Islam, Christ, and Liberty

Jordan Peterson discusses with Mustafa Akyol

Jordan Peterson has again created a signature super video. This time of his discussion with liberal-minded Muslim intellectual Mustafa Akyol.

That a deep and serious debate between “the West” and Islam is urgent and necessary goes almost without saying. So Peterson (hereafter JP) and Akyol (hereafter MA) are doing us a great favour by forging ahead.

Here are some highlights that stood out for me:

MA recognises that the prohibition for Muslims to leave their faith and choose another or none is a serious problem for Islam. He thinks however there is scope for liberalising Islam in this regard. He says that the Koran says that “there is no compulsion in religion”. He explains that ever since the beginnings of Islam this has meant that there should be no forced conversion into Islam. (This, by the way, was why in the Middle Ages many Jews preferred to live under Islam than under Christianity, says MA.) However, MA and other modernisers now argue that this passage should be understood wider, namely that there should be no compulsion for those who want to leave Islam either.

It’s interesting in this context that, at another place in the discussion, MA says that Islam is currently losing many “true” adherents. People in Muslim countries are losing the faith, particularly in theocratically run countries such as Iran.

JP points out a certain congruence of the three religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He doesn’t mention the tired dictum of them having the “same” God. He points out something more intriguing, namely that all three have, as the bedrock of their faith, a book. (I suppose other religions don’t, or not to that extent.)

MA remarks that all religions have regressive, self-destructive phases. For Christianity, it happened in the 16th century. The common element of these phases appears to be when religion “is combined with group narcissism and acting in the name of God to punish people”. And this is happening in many parts of Islam currently. It’s a destructive dynamic. However, there are antidotes.

As an example, MA mentions a discussion early in the history of Islam as to who is the true Muslim. From that debate emerged some scholars who were called “Postponers”. They said only God can know who is wrong and who is right. So we should “postpone” that question into the afterlife. MA points out that the British philosopher and “father of Liberalism” John Locke (1632 – 1704) said something similar after witnessing the wars of religion. Locke said something like: Every church thinks it is right, let God sort that out, in the meantime, let’s live together under “natural law”.

JP then points out that today, in the West at least, many people try to avoid judgement, but that’s not possible. “Not judging” is a judgement in itself. The difficulty is, finding what we believe but being tolerant of other beliefs at the same time. How to be tolerant but having faith at the same time.

MA reiterates that what should be avoided is punishment in the name of God, because others will have other ideas about that.

MA then mentions some overlaps between Islam and Christianity. One is that reverence is shown to Mary the mother of Jesus, as she is the only woman named in Koran. The Koran also affirms the virgin birth of Christ and says that Jesus is “the word from God”.

At the beginning, says MA, Muslims considered Jews and Christians as allies (against idolatrous pagans).

MA: We have to reform the Sharia. However, at the beginning it was a set of rules separate from that of the rulers, it was even about the rulers. The Sharia mitigated worldly rulers. Classical Islam had scholars independent from the state. The state co-opted them and that was the reason for the decline of Islam. The Sharia often stopped arbitrary decisions by rulers such as death penalties or high taxes.

[PwG: Something similar happened in the West: The scholars and universities were co-opted by the state, away from the churches. The result was the First World War, as I hope to show soon.]

MA: The tragedy of modern Islam is that it encountered the modern state. Wahabis (of Saudi-Arabia) are the ultra-orthodox with a violent bent. They were used first by the British against the Ottoman Empire.

MA: Interpretation of the Sharia stagnated, then the modern state came. Then some Muslims saw that they could implement their idea of the Sharia by taking hold of central government.

MA: Muslim countries got the bad side of modernism, the French style secularism, which forbids headscarf-wearing in universities – not much freedom in that. Arab republics got influenced by Soviet communism.  

MA: Religion becomes oppressive when it combines, and becomes one, with state power. We need to cultivate those parts of religion that act as a counterbalance to state power.

JP: Compared to Christ, Mohammed is a frightening figure, because he was a warrior and conqueror.

MA: That story is not much different from that of Moses/Joshua. There is a historical reason for Mohammed’s warrior status. During their first ten years Muslims were persecuted. If Muslims had been allowed to preach peacefully, history would have been different. After they fled to Medina, their houses in Mecca were plundered. Only then came the first verse of the Koran which allowed war: “Permission to fight has been given to those who are persecuted because they say that God is one.” Also: “Go and find the unbelievers, go and kill them.” These are historical commands, the outcome of an oppressive environment.

JP: We haven’t worked out yet what to do when oppressed. Turn the other cheek … but that’s not what happened in World War Two.

MA: After Mohammed, Muslims had an army and a state. They didn’t stop and created an empire. That’s a problem.

[PwG: And that’s a significant difference to Moses/Joshua. God allotted a certain piece of land to them, so says the Old Testament. And they kept to that, more or less.]

MA: They took these verses as distinct from the historical context. I take these verses as interpreted for an age of empire. Not as a divine blueprint. They need to be re-interpreted.

JP: On what basis do you make that statement?

MA: I show that this is to be understood in historical context. I can refer to many scholars.

JP: Interpretation can only be honest if you approach it in the spirit of love.

MA: I want to make a contribution to the future of my religion. It is currently captured by medieval interpretations. I studied modern 19th century scholars. I try to popularise these ideas. Currently the modern manifestations of Islam is bigoted and tending towards totalitarianism. Many are leaving Islam. Islam needs to do the equivalent movement that Christianity did in moving away from the belief in the divine right of kings.

MA: Does God teach us not to murder because it’s wrong, or is murdering wrong because God teaches it? Some Muslim schools of thought think the second way, and have become very influential in Sunni Islam. MA is very critical of that.  

MA: I think the original Islam was more about natural rights, rights that are beyond the scope of government to change. However, now we have a “loss of universalism”.

(JP mentions that he is writing a book with the title “We Who Wrestle With God”. That’s one to look out for.)

MA: Some Muslims think the Koran “indicates” what is right or wrong, others think it “constitutes” what is right and wrong. (Example: women not travelling unaccompanied, because in earlier times there were bandits about. One can be literal about that, and still not allow women to travel alone. Or, one can recognise that making society safe is a way of obeying that law because it makes it safe for women to travel alone.)

MA: The death penalty existed because there were no prisons. We have prisons now. No death penalty necessary.

MA: I call on fellow Muslims to study the New Testament, as it says so in the Koran.

Note: One commentator writes under the YouTube-video:

“I have been more educated about Religion by this discussion than I have ever been in all my lifetime. Thank you both for opening my eyes.”

I wouldn’t go that far personally, but then I’ve read a few books on religion, including the whole Bible (twice, so far). However, the comment is an example among countless other indicators of the good work Jordan Peterson’s long debates and discussions is doing, of the positive impact he is having in the world.