Mark Lilla’s article “The Politics of God” in The New York Times Magazine highlights some interesting new ideas in the realm of foreign policy that I think could fall right in line with Obama’s new politics of change. The article is somewhat old but what Lilla is calling for is absolutely pertinent to America’s new leadership and the need for change in our international politics. Lilla explains that we live on the “other shore” from nations and people who accept political theology as the only legitimate way to think about political life. He highlights the major problems encountered with modern Islamic states; how to deal with Islamic states that are based on a political theology, how to deal with the transnational Islamic political ideology, and how to treat fellow Western citizens who are Muslim. When it comes to dealing with states, Lilla maintains that we have to drop any illusions we have that we share a common vocabulary when it comes to politics. This does not mean we can't deal with each other, only that it will make it easier if we don't have any illusions about the slim possibility of establishing a constitutional, liberal democratic order in an area of the world where people still accept the legitimacy of political theology.
A more delicate matter he raises is what to do about fellow citizens who themselves may still accept the legitimacy of Islamic political theology but are living with us as fellow citizens. This is not a large problem in the United States at the moment but is much more pressing in Europe due to immigration policies that have resulted in larger more concentrated Muslim communities. Many of these citizens do not accept the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Lilla explains that, “Like Orthodox Jewish law, the Muslim Shariah is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands… Accommodation and mutual respect can help, as can clear rules governing areas of tension…But we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low.” (9).
Lilla does not call for the liberalization of religion in order to reconcile it with the present political order on the grounds that if that liberal religion fails there is a tendency to turn towards a more messianic one, to bring down the judgment of God on a political order that is not just. He calls for an internal renewal of political theology; somewhat of an Islamic protestant reformation. He comments on how western intellectuals prefer to associate with Islamic liberalizers rather then the few figures that are pushing for renewal. If our current administration, and others around the world, would open themselves to transformation in Muslim political theology rather than focusing on Muslim liberalization we could see new lines of accommodation and understanding.