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Is liberal Islam the answer?

If Islam needs to be seen through the eyes of the West in order to make sense of itself, how can it find the space for transformation on its own terms? 

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Launching a global summit against ‘violent extremism’ in Washington last month, President Obama employed the now familiar language of winning Muslim ‘hearts and minds.’ The meeting was the latest in a long line of similar Western policy initiatives reaching back well over a decade. Calling attention to “a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims” in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Obama exhorted the world to “continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam.” This was needed to counter rampant global terror in the name of a perverted vision of Islam, from Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), to Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and homegrown attacks in North America and Europe.

As if to anticipate the superfluity of Obama’s appeals to amplify the voices of Muslim moderates, Muslims have overwhelmingly stood alongside their fellow citizens to denounce the brutal killings of satirists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen. Such wanton carnage requires nothing less than unified condemnation from us all. On the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders, Tariq Ramadan, the prominent academic and activist who is often the nub of Islamophobic attacks, immediately took to Twitter with an unequivocal statement about the assassins’ “betrayal” of Islamic values. His words were accompanied by a now familiar chorus of calls proclaiming that Islam is not extreme but, in fact, quintessentially liberal.

Many commentators have been keen to point out once again that Islam’s sacred texts and history echo liberal sentiments, as if the quagmire of religious extremism can be remedied by simply righting an incorrect interpretation of faith. To take just two prominent examples in the wake of events in Paris in January, Ed Hussain, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Guardian that “The shari’a has higher aims that are fully in line with the modern world”—invoking the Prophet’s “free speech” credentials. Meanwhile in The Spectator, the Canadian author and activist Irshad Manji pointed out that extremists wilfully “ignore progressivist Qur’anic passages.”

These are laudable sentiments which also serve a practical purpose in the current climate of growing polarisation. There is no inherent reason why Islam cannot be made to be any less liberal than any other religion or body of ideas open to varied interpretative practices. But if Islam needs to be seen through the eyes of the secular liberal West in order to make sense of itself, how can it find the space for reform and pluralism on its own terms? As the killings of protestors on the streets of Cairo on the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring showed in January, a revolution in free thinking requires more than simply a reconfiguration of orthodoxies, whether religious or secular.

While rightly de-essentialising the link between Islam and violence, Obama’s simultaneous call for the ‘true’ voice of the representative majority of Muslim clerics and scholars to be heard may serve to generate more division, while unwittingly feeding the fallacy that Islam as a religion has a unique case to answer. Such appeals to an ‘authentic’ representative consensus obscure a great deal of dissent within Islam, and have tended to reinforce rigid religious orthodoxies. Paradoxically, the liberal lurch towards the discourse of ‘common ground’ encouraged since 9/11 may make freedom and tolerance less likely.

Perhaps this is also why, despite the best of intentions, the current resort to liberal Islam can often appear an ephemeral or shallow compromise. With no tangible constituencies of their own, it is no surprise that both Hussain and Manji talk approvingly of conservative Muslim scholars who continue to flourish under authoritarian regimes where free speech is anathema—the Egyptian former Grand Mufti, Ali Goma’a, and the Saudi-based Mauritanian, Abdallah Bin Bayyah respectively. In similarly ‘representative’ though more reactionary fashion in The Daily Telegraph, the influential British Sufi academic Tim Winter (aka Abdal Hakim Murad) bemoaned the dangers of “individualism” and a lack of respect for orthodox religious leadership.

Writing in the US-based Islamic Monthly in December, Brookings Institution scholar Hisham Hellyer remarked on how events in Egypt are polarising attitudes among some Muslims in the West by cementing dividing lines between apologists for secular-military dictatorship and proponents of an Islamist state. Hellyer points to the position of Goma’a, once a stalwart of Mubarak’s establishment and now, effectively, a religious prop to President Sisi’s rule. At the same time, he draws attention to what he sees as Ramadan’s occasional reluctance to criticise some of the illiberal actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Morsi’s 2012 extra-judicial decree. His article solicited a strong response from Ramadan who felt he had misrepresented him.

By remaining hostage to authoritarian environments such as Egypt while forcing a synthesis between Islam and the West, liberal Islam can end up being neither Muslim enough nor liberal enough. This has nothing to do with duplicity as Islamophobes allege. It is because Muslim free thinking needs to emerge organically, and for this to happen it needs free spaces, not those engineered by states. The urge to render Islam moderate by making it correspond to liberal values and institutions is the analogue of neo-imperial ventures by Western states in the Muslim world which have tried to force the ‘natives’ to be free.

In a kind of tortuous circularity, it hardly needs repeating that Western states have steadfastly supported authoritarian regimes where state-sanctioned ‘moderate’ scholars—beloved of Muslim liberals—often reside or have studied. The fact that President Sisi is now seen as the West’s probable best hope of stemming IS’s advance in Libya—his own legitimacy couched in ever-more religious tones—only reinforces this seemingly eternal return.

One of the many other cyclical conundrums for societies in the West is that, while many Muslims have condemned the murders in Paris and Copenhagen, they are not about to condone cartoons which they feel defame their faith. Tolerating satire is not the same as believing that satire forms a vital and moral part of a free society. This is why Mohammed Shafiq of the British Muslim organisation, the Ramadhan Foundation, could appear on BBC News soon after the Paris attacks to condemn the killings, having already mobilised opposition against Maajid Nawaz of the anti-extremism Quilliam Foundation for tweeting a cartoon of the Prophet in 2014.

In the light of such underlying tensions, simply insisting that Muslims should be ‘more liberal’ may not prove very fruitful. It might only obscure ever-deeper divisions, some of which may surface in their own violent ways. If Islam is ‘hijacked’ by extremists—a language that liberals often deploy—it implies that a religion can be ‘owned’ by one group or set of interpretations. The pluralism of Islam suggests otherwise, so liberal Muslims may find themselves in an authoritarian bind when having to impose their interpretations on others. This might also explain why liberal Muslim agendas can sometimes harbour their own forms of intolerance, reliant as they often are on conservative clerics in the Middle East and South Asia for their authenticity.  

The appeal to moderate Muslim ‘constituencies’ and their ‘representatives’ can give the appearance of stable lines of authority. In reality, as these representatives know only too well, their reach into communities can be tenuous, especially among young people, which is why they often need to rely on the patronage of others, not least governments and foreign clerics. In this context, successive Western directives aimed at a select list of Muslim ‘leaders’—like the ill-judged letter issued by the British government in January—are likely to have little effect or elicit unintended negative reactions, especially from groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain which have themselves been ‘de-selected’ as partners by government in recent years. But the deeper predicament of Muslim liberalism lies beyond any obsessions with countering extremism. Instead, it lies in opposing trends that attempt to institutionalise Islam while being continually hollowed out by the growing global fragmentation of traditional Islamic authority.

The irony is that the logical endpoint of fostering this kind of Muslim thinking rests implicitly on some form of universal reconstitution of traditional or ‘moderate’ Islam which, in the end, will extinguish all pretenders to their faith—a global vision no less ambitious than the one harboured by Islamist extremists. Seen in this light, the liberal state’s own impulses towards muscular paternalism at times of crisis mirror such attempts at socially engineered moderation on a grand scale: recent moves by British Home Secretary Theresa May to prohibit the airing of views considered extreme at university debates are the latest example of this mode of engagement.

So it’s no surprise that Western counter-terrorism policies often appear to be a confused mix of pragmatic risk management and all-encompassing, unending moral crusades. While this tension is not unusual, it poses a particular dilemma for the autonomous development of modern Islamic thought in an era when Muslims are now embedded in wider cycles of conflict, albeit largely involuntarily.

Authorising what people should think or who they should follow is ineffective in practice and wrongheaded in principle. Freedom cannot be prescriptive precisely because it requires free thinking. Only when liberal Muslims break the cycle of thinking ‘colonially’ about their own faith in this way might real progress occur. Resisting the desire to emulate a Western civilizing mission may open up space for a true renaissance which puts free expression at the centre of Islamic intellectual life. This means wresting freedom from its use by extremists and placing the individual truly at the centre of faith, rather than the state or its representatives. It also means developing strategies for promoting tolerance and combating extremism which start from where things are, not where we want them to be.

In any context, it is the lack of space for free expression that gives rise to distortions of freedom such as pathological violence. While there are good reasons why free speech cannot be absolute in practice, liberal Islam could narrow it even further by colonising this space through presumptive forms of ‘representation.’ As a result, Muslim moderates to whom Obama’s latest appeal is directed may face an even harder struggle to prevent violent extremism in the future. 

About the author

Zaheer Kazmi is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His publications include Polite Anarchy in International Relations Theory and Contextualizing Jihadi Thought. He has also written for The Guardian, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books


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