Mark Lilla Replies

To the Editor:

The Observer’s article “New York’s Liberal Intellectuals Are Back at Each Other’s Throats—Buruma and Berman Slug It Out Over Political Islam” [Oct. 15] addressed an important subject, but in so doing distorted the views I expressed in my recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Politics of God.”

In The Observer’s article, Jason Horowitz and Leon Neyfakh suggest that I “condemned” the harsh criticism meted out to Tariq Ramadan, when I simply noted it; criticism is a good thing, not a bad thing.

What I argued was simply that Mr. Ramadan and his fellow renovators of contemporary Islamic political thought probably offer a better chance for adaptation to modern life than liberal reformers do, and needed to be seen in that light.

I wrote that the renovators “speak a strange tongue, even when promoting changes we find worthy; their reasons are not our reasons. But if we cannot expect mass conversion to the principles of [liberal democracy]—and we cannot—we had better learn to welcome transformations in Muslim political theology that ease coexistence. The best should not be the enemy of the good.”

Nor did I speak in favor of “incremental concessions made to a political Islam that denied human rights,” as The Observer’s reporters suggest.

Rather, I argued that there is a variety of ways in which Western countries have tried to adapt to the presence of Muslim believers who do not share our principles, without abandoning our own.

Some Western nations ban the head scarf in schools, others allow it; some fund Islamic schools (Canada, Great Britain), others find the idea scandalous. All these nations agree on the principle of separating church and state, yet differ on what it means to apply that principle in their particular cases.

It is crucial, especially at times like these, that we learn to distinguish cases of high principle, which are and ought to be nonnegotiable, from those of translating principle into workable policies and institutions.

You travel through liberal-democratic life with the population you have, not the population you’d wish for.

Mark Lilla
Professor of Humanities and Religion,
Columbia University
Manhattan