Black Mass, Liberalism, and the Orthodox Paradox

by / Thursday, 15 May 2014 / Published in Articles, Philosophy

black mass secularism harvard

UPDATE: This is an old essay and going back and reading it now, I realize it misdiagnosed the problem with the nation-state, did not critique the value of plurality, mischaracterized the millet as a pluralistic system, too easily conceded the supposed parallel between LGBT & religious “minorities.” Read with caution, or just skip it and read other essays at

To the outrage and dismay of Catholics across the US, atheists and Satanists at Harvard University planned to perform a “Black Mass” on campus. In an official statement, Harvard president Drew Faust remarked that, while the Black Mass is deeply offensive and “abhorrent,” the University’s commitment to free speech prevents it from intervening. For more info on the controversy, read here.

Interestingly, an analogous controversy took place at Harvard in 2006, when a campus student magazine published the infamous Danish cartoons. As an undergraduate there, actively involved with the campus Islamic Society, I remember vividly the impact the controversy had on the local Muslim community. In that case, the University administration took a similar stance to the one above, though, unlike in the case of the Black Mass, there was not an official statement from the University president nor did the then-president, Larry Summers, attend our campus Friday prayers in solidarity.

In any case,  how should we, as Muslims, feel about this recent situation and the response to it? On the one hand, it is Satanism. Anything done in the name of Satan or black magic, whether genuinely or for mere spectacle, is condemned according to the sharia, i.e., Islamic Law. On the other hand, the language and reasoning used by some commentators to condemn the event is quite similar to arguments used to curtail American Muslim rights, e.g., the right to build mosques, wear the hijab, etc. As Michael Muhammad Knight argues in his provocatively titled essay “Muslims for Satan”:

As a Muslim, I have to support the Satanists. Public revulsion of Muslims in this country is so popular that I have no choice but to stand with religions that are marked as ugly, offensive, and intolerant. Rather than join the anti-Satanist outrage and try to convince Christians that Muslims deserve to be included as “children of Abraham” or whatever, I would suggest that Muslims take a radical stand on behalf of the religious freedoms that we claim for ourselves.

Framed thusly, the tension is palpable. Should American Muslims (and Western Muslims at large) side with Satanism in the name of religious freedom or should they abide by established tenets of Islamic Law, in effect supporting Christian groups who, in other contexts, oppose Muslim rights and rail against the mere presence of Islam in the West ?

Rocks and Hard Places

This is the same tension Western Muslims feel on the question of gay rights. Many Western Muslims remain religiously opposed to homosexuality, let alone “gay marriage.” At the same time, Muslims are a beleaguered minority, struggling for a place at the societal table. Ostensibly, gays are also a rising minority, striving for public acceptance. So, in this sense, opposition to gay rights is, at least in some sense, also opposition to Muslim rights.

Of course, the analogy may not be perfect. Is discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation really the same as that for sexual orientation? One could argue that religious affiliation is fundamentally dissimilar to sexual orientation in just such a way that Muslims can remain opposed to gay rights and not undercut their own interests, all the while maintaining a commitment to liberal norms of freedom of conscience and so on. (And, of course, the converse argument can be made too: committed liberals calling for curtailment of Muslim rights while simultaneously championing gay rights.)

This is why the Black Mass event is such an interesting test case for Muslims. Unlike with sexual orientation, it is difficult to argue that Satanism does not fall in the same category as Islam. In other words, from the lens of secular liberalism, there is no functional difference between Islam and Satanism and Catholicism, or any other religion for that matter.

Orthodox Paradox

And so, here is yet another example of traditional norms butting heads with liberal values. What is the way out of this “Orthodox Paradox,” as Noah Feldman puts it? Feldman himself provided no decisive answer and seemed to have resigned himself to a “life of contradiction.” Other believers, like Michael Muhammad Knight, fall strongly on the side of liberalism. Prior to the Black Mass kerfuffle, it may have been hard to imagine a scenario where, implicitly, Muslims would be pressured to support Satanic ritual. Then again, liberalism does have this tendency to push the boundaries of traditional propriety to blasphemous proportions. Which raises the question, what is the line? For those simultaneously committed to liberalism and religious faith, how far is too far? Is there anything left that is sacred, in the truest sense of that word?

Liberally Confused

In the US, we have already seen federal courts rule that businesses do not have the right to refuse service to gay patrons. And religious colleges are being pressured to accommodate LGBT employees, even if their official religious doctrine opposes homosexuality. It is not difficult to imagine the same kinds of arguments — perhaps in a different context but still under the umbrella of religious tolerance/freedom — being used to argue that denominational institutions must facilitate Satanist religious needs and preferences. Not to be outdone, Europe over the past decade has unleashed all manner of liberal secular argumentation to justify everything from the banning of mosque minarets, the banning of hijab in public, the banning of religious symbols generally, the banning of halal meat, the curtailing of religious assembly, and on and on. In the Muslim world, too, it is no secret, as the aftermath of the Arab Spring amply demonstrated, that liberal secular regimes can be more than a little harsh in disenfranchising Muslims in the political and legal domain, even when the latter profess their commitment to secular norms.

Predictably, most liberal-leaning Muslims (with some exceptions) will protest that what is happening in Europe or the Arab world is not consistent with liberalism. After all, liberalism stands for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, a vibrant and open public domain dictated by democratic pluralism and mutual reasonableness. As it turns out, all these liberal concepts are radically subjective — as subjective, ironically, as secularists believe religion to be. So, maybe European hardline legislators banning the hijab, minarets, halal meat, facial hair, etc., are acting perfectly in accordance with liberalism, and it is just that liberalism is so indeterminate and content-less that literally any kind of legislation can be argued to conform to it. Even many hardcore Islamists actively claim that the principles of Islamic Law are inherently compatible with liberal values like freedom and democracy. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood officially calls its political wing “The Freedom and Justice Party.” Even Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution used the language of liberalism to describe the revolution and his government as fundamentally pro-freedom (i.e., “azadi” in Farsi) and pro-democracy.

So, perhaps, that is the answer to the Orthodox Paradox. Perhaps the true paradox lies at the heart of liberalism. The claim that liberal secularism is inherently problematic and even self-contradictory is not new. Numerous prominent philosophers, intellectual historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and legal theorists have remarked at length on the essential emptiness of liberalism. Reviewing all these works in detail is not the goal of this post, but, to whet the appetite, we can broadly introduce a few of the main ideas from the literature.

The Fickle Nature of Liberal Tolerance

Ought a democratic government ban political parties not committed to democracy? Ought a liberal legal system, otherwise committed to freedom of belief, proscribe illiberal beliefs? In a phrase, is a “discriminatory tolerance” truly tolerance?

Many of the religious bans against Muslims in Europe are done using this type of rationale. The historical banning of Islamist political parties in countries like Egypt and Turkey are also done on this basis. The argument is often made that Islamic practices and beliefs are uniquely antithetical to a free, democratic society, and, therefore, for the sake of the public good, must be prohibited. Yet, by secularism’s own lights, what is inherently good, evil, beneficial, or harmful is not definitively knowable and certainly is not for the state to set in stone. The implication is that liberalism and secularism’s appeals to the public good are fundamentally unprincipled and often serve to manipulate the populace so as to serve the interests of power.

As a straightforward example, consider the US security state and its virtually endless surveillance power. State officials justify their highly invasive surveillance methods by claiming they are necessary for maintaining public safety. This means that the “right to safety” requires citizens to simultaneously forego their “right to privacy.” This kind of impasse between mutually contradictory rights is ubiquitous in secular society, and the Orthodox Paradox is but one subclass of many such conflicts. We have already discussed the “right to religion” vs. the “right to sexual autonomy” or the “right to free expression.” How about the topic of wealth redistribution, i.e., increasing the taxes on the wealthy to support welfare programs? The Right argues that all citizens, including the wealthy, have a “right to property” in that the government cannot arbitrarily impose taxation to usurp people’s property/wealth, while the Left argues that all citizens have, say, a “right to healthcare.” Obviously, free healthcare for all is impossible without significant taxation, so there is a contentious conflict here. (The underlying issue is that all rights have concomitant duties and costs. Universal security costs everyone universal privacy. Universal healthcare requires universal taxation. Universal freedom of speech attenuates universal freedom of religion, and so on.)

The obvious question, then, is: Who is the state to decide which of those rights — and the underlying human interests entailed by those rights — ought to be protected at the expense of other competing rights? And on what principled basis could such decisions be made in the first place? Would not such a basis — call it a “theory of the public good” — have to make many assumptions about good, evil, benefit, harm, and human nature itself? And here is the kicker: At what point would this theory of the public good just be, essentially, another religion or, at least, share many of the normative features of religion? After all, if nothing else, religions theorize about what is ultimately good, bad, beneficial, or harmful for individuals and society and establish normative directives on, among other things, that basis. If establishing the public good is ineluctably normative in the same way religion is normative, is separation of church and state, as liberal secularism professedly requires, even possible?

Liberalism or Theocracy: A False Dilemma

No doubt, the preceding was a fast and furious introduction to a complicated and contentious topic. The takeaway is that liberal secularism as a philosophy about the regulation of a pluralistic society and the place of man within that collective has at least several important questions to contend with, questions increasingly many academics and laymen are beginning to ask, alhamdulillah.

But, for the sake of argument, if it is determined, either practically or theoretically, that liberal secularism is not a viable system, what is the alternative? Authoritarian theocracy?

The above comments were meant to show that the distinctions between theocracy and liberal secularism are not as stark and definitive as have been conventionally understood. In any case, the decision between liberal secular democracy and authoritarian theocracy is a false dilemma. There are numerous alternative ways to organize society other than what is currently on offer in the modern world. The nation-state, after all, in its current form is a product of hegemonic modernity — going back as little as 100 years, one finds a diversity of systems. The modern nation-state, of course, is nothing more than a geopolitical meta-institution that seeks to regulate and organize a large population by way of widely applied legal and executive power. In the modern nation-state, everything from the economy, education, healthcare, food production, housing, child care, religious practice, etc., are overtly controlled by or ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of state institutions and, hence, state power. If the recent financial disasters rocking the world have taught us anything it is that the interconnectedness and broad reach of state power is dangerously fragile and inevitably corruptible. Under what other system could the misdeeds of a handful of banking institutions cause a domino effect resulting in wide scale “austerity measures” and the plunging of millions into poverty all the way across the globe?

So what are the alternatives?


More on the state and its discontents can be read in “anarchist” literature. Wael Hallaq’s recent The Impossible State is a quick read that also provides valuable insights. As for specific alternatives, commentators have pondered historical precedents as well as imagined future models. The “Millet system” is a particularly noteworthy historical example. It is a vision of a pluralistic society, inclusive of people of multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds, that consists of large communities, i.e., millets, that self-regulate and are otherwise loosely tied together through the shared use of limited “public” services as well as commitment to a very thin set of meta-regulations that apply to the millets. The self-regulation is what sets the Millet system apart from the modern nation-state. Each millet is defined by its commitment to a normative vision and a philosophy of life, in so many words, a religion, and its legislation, adjudication, and local governance is based on that religion. Obviously, individuals are able to be a part of the millet of their choice.

In contrast, nation-states are typically organized on the basis of incredibly broad ethnic and cultural lines and regulate the population using a unitary system of “universally”-applied laws (“universally” is in scare-quotes because, of course, some segments of the population are wealthy and powerful enough to entirely circumvent laws that are, nonetheless, brutally applied to lower socioeconomic classes). As we have seen, conflicts of conscience abound in this system, and, besides, normative theories of the good are smuggled into supposedly secular political institutions and secular law despite the outward commitment to separation of church and state. The burning question that the nation-state system and liberal secularism cannot answer or even address is, why should a diverse population committed to multifarious theories of the good be coerced into subscribing to one set of laws? When Western political philosophers like John Rawls ponder how a pluralistic society can negotiate their differences using a robust discourse of public reason to determine fair laws of governance, they are attempting to solve a contrived problem. If one throws out the requirement for a unitary, universally-applied legal and political system exercising power over hundreds of millions and, even, billions of people, the question of secularism, public reason, and separation of church and state unceremoniously dissolves.

But, of course, no state would ever relinquish its exercise of power and control over hundreds of millions and billions of people. In reality, that is true “freedom” — in the universal, not liberal sense — i.e., not being under the thumb of a muscular state that dictates one’s entire life through an expansive legal code and a strong police and military presence ensuring compliance with brutal force. In this way, liberalism serves state power against the interests of individuals and communities by taking attention away from the inherent authoritarianism of the nation-state and redirecting it to superficial non-issues like, is a government a “democracy” or not, is there adequate “free speech,” etc., issues that would not exist in the first place were the underlying nation-state paradigm eclipsed or fundamentally revised.

Orthodox Paradox Revisited

If nothing else, Islam’s apparent conflict with Western liberalism has caused no shortage of undue psychological stress to well-meaning Muslims. Beyond curtailing of Muslim rights, liberal secularism has caused a crisis of faith for many Muslims around the world who are surprised to discover that a 1400 year old religion does not perfectly mirror the idiosyncrasies of a particular modernist political and moral philosophy. The crisis becomes especially acute when this political philosophy is embedded into the modern ethos so deeply that it is taken by the masses as universally and exclusively good, leaving no room to imagine, let alone pursue, alternatives. In sum, this is the Orthodox Paradox, and it can be resolved by problematizing the liberal secular paradigm and the nation-state upon which it is premised.

To bring it full circle, Muslims and people of other faiths should not have to choose between staying committed to their deepest moral convictions, on the one hand, and the ability to live lives free of disenfranchisement, harassment, and the curtailing of rights, on the other. If the game requires us to choose between Satan and state oppression, there is something deeply wrong with the game.


30 Responses to “Black Mass, Liberalism, and the Orthodox Paradox”

  1. AJ Khan says : Reply

    Wow, fantastically insightful post Daniel! You masterfully parsed so many considerations into a few paragraphs. W Hallaq’s book is a must read. Congrats on your work and may Allah preserve and bless you..

  2. Isra says : Reply

    Makes a lot of sense and is very well said.Thank you Daniel!

  3. Nati Man says : Reply

    Aren’t most universalist religions (especially the salvationist kind) simply a nascent type of nationalism, minus the modern technologies of surveillance and discipline? If you want to collapse the false distinctions of the “orthodox paradox”, you have to go much further than deconstructing the modern nation state. Great as Hallaq’s book was, this is its central shortcoming. This is a remarkable effort to summarize a complex problem. Still, MMK’s answer remains a much more coherent alternative. After all, it seems a bit absurd to respond to an immediate plea for religious tolerance by saying we must deconstruct the nation state so this problem/paradox won’t exist.

  4. AXBar says : Reply

    What a fantastically simplistic post. The bowdlerized version of the millet system reeks of either historical illiteracy or an unironic romanticism. More problematically, this romanticization of the millet system (which, by the way, continues in countries such as Israel in a most problematic manner) assumes as the author does throughout a collective homogeneity of groups that is utterly at odds the complexities and multiplicities of identity formation.

  5. Daniel Haqiqatjou says : Reply

    @Nati Man: This “plea for religious tolerance” is symptomatic of deeper problems in need of unpacking. I disagree that it is a more “coherent alternative” for religious minorities to continuously have to compromise their deepest moral commitments due to the demands of an inconsistent, incoherent secularism.
    @AXBar: What a fantastically simplistic reading of a blog post. I find your overblown reaction to the one whole paragraph I dedicated to the mere describing, nay, mentioning of an alternative political-legal system indicative of your knee jerk close-mindedness.

  6. Mike says : Reply

    “Identity formation” presumes a very modern, western notion of individuality that is not universally true across time and space.

  7. Nati Man says : Reply

    It may or may not need some more academics to unpack it, but if a religious community comes to someone who is governing for a ruling on whether they should be allowed to perform a religious ceremony, the appropriate response should be “yes, because we permit freedom of religious expressione” or “no, this cannot be permitted because x and y moral reasons.” Saying we need to unpack the notion of religious tolerance is about the most unhelpful academic answer you can give, unless it is accompanied by a direct answer to the problem at hand. The problem is: you have to choose between Satanism and restricting religious freedom and you essentially concluded by saying, “I don’t have to choose between satanism and restricting religious freedom.” But of course, someone DOES. Your article is very excellent, and I commend you, but you eschew the hard choice (and the clarity it would bring to your argument). It sounds like you really are siding with those who favor preventing this ceremony, in which case you would need to respond to MMK’s arguments on what makes your revulsion different from a right wing bigot’s revulsion.

  8. Nati Man says : Reply

    Oh and AXBar’s critique, while it was caustic, should be taken seriously. It is not as if there isn’t a strain within modern liberalism that isn’t advocating for some kind of “milletism” (Will Kymlicka is the most famous person who comes to mind). And all the things AXBar mentioned are potential pitfalls for the idea to be taken seriously. Once the genie of religious authority is out of the bottle, it is hard to put back in again! Keep writing! Bests,

  9. Nati Man says : Reply

    Curious as to what scope ancestor veneration, atheism, polytheism (and other ideas clearly prohibited in the Quran) would have in your emerging idea of what it means to “unpack” religious tolerance. What about religious intermarriage? Religious propagation of ideas clearly prohibited in the Quran? If you are truly going to unpack liberalism, I am all for it, but don’t repack the suitcase with Abrahamic presumptions smuggled in as a “better universalism.”

  10. Reza Jou says : Reply

    An exemplary article Daniel!
    More need to be done concerning this universal topic “religious tolerance” which is one of the essential requirements for a civilized nation.

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