New-Right Christians Would Repeat Islamist Government Failures
Iran and Turkey show injecting religion into modern government leads to brutal oppression and fewer believers
In recent years, a new intellectual school has appeared among America’s Christian conservatives: post-liberalism. Its pioneers include a few Catholic scholars called “integralists” and various public figures known as “national conservatives.” What unites them is their rejection of liberalism. The latter term implies not the center-left “liberalism” in American politics, but the broader classical liberal tradition that constitutes the founding principles of the United States: individual liberty, religious freedom, free markets, separation of church and state.
Contrary to this liberal heritage, the post-liberals want a closer relationship between church and state. National conservatives believe, “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state.” The integralists, in turn, want the state to “publicly recognize the truth of the Catholic religion” and act “as agent for the authority of the Church” to the extent that “the state legislates and punishes for purely religious ends.” In other words, as the liberal intellectual William Galston puts it, “Catholic integralists reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.”
With such an ambitious project, the integralists apparently hope to reverse the tide of secularization in Western societies, which began to take hold even in the traditionally religious United States, where there is a growing “decline of Christianity.”
As a Muslim who is interested in the role of religion in public life, with a conviction in liberalism, I have been watching these intra-Christian discussions in America with great interest—and to some extent, with surprise.
One reason for that surprise is that the achievements of liberalism are quite evident to most outside observers. Millions of immigrants to America—including myself—who have left behind authoritarian regimes, both religious and nonreligious, are deeply relieved by the liberty, security, opportunity and rule of law found in this new world. From our perspective, the “failure of liberalism” that post-liberals like Patrick Deneen refer to does not seem so concerning. In fact, a huge portion of the world today would only be delighted to live under this “failure.”
The Iran-Contra-Islam Crisis
The second reason for my surprise is even more ironic: The new integralists seem to present their theory of a re-sacralized state—the restoration of a bygone religious order after a long experience with a secular one—as a brilliant new idea waiting to be tested. But, in fact, it has already been tested—just not in the West, but in the Muslim World. The results have been disastrous, not only for society and its “common good,” but also for religion itself.
I am speaking, first and foremost, about Iran. Until the fateful year of 1979, Iran was under the politically dictatorial shah regime, which was secularist and modernist, but unlike the United States, also highly illiberal. For example, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi from 1925 to 1941, Muslim women were forced to unveil themselves—an inexcusable attack on their religious freedom. Religious Iranians’ reaction to such coercive modernism culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but it simply reversed the direction of coercion: The Shiite clergy—in a sense, the Shiite “church”—took control of the state; all women were forced to wear the veil; and all “un-Islamic” ideas and practices were banned. The goal was to save Iranian society from the secular culture associated with the West—or “Westoxification,” as the regime’s ideologues called it—and to make it more Islamic.
Yet after more than four decades in power, how has this top-down Islamization worked out? Did it actually make Iranian society more Islamic?
Not really. You can see this in the spirit of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets to condemn the Iranian regime incessantly since last September, when 22-year-old Kurdish women Mahsa Amini died under suspicious circumstances after being detained by Iran’s “morality police” for failing, in their view, to wear her headscarf chastely enough. These brave demonstrators include young women who, despite the risk of being arrested or even executed by the regime, have publicly burnt the very Islamic headscarves imposed on them by law. Some protestors even have attacked clerics by knocking off their turbans on the streets, a trend that went viral on Twitter as #Turban_Throwing (#عمامه_پرانی). These protestors are not against religion as such, as Iranian human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr has explained; rather, religion itself has become too closely associated with an authoritarian regime that brutalizes its dissidents.
In fact, these recent protests are only the latest outburst of an ongoing disenchantment with Iranian Islam, which, by being the ideology of a corrupt and authoritarian regime, has turned uninspiring, even repulsive. Visitors to Tehran often note that mosques are less popular and that the secular life banned by the regime thrives in private homes. A 2020 survey by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) even found out that approximately half of the population reported “losing their religion.” Only 32% identified as Shiite. This low percentage may be partly due to the survey’s being conducted online, where older and rural Iranians were less likely to participate, but regardless, 32% is an anemic figure given that Iran was once more than 90% Shiite.
Consequently, as I wrote in The New York Times a few years ago, Iran became the number one Muslim-majority country in producing defectors from the faith—the very scandal that the regime wants to avoid by punishing apostasy from Shiite Islam with the death penalty. (Yes, the death penalty.) Some of these ex-Muslims simply turn irreligious, while others convert to Christianity, making Iran the home of the “the fastest growing underground church” in the world.
Turkey’s Impious Generations
But isn’t Iran too extreme an example? That is what America’s post-liberals might say, arguing that the religious state they aspire to will be less brutal, less oppressive and therefore more successful in its de-secularization.
Yet that “moderate” model has been tested as well, this time in Iran’s prominent neighbor, Turkey, which also happens to be my home country. There, in the past two decades, another “Islamic revolution” has taken place, albeit a milder, slower and less explicit one. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamic conservatives gradually captured all the levers of power, with a passion for revenge against the previously dominant secular class and with an ambition to raise “pious generations.” Toward the latter end, they have boosted religious education, built scores of new mosques, censored secular media, overtaxed alcohol and exploited public funds to lavishly boost Islamic communities.
But this “soft Islamization” has not worked well either. It gave the ruling party legitimacy in the eyes of its hardcore supporters, and it helped consolidate their “kleptocratic regime,” but it also left many Turks disenchanted with Islam. Turkish academic Murat Çokgezen puts it this way in a study of Turkey’s approach that’s well worth reading: “As the government is identified with religion in the eye of the public, dissatisfaction with the government turned to dissatisfaction with religious values.”
Unsurprisingly, “deism” has become a popular trend among Turkish youth in recent years. The main reason for this development, as I’ve put it elsewhere, is their aversion to “all the corruption, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, cruelty and crudeness displayed in the name of Islam.”
Religion as a Fig Leaf vs. the Genie of Liberty
To be sure, the stories of both Turkey and Iran are complicated, and they are still unfolding. Nevertheless, they do offer a lesson to all people of religion: When you build a religious state, religion does not really bring much virtue to that state; rather, religion becomes a fig leaf for all the state’s sins. Moreover, by pushing religion down people’s throats, the state makes them less religious, not more.
Integralists and Islamists can still shrug their shoulders, arguing that humanity has lived under religious states and within religious communities for millennia, so why is it a problem to re-establish them today? The answer is precisely in that history: In addition to all that pre-modern world of religious hierarchy, humanity has also seen political systems of individual freedom. You cannot simply undo that experience. A thousand years ago, most people may have found laws against apostasy or blasphemy reasonable, but today’s individuals will find them absurd. You can’t put the genie of liberty back in the bottle—and you won’t achieve any good by trying to force it.
There is even an additional pitfall in any project of a re-sacralized state: It takes the form of a zealous revolution. So just as in most political revolutions, the revolutionaries glorify themselves, claiming a special role in history, only to grab power unabashedly. As in communist regimes, they become “the new class,” indulging in the spoils of conquest while supposedly serving some higher goal.
Liberalism was born, and preserved, to end all such oppressive systems: both pre-modern ones that dictated in the name of God and modern ones that dictated in the name of the proletariat or the volk. Liberalism certainly has flaws and shortcomings—there is no heaven on earth—but it remains the most liberating and elevating political idea humanity has ever seen. It gives each individual or community the chance to live by their own values, which is what they can legitimately aspire to.
Liberalism also holds that no comprehensive worldview can rely on the state as its patron saint. It requires that proponents of these views rely on their own resources—their own ability to inspire and appeal—to win hearts and minds.
And here, I believe, lies the real reason why integralists and Islamists despise liberalism. They are not willing to compete in a free market of ideas, because they are fundamentally not confident in their own ideas. That is why they discuss “why liberalism failed” instead of asking the right question: Why is our religion failing in liberalism?