Colin,

I'm grateful for such a thoughtful reply. But I am slow to respond (at least in blogging terms) as I mull over what to make of such a carefully-hedged statement. I don't disagree with it so much as wonder what possibilities it points to for a political discussion that does not only insist on decorum but opens up some real exchange of differences that can be truly revelatory, to those involved. If one is not actively trying to convert the other, professing good and evil, pushing revelation, is one having a political conversation? and can politics ever approximate an ideally-disinterested academic discussion, with its ways of mixing disinterested commentary and particular confessional statements?

There are contexts in which I share your revulsion for collective guilt. Even though I consider what i would call "faith/guilt" societies to be freer and more productive than honor/shame societies, guilt to be productive needs to be freely accepted as part of one's understanding of a shared covenant. Does it also have to be freely offered?

One has little patience for the person who says all Christians are in some degree guilty of Nazi crimes because some Nazis were nominal Christians and this shows some logical endpoint of Christian thinking (say the Gospel of John). And yet, at the end of the day, one has to be able to acknowledge on some level that the Nazi movement was some kind of perversion of the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) tradition. But to be confident in calling it a perversion, I have to have some decided sense of what Christianity (or the Jewish model of nationhood) properly entails. On what grounds might I claim such? Are broad brush strokes only to be allowed or encouraged of charitable interpretations?

I am confounded by statements like this:

It’s conceivable that the evolutionary process may be accelerated in our time. If so, the examples – successes as well as detours – of reformers and revolutionaries of the Western Enlightenment may be helpful, and it may be from this perspective that we can begin to talk about Islamic law, philosophy, culture, history, and tradition “as such.” Characteristics of Islamic thought, culture, and practice that are typically ignored – where not belittled and ridiculed – by Islamophobes may also prove helpful.

Here you seem to allow for what you reject elsewhere (at least in the domain of political speech): generalization about the nature of Islam "as such". I suppose you recognize that on some level we must be able to talk about an Islam "problem" - the very nature of the Koran as a response to pre-existing forms of monotheism constitutes the problem which Islam generally discusses in terms of the turning away of historical Jews and Christians from the eternal truth of Islam. And yet the Islam problem - with the "unbeliever" and his (only apparent) precedence in the history of monotheism - should not be politicized you seem to say (I hope I am not framing your words too freely):

I don’t accept that we are discussing “Islam,” or that we should even try to discuss “Islam” in such terms. Any attempt at a political discussion of Islam as such is an affront to Muslims first, but beyond that the very mode of speaking is an affront to all who believe in freedom of conscience.

Confronting some Islamic essence – talking meaningfully and responsibly about Islam as such – is far beyond conventional political discussion, and, where not “foolish and dangerous,” it is at a minimum disrespectful to pretend otherwise. Very few of those compulsively discussing Islam have in any respect established their qualifications for doing so. Fewer still can pretend to do so from a neutral, balanced, or objective standpoint.

No doubt those politicizing Islam are generally without qualifications, neutrality and objectivity. But just how can we begin to imagine a world in which Islam - and I think the vast majority of Muslims would recognize that Islam has at least some political dimensions - is not politicized, least of all in a country founded as a self-ruling republic with a deep populist impulse (your argument might get more traction up here in Canada)?
Just how can the problems you recognize - "valid and inevitable responses getting channeled into counterproductive pathways" - be mediated productively by those with the kinds of bona fides you seem to desire? As we seek to inflect the valid and inevitable response, do we not have to defer more to the kind of polarized world in which we now live?

Collective guilt is a problem but it is the problem of our times. The guilt ascribed by Islamophobes to Muslims is perhaps a response to the culture of White Guilt that has arisen in the West in the last 20-40 years, or it may be an inversion of the Koranic discourse against the kaffir. I see in a more recent post that you belittle Shelby Steele's call on Westerners to feel less guilty - as if his suggestion is feel-good propaganda. YOu do seem to want to hold us to high standards by which a liberal society functions, to demand observance of a shared covenant for protecting the other's freedom, a covenant which should produce in us a high degree of guilt that we may sustain our responsibilities.

What would you say to the hypothesis that the only way we are going to get a renewal of shared covenants by which civil society can evolve and mediate present tensions is if we all learn to affirm a good deal of guilt and that this must entail all of us, including Muslims, better seeing and recognizing (our) victims and the potential for victimization in the very founding revelation and forms of our religious and political faiths? If one allows for some such hypothesis, one must then return to the question of what kind of politics will be more likely to produce it in a (populist) constitutional democracy like the USA. I am not convinced that your seeming ode to the era of liberal experts centering public discussion has still the means to create new iconic persons and memorable events that will redefine civil society and make personal what ultimately must become personal.

You also say:

I’m going to skip over the interesting quote from Roger Scruton, because it addresses a particular radical community and set of conditions (at most a set of particular communities), without a clear justification for more general application – and thus takes on the the form of the same collective judgment/non-pluralist/etc. approach I’ve been arguing against all along.

-Scruton does refer to the situation in the UK and the problem of Islamism but it's unfair to write him off because he seeks some general application for an understanding of core Islamic concepts like the waqf. Whatever the diversity in the ways of being an Islamic society, it's surely the case that one can identify much which is generally characteristic of Muslim-dominated societies, in comparison to others. And surely it is important to note and discuss these things, politically and otherwise.

Just as an aside, I came across this very curious story today. [Later Edit: I just reread the story and it may be that the description of the "offensive" book that follows is not quite right; still, the idea that there is a conpsiracy to mislead the Aga Khan speaks to Scruton's point] Apparently there are a couple of Ismailis who profess loyalty to the Aga Khan but who refuse to recognize that he is the author of some writing with which they apparently take offense. They insist there is some great conspiracy to create a forgery even after the Aga Khan signs a notarized affidavit that he is the author. It strikes me that here is a unique instance, in a community not generally considered "radical", of what is recognizably, to my mind at least, the general problem of which Scruton talks.

Finally, I'll just ask you about this:

we can also expect that the Sharia absorbed in the relatively distant future on a global level would look a lot more like advanced, relatively “decadent” (pragmatic, adaptive, re-interpreted) Sharia, than like the fundamentalist-literalist Sharia of revolutionary Iran or a village in Waziristan (or an Islamophobic blog post).

Can you in any way begin to imagine what this Sharia (sacred) law would look like? How will it get around the problem that Islam, I think we can generalize, does not have an easy time thinking of itself as a historically-unfolding revelation? As far as I am aware no school of fiqh allows for continual reinterpretation of its classical jurisprudence. Rather Islamic law evolves not so much by secularization - representing the old sacred in some distinctively new dress - but rather through the "Islamization" of new knowledge, through attempts to maintain the sacred forms of the original revelation and its classical interpretations. Or is this just another false generalization - but how could you prove it if so (what measure of sameness or difference could convince me? must you not offer also a politicized faith?)