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

Europe’s coercive policies to achieve religious conformity had run their course; they failed to produce either social unity or authentic faith. Rather, government’s abusive treatment of unpopular religious groups turned citizens into lawbreakers and worshippers into hypocrites. “No peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men, so long as this opinion prevails . . . that religion is to be propagated by force of arms.” Locke turns Hobbes’s Leviathan on its head. Political absolutism—and the suppression of dissent that went with it—was far more likely to produce chaos and social disintegration than a “just and moderate government.”

The social consequence of Locke’s defense of toleration is religious pluralism. Under a system of impartial justice, it will become the key to civic peace and political stability.

It is often forgotten that beneath Locke’s plea for a more just and tolerant society flowed a river of rage: a fierce resentment at the hypocrisy and violence that had scandalized the Christian church. Locke’s strategy was to reinterpret the Christian faith—to leverage the moral authority of Jesus—to instigate a massive restructuring of political and ecclesiastical life.


COULD SOMETHING like this take root in Muslim societies? There are hopeful signs: a growing sense of outrage among Muslims at the atrocities being committed under the banner of Islam. This helps to explain the remarkable influence of Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for her crusade to allow women to go to school. She not only survived the attack but also refused to remain silent about women’s rights—and in her defiance has created a mass movement of like-minded reformers.

“There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality,” she told a spellbound audience at the United Nations.

So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. . . . We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Yousafzai has attracted millions of followers to her cause, a spiritual campaign rooted in a belief in the natural equality of every human being. TIME magazine recently named her one of the “one hundred most influential people in the world,” and a major motion picture about her life was released in late 2015. Yousafzai has launched an education movement—call it a revolution for rationality—as egalitarian as anything the Muslim world has seen in centuries.

The success of this movement, of course, is by no means assured. In the early days of the Arab Spring, there was much talk of a “new social contract” among the Arab states. The toppling of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak seemed to portend a Lockean-style revolution. “The concept of ‘the consent of the governed’ is now operational in Egypt,” declared Rami Khouri, a scholar at the American University of Beirut. Charles Freeman, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was similarly optimistic: “The governed in this region have discovered that they can, if necessary, take back their consent to be governed and thereby compel regime change.”

Religious zeal may topple dictatorships, but it has been far less effective at creating stable and democratic societies in their place. The task of writing constitutions guaranteeing the rule of law, political equality and human rights—including the rights of conscience in matters of faith—remains largely left undone. The collapse of the political revolutions in the Middle East has many causes, but none more important than this: the failure of modern Islam to reconcile its deepest beliefs with the core doctrines of liberal democracy.

Like European Christianity on the eve of the Enlightenment, the Islamic world must find a religious justification for political reform. It must anchor this rationale in the teachings and example of Muhammad—or condemn itself to an endless winter of human suffering and cultural decline.

The West avoided this outcome, but only after enduring a long season of religious violence and political absolutism. There was nothing inevitable about the conversion of European society from despotism to liberal democracy. Many actors played a role in this drama, but few were as consequential as John Locke. No one reflected more carefully on the nature of Christian faith and its relationship to political societies. No one else produced works that became as transformational in the debates over church and state, freedom and tyranny.

A modern thinker, Locke nevertheless helped to retrieve one of the gifts of historic Christianity: a narrative of grace and freedom that can defeat a culture of bigotry and oppression. “Locke was able to break the reigning consensus in his society and advocate a new political philosophy without alienating his entire political constituency,” concludes Nader Hashemi. In the Muslim world today, he says, a similar rethinking of religious ideas has emerged. “Atheists, agnostics, and French-inspired secularists are not driving this process.”

If this new mode of thought hopes to shatter the old consensus, then modern Islam will need a John Locke, or someone like him, in its own hour of crisis.