Islamic liberalism and its role in modern-day Islam became the subject of a timely and provocative debate organized recently by the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization. The event was hosted by Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In this fascinating debate, which can be viewed here, Mustafa Akyol passionately argued for Islamic liberalism, while Shadi Hamid was more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in that it is essentially resistant to liberalism.
The essence of Hamid’s argument was that illiberalism is a viable model for Muslim societies. He was clearly pessimistic about the prospect that liberal ideas will prevail in the Muslim world in the future, saying: “We should not hitch our wagon to that possibility.” However, Hamid’s assertion that average Muslims reject liberal Islam is based on some erroneous assumptions that I would like to discuss, in addition to what Mustafa Akyol mentioned in his talk:
First: The simplistic heaven-hell approach
Hamid started his talk by claiming Muslims want religion to be straightforward, and that there is a risk in believing in progressive interpretation. “There is a lot at stake,” he added, “heaven and hell is what is at stake; why take a risk and go to the Day of Judgment?”
This simplistic approach to Islam is one of the fundamental tenets of Islamism, an ideology that promotes fear in the hearts and minds of its followers in order to win their loyalty. However, this approach seems to forget how, in the Quran, God instructed humankind to think, ponder, seek knowledge, and reflect. Here are some examples of Quranic verses that advocate deep thinking: “Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think.” (16:69), “so that their hearts (and minds) may thus use reason” [22:46]; “There are messages/signs indeed for people who use their reason” [2:164]; “Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect [59: 21].”
The problem with political Islamists is that they believe critical thinking is the exclusive domain of elite scholars, and is not part of the mindset of ordinary Muslims. This assumption that ordinary Muslims’ cannot think for themselves or have the right to, makes it easier for theocrats to control the thinking of people en masse by suggesting that critical Muslims are dangerous individuals, who should be silenced either by fatwa, imprisonment, or death.
Second, the political elements of Islam
According to Hamid, the Prophet Mohamed was a politician because he was the head of a proto-state in Medina. Hamid added that some Muslims like the fact that Islam has a political element as it makes Islam more powerful and prevents it from declining as other religions are.
This interpretation is another tenet of Islamism that propagates Islam as the last “uncompromising” religion. Islamists see politics as the guardian of the faith, which in their view, is incapable of facing the challenges of globalization and modernity alone.
This concept clearly reflects the depth of insecurity among Islamists, rather than the ideals for which the Prophet stood within his community in Medina.
In fact, the history of Islam proves just how inaccurate that argument is. Politics has never protected Islam; instead, it has created instability and led to bloodshed on numerous occasions, from the murder of Caliph Osman and then Caliph Ali to the great divide between Sunni and Shia. Those tragic events in the early days of Islam were not the result of colonialism or infidels, but were the outcome of the politics of greed that failed to protect the faith from division and infighting. Periods of Islamic renaissance were notably prominent during political stability, which enabled the faith and spirit to produce the best of Muslim art, literature, and science.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that modernity has not eradicated other faiths, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which are all still alive, despite numerous challenges.
Third, do we have liberalism in the Middle East?
In his talk, Hamid saw no problem with illiberal democracies, and explained that illiberalism could be expressed peacefully. He asserted that democracy should be established first, adding that there were liberals in the Middle East, but no liberalism.
Hamid conveniently ignored the fact that attempts have been made to systematically assassinate liberalism in the Muslim world. Liberal Muslim thinker Farag Fouda was murdered in cold blood by an Islamist. Another Egyptian Muslim scholar, Nasr Abu-Zayd, was declared an apostate for challenging mainstream Muslim views on the Quran, and was effectively forced into exile with his wife. Nobel Laureate Nagib Mahfouz was also attacked and nearly killed, again by an Islamist. These examples are just from Egypt; other Muslim countries have similar stories.
Fourth, Hamid’s assertion that the biggest problem in the Middle East is secular authoritarian regimes, not theocracy
While Hamid focused on the past 100 years, he conveniently forgot that events that happened in the last century, including secular autocracies, were not just a response to colonialism, but to decades of stagnation that plagued the theocratic Muslim world before colonialism. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he did not find the flourishing civilization of Baghdad and Cordoba, but a stagnated backward society that for many complex internal reasons the French leader and his alien army regarded as irrelevant.
In another words, the failure of Islamic theocracies led to the current struggle of modernity, and not the opposite. What followed in the 20th century was an attempt by Muslims such as Nasser and Ataturk to provide answers to the challenge of modernity, while preventing a resurgence of medieval theocracies. The secularist autocrats have indeed failed due to many complex reasons beyond the scope of this piece, but their diagnosis that theocracies have failed to cope with modernity, and hence are not ideal for modern Muslim societies, is fundamentally true. Hamid also ignored the elephant in the room, the Islamic republic of Iran, which is a glaring example of how resurrecting theocracy is not the right antidote to secular autocracy.
Muslims in Hamid’s views are insecure, incapable of critical thinking, paralyzed by fear of hell, and need strong political leaders to protect their faith from outside challenges. Those views are not just condescending and wrong, but are dangerous too. Infantilizing Muslims will never produce strong, healthy Muslim societies. Perhaps Shadi Hamid should speak to regime opponents in Iran or purged public servants in Turkey before he extols the virtues of illiberal democracy to the Muslim world.
This piece was included in Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Steven Cook’s blog weekend reading
“However, Hamid’s assertion that average Muslims reject liberal Islam is based on some erroneous assumptions that I would like to discuss, in addition to what Mustafa Akyol mentioned in his talk”
What (https://youtu.be/e403Hn3L9CU?t=59m13s) part (https://youtu.be/fMB2sK5ChvE?t=4m56s) of (https://youtu.be/3kDbqABvEN0?t=3m30s) his (https://youtu.be/Z434kGxDWkE?t=43m44s) assertion (https://youtu.be/DlWlMWybdJw?t=6s) is (https://youtu.be/cShGtgSMmjQ?t=14s) based (https://youtu.be/By_lwNSWZu4?t=1m56s) on (https://youtu.be/FnxVItgfgJ4?t=3m10s) erroneous (https://youtu.be/bV710c1dgpU?t=2m28s) assumptions (https://youtu.be/84w-MAOyHFE?t=25s)?
3 days later and still awaiting moderation. Oh, Nervana, who’s infantilizing now? You know how you like to come to the defense of Brexit and Trump voters by blaming “the liberal elites” for being out of touch with the common people? The irony is, in the eyes of the common people in the Muslim world, precisely people like you are the liberal elites. It truly is astounding how utterly lacking in self-awareness you are. As Trump likes to say in his tweets, “SAD!” Oh, and p.s. do delete these comments. I’ve just unsubscribed anyway.
Let me get that right, you are attacking me for taking 3 days to reply to your comment that included several long you-tube videos each need a whole day to listen several times and formulate a response? Wow, I am sorry to missed the memo that I am your slave. Sorry master, your slave happen to be a doctor as well as a writer and happen to be busy saving lives in the last 3 days, and I did not check the receiving comments. Big crime obviously.
Do you also read every single text in a book’s bibliography, or look up every single citation in a journal article? I don’t think so, clueless Muslim liberal elite “busy saving lives in the last 3 days”. I’m a doctor too. Big deal. Pathetic excuse.
Yes, I do read, and will not release attached links without making sure they are not spams. your lazy copy and paste takes seconds, reading take a lot more. enjoy the generous NHS who pay you to do nothing other than attack your opponents for the sole crime of having a different polite view. You are full of nothing, but hatred. Indulge in more attacks, but this is my last reply.
If you thought YouTube links with specific time markers interspersed between a ten-word question was a spam, then I truly have made the right decision in terminating my subscription. Have fun pretending you’re one of the common people in the Muslim world, whose views are mainstream. Goodbye.
To what extent do you believe present day fundamentalism has roots in the Muslim 11th century rejection of scientific thought, traced by many to al-Ghazali? A long time ago, but sometimes small events have large consequences.
I am not sure that was the only factor, the stagnation of the entire Muslim world, particularly under the Ottoman empire was probably the most important factor.
I like your post and the blog. I have come here via Shadi’s tweet. I am asking for your posts to be notified to me by email.
Many thanks. Truly appreciate it.
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All credits for your interesting article, your blog is a great way to connect people all over the world with different opinions and ideas. Having said that, i see many contradictions in your oped.
For example you paint Ataturk and Nasser as moderates.
I agree with the former, but Nasser was not at all a moderate, rather a socialist cowboy. Ironically, he put Muhammad Naguib in prison, used in your article as one of the victims of Islamic threats. I would argue Mohammed Reza Shah of Iran was more a moderate than anything what Egypt had in the 20s century.
Secondly; you call Iran the “elephant in the room”, your argument based on the political-structure (theocracy) of Iran. Which is quite strange, not far from Iran, Saudi Arabia’ civil law based on much more harsh Sharia Law. While in Iran women are practicing motor-races, in Saudi Arabia women are not even allowed to drive to a mall. While Iran has won more movie awards than all Arab countries combined, in Saudi Arabia cinema’s are still forbidden in the 21st century.
Besides, lets compare Egypt’ educational system with that of Iran.
Iranian universities are much higher ranked than Egyptian ones: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2016/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/locations/EG/sort_by/scores_overall/sort_order/asc/cols/scores
Science ranking Iran outperforms Egypt (and all other Arab countries): http://www.scimagojr.com/countryrank.php?year=2015®ion=Middle%20East
Iran is the only country in the Middle East which won the Math Olympiad.
Next to democracy and liberal freedom, an important indicator is accountability. Iran’s government spends a lot in education and sports. Other important indicator is safety, while over the last years we’ve seen many terrorist attack in wide areas of the Middle-East, Iran had no one single attack.
Conclusion; “the elephant in the room” Iran is a great sample for many Arab countries, try to care more on arts, education and sports, instead of Islamic teaching from Gulf countries.
Many thanks for your comment. Truly appreciated it.
But let me correct you: First: I did not describe Nasser and Ataturk as “moderates, if you read again, you will see that I described them as “secular autocrats” who tried to respond to the challenges of “modernity” that is not a description of “moderates,” far from it to be clear.
Second, regarding Iran, you are missing the context. Shadi was talking about “Arab spring” and revolutions, hence the comparison with Iran.
I have no record of praising Saudi Arabia by the way!
Besides, Iran’s system still force hijab not just on women but even female children. I visited your lovely country ( and I truly mean that) and saw it by my own eyes.
Yes, Iran has better teaching, but still its system cannot deviate from the Islamic republic thinking and does not allow free thinking.
Sports? which female spectators are banned to attend male matches?
You can bash Gulf States as much as you like and I will be agree on many of your criticism, but as long as Iranians compare their country with others who are worse than it, it will never progress.
Finally, If we judge by arts and sports, then the Soviet Union was a haven for liberalism? Which was certainly not the case.
In short, it is disingenoius to paint Iran as a liberal Muslim country because it is simply not!
Came across your page while googling the word “infantilization” (why? how? I just…) But I have viewed Mr Hamid’s talk with interest on another occasion, and it is with some luck that I have come across your observations.
I have a simple question to ask you: when will Muslims stop alternating between fearing, loathing, mistrusting, despising and outright hating non-Muslims?
I can vouch that most non-Muslims (myself included) do not so much as hate Islam or Muslims as much as astounded/annoyed at those earlier-mentioned feelings which Muslims invariably harbor for us. These feelings are, from all that can be observed, assiduously cultivated at the various fora attended by Muslims, from their religious schools to prayer congregations, the latter which alternate as political fora.
The expression of these feelings by Muslims towards non-Muslims tend to vary depending on the permissibility of the political environment. Suffice to say, the “hatred” which non-Muslims tend to express for Muslims or Islam is primarily political (to do with “turf”) but the hatred which Muslims harbor towards non-Muslims is far more basic and fundamental – it is religiously ordained. Doesn’t that make the latter far more vicious?
Do you see an amicable resolution to this?
I mean, there are ample instances of Muslims and non-Muslims “getting along” in matters non-religious such as trade and commerce, but when tough questions are asked, such as during social instability; the lines are drawn quiet clearly and immediately between Muslims and non-Muslims. Case in point, Lebanon. The model of secular politics of that country has turned out to be just a veneer for intense, vicious, inter-religious politicking and endless opportunities for political profiteering. That country has been through a two-decade civil war, and is on the verge of another one. Syria too is another such case, though under different circumstances.
And this pattern is repeated again and again in different geographies where Muslims inhabit. I cannot think of a single geographic location where Muslims are hand in glove with non-Muslims in working towards the cultivation of a productive, mutually beneficial polity or society. In the grand scheme of history, the 20th century is a short while, and the experiment in the Old World of Muslims and non-Muslims trying to forge prosperous yet democratic societies is very new. It is just impossible to see how this can be carried on sustainably for any major length of time given the fundamental tendencies of the Muslims towards non-Muslims. I would be glad to be proved wrong.
Without exception, Muslims are always engaged with non-Muslims in a stifling competition of an adverse, zero-sum nature. It does seem as if the only manner in which such an attempt can even be made is under the watchful eye of an authoritarian. Even in some of the more economically advanced nations with significant Muslim populations such as Malaysia and Singapore, this inherent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims shows up in the authoritarian political structures of these societies. Singapore is a one-party state, and Malaysia is a seven-headed monarchy biased in favor of its Muslim citizens.
Which is why, pardon the long-windedness, that what Mr. Hamid says when talks about the unsuitability of liberalism to Muslim societies, is quite manifest. Social and cultural liberalism cannot, it seems, be entertained in a Muslim-dominated society for any length in the absence of political authoritarianism. Where this exists, as perhaps in Turkey, this has the life of an ice cube in lava flow. This also explains the situation in some of the GCC states. Their ostensible social liberalism would be impossible in the absence of the firm rule of the ruling families there.
Simply put, how are Muslims supposed to co-exist in a world filled with all manner of different cults, religions, polytheisms, theisms, atheisms and all the rest when the fundamental texts of theirs commands them to, in various degrees, connive against the well-being of everyone else? Isn’t it wrong in a world that is free, for people to be “allowed to exist” or “pardoned” by anyone, leave alone Muslims, to live and thrive?
And, as we are in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t the wholesale outsourcing of personal responsibility to the one above, rendering such a large segment of humanity vulnerable to the perils of the virus? We are already seeing all manner of conspiracy theories take root in Middle Eastern society, and the pandemic is not yet three months old.
Given the extreme hold on the conscience of the adherents which the Islamists hold, is it not true that the lives of literally millions lie in the minds and mouths of these religious leaders? Even for secular governments to guide the Muslims will require them to engage with the clergy, thereby further entrenching the power of the clergy in the state.
Nothing to mention of those societies which are already Muslim-dominated, where clerical authority runs riot. When will Muslims, in general and as a community, take independent acceptance to modern, professional advice, which is sorely needed in such times as a pandemic? When will the clergy be stood up to, and cut down to size?