Depending how you looked at it, the participants were either very far apart or surprisingly close together. It was hard to tell, since they seemed to have different interpretations of reality and often couldn’t even agree on what they disagreed on.
A conflict so complex and all-encompassing that the two sides can be said to operate from “different interpretations of reality” may be somewhat simplified, at least as a matter of speech, if, setting aside for now any claims as to whose reality is more real or nearly real, we presume that both ideologies represent or emanate from distinct and comprehensive politico-religious worldviews, in other words are based on different creeds, and that both the problem and any solution must therefore be syncretic.
The simple word “creed” offers certain advantages over terms like “ideology” or “politico-religious worldview” or “political theology” or “belief system,” since in one syllable it poses only one question: of belief for the believer without prejudice as to the form or scope or mode of that belief. “Creed” shares the same root with “credo,” “credence,” and so on. Oddly, however, “syncretic” comes to us, or is said to come to us, by a different and mysterious combined Greek and Latin lineage: not, at least etymologically, as a syn-thesis of “creeds,” but as some kind of combining process relating to an entity or entities “of uncertain origin,” relating to a morpheme, “kret-,” that, for example, may designate a place (Crete) and an outlook at times thought typical of people from that place, or may refer to a political process undertaken at one or another point by those people, or may have little to do with that place or those people at all, especially in modern usage. In short, it turns out that “syncretism” is a word whose own genealogy syncretically comprehends a plurality of ideas about its own definition. The uncertainty of origin means that, if we hear the word as “syn-creed-ic,” no one can say we are wrong, exactly. We are free to view syncretism syncretically, as a forcing together of bellicose liars, as a merger of dissidents or heretics or a merging of their sinful theses, as a high consensus of believers under threat from a common enemy, and as all of these things at once.
A syncretic approach to syncretisms will not deflate the reflexive criticism of syncretisms, however, even if the “crit-” of “criticism” is one of those alternate “kret-”‘s. For custodians of a great tradition, or of any parochial interest at all, every syncretism is either a threat to be combated or an exception to be dismissed, in neither case to be taken as more than a crude, confused, or improvised, unqualifed attempt at authentic theology. For still others a more democratic and locally adaptive approach to profound questions may be much merely appealing, if not a first priority, but, as I have already sought to emphasize in regard to the liberalist-islamist divide, an underlying disinterest in the particulars of faith from the point of view of the faithful can itself be received as ironically unself-critical dogma, an opposing faith merely unconscious of itself as a faith.
On this note, and since we are about to turn to particular creeds, we should openly concede that a merging or equalization or convergent idealization of creeds, even apart from its intrinsic inadequacies, may also be, is perhaps definitionally, unwelcome or offensive to true believers, regardless of intentions. The claim of neutrality, or the presumption of the actual neutrality of that claim, is unpersuasive to the non-neutral. Any project of a neutral rendering of a conflict between implicitly not yet determined false or true belief may itself suggest an offense or treason to the true believer. Every untested presumption on such matters may and perhaps ought to be taken as a proof of disqualifying bias, of allegiance to one side, hostility to the other. Dubious claims of objectivity, or of a presumed adequate correction for admitted partisanship, may tend to magnify the injustice or the sense of it, regardless of intentions. As aggression by rhetorical proxy, any such interventions will seem to demand a counter-aggression. Nor can we presume that an achieved intellectualized neutralization of non-essential differences and the uncovering of shared essences necessarily would initiate or, if popularized, would be accompanied by an era of peace. An opposite expectation seems at least as well supported by history.
If Islamism, whether taken as a creed or as a syncretism of Islamic political creeds, is the political expression of the true believing Muslim who puts that true belief first and who, accordingly, understands politics, or political philosophy, or certainly liberal-democratic political ideology, as inherently and definitionally beneath belief – just as all human things, powers, and beings are beneath or less than or inadequate to the divine, unless by divine will or revelation – then any attempt seemingly to equate and potentially enclose Islamism within a non-Islamic or anti-Islamic, equivocally Christian or Judeo-Christian, eventually polytheistic, atheistic, or agnostic political-cultural dispensation may be taken as impudence and insult, at best as a product of barely tolerable ignorance, at worst as the very definition of the intolerable or most intolerable.
If liberalism, taken as a creed or syncretism, was and still is meant to be the freeing of the life and spirit, or at minimum of politics and the state narrowly defined, from unreasoned belief; is the movement beyond all prior restraint by faith, if not necessarily beyond or against any faith or against faith in general, then, even before pragmatic consideration of the role of liberalism within the system or mixed regime of liberal democracy, the liberal may resist the news or the reminder or the claim that liberalism may also be a mere creed among creeds; that liberalism also asks for “mere” belief; that liberalism even as a faith in reason can be understood as a faith, as both unreasoned and as dependent on unreason – dependent on mere belief and on mere coercive violence on behalf of mere belief; that rather than being above or after or aside from religion or faith it may also constitute or crucially share in religion or faith; and that the creed of knowledge and self-knowledge above religion or faith may in this sense seem a particularly ignorant and self-ignorant religion or faith.
To know the underlying conflict between liberalism and Islamism well enough even to assess it (as between faith in reason and any reason of faith, but also as between any two faiths simply theologically, and as between any two ideas simply philosophically), we would have to understand their intersection or points of contact, their region of overlap and of failed or incomplete integration. We would have to understand what in each may escape the other, in the possibly different and possibly unique ways that each understands its own limitations if it does, or as against whatever claim or assumption that nothing or nothing significant or essential has actually escaped its comprehension, whether in regard to the other in particular or to other or all other creeds in general. We would have to understand Islamism in terms of political philosophy and in comparison to liberalism, but also on its own terms, as an expression subordinate to a theological orientation not held to be reducible to or interpretable as political philosophy or as any other kind of philosophy merely. We would have to understand liberalism in terms of Islam in particular, but also in terms of the religion, namely Christianity, that informed its modern re-conception and development, and that arguably if contestably still operates within and through it, raising suspicions of ulterior, possibly unconscious motives. We would need to remain cognizant above all of the fact that liberalism and Islamism may both agree in some ways and disagree in others about how they may agree or disagree, or even about how they might be persuasively demonstrated to agree or disagree. Under a simultaneous leap of faith and reason, we may view liberalism as ecumenical Christian rationalism idealized in contact with the secular, opened to other faiths, and Islamism as Islam idealized in contact with the secular, opened to other faiths, but, even in saying that much, we would not yet know or have not yet proven that Islam-idealized authentically and comprehensively intersects Christianity-idealized, or that the idealization of faiths is an equivalent process for each faith, or that whatever differences remaining or elided were not more significant than the points of contact.*
Yet our uncertain, inadequate, and necessary consideration of Islamism and liberalism as a syncretic problem already takes places under the customarily unspoken presumption of the possibility of an absolute and mutually accessible truth, and therefore of the absolute creed of the synthesis of all creeds. The necessity of one truth, even as a truth of truths and an eternity of contradiction, quietly administrates the conflicted discourse of violently begrudged co-existence. In the shadow of Babel and lacking the final translation, we will have to make do with a language that must seem diffident and difficult, frustratingly self-conscious, hesitant to risk saying anything at all, allergic to its own potential usefulness, easy to accuse of smuggling an intellectually contraband freight under a cover of obscurity, and utterly inadequate to the undertaking.