Monday, July 14, 2008

The Troubles

Ostensibly addressing Islam, Benjamin Barber has a very odd way of making his case for the compatibility of religion and democracy:

If democracy means anything it means the right for people to make their own mistakes. To practice their own religion. To pursue their own forms of self-government. I know, I know. That takes time. It can compromise rights. It sometimes allows patriarchy to persist and affords religion the chance to subvert as well as support democracy. But that’s how it is, and history suggests the alternatives, however well intended, are usually far worse.
If by democracy, you refer to "people" -- not sure which people, but Barber's assurances of a persisting patriarchy suggest that these people will all have guy names -- following a religion that sanctions and imposes the abridgement of human rights and encourages other unnamed "mistakes," then the answer is yes.

Whereas if by democracy you mean precisely the opposite of this -- freedom of conscience, full participation by all members of society, upholding human rights -- then the answer must be no.

Barber's larger point seems to be tu quoque -- yes, Islam is backward and incompatible with democracy, but so is every other religion:
It is not Islam per se, but religion tout court that stands in some tension with secularism and with democracy – a tension that is healthy rather than unhealthy in a free society. Augustine’s Two Cities and Pope Gelasius’s two swords speak to a world of the body and a world of the spirit, of the temporal and the eternal, the worldly and the ecclesiastic. These dualisms do not arise out of theology but inform theology with the deep logic of duality that defines our being. The opposition of morality and politics, and of divine or natural and positive law, is transferred to the opposition of church and state that produces troublesome but healthy tensions for societies everywhere.
Would examples of such "troublesome but healthy tensions" include forced marriages involving child brides? Ritual removals of children's sex parts? Women being forced out of schools, cars, and voting booths? Detonating a belt packed with explosives in a crowded public place? Bombing family planning clinics? Institutions that deal with child rapists by shuffling them down the road to the next parish? These perverse injustices and deranged priorities arise directly from theology, and they're quite a bit worse than troublesome.

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