ISLAM AFTER LIBERALISM – Book Sample
ISLAM AFTER LIBERALISM – ISLAM AFTER LIBERALISM
The relationship between Islam and liberalism has been a subject of scholarly as much as popular debate for at least a century and a half. Its progress sometimes hailed and at other times found wanting, this relationship has been marked by the unchanging and even stereotypical terms in which it has been debated, including issues such as the separation of church and state, the status of women and the rights of non-Muslims.
Each of these issues serves as a litmus test to measure the liberalism of Muslim individuals as well as societies, and each is also drawn from the real or imagined history of liberalism in Europe. However, as a historical and variable phenomenon, liberalism does not in fact possess a normative definition but constitutes a family of shifting and overlapping ideas having to do with the freedoms of property and contract, speech and movement, or of rights and representation.
The freedoms that have come to define liberalism differ in time and place, so that among its Muslim supporters as much as enemies, for instance, private property and contract law have rarely been controversial (though they might be for those Muslims who identify as socialists).
Moreover, the categories ‘Islam’ and ‘liberalism’ are not in fact so distinct from one another, and it is even possible to argue that proponents of the latter have always relied upon the former’s recalcitrance, against which its own progress is to be defined.1
After all, religion, understood as a sociological (rather than theological) category common to all peoples, emerged during the nineteenth century together with liberalism, which could then function if separated from other entities such as ‘politics’.2 Islam, therefore, came to be redefined as a noun or proper name instead of a verbal form describing a certain set of practices.3
As the property of its adherents, it could now be seen as an identity that, whether it had to be opposed or protected, might only be conceptualized in liberal terms as an interest.
In its earliest form, the relationship between Islam and liberalism was defined by imperial politics. Already in the 1930s, the influential Indian philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal noted how the questions that were of interest to his colonised Muslim compatriots, as well as to their British rulers, had to do with the former’s loyalty to Islamic authorities outside India, their views on jihad or messianism, and the interpretation of certain verses from scripture.
Such questions, therefore, which have again become familiar in our own day, first came to define the relationship between Islam and liberalism in the nineteenth century:
Does the idea of Caliphate in Islam embody a religious institution? How are the Indian Muslims and for the matter of that all Muslims outside the Turkish Empire related to the Turkish Caliphate? Is India Dar-ul-Islam? What is the real meaning of the doctrine of Jihad in Islam?
What is the meaning of the expression ‘from amongst you’ in the Qur’anic verse: ‘Obey God, obey the Prophet and the masters of the affair (i.e., rulers) from amongst you’? What is the character of the tradition of the Prophet foretelling the advent of Imam Mehdi?
These questions and some others which arose subsequently were, for obvious reasons, questions for Indian Muslims only. European imperialism, however, which was then rapidly penetrating the world of Islam was also intimately interested in them. The controversies which these questions created form a most interesting chapter in the history of Islam in India.4
But however important they might otherwise be, European and later American views on the relationship between liberalism and Islam do not always define the ways in which Muslims themselves have thought about this relationship.5 Indeed, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, non-European thinkers often did more to universalise liberal freedoms than those who came to stand as the patron saints of these virtues.
Men like John Stuart Mill, for example, rejected the idea that such freedoms could exist outside very specific and invariably Western social contexts, and in this sense their ideas of liberty were highly particularistic, often being defined by the privilege of race, religion or civilisation, in addition to the seemingly more acceptable one of history, conceived as a number of stages that all peoples had to traverse, but in whose path some were more advanced than others.6
And so it took Asian or African intellectuals to criticise the racist and civilisational distinctions of Western liberalism and insist upon the universality of its freedoms.
In some very real sense, then, liberalism was given its historical potential and indeed reality by colonised populations, and its freedoms were therefore only made into universal ones with the dismantling of Europe’s empires after the Second World War and the enshrining of development and modernisation theory as supposedly global and inclusive ideals.
Even when international institutions such as the United Nations were established during this period, they had to be forced by the former colonies grudgingly admitted as members to adopt liberal ideals and principles for all.7
And yet the relationship between Islam and liberalism has always been spoken about with reference to some founding European event only distantly connected to such modern ideas of freedom, like the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment, that Asian or African societies were meant to replicate in order to achieve both their modernity and their liberty.
In other words, a number of distinct and sometimes disconnected historical narratives, ranging from the recovery of Greco-Roman philosophy, the emergence of Protestantism or the dominance of reason have gone into conceptualising the relationship between liberalism and Islam.
When Muslims referred to these founding events, they did so in their own ways, and not necessarily in order to remain faithful to some European original.8 Indeed, it is the political ambiguity of such references that is striking, with a single issue capable of holding diametrically opposed meanings.
One way in which non-Europeans laid claim to these founding events, for example, was to argue, with varying degrees of historical accuracy, that they were only made possible due to the influence of (in this case) Islam’s scientific and philosophical tradition—itself the inheritance of European antiquity.
Whereas Muslim reformers of the nineteenth century, such as the celebrated Indian leader Syed Ahmed Khan, used this argument to urge upon their coreligionists a friendly attitude towards Europe’s liberalism, others in the following century saw this history as one of theft and malice.
Having supposedly relied upon Islamic learning to achieve its dominance, then, Europe was understood as having gone on to subordinate Muslim societies, depriving them of the opportunity to develop their own legacy of learning. This story was repeated by the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an online interview in 2008.9
And what is interesting is the fact that both his anti-Western account, and the pro-Western one from which he drew it, presumed a relationship between Islam and European liberalism so intimate that Muslims had to recover their true selves from it—which is how Zawahiri, like Syed Ahmed a century before, justified al-Qaeda’s reliance on Western technology. Naturally, what these two men understood by terms like Islam, liberalism or the West differed, but it is the narrative of intimacy they shared that is fascinating in its very ambiguity, showing how difficult it is to distinguish liberal or pro-Western accounts from their opposites.
In the nineteenth century, when liberalism crystallised as an ideology, albeit a multifarious one, and almost simultaneously came to the notice of non-European thinkers, such economic, social or political reality as it possessed in their lands was to be found largely in colonial contexts. Indeed, in some ways the colony represented liberalism’s ideal, its state being legitimised as neutral and disinterested precisely because it was run by an alien power.
And this state’s frequently glorified character as a third party also turned colonised subjects into interests, whose internecine quarrels could only be arbitrated by it in a kind of social contract, one that allowed them to assume political universality by identifying with the government.10 Whether or not such a state recognised some element of political representation, in other words, it was able to instantiate, better than any democracy, many of the classical traits of a liberal order.
These included government neutralities, subjects defined by their differing interests, and the contract that brought them all together in a pragmatic rather than natural or indeed national way. And the recognition by colonised intellectuals of this connection meant that while anti-imperialist figures like Jawaharlal Nehru sought to fulfil the liberal promise he thought characterised Britain’s mission in India, others like M.K. Gandhi saw liberalism as itself part of a system of colonial oppression.
Precisely because they were colonial subjects, however, and thus deprived not only of political responsibility but also forbidden to use its terms, nineteenth-century Muslims under British, French or Dutch rule were compelled to think about liberalism in cultural or religious terms. Indeed, by minimising if not eliminating pre-colonial forms of profane or monarchical authority, and excluding the use of political language, to say nothing of political demands among its subjects, the colonial state ended up expanding the role played by Islam in the societies it ruled.
But even the few independent Muslim powers, like the Ottoman Empire, seem to have encouraged the making of liberal claims in the name of Islam once they became self-consciously modern or Europeanised—with the state-sponsored pan-Islamism of the Sublime Porte, for example, understood as a project of Muslim unity and equality in the face of rival claims to Christian as much as Muslim loyalties by European empires.
Such independent countries as Turkey and Iran also appropriated liberal forms of politics during their respective constitutional reforms and revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although these struggles to delimit executive power or guarantee citizenship rights did not necessarily entail European-style secularism. Indeed, these constitutional movements have arguably informed ‘religious’ parties more than ‘secular’ ones in both countries.11
Whatever this tells us about the more general relationship between religion and liberalism, in much of the Muslim world it implied the largely theoretical and in fact exegetical adoption of liberal ideals among Muslims, with great debates occurring over ostensibly irrelevant issues like the status of women or slavery in the Qur’an, jihad as a purely defensive war hedged by various rules, the republican form taken by the early Caliphate, and so on.
For a variety of reasons, then, liberalism became a subject of cultural and religious, rather than political debate among a number of colonised Muslim intellectuals. It might even be the case that these men discussed liberal values more intensely than their Christian peers in Europe and America, not least because Islam—like Catholicism in earlier times—was often seen as posing a kind of obstruction to modern forms of polity.
Today, we seem to have returned to this situation, except now the cultural-religious focus of liberal debate has the postcolonial development of Islamic states and forms of militancy as its context— to say nothing about the ‘War on Terror’.12 But it is also possible to argue that this mode of thinking about the possibility, or failure, of liberalism in the Muslim world results from the fact that its values have never, since colonial times, possessed a political dimension but only ever a cultural-religious one.
In other words, while Islam has been shot through with liberal ideas for nearly two centuries, the frequently ‘secular’ and authoritarian states in which it exists have not always been so, which of course makes the ‘cultural’ debate about Muslim liberalism a largely misplaced one.13
Despite all the ink spilt on describing Islam’s ‘political’ character, not least by Muslims themselves, it is striking how lacking in politics its modern manifestations can be. Take Islamism, for instance, the most important form of political religion in our time.
Of its three great founding figures, only Ayatollah Khomeini was able to establish a polity in the name of Islam, though he did so by subordinating the sacred law to the sovereign will of Iran’s revolutionary leader, who was able to reinterpret and even supersede it for reasons of expediency or public welfare.14
Whether or not it was made easier to accept by Iran’s Shi‘a faith, whose clergy claimed to represent the awaited Imam, this form of sovereignty was dynamic and embodied in the state. The Sunni founders of Islamism, Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi in Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, on the other hand, were deeply mistrustful of sovereignty, which they saw as a power that humans would wield to subordinate religion and impose upon their fellows various kinds of tyranny, whose lack of divine sanction would also force them to rely on violence.
Qutb and Maudoodi, then, sought to proscribe sovereignty’s popular form in democracy (where people might decide to overrule scripture), monarchy or dictatorship (whose rulers would try to control Islam), and ideology (fascism and communism also aimed to subordinate religion).
They conceived their task as being to limit and even roll back the inroads of the colonial state, as well as what they saw as its postcolonial successor, and to make of Muslim society a kind of self-governing entity guided by religious experts—almost a version of communism as the withering away of the state, or Gandhi’s version of anarchism as self-rule.
Maudoodi had in fact been an admirer of the Mahatma early in his career, and both men were much taken by Lenin’s vision of a stateless society. This was why sovereignty had to be reserved for God, and the task of governance was simply to manage matters within the limited scope permitted by the sacred law.
Clearly a non-political vision, despite its use of categories like state, constitution or republic, Islamism has in practice either had to work alongside dictators and dynasts, or act opportunistically and sometimes violently to claim a sovereignty it otherwise disavowed—being unable to theorise and so institutionalise it.15
It might well be Islamism’s attempt to evade or supersede politics, in other words, which makes it so open to the use of coercion and violence.
Islam’s long-standing relations with liberalism in all of its many definitions, then, have been intimate for well over a century now, but they have also been politically very ambiguous. Indeed, if anything, this relationship has been defined by its cultural-religious, which is to say its non-political nature.
But if this did not prevent Muslim thinkers from engaging with liberal ideas, neither has it stopped them from criticising these notions.16 In the first half of the twentieth century, for example, the non-political or even anti-political desire for a stateless and self-governing society emerged from a creative engagement with anarchist or communist thought, as to some degree did Gandhi’s contemporary vision of swaraj or self-rule.
But by that century’s end, the Islamist denial of sovereignty—or rather its reservation for God—was increasingly being interpreted in the newly dominant terms of neoliberalism, as a form of economic or social management shorn of old-fashioned politics.
This is what seems to be happening in places like Malaysia or Turkey, as well as in Western Europe and North America, with their highly commoditised and market rather than family or state-regulated forms of Islamic identity and practice.
In a different way, some of the Persian Gulf’s principalities are increasingly imagined and run as corporations, responsible to various grades of shareholders rather than citizens. A society such as Dubai’s, for instance, is supposed to be defined by its good governance, with such forms of ‘Islamic law’ as it upholds also defined non-politically as part of Emirati ‘culture’.17
With Muslim migration to Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America, following the Second World War, Islam’s engagement with liberalism shifted to include novel contexts in which Muslims were now also minority citizens within secular and liberal democracies, as well as being newly decolonised peoples in their countries of origin.
And yet for many decades after large-scale immigration first began, starting in the 1950s to Europe and only in the 1970s to North America, it would be incorrect to identify these populations as Muslims in any strong sense. For while Islam was certainly their religion, it was not the primary category used to define these groups, either by the immigrants themselves or by the states in which they had settled. Instead, they were identified by nationality and race.
This was particularly remarkable in countries like Britain and France, which in colonial times had frequently deployed religion to identify their subjects.18 This all changed in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Especially important was the Rushdie Affair, which became the first global manifestation of Muslim solidarity and protest.
While the postcolonial predicament of Muslims produced a bifurcated global reality, dividing them by political geography initially in terms of nationality and race, and then by religion, ongoing developments in the meaning and import of liberalism in the West have complicated this picture. Foremost among these developments have been debates about the relative merits of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘assimilation’, which have dominated European as well as North American public policy concerns about the ideological content
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