Can John Locke Save Political Islam?

Men reading the Koran in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Erik Albers

Modern Islam will need a Locke, or someone like him, in its own hour of crisis.

March-April 2017

The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has confirmed Locke’s insight many times over. A groundbreaking 2002 Arab Human Development Report, written by a group of Arab intellectuals, admitted that a “freedom deficit” in Muslim societies threatened the development and stability of the entire region. That deficit remains, and repression and violence on the basis of religious identity lie near the heart of the problem. Blasphemy laws, anticonversion laws, laws restricting freedom of worship, institutionalized discrimination, mob violence against religious minorities—these are the norms in many Muslim-majority countries. Shia and Sunni Muslims are most often the victims, but Jews, Christians, Baha’is and Alevis face increasing threats against their communities, even extinction.

In Locke’s world—as in much of ours—religion and politics were deeply intertwined. Thus Locke sought to reform the Christian church as a prelude to a social revolution that would curb the hatreds inspired by militant religion. “It is not the diversity of opinions which cannot be avoided,” he writes, “but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions, which might have been granted, that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion.”

Locke also sought to reform the state, so that it would protect the right of every individual—regardless of religious identity—to pursue his obligations to God according to the dictates of conscience. Locke’s vision of a just society would extend political equality and religious freedom to all Christian sects, as well as to religious believers of all kinds:

But those whose doctrine is peaceable, and whose manners are pure and blameless, ought to be upon equal terms with their fellow-subjects. Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors, all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth, because of his religion. The gospel commands no such thing.

On Locke’s list are some of the most despised religious minorities of seventeenth-century Europe. Unlike his contemporaries, he does not regard them as threats to civic peace. Thus the anti-Semitism that kept Jews on the margins of European society is rejected. “If a Jew does not believe the New Testament to be the word of God,” he writes, “he does not thereby alter any thing in men’s civil rights.” Elsewhere in the Letter, Locke disparages English laws prohibiting the construction of synagogues and limiting the Jews to private worship.

If we allow the Jews to have private houses amongst us, why should we not allow them to have synagogues? Is their doctrine more false, their worship more abominable, or is the civil peace more endangered, by their meeting in public, than in their private houses?

Not even Muslims, whose status among Europeans was always problematic, should be denied basic civil liberties. If we recall that Muslim-Christian relations hit a new low after the Battle of Vienna in 1683—two years before Locke wrote his Letter—we discover in Locke a remarkable egalitarianism. In his groundbreaking work, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture, John Marshall draws attention to Locke’s unconventional aims: “In most Christian eschatological schemes of the seventeenth century,” he writes, “the Jews were to be converted and ‘the Turks’ destroyed.”

Locke is often accused of sharing the anti-Catholic hatreds typical of English Protestants, but a careful reading of his Letter suggests otherwise. In explaining why religious beliefs should not come under the jurisdiction of the magistrate, Locke uses Catholicism as a test case: “If a Roman Catholic believes that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbor.” Provided they did not try to subvert the political order, Catholics deserved equity under the law.

How did Locke hope to bring about a more tolerant society? Civil law was important, but unable by itself to establish a more generous political regime. Locke believed that religious leaders played a critical role in changing cultural norms; they must use their pulpits to promote a spirit of mutual regard in civil society.

In Locke and Modern Life, political scientist Lee Ward emphasizes the cultural task of religious communities under Locke’s vision. The churches, Ward writes, must “place the great incentive of divine judgment behind the cause of toleration rather than against it.” In his Letter, Locke admonishes church leaders against offering only a grudging toleration toward those with different religious views. “We must not content ourselves with the narrow measures of bare justice: charity, bounty, and liberality must be added to it,” he writes. “This the gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us.”