The concept of legitimacy provides both a context for understanding religious conflict and a paradigm to resolve it. Religions provide standards of legitimacy—what is right and wrong—and conflicting standards of legitimacy are the primary cause of religious conflict.
Legitimacy includes both voluntary moral standards and the obligatory standards of law. Progressive believers reject religious law in favor of secular law and accept advances in knowledge and reason in shaping their moral standards, while fundamentalists reject any challenge to the truth of their ancient scriptural doctrines and laws. That contentious conflict must be resolved in order to find lasting peace in a world of increasing religiosity.
There is little religious conflict when religious standards of legitimacy are considered voluntary moral standards and not coercive laws, but apostasy and blasphemy laws are criminal offenses under both Jewish Mosaic Law and Islamic Law (shari’a). Those coercive religious laws suppress the freedoms of religion and speech that are first among the fundamental freedoms of libertarian democracy.
The freedoms of religion and speech have been accepted as matters of faith as well as law by religions in libertarian democracies, even though they are not mentioned in the ancient scriptures. Those freedoms provide religious tolerance, which is the reason why religious fundamentalists are a minority in libertarian democracies; but fundamentalists are a majority in Islamic nations where apostasy and blasphemy laws foster religious conflict and violence.
Religious conflict and violence would decrease in Islamic cultures if shari’a were considered a voluntary code of moral standards rather than enforced as a code of laws; and if the freedoms of religion and speech were human rights, militant Islamist fundamentalists like ISIS would be denied their legitimacy since it depends upon apostasy and blasphemy laws. Justice and law and order require more than criminal laws that protect against violence; they also require human rights that protect individuals from the oppressive powers of government.
Devout Christians and Muslims believe the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on law and morality are the word of God and the heart of legitimacy. Jesus taught principles based on love over law and the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor—even one’s unbelieving neighbors—that were echoed by Muhammad before he became a political leader and warrior. The teachings of Muhammad, like those of Moses, included laws that may have been appropriate for their ancient time and place but that are not appropriate for our time and place.
The teachings of Jesus were universal and timeless moral standards that were consistent with the teachings of other Jewish patriarchs and prophets, and even Muhammad—until he assumed political and military power. In ancient times the legitimacy of those powers depended upon the divine right to rule and divine law. But if Moses and Muhammad exercised worldly power today they would likely be more like other progressive modern leaders than religious fundamentalists, and accept advances in knowledge, reason and libertarian values as improvements in standards of legitimacy that are consistent with the greatest commandment.
Religious fundamentalism is based on the false assumption that the ancient scriptures are the last word of God for humankind. God’s standards of legitimacy are not frozen in ancient and immutable scriptures, but accept advances in knowledge, reason and the libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law so long as they comport with the moral imperative to love others. God has never favored any one religion over others. All religions have been a source of good and evil. The final accounting must be left to God’s judgment.
God has given humanity the free will to determine its own fate, for good or bad. Even though political freedom is not mentioned in the ancient scriptures, it is like the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It allows humankind to determine its own destiny, either to liberate the oppressed or to allow the powerful to oppress the vulnerable. The challenge for people of faith in libertarian democracies today is to learn how to balance individual freedom with providing for the common good, and to promote freedom as a means to liberate the oppressed.
How can ISIS attract young Muslims from libertarian democracies with its distorted ideals? Ebrahim Moosa is an Islamic scholar who has described ISIS as a toxic version of political Islam on steroids, but has acknowledged that …today Islamic orthodoxy is in serious need of a makeover. Mainstream theologians…are unable to address…the meaning of sharia in a modern nation…because theological education is steeped in ancient texts with little attention to reinterpretation. The ISIS ideal of a caliphate that imposes religious laws that are hideously illegitimate will ultimately fail, but not without causing more violence and suffering.
The majority of Muslims, not ISIS, will determine the future of Islam; and when Muslims interpret shari’a in the light of advances in knowledge and reason, then Islam will become compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. The concept of legitimacy provides both a context and paradigm to do that by establishing the primacy of love over law; and it is expressed in the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Like Judaism and Christianity before it, Islam will over time evolve into a religion that accepts the freedoms of religion and speech as a matter of faith and law, and will embrace those libertarian values and standards of legitimacy that are essential to world peace.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Religion as a Source of Good and Evil, February 1, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law, April 12, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015.
The Introduction to TheTeachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy explains how the concept of legitimacy is related to the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, with an emphasis on love over law and the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike (see pages 10-15, 25-30 and 31-38).
Roger Cohen has asked: How does ISIS attract young Muslims from libertarian democracies? (See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/opinion/roger-cohen-why-isis-trumps-freedom.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0.). Ebrahim Moosa is an Islamic scholar who has joined Cohen in responding to that question: How could this have happened? Islamic orthodoxy, which controls mosques and institutions worldwide, is out of step with the world in which the majority of Muslims live. In few places is orthodox Islam independent of the state; it is often a political tool used by authoritarian regimes, which explains why the Muslim intelligentsia does not respect it. Its hallmark is archaism in theology and ethics, and its reach covers most of the global community of faith. Once a robust intellectual tradition, today Islamic orthodoxy is in serious need of a makeover. Mainstream theologians who cater to the majority of lay Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, are unable to address such critical moral and theological challenges as evolution, gender and sexuality, or the role and meaning of sharia in a modern nation. That’s because theological education is steeped in ancient texts with little attention to reinterpretation. Moosa says, …thankfully, some orthodox elements are prepared to rethink issues. Sadly, they are a minority. (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/my-madrassa-classmate-hated-politics-then-joined-the-islamic-state/2015/08/21/b8ebe826-4769-11e5-8e7d-9c033e6745d8_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_popns.)