Last week, during a book tour in London, I spoke to a large group of British Muslims on Islam and liberty. A few of the questions that I received from the audience indicated why discussion on this topic is much needed. “If the state gives the people the freedom to do what they want, then they will follow their temptations,” said one Pakistani gentleman. “That’s why the Saudi religious police, which you oppose, is a very good system.”
In return, I asked him why he relies on state policing, and not individual responsibility, to uphold the morals of Islam. “Isn’t is better to propose Islam rather than impose it,” I added, “since state dictates can lead not to sincere piety but hypocrisy?”
Such questions are crucial for the future of the Islamic world, and particularly the Middle East, in which the Arab spring is likely to create a new political space for Islamists – such as the An-Nahda of Tunisia or the extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite the dark picture drawn by some willful pessimists, including the Israeli prime ministerBinyamin Netanyahu, the entry of these Islamist parties to the democratic system is not a bad but a good step. (Their very exclusion has been the major source of the radicalisation within their ranks.) Moreover, these parties explicitly call for democracy, and not theocracies run by clerics.
However, as writer Fareed Zakaria warned aptly, there can well be illiberal democracies as well liberal ones. In other words, if individual liberty is not protected with constitutional liberalism, there is the risk of a majority coming to power via democratic elections and establishing a “tyranny of the majority”.
The Middle East heavily bears this risk, and one of the reasons is the authoritarian decrees in classical Islamic law (sharia) that incumbent Islamists might wish to impose. For example, the sharia bans apostasy and penalises it with capital punishment. A Muslim who decides to become a Christian, in other words, can be given a death sentence – as it tragically happened in recent years in Afghanistan or Iran. Sharia verdicts against blasphemers (real or perceived), non-practising Muslims, and women can also be very oppressive.
Of course, this problem has been discussed intensely over the years, especially in the past decade, and secularist Muslims have found the solution in denouncing the sharia. (The most extreme among them, such as the self-declared “infidel” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, even denounced Islam all together.) But while they have raised some applause in the west, such ultra-secularists have caused only more defensiveness and hence rigidity in the Muslim world.
A better solution might be not to denounce Islamic law, but to reform it. This is not as impossible as some think, for much of this law is not divine but “man-made”, and made according to pre-modern historical circumstances.
The ban on apostasy is good example. There is nothing in the Qur’an that justifies this ban, and like many other authoritarian decrees in the sharia, it comes from the post-Qur’anic literature, which reflects the political context of the early Muslim community. In other words, that community was almost constantly at war with lethal enemies, and apostasy in that context meant changing one’s side in battle – something which we still penalise as high-treason. In today’s world, however, apostasy is simply an exercise of religious freedom, and Muslims should see it as a right, not crime.
The more conservative Muslims who might find such calls for reform heretical should note that they were realised by none other than the late Ottoman empire, the latest Islamic superpower on earth. In the 19th century, the Ottomans engaged in an extensive modernisation effort, which included many political and legal reforms. Jews and Christians acquired the status of equal citizenship, the slave trade was banned, apostasy laws were rendered obsolete, a constitution was declared and an elected parliament was convened. To be sure, with all such reforms, the Ottomans did not abandon their respect for Islam. They only realised, as Ottoman statesman and Islamic scholar Ahmet Cevdet Pasha wrote, “as times change, laws should also change”.
In my new book on Islam and liberty, I draw upon such oft-forgotten historical and theological sources to argue that Muslims need not need to betray their faith in order to embrace liberal democracy. By accepting other people’s “freedom to sin”, and “freedom from Islam”, I even argue, they will be laying the right ground in which their own faith can flourish. For, as I said to that Pakistani gentleman in London, if there is no liberty, there is no genuine religiosity as well.
by Mustafa Akyol
This article originally appeared here in the Guardian Comment is Free