City of Brass

City of Brass


Conservatism’s shari’a, liberalism’s ijtihad

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

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 insight 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.



  • Nancy

    I don’t think you understand what it means to be a conservative. I think that the liberals are the ones that want to dictate every aspect of my life right down to the kind of squigly mercury containing light bulb that I have to use.

  • Glenda Walth

    Then maybe you are actually a liberal. Joking of course. But don’t both sides have their obsessions? The old stereotype is that conservatives what to regulate everything that happens in everybody elses’ bedrooms and regulate nothing that happens in bank board rooms while liberals want peoples’ noses out of their privacy and into controlling just how much the fat cats are allowed to steal from us.
    In reality, those fears we have has been aggravated by the heat of the rhetoric for the last couple years. I think both sides are overreacting and demonizing the other as the “totality of all that I hate”, when the real picture in not nearly so extreme.
    However, I beleive that many of the issues you believe are “dictated” to you, are steps for the common good. Those who want, for instance, to dismantle the Food and Safety Act, don’t recall the days when companies had no regulation and how many people were sickened and/or killed by bad food and snake oil medicine.
    You think you want less government, but you don’t really. There is nothing standing between the people and the greed and shortcuts of Big Business EXCEPT a strong government keeping an eye out. The mine disaster last week for example. The company defied federal regulations and see what happened.
    No, I don’t expect complete safety from government regs, of course. The government cannot save everybody from everything and should not try. But what about when conservatives get all het up about our “right” to be safe from various “terrorists”. That cannot be guaranteed either, so why the double standard?

  • Glenda

    I should have proofread better. Corrections:
    “The old stereotype is that conservatives WANT” not “WHAT”
    “those fears we have has been aggravated” should read “our fears have been aggravated”
    “picture IS not nearly so extreme”
    And, yes, I know that believe is not spelled BELEIVE.

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Teed Rockwell

    The Current debate between “Liberals” and “Conservatives” is not a debate between ideologies. It is quarrel between two tribes, who are distinguished only by cultural indicators like head gear and beverage choices. Their are a few people in my neighborhood in Berkeley who still cling to the ideology that the “Conservative” tribe still calls “Liberal”. But since the collapse of Communism, there is no one with any political power who denies the basic principles once called conservative: Faith in the Free market, the dangers caused by regulation etc.
    Unfortunately, the “Conservative” Tribe no longer cares about Ideology at all. It simply identifies any position taken by Obama and other Liberals as “Socialist” regardless of it’s ideological content. They renounce “Cap and Trade” (which was originated by Bush sr.), Government payments to insurance companies (First suggested by Richard Nixon and advocated by Conservative think tanks until Obama proposed it.) Hospice care (proposed by Sarah Palin in Alaska, years before she called the same program ‘death camps’) and Nuclear Arms reduction (proposed by Reagan in the talks with Gorbachev) all become Liberal as soon as Obama proposes them, even if they were previously proposed and defended by Conservatives.
    The real and important discussion between Liberal and Conservative ideology can not progress as long as those who hold the “Conservative” label hostage are liars whose only “position” is polarity response, and attacks on strawmen that haven’t existed for decades. That is the case, right now, unfortunately. More and More conservatives are starting to recognize this. Let’s hope that’s a trend that continues.

  • Abambagibus

    The overwhelmingly anti-conservative impulse of the majority here, in the infinite confines of the Beliefnet universe, might have one believe that this is truly the prinicipal impulse of the Universe of All. To hell with the conservation of language and culture and borders here. To be free of the evil of us, we are to be assimilated by other-than-us, … a sentiment lauded by Radical Islam. There is nothing good about the conservative impulse of a Nation so maligned, …a sentiment lauded as well by the same and by you who thus are impelled to malign me. Inambages Obvos.

  • Alicia

    Good post, Aziz. I think incrementalism is the approach adopted by most human beings who have arrived at maturity. It is only the very young or the very childish who think it is possible to achieve revolutionary change without the costs outweighing the benefits.
    That’s why I have supported President Obama ever since the Democratic National Convention. I was put off by the Obama-worship during the campaign, but I’ve found President Obama to be, not only a centrist, but frequently the only adult in the room. We’ve come to believe in instant gratification so that we’ve forgotten what mature progress and change actually look like. Kinda boring, and very positive.

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