Islam and the West: 'Overlapping Consensus' or Capitulation?

In his recent book, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus, Yale political scientist Andrew F. March argues that fears of an inherent conflict between Western and Islamic political norms are overblown. If true, this would be very good news. Such "overlapping consensus" could ease the adjustments caused by mass migration of Muslims into Western European countries. The ideology of suicide terrorists might be revealed as a misunderstanding of Islam. And those of us who are concerned about the creeping shariah promoted by Islamists via legal, nonviolent methods could relax and shift our attention to global warming or mark-to-market accounting.

But is March right? To understand the import of Mr. March's theory of "overlapping consensus," let's look at some of his other writings, as well as his own political activism since joining the Yale faculty. Professor March has discussed whether Western countries should legalize polygamy. If there is a robust overlapping consensus, it should be easy to reach an accommodation without either Muslim immigrants or their new home countries having to make major changes in their way of life. However, March proposes that governments "get out of the 'marriage' business" altogether, and instead, that any number of people, of any gender(s) or sexual orientation(s) should be able to form a legally-recognized civil union. March's sole concession to Western sensibilities is that the members of a civil union would be required to sign a contract designed to assure consent.

In other words, what March foresees in his thought experiment, in order to make room for the Muslim custom of polygamy, is a dystopian future in which traditional marriage between one man and one woman receives no particular favor from the government and is only one of an infinite number of lifestyle choices, including gay unions, polyandry, polygyny, and incest. Rather than the easy adjustment implied in the notion of "overlapping consensus," what he actually envisions is a cataclysmic upheaval of our social system, starting with the family, in order to accommodate the Muslim custom of permitting one man to have several wives.

Moving from his scholarship to his political activism, Mr. March has spoken at two Yale panel discussions convened to limit free speech. In October 2008, he participated in a panel that falsely associated the documentary film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West with an Islamophobic hate crime. And one year later, he condemned the Danish Mohammed cartoons rather than the Danish imams who incited worldwide riots, those who killed people in response to the cartoons, or Yale University Press for censoring them. (Apparently March has never seen Arab political cartoons, which reduce to absurdity the outrage at the mild Danish cartoons and well-intentioned documentary film.) We can conclude that when the Western values of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and free discussion of the ideology of Muslim extremists conflict with the Muslim values of imposing the radical Islamic ban on images of Mohammed on non-Muslims, preventing dhimmis from criticizing the Muslims' religion, and blocking free discussion of Islam and terrorism, Mr. March has chosen to sacrifice Western values in deference to the conflicting Muslim ones.

Mr. March's book has won him an impressive-sounding prize and an appointment at Yale. Unfortunately, success in academia in general, and in particular in Middle East Studies, tilts towards those who toe the party line. The book appears to be something important that shows that the conflict between Islam and the West is overblown, but both March's scholarship and his own political activism demonstrate that the "overlapping consensus" is much narrower than it purports to be. There are very real conflicts between Islamic and Western political cultures, and when the two collide, one side or the other will have to make concessions.

Andrew March's position is that the West should submit. His nihilistic call for the abolition of civil marriage and his heedless disregard for the foundational values of the university allow us to view through a magnifying glass, as it were, the curious contortions by which the far left allies itself with uber-conservative Islam. Ironically, his approach is not helpful to European Muslims. U.K. journalist Melanie Phillips has noted how abandoning traditional British religious and cultural values, as March advocates, has contributed to the difficulties of assimilating the Muslim minority in her country. After all, you can't trump something with nothing. 

Janet Doerflinger is a writer whose interests include public affairs and foreign policy. This essay was written for Campus Watch, a program of the Middle East Forum.
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