Welcoming liberal Islam

Dave Belden
29 November 2004

You would think that the one kind of person that Europeans would welcome with open arms right now is a liberal Muslim. Any liberal Muslim. Even one who believes in God. Even one who thinks religion has a special and useful role in the world.

Irshad Manji, Canadian (of Iranian origin) author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith writes in the New York Times that on her recent visit to Europe, “I didn’t expect a warm reception from fellow Muslims. But now, I’m also not sure that liberal Muslims like me fit comfortably in a secular European crowd.”

Manji does not have this trouble in North America, where she finds faith accepted as normal. Of religion in general she writes that it “supplies a set of values, including discipline, that serve as a counterweight to the materialism of life in the West. I could have become a runaway materialist, a robotic mall rat who resorts to retail therapy in pursuit of fulfillment.”

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In the forum pages attached to this openDemocracy column, under the thread “Against Polarization”, Paul Wilson, an eminently reasonable secular European, writes of this quote: “I, and many others, find this kind of simplistic, patronising, superior bigotry deeply offensive. The implication that the only alternative to religion is shallow materialism is juvenile and insulting. Values, discipline and the desire for a meaningful life are in no way the exclusive preserve of religion, any more than morality is.” The next writer, David Thompson, is even more outraged.

I was astonished at this reaction.

I agree that religion is not the exclusive antidote to shallow materialism. But it can be one antidote. I read Manji’s article as arguing no more than that.

But even if she were to see religion as the only way to counteract shallow capitalist values, should reasonable Europeans come down on her like a ton of bricks?

Let’s find some balance here. I can think of few people more vital to the future of Europe at this point than liberal Muslims. So they may have some beliefs a secular European questions. For that, we want to excoriate them?

Don’t you think that kind of reception might drive them back towards the ramparts of a more rigid belief? Why does Christian fundamentalism or its Islamic equivalent exist, if not in part as a reaction to the prospect of an entirely secular, modern world?

At the moment a largely secular Europe includes highly conservative, religious, immigrant and post-immigrant communities. How are those religious conservatives to liberalise, if not through developing liberal religion? Isn’t that how Europe did it?

Even if liberal religion has aspects that displease secular Europeans, would they not be wise to welcome it as the lesser evil? Might they not wish that Irshad Manji had been more welcomed in Europe?

As we all know, Europe is in a bind. It can’t live without the immigrants who bring their patriarchal culture.

So how to live with them? How fast can a patriarchal culture with a strong, proud and embattled religion be expected to liberalise? One generation? Ten? How long?

What’s the goal here? To strip immigrant Muslims of their religion altogether?

No doubt some secular Europeans hope for that.

How does European multiculturalism look from Holland after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh? Theo Veenkamp looks ahead in “After tolerance”
(November 2004).

Most Europeans accept a cosmopolitan, multiracial Europe. They feel happy enough to see bright, fashionable, modern young people of all racial backgrounds mingling with their own precious children. They accept that future Murphys, Schmidts and Lefèbvres will be part African and Arab.

But they don’t want their descendants to be… What? Religious?

Certainly they don’t want them to be intolerant, oppressive.

Surely those are the real issues, not whether they are religious. It’s behaviour, not belief, that counts.

Irshad Manji writes of her book: “The themes I’m exploring with the utmost honesty include:

  • the inferior treatment of women in Islam;
  • the Jew-bashing that so many Muslims persistently engage in; and
  • the continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamic regimes.
I appreciate that every faith has its share of literalists. Christians have their Evangelicals. Jews have the ultra-Orthodox. For God’s sake, even Buddhists have fundamentalists.

But what this book hammers home is that only in Islam is literalism near the centre of the faith. Which means that when abuse happens under the banner of Islam, most Muslims have no clue how to dissent, debate, revise or reform.

The Trouble with Islam shatters our silence. It shows Muslims how we can rediscover Islam’s lost tradition of independent thinking – a tradition known as ijtihad – and re-discover it precisely to update Islam for the 21st century.”

This is a voice Europe and Europeans need – except those who are genuine racists and want to kick it out. In that case, you need immigrants as irredeemably patriarchal as possible, and you welcome Theo van Gogh’s murder. (Irony: the extreme right need the immigrants to be extreme right-wing so they can build hate against them.)

The question for the rest of us is how to assist liberalising Muslims. Two ideas:
Through humility. Face it, our ideas may be more advanced, but our behaviour is not.

Through engagement: talk, argument, friendship, appreciation, shared work, community collaboration, more argument.

Also in openDemocracy, don’t miss the striking, illuminating interview with French expert Gilles Kepel about “The war for Muslim minds”
(November 2004). Please consider subscribing to guarantee access to this and other essential reading.

Irshad Manji fears she cannot be comfortable in Europe. But no one is going to be comfortable in Europe for a long time. The secular will be challenged by the faithful, the faithful by the secular, the conservative believers by the liberal believers. My kneejerk disapproval of the secular Europeans who make Manji uncomfortable is simple-minded. They engaged with her, said what they thought. She defended herself in a major newspaper. One more conversation is underway, inevitably uncomfortable.

All the same, let us try to make these real conversations. For that we may have to moderate our outrage in order to hear each other clearly and give each of us room to be who we are. That way, we all have room to move into new ideas and more generous behavior.

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