Is Barack Obama a Muslim?

Apparently Obama slipped recently and made reference to his “Muslim faith.” Indeed it looks to be less a slip and more a case of Christianists ripping the phrase out of context. Drudge, with his inimitable sense for the irrelevant news story, still has it near the top of the page.

For a moment, let’s leave aside the fact that Obama clearly mis-spoke. Let’s entertain the possibility that he is indeed a Muslim–not a prospect which I take seriously, but we’ll treat it with more respect than it deserves for the purpose of an argument. My question would then be: What’s the big deal? Many people who are utterly opposed to Obama have insisted these past eight years that Islam is a religion of peace, that terrorism is a product of distorted Islam, not authentic Islam. Their fear, then, is inconsistent with everything else they say.

Interestingly, however, what these Republicans people don’t realize is that, while there are indeed moderate Muslims, indeed many, many of them, militant Islam stems from a loophole that runs through much or maybe even all of Islamic theology. This loophole is called voluntarism–the belief that God himself is not bound by reason. In other words, God’s will is willy-nilly: He can do whatever he wants, even if it contradicts His own first principles. Before you think that I’m about to engage in Muslim-hating, note this: voluntarism got its start with Christian theologians such as Duns Scotus, who lived in the 13th-14th centuries. (It should be noted in passing that some subscribers to voluntarism, including Duns Scotus, did put limits on it, which is something of a source of comfort, however convoluted it may be.)

One of the more sinister results of a voluntarist outlook is that it makes it difficult to dispute someone who says that this or that despicable act is in accord with God’s law; all the transgressor need do is claim that God “told him” to do it–kind of like the way George W. Bush claims that he was called by God to be president. So, if this voluntarism runs through Islam as much as the material I’ve read on this subject claims, the moderate cleric is taking a great risk in calling people out, and not just in terms of risking his life.

Let me hasten to add this: I know Muslims, and the ones I know are wonderful people. Indeed, they still know how to carry on a real conversation, a skill which many Westerners lost long ago. This post is NOT about Muslim-bashing.

A far more relevant question for Barack Obama would be this: Do you agree with the tenets of voluntarism? Do you think that God is not bound by the laws of “right and wrong,” for lack of a better term? THAT is the answer I would be interested in, and it is the matter that I would find to be an important starting point in dialogue with Muslims. Building a democracy at gunpoint in a faraway land will not get rid of the problem of voluntarism, just as building a democracy here, sadly, did not rid us of the problems of Calvinism and Puritanism. Only religious dialogue can take care of a strictly religious problem. Pope Benedict XVI was getting after this in his controversial Regensburg lecture, the outcome of which, by the way, was that a goodly number of Islamic clerics petitioned him to begin a conversation. How about that?

Situations such as we’ve seen this weekend with the Obamahaters show forth the utter illogic in neoconservative thinking. They will insist that there are no problems in “real” Islam (ha! like there are no problems in “real” Christianity!), and therefore that Islamic societies can best be improved at gunpoint. In a word: cultural and religious egalitarianism got us into the Iraq mess. And yet, even after they insist that there are no problems in “real” Islam, they react with utter horror that a reasonable person might actually be a member of that religion.

I prefer a better approach: treating Muslims like the good, intelligent people that they are, and confronting them point blank with the problems in their religion which must be addressed (and allowing them to confront us with ours). It’s uncomfortable, yes, but so is all productive dialogue, right down to one-on-one relationships. It would, however, lead to more understanding, mutual improvement and respect, and, ultimately, fewer dead people.

For more on this subject, see James V. Schall’s book, The Regensburg Lecture.

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