Men walk past a wall featuring a drawing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in downtown Istanbul on 28 October 2015. Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty


Beyond liberal Islam

Western liberalism is not the apex and terminus of human history, and it ought not to serve as the measure of Islam

by Zaheer Kazmi + BIO

Men walk past a wall featuring a drawing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in downtown Istanbul on 28 October 2015. Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty

We live in a liberal world. In some senses, liberalism enjoys a global victory. Even its opponents often make their case based on essentially liberal ideals of a society built on political liberties or free trade to best maximise individual freedom. In the vital details, liberalism comes in many guises. As the grounds for revolution or a midwife to empire, over the past two centuries it has shaped how we see ourselves and the world.

While Europe’s empires may have worn liberalism like a badge of civilisation, liberal values were often taken up more vigorously in the lands they colonised, including in the Muslim world. Debates about ‘liberal Islam’ are almost as old as the ideology of liberalism itself. From the Aligarh movement in 19th-century British India to the al-Nahda, or renaissance, in the Arab world, Muslims have sought to synthesise Islam and liberalism to advance Islam’s civilisational progress.

The ‘Christian’ West might have established liberal societies, but it has struggled to produce liberal citizens. The resurgent fascistic movements in Europe and North America today seeking to restrict the freedoms of others are distinctly Christian and Western identity movements. On the other hand – and for largely historical rather than metaphysical reasons – Muslims have struggled to establish liberal states. Yet, by and large, within the liberal societies of the West, Muslims have been exemplary citizens, claiming their rights and pursuing their interests rather than focusing on persecuting others. Why then can the projects of Muslim liberals – who see liberalism in Islam – seem so quixotic?

Liberal Muslim reformists see no contradiction between Islam and core liberal commitments to freedom, tolerance, human rights and the rule of law. It is true that many of them might not advocate a strictly secular state. But there is nothing exceptional about this. The positions of many Hindu, Jewish or Christian liberals also allow various kinds of state recognition of and support for religious groups and values. Muslim liberals are similarly a mixed bag, from the Qatari-based Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, the founders of the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank. Despite disagreements, they share fundamental challenges to the flourishing of their agendas. These challenges have often been characterised by detractors as a way of highlighting Islam’s supposedly inherent backwardness, anti-Westernism, and a desire in Muslim societies to revive a certain idealised vision of medieval glory. Yet it is decidedly an Islam of the nation-state, not an Islam of the caliphate, to which Muslim liberals aspire.

For the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Indian Abul Ala Maududi – perhaps the most influential Islamist thinkers of the mid-20th century – God’s sovereignty took precedence over that of the people. In their theological views of the world, secular compromise with the popular will was impossible. Rather than the people, they built their politics around the will of God, coining neologisms such as jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance) and hakimiyya (God’s sovereignty) to flesh out their political visions. Equating jahiliyya with the West’s spiritually vacant secular culture, and contrasting hakimiyya with liberal democracy’s arrogation of divine authority, Qutb and Mawdudi’s thinking helped to shape Islamist movements throughout the world. Some of these movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have evolved towards the acceptance of key institutional practices of liberal democracies – popular elections and economic liberalism. While in the West, Muslims have largely accepted the parameters of liberal citizenship. But the vexed issue of God’s sovereignty is far from settled in the politics of Islam. And navigating liberalism remains a preoccupation.

Non-political forms of Islam endure. This includes non-violent ‘quietist’ Salafists who show their disapproval of what they deem to be un-Islamic regimes by simply staying away from politics. Curiously, their choice to disengage places them, along with some other non-Muslim citizens, in the familiar liberal ideal of separating religion and politics. By refusing to actively participate in the rites of liberal democracy, such as elections, they also share with some Western liberals the view that the procedural mechanisms of these states are hollow and lacking in legitimacy. For these Salafists, however, their objections are because the state is Godless, not because it isn’t liberal enough.

Anti-political currents also persist in protest movements in the Muslim world against both the centralising tendencies of Islamist parties and the encroachment of neoliberal ideologies. These forms of dissent were represented in the street protests at Taksim Gezi Park in Turkey in 2013, and also during the Arab Spring (2010-12). Resembling in some ways anarchist or Situationist modes of mobilisation, they have stood against Western liberalism – in the form of neoliberal globalisation – and against the authoritarianism of the state, Islamist or otherwise.

In one sense, Western liberalism is inescapable. Critiques of liberalism, including the ‘postcolonial’ and ‘critical theory’ projects that appeal to notable Muslim intellectuals, themselves come from within Western intellectual history. This parasitic relationship has also coloured the way in which Muslim thinkers are sometimes categorised – from the political theorist Roxanne Euben’s reading of Qutb in her book Enemy in the Mirror (1999), which locates an understanding of his ‘fundamentalism’ against the limits of Western rationalist epistemologies, to the legal theorist Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State (2012), which relies, in part, on the correspondence between Western critical theorists and pre-colonial Islam to recover distinctive Islamic contributions to contemporary politics.

Underlying concerns for an authentic Islam appear in public debates over contending notions of ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ Islam. While this distinction is really energised by the concerns of Western states about their domestic politics, it also contains at its heart a deeper question about liberalism – that is, how ‘free’ are Muslims to be Muslim? In the current climate of alarm in the West, we are seeing conspiracy theories enter the political mainstream. They have fuelled xenophobia and revived Cold War fears of ‘subversion’.

In the United Kingdom, the emerging notion of ‘non-violent extremism’ seems to threaten the criminalisation of thoughts or aspects of identity. ‘Non-violent extremism’, in the parlance of government policy, is behaviour that might not endorse terrorism, but that contravenes ‘British values’ of tolerance, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. It is an ill-defined term and includes things such as forced marriages and racism – whose link to terrorism is not clear.

The British notion of ‘non-violent extremism’ epitomises the binary way in which discussion of Islam is now so often framed – where Muslims are seen as either liberal or veering toward militancy. The presumptions that accepting or supporting aspects of liberalism inoculates Muslims from ‘radicalisation’, and that the only ‘good’ Muslim is a liberal one, are both, at best, dubious propositions.

Herein also lies a real irony. A major contention in Western liberalism today concerns the public’s perception of liberal democracies as surveillance states with increasingly authoritarian tendencies – from CCTV cameras in public spaces, to online monitoring and data collection. At the same time, Muslim liberals sometimes move to stifle jihadist terrorism by bolstering centralised authority, including traditional Islamic authority.

Liberal Islam is deployed and recycled for political ends, even when they appear to go against liberal principles

In these ways, liberal advocacy can constrain Muslim liberty. Since the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 (9/11), Muslim liberals have championed the ‘classical’ tradition of ‘mainstream’ Islam. It has served as a counter to what they see as the perverted interpretations of the jihadist terrorists. But from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf, classical or mainstream Islam is tied closely to conservative, state-sponsored centres of Islamic learning and leadership allied with the status quo. Since Western governments see them as non-jihadist, they generally support a strategy of facilitating global links between these institutions and Muslims in the West.

In turn, Muslims liberals in the West have become embroiled in the politics of dissent in the Muslim world. Hamza Yusuf, the leading American convert, is a protégé of the Saudi-based Mauritanian scholar Abdullah bin Bayyah. Western governments hail Yusuf as a voice of moderation. He is also the vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies – a body sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This June, the Forum issued an official condemnation of Qatar. In this condemnation, Yusuf effectively sided with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in their regional quarrel with Qatar. This quarrel hinges not only on concerns that Qatar is growing close to its regional competitor Iran, but on demands to curtail Qatar’s unusual press and political freedoms – specifically, Al Jazeera. Freedom of the press is a liberal tenet, and the freedom to elect a government highly-prized among liberals. Egypt’s first democratically elected government was a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned political party, ousted by a military coup d’état in 2013. Qatar retains friendly relations with the Brotherhood.

The situation has less to do with classical Islam, or Islam at all, than with the political economy of Western Arabian Gulf relations. But it also reflects how liberal Islam has come to be deployed and recycled by various states for political ends, even when these can appear to go against liberal principles.

In the US, Yusuf has come under censure for his relatively uncritical response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims, as well as his own criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, aired at a Muslim conference in Toronto in late 2016. The US has meanwhile, under the same president, moved more squarely into Saudi Arabia’s economic and geopolitical orbit. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – all of which rely on varying degrees of authoritarian rule at home – give generous endowments to prestigious liberal universities and think tanks in the US and the UK. This includes funding the study of the Islamic world itself – from Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s centres at the universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, to the Brookings Doha Center, and the Qatari-endowed chair of contemporary Islam at the University of Oxford, occupied by Europe’s best-known Muslim liberal reformist intellectual, Tariq Ramadan. ‘Liberal Islam’ must navigate these tangled relations – alongside, of course, the flow of money and weapons. The political vagaries of such a world inevitably lead to strange alliances.

Denying dissent – violent or otherwise – is, of course, central to the appeal of the ‘mainstream’ religious authorities, such as those that Yusuf epitomises, because they are, by definition, projects aimed at defining what is acceptably orthodox. This kind of liberal Islam has produced a version of Islamic moderation that, by conflating ‘extremism’ with ‘heresy’, closes down the space for Muslims to express their freedom outside the dominant ‘classical’ narrative of liberal Islam. Such forms of Islamic orthodoxy, which find dissent objectionable, tend to be inflected with Sufism – precisely the kind of ‘mainstream’ Islam which is itself so often the violent target of the Salafi jihadists of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the scourge of Salafi Wahhabists more generally. This situation not only reflects the complex and contradictory relationships between liberal Islam and liberal freedoms. It also points to the limits of the strategies of Western states when they enter into a theological space by equating a certain kind of Islam with liberalism. That Sufism is not a sect but an approach to Islamic mysticism which infuses various, if not most, strands of Islam, including those which seek to impose an establishment-centred classical orthodoxy, and also those which are more antinomian, reinforces the limits of this policy thinking.

To some extent, the far-reaching narrative of classical Muslim liberal reformists – which has come to determine Muslim authenticity in the public sphere – has also had the added effect of relegating much non-violent protest to the realm of aesthetics rather than politics. So we see some of the freer expressions of Islam not in the political but the aesthetic sphere – in literature and art – in places as diverse as Pakistan and the US. But the problem of authenticity also points to a more fundamental issue in addressing Islam’s engagement with liberalism – what is distinctive, if at all, about liberal Islam?

Advocates describe Muslim liberalism as a happy congruence between the values of Islam and those of the West, more specifically, the liberal-democratic state. The extraordinarily rich and diverse history of Islamic intellectual, political and cultural life lends itself to somewhat easy mining for evidence of liberal affinities. In his Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus (2009), the political theorist Andrew March, for example, has synthesised John Rawls’s political liberalism and a particular interpretation of Islamic legal orthodoxy. In his Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2011), the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol argues for the capitalist and liberal origins of Islam. The scholar and policy adviser Vali Nasr’s Meccanomics (2009) connects the future of Islamic moderation and prosperity with the acceptance of free-market liberalism.

These studies reveal the sway of Western liberalism among liberal intellectuals. They all, in different ways, seek to assimilate Islam into a historically embedded and contingent Western liberalism. Seeing liberal Islam as synthetic or composite has often involved trying to make comparisons stick between liberal concepts – consensus, consultation and rationality, for example – and Islamic ideas, such as ijma’, shura, and ‘aql, which are deemed similar. In these practices, ‘liberal’ concepts serve as the starting point. Liberal ideals become the measure of ‘Islamic’ ones. It’s a colonisation of Islamic thought by liberalism that enables Islam to be mobilised for a variety of ends and interests.

Islamists are often accused of ‘double-speaking’, of invoking liberal language only to mask their true intent, which is allegedly to achieve the power to enforce shari’a. Muslim movements across the world, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Nation of Islam in the US, have been so accused. It’s an allegation that has less to do with conspiracies by Muslim movements than with the ambiguous and multi-textured nature of liberal concepts, as well as with the inherent limitations of liberal Islam. After all, for Islamists, liberal ideas and concepts must be accommodated to Islam, lest one risks diminishing or annihilating Islam’s essential or ‘authentic’ character. Nowhere have political Islam and secular liberalism come into closer cooperation than in Tunisia. Rached Ghannouchi, founder of the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, has led this syncretic project; and its existential conundrum remains unresolved.

The problem of finding the ‘Islam’ in ‘liberal Islam’ is among the most fundamental of liberal Islam’s dilemmas, and also points to its seeming retreat from spirituality. Like the militants it opposes, liberal Islam’s proponents tend towards idealising a legalistic polity. By aligning a righteous society with the precepts of shari’a, spiritualism is rationalised by the law in technocratic ways. This is evident in the enthusiasm of Muslim liberals for Malaysia, despite laws that have suppressed its dissenting Muslim and Christian minorities. The juridical affinities between shari’a and liberalism might surprise some, but they shouldn’t. When viewed with the regulatory logic of the liberal state in mind, which seeks to engineer freedom through managing constraint and incentive, the affinity seems less unusual.

Muslim reformists negate history by forgetting their own past, even as they seek to remember an authentic one

As in their attempts to make shari’a liberal-friendly, some Muslim liberals also encounter Islamic history through liberal eyes. Influential thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century – from Syed Ahmed Khan in India to Muhammad Abduh in Egypt – assimilated modern notions of science and reason to Islamic intellectual history to aid Islam’s civilisational progress in relation to the West. To get around the criticism that the West historically imposed an alien liberalism on Islam, Muslims have also sought to reclaim the very idea of freedom. This has had mixed results. Islamists, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the ideologues of the Iranian state, have tended to reframe Islamic freedom as a form of postcolonial resistance in direct opposition to Western liberalism. However, Muslim liberals such as Khan and Abduh argued that there was, in fact, a coincidence between Islamic values and Western liberalism that had been forgotten or obscured, both in India and the Arab world. Pointing to the mid-19th-century Young Ottomans and their synthesis of Islam and constitutional liberalism, a contemporary Muslim liberal such as Akyol similarly suggests that such Western liberal categories as tolerance, individual liberty and human rights are recognisable in Turkey’s Islamic history.

Moving beyond appeals to coincidental affinities, it has become commonplace among Muslim liberals to point out that the West borrowed from Islam in the medieval Islamic ‘Golden Age’. This is sometimes presented in terms of a historical account that links ‘liberal’ virtues with ‘Islamic’ ones by way of the Western development of ideas from Muslim Spain via Muslim thinkers, philosophers and scientists. In this way, the argument goes, Islam played a critical part in making modern liberalism possible by helping also to bridge the ancient and modern Western worlds.

While there is some truth in this account, it skirts over some of the more pernicious episodes of intolerance during Islamic imperial history (most recently, this mode of retrojection has extended to the more dubious claim by Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, that before 1979 his country had been an oasis of Islamic moderation). All of this suggests a kind of circular reasoning at play whereby Muslim reformists negate history altogether by forgetting their own pasts, even as they seek to remember an authentic one.

Scholars too sometimes essentially promote Muslim liberalism by reading back into the past the sensibilities of our present, and claiming a founding ‘liberal moment’ that was seen to be coherent. Even the British historian Albert Hourani, in his classic study of Abduh’s ‘liberal’ circle in Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962), engaged in this kind of presentism. Betraying the underlying teleology he ascribed to Abduh’s liberal Islam, in a later article on the wearing of the veil, Hourani was wrong about its future irrelevance. But he also downplayed the varieties of Muslim liberalism among Abduh’s lesser-famed contemporaries, as new research by the intellectual historian Hussein Omar has shown.

Perhaps liberal Islam’s obsessions with its own history can explain why its fortunes also seem so cyclical, leaving it unable to jettison some of the same problems it has faced in the past – problems of authenticity, of being too closely enmeshed in Western political preoccupations, of being too focused on harnessing state power, of (ironically) imposing itself on other Muslims.

But if it is not to be completely subsumed by Western liberalism and lose its essence, what then is the future for ‘liberal Islam’ as a distinct form of religious politics? As a post-9/11 project for reform, liberal Islam faces a number of challenges, all of which point to the need for a more genuine and robust advocacy of individual freedom.

Liberal Islam must first find a way of accommodating difference, dissent, heterodoxy and heresy. This will not happen while liberal Islam is dominated by the nexus between traditional, or classical, Islamic authority, and the power of the state. It also needs to discover a more creative form of political theory that moves beyond reviving a ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic polities, or duplicating the Western liberal state. This might imply a more de-territorialised and decentralised vision of Muslim politics in a globalised age. And if it is to retain any transcendent power as a form of faith – to be a viable alternative to both secularism and militancy in an age of voluntarism – a re-enchantment that also makes room for forms of individual spirituality not jealously guarded by traditional authorities might prove more effective.

Whether or not any of this will happen, or is even possible, is, of course, an open question. But unless we interrogate the intellectual premises of liberal Islam more vigorously, away from the fallacious arguments of Islamophobes, no amount of support for an ‘Islamic Reformation’ or ‘moderate’ Islam, however well-intentioned, will lead to meaningful change and empowerment, nor solve the current quagmire of militancy.