neutrality (rather than vainly demand it), along with the crutch of professed (though not practiced) moral subjectivity, we could truly engage in a meaningful discussion of which values are to be privileged and why.

The Liberal Dilemma

What does all this mean for Muslims? In essence, liberal society promises Muslim communities an egalitarian sense of inclusivity, but on the specific condition that they accept liberal tenets. While viewing Muslims as a threatened minority, liberal society also views the community as a paradigmatically “illiberal” mass, whose values, if allowed to spread, would bring about an illiberal apocalypse.

By basing public policy decisions on the supposedly objective harms principle, liberals claim to support the Muslim community against the hegemony of a traditional American value system grounded in Judeo-Christian principles. Muslims are, in this sense, the “human shields” liberals use in their conflict with the country’s conservative Christian majority.

Yet the nightmare scenario of a “Muslim takeover” also abides in the contemporary liberal imagination. Saving liberalism from the Muslim “threat,” according to this argument, requires acknowledging that liberalism involves, and requires, a definite hierarchy of preferences—a return to “the values of the Enlightenment,” which inform applications of the harms principle.

Under this dual system, Muslims are both “the protected minority” and “the threat.” In order to diffuse their “inherently” threatening nature (and concomitant exclusion from the public sphere), Muslims are expected to abandon any system of values other than liberal ones. The irony, of course, is that being a protected minority often means holding values and preferences substantially different from the dominant values of society, which in this case are liberal in nature.

Against this backdrop, Muslims appear to have two options. One is to accept their role as “threat,” along with the related status of protected minority, at the price of excluding Islamic values from the public sphere entirely. That is, they can buy protection from the threat of “conservative Christian hostility,” at the cost of submitting to liberal values. Whether this will, in fact, provide Muslims with the promised protections is highly questionable. Indeed, the anti-Muslim discourse found among self-declared secular (or atheist) liberals is strikingly similar to that of the conservative Christian right.

Another option is to refuse both the status of threat and protected minority, and to initiate a public discussion at the level of basic values without fear or favor, acknowledging that no system can operate without some hierarchy of values. Liberalism invites us to exclude ourselves from this discussion, on the promise of protection from social isolation. We should turn down that invitation. 

Certainly, choosing this latter option requires a degree of moral courage, and raises risks. It also requires a contentious discussion of these matters among ourselves. While most traditional Muslims count religious freedom, social justice, and strong family ties amongst their values, there needs to be a conversation about what these involve and how best to secure them. That is, we must also engage in the process of debating and critiquing the norms we, as a community, value and their hierarchy of importance to us.


[1] MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 335-336.

[2] Ibid.

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