Toward a Muslim Solzhenitsyn
An interview with Holland Taylor, co-founder of LibForAll


The “critical success factors” began with two developments in medieval Europe: religious dissent and a revolution in information technology, i.e., Martin Luther and the printing press. The critical thing Luther did was to challenge “exclusive, political ownership of official, religious truth” — a sentiment today’s papists can appreciate. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas and information outside of seminaries. Combine the separation of Truth and State with the wide and relatively quick dissemination of ideas, Taylor says, and you have the seed and soil for an open society.

That seed blooms into enlightenment, and into societies remaking themselves — revolutionizing — on foundations other than divine right. Here Taylor conceives a crucial division in Western intellectual history between Locke and Rousseau. Taylor attributes to Rousseau a secularist, anti-clerical chauvinism, and to Locke a philosophical pluralism and liberal Christianity. Rousseau wanted to “destroy the Church with the State,” to “liberate” man from “tradition and ‘superstition.’” Locke wanted to protect the Church from the State and facilitate the discovery of Christian truth through free debate. “Separation of Church and State developed in America out of animus for the State,” he says. “For Locke, free speech was a technology for discovering religious truth through the exchange of ideas.”

The revolutions and reformations based on that Lockean idea — American and Anglophone — were ultimately successful in producing truly liberal societies. Those based on an anti-clericalism inspired by Rousseau or his intellectual descendants — the Young Turks’ revolution, Mao’s revolution, etc. — produced closed societies. And thus the exceptional paradox of America: The most religiously conservative non-Muslim country in the world is also the most classically liberal. And the equal paradox of China, where neither Cultural Revolution nor economic explosion has undermined authoritarianism.

Maybe this all seems very abstract — but it’s why LibForAll works the way it does. It’s why Taylor thinks it’s necessary to reform Islamic tradition from within, rather than to commit aggression against Islam from without. The argument that freedom, toleration, and pluralism are social technologies for the discovery of religious truth “is an argument that can win in the Muslim world,” he says. “It just hasn’t been tried yet.”

The idea can win. But of course it hasn’t (in fact, as Taylor points out, a “higher percentage of the Muslim world today is fundamentalist than in 1979”). Why?

It comes back to aggression versus reform. “Muslims’ first exposure to modernization was colonization,” Taylor argues. Later, Arab modernists tried “to modernize in opposition to Islam, and with the goal of its annihilation.” Both produced backlash. So did Arab rulers’ exploitations. “The Ba’athists, Nasser, Mubarak, all authoritarians — they had very little understanding of religion, so they go to a lowest common denominator to meet up with Islamists.” In other words, authoritarians have actively nurtured anti-democratic Islam in order to preserve their authority.

American partisanship hasn’t helped, either. “The domestic politics of Islam have seeped, and prevented us from having a sound foreign policy for dealing with Islam.” While the Left thinks it would be really mean to admit that Islam has a problem, policies designed to nurture liberal Islam would, he thinks, be susceptible to tossing as a political football on some sections of the Right. Taylor is frustrated by how little coverage liberal Islamic public intellectuals and their ideas have consequently received in Western media. Our failure to pay attention to them, he says, “is like failing to recognize the significance of Solzhenitsyn, or the Solidarity movement, in the fall of the Soviet Union.”