Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

John Calvin and the Caliphate

Robert J. Joustra


When it comes to political Islam, received wisdom contains much which is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. The term itself has spawned a cottage industry, with the twitterati locked in perpetual cyber-spats, and the talking heads battling over who is blowing up what and why. The challenge of “orientalism” always lives large, especially in popular Western analogies, (Islam needs a Reformation, Islam needs a Pope), and the polar to-and-fro has made the whole conversation a mess.

As analogies to Western history go, however, John Owen has just written one of the more convincing, certainly provoking, entries in the catalogue. A little précis of his new book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past is up at Foreign Affairs (“From Calvin to the Caliphate”), and it won’t disappoint to spoil polite dinner conversation with religion and politics.

Owen makes two general claims: (1) understanding political Islam at all means understanding secularism, and (2) understanding the Islamist-secularist struggle means understanding how that same “secular age” came about in the history of the Western world.

It is, admittedly, a little counter intuitive to start a study of political Islam with radical Calvinists, as Owen puts it, but the basic point is one which Scott Thomas in The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations also makes: “the problem of applying the modern concept of religion to the study of many societies in central Europe, central Asia, and most of the non-Western world is that they have still not entirely made, or are struggling not to make, this transition to a modern concept of religion.” (Thomas, 27). In other words, to understand contemporary political Islam, the content of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age rears its head again: we need to know why people are so incensed by the globalization of the Westphalian state system and its attendant political theology. Why is there such strong blowback against the “secular” organization of life and society?

Unhappily, if there is a term that is used more promiscuously than political Islam, it is “the secular.” To even speak of a “secular” organization of society is about as useful as speaking of a political Islamic organization of society. Even ideal types don’t agree, and history is never filled with ideal types anyway. This is probably the best reason that Owen’s book does the heavy comparative historical work of finding out how European society struggled to make – or not to make – this kind of political-theological consensus; a mysterious, bloody, bizarre history that rivals in violence and outright fanaticism the worst of what political Islam has to offer.

Lessons from History

Most of Owen’s “Lessons” emerge from a historical comparison: what we might (he’s careful here) expect from political Islam given the way these problems got worked out in the West. 

Lesson #1: Don’t sell Islamism short. This is more than just the usual deconstruction of the secularization thesis; it’s also a healthy check on the premature enthusiasm that pundits show for signs of Western secularity in dominantly Islamic states. The story of secular progress is so deeply embedded in our idea of history that we presume that once societies attain some form of it, or start to show signs of it (think the Arab Spring), they are on an inevitable path to the secular society. We might say one step forward, two steps backward, is a real and common thing in history, but to even assign the forward and backward is to presume people are trying to get exactly where we are. A lot of people aren’t. Political Islam is dynamic and flexible. “One powerful lesson of history,” writes Owen, “is that ideologies are typically underestimated by their enemies and by outsiders” (43). Political Islam is not Soviet communism, and we shouldn’t expect it simply to break and fade away.

Lesson #2: Ideologies are (usually) not monolithic, which is part of the reason the “contest” between the secular and political Islam is so unclear. Both respond to each other dynamically, and both therefore emerge as hybrid versions nearly as different from each other as from each’s variations.

A critical distinction here exists between moderate political-Islam and radical political Islam, but it is often badly understood. The difference is not, as Owen argues, between liberal and radical political Islam, which is different entirely. Moderate political Islam eschews violence as a method for achieving the Islamic society, while militant or radicals do not. But the difference, according to Owen, is in the method, not the end goal. “Militants and jihadists are Islamists in a hurry. Moderates are Islamists willing to wait and compromise along the way” (14).

Neither is it lost on Owen that much of the violence of political Islam is suffered by Muslims, not by the secular West. Apostasy close to home can feel like a betrayal more acute than a rival religious politics an ocean (or two) away, just as reformism within the ranks can be more dangerous than challenge from outside of them.

And this lesson cuts both ways, as Owen points out in Lesson # 3: A state may be rational and ideological at the same time. In fact, there may be no such thing as a state that is not on some level ideological, which goes to the root of the conflict. The political-theological contest on how and why to arrange social and sacred life is one in which the West has definite positions it defends. As cosmopolitan and inclusive as we fancy ourselves to be, the very fact that we champion things like religious freedom, and the package of human rights that come along with it, means we are not agnostic in this debate.

Owen argues that every country is, in a sense, ideological, “because every country or every regime has some vision of the good society, both domestic and international” (99). Every society has a political theology. And no society can sit indifferent about its basic truths. It is possible, likely in fact, that states are rational in their method, but value-driven in their goals. What we want and who we are, after all, is not the stuff numbers-driven social science can spit out.

Which is the reason why, historically, political communities generally cannot resist foreign interventions. That’s Lesson #4: Even the realists among us occasionally back interventions for reasons Owen parrots straight from the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. Our intervention secures a safer world for our policies and our way of life, and it reinforces our power and hegemony. Not even the most hardened American ideologue would sit by dispassionately if a plausible case were made that some nudge from the United States could push Iran toward a pro-democracy, pro-American trajectory. A nudge, naturally, does not need to mean war. It could be humanitarian aid, trade status, or more. Here’s Edmund Burke talking about the French Revolution, but he could be in Egypt or Saudi Arabia talking about those countries’ interventions in Yemen today:

Formerly your affairs were your own concern only. We felt for them as men; but we kept aloof of them, because we were not citizens of France. But when we see the model held up to ourselves, we must feel as Englishmen, and feeling, we must provide as Englishmen. Your affairs, in spite of us, are made part of our interest; so far at least as to keep a distance your panacea, or your plague.

The history of intervention is partly because we can’t not care. The liberals among us delight to see our beliefs give people better standards of living. The realists among us delight to see our beliefs spread to make the world safer for us. Wars are built on this logic. They always have been.

This is the key reason that calling some states like Iran irrational is a comforting self-deception. Or why calling political Islam generallyirrational is also a misleading diagnosis. What we have is not the progressive march of history vs. Islamist hold-outs. What we have is what Scott Thomas calls a “clash of rival apostasies” hybrid, and often regional incarnations of great, big, sometimes incoherent things called political Islam and the secular. To label the problem this way is not to get relative about it, as if to say that the Islamic State (ISIL) is just another kind of attempt to reconcile a political theology similar to what the United States did– and all are equally valid attempts. No, some attempts can be better than others. Some can degrade and destroy human persons. Some are wrong, but that doesn’t make them irrational. Morally repugnant and unjust, certainly, but not irrational.

Secularism and Islamic Democracy

Which brings us to a possible note of hope. Pure secularism, like Ataturk’s revolution in Turkey, has been tried and failed in the Muslim world. There is very little appetite for it. But pure secularism has been tried and failed in the Western world too. There is no such thing as a pure secular world, except maybe in the imaginations of western academics. And if, as Owen says, “Western democracy is not as secular as many suppose, Islamic democracy may not need to be either” (129). Might it not be possible to talk about Islamic democracy unfolding in the same way that Christian democracy took root in Europe, and in the Commonwealth? Can Europe’s own troubled past show us what to expect here?

The answer: watch Turkey and Iran, because political theology may not be imprinted or coerced, but it can be caught, it’s contagious. What Owen calls exemplar countries in the history of the West are perhaps the most powerful agents for global change. They are states that order themselves in such a way that the tangible benefits of wealth, power, and peace are impossible to ignore. Nothing did more to further practical secularity in society than the successful political programs of the Netherlands and England in Europe. In other words, real world tests. People see what works, and people adopt it. Owen gets close to Huntington’s idea of a “core state” within a civilization here, a lead player that shows “how it can be done,” and has the clout and respect of the world to hold its own. The only real candidates today, he says, are Turkey and Iran, who have the size, power, and ability to project a successful political project. The future of political Islam may rest with the real-life performance of these two states.

But Owen’s most sobering word is probably for the West itself. In the race for world leadership, being worthy of emulation is about more than boats and guns. There, he channels Cold War George Kennan at the beginning of a century full of hot wars: containment will depend on “the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has the spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time” (164). Iran and Turkey should be so lucky as to fit that bill. But so should the United States of America.


Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your understanding of political Islam and how does this article challenge or change that understanding?
  2. How do you see the idea of “political theology” played out in the United States and elsewhere?
  3. Do you agree with the idea that there is no purely secular world, and how might that affect your understanding of what different forms democracies can take?


-  Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of International Studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.


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