Islam and Freedom: The Challenge and the Hope

An Essay by Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes, explores how Muslim states can move toward liberal worldviews while staying true to their culture and religion.

Tunisians celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Thursday, January 14, 2016 in Tunis. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi) Tunisians celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Thursday, January 14, 2016 in Tunis. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)

For anyone who values human liberty, the predominantly Muslim part of the world is admittedly bleak today. According to the global "freedom map" of Freedom House, a non-partisan organization, most Muslim-majority nations are simply “unfree.” While a few — including my country, Turkey  rank as “partly free,” there is only one Muslim-majority country whose citizens may enjoy being “free.” That is Tunisia, the only country that was able to reap a liberal democracy from the tumultuous winds of the Arab Spring of 2011.

Why is freedom scarce among Muslims?

Why is this the case? Why is freedom so scarce among Muslims?

One answer is unrelated to Islam. For example, one of the most oppressive Muslim-majority states is Uzbekistan — it ranks as poorly as North Korea — but this is a secular dictatorship that merely has stayed true to its communist heritage. In many other Muslim nations, there are other troubles at play, such as nationalism, tribalism, and mere lust for power that threatens political rights, civil liberties, or religious freedom.

However, a part of the problem is related to Islam — or at least some of its current manifestations. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, Islamic law, or Sharia, is implemented, with harsh punishments on “apostasy” or “blasphemy.” As a result, converts from Islam to other religions such as Christianity can be executed, or secularists who “insult” religion can be jailed or flogged.

Meanwhile women are oppressed, gays are persecuted, and non-Muslims and even “heretical” Muslims are reduced to second-class citizens. Terrorist groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram implement these measures even more aggressively. They zealously destroy not just people’s freedom but also their very lives.

So, honestly, there is a problem with Sharia. Surely, this does not mean that every Muslim in the world is a dangerous agent of “creeping Sharia,” as some in the West seem to believe. Quite the contrary. Polls show that many Muslims — whose percentage varies greatly from society to society, as documented by the Pew Research Center — prefer to live under secular, liberal laws. These include not just secular Muslims, for whom religion is mostly cultural, but also many pious Muslims who still want to practice their faith as they understand it — not as dictated by the “religion police.”

Polls show that many Muslims prefer to live under secular, liberal laws. These include not just secular Muslims, for whom religion is mostly cultural, but also many pious Muslims.

Yet still, the Sharia, at least in its traditional form, presents a major challenge to liberty. It also fuels bitter political tensions, at times violent confrontations, between those who want to implement it — typically called “Islamists” — and secularist forces in the Muslim world, who can be authoritarian in their own ways.

The crucial question here is whether the Sharia can change — and Muslim-majority societies can evolve into free societies where religion is based on conscience, not coercion. Many in the West who have pondered this question suggest that a “Muslim Martin Luther” would be the key to such a bright future, recalling the Protestant Reformation in Europe. That, however, is not a very apt analogy.

Egyptian Salafists shout slogans during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that Sharia, or Islamic law, be the basis for legislation in a new constitution being drafted for Egypt on November 9, 2012. (MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images) Egyptian Salafists shout slogans during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that Sharia, or Islamic law, be the basis for legislation in a new constitution being drafted for Egypt on November 9, 2012. (MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

Today’s Muslim world is not under a unified authority as the pre-Reformation Europe was under the Catholic Church. Quite the contrary, today’s Muslim world is very divided and chaotic. The issue, therefore, is not breaking a monopoly on religion, but rather liberalizing various Islamic groups, most of whom are authoritarian in their own, often conflicting ways.

Today’s Muslim world is very divided and chaotic. The issue, therefore, is not breaking a monopoly on religion, but rather liberalizing various Islamic groups, most of whom are authoritarian in their own, often conflicting ways.

Liberal Muslim Thinkers

The right analogy, if there is one, is not the Protestant Reformation but the Enlightenment. What are needed is not Muslim versions of Martin Luther, as I have repeatedly said, but Muslim versions of John Locke, who will reinterpret their religious tradition from within a more rational, tolerant, liberal worldview. 

Such liberal Muslim thinkers actually do exist. And they have since the late 19th century, offering new interpretations of Islam, in particular the Sharia. Some emphasize that Islamic law was born in a certain historical context, and while its “intentions” — defined as the protection of “life, religion, reason, property, and lineage” — are universal, its injunctions must be interpreted.

What are needed is not Muslim versions of Martin Luther, but Muslim versions of John Locke, who will reinterpret their religious tradition from within a more rational, tolerant, liberal worldview. Such liberal Muslim thinkers actually do exist.

The contemporary Tunisian thinker Rashid Ghannouchi, who is also the leader of the moderate Muslim EnNahda Party, is a prominent name in this reformist tradition, with his emphasis on democracy and liberty as essential values. Lately, Ghannouchi also called fellow Muslims to abandon “political Islam,” along with its zeal to impose the Sharia, and embrace “Muslim democracy,” presenting an example and hope for the future. There are many other prominent voices like him, such as the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, the Muslim feminist Amina Wadud, or legal reformer Khaled Abou el Fadl.  

President of Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People Vice President Abdelfattah Mourou at the 10th General Assembly of Ennahda Party in Rades, Tunisia on May 20, 2016. (Nicolas Fauque/Images de Tunisie/Sipa USA President of Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People Vice President Abdelfattah Mourou at the 10th General Assembly of Ennahda Party in Rades, Tunisia on May 20, 2016. (Nicolas Fauque/Images de Tunisie/Sipa USA

As it could be expected, Muslim reformists are condemned by hardcore Islamists as heretics and sell-outs to the West. In the meantime, many puzzled Muslims are looking out for the right way to understand and live their religion. A “war of ideas,” indeed, is going on in the Muslim world. It would be a major mistake in the face of this drama to declare that Islam never will accept liberty because of its supposedly unchangeable essence — as it was also argued for Catholicism or Judaism in the past centuries.

For the West, this is mainly an intra-Muslim matter that cannot be directly influenced by outsiders. Still, the West can play a positive role, by merely showing that “liberty” and “religion” are really not contradictory. For most Americans, this might be a self-evident truth, but that is not the case everywhere.

That is especially in some other Western nations, such as France, with whom Muslim nations had much more historical acquaintance due to geographic proximity. The rigid secularism of France, which venerates freedom from religion while showing less respect to freedom of religion, does not really help Muslim societies — as manifested again recently by the absurd “burkini ban” on French beaches. “They implicitly tell us that we have to choose between liberté and God,” as a friend of mine once told me. But the real mission is to help Muslims discover the liberty bestowed by God.

An understanding of that liberty has been an essential part of Muslim tradition over the centuries. Many have understood that Islam is compatible with freedom. It’s just that we need modern John Lockes making that case today — and a better political context in Muslim societies that will amplify, not silence, their voice.

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