The ongoing failure to liberalise Islam

Last year, I contributed to a report published by Hizb ut Tahrir Britain entitled ‘Radicalisation, extremism and “Islamism”: realities and myths in the war on terror’. In it, I argued, amongst other things, that attempts to excise politics from Islam were not only being conducted in vain, but that they were up against a mountain of historical, textual and scholarly evidence that prove otherwise. More precisely, the notion that Islamic politics ( which some choose to brand ‘Islamism’ ) is a recent phenomena born out of a reaction to colonialism, stands at total odds with Islamic orthodoxy and collective Muslim history.

In the period running-up to the publication of the report, but also long before, there have been concerted attempts to re-forge this distinction, to create a palatable Islam and an unwelcome political Islam. Never has such attempts been more intense than now, as Muslims organisations, books and personalities are mobilised to further this cause. The British government’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ campaign is a case in point, allocating considerable resources and funds in the hope that it may at last sway Muslims to re-read Islam in the light of contemporary western values.

These attempts are not new, but importantly aim to achieve something that over a century and a half’s worth of attempts have failed to do – attempts to re-engineer Islam were first conducted as early as the early 19th century. The pioneers of ‘liberal’ Islam, amongst them Jamal ud Deen Afghani, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Mohammed Abduh, Rashid Ridda and others, are virtually unknown outside of academic circles.

Western inspired attempts to date have all confronted a similar dichotomy. How should rising support for Islam in the Muslim world, historically challenging western economic and political interests and with the potential to do so again, be addressed at an intellectual level? Should it be through an overt challenge that declares the superiority of the west or one that seeks to demonstrate there is a broad agreement between the west and Islam, provided appropriate reforms are made?

Both options are premised however on the same assumption, that the west has progressed further than Islam and that its beliefs are the standard through which others are judged; and specifically that linking Islam with politics is pre-modern and problematic.

It is worth reviewing the thinking that governs each option. If the west were to choose the first, it would be an honest and clear statement of where the west stands, but also polarising and likely to mobilise Muslims of all persuasions under a single banner against a ‘threatening’ west. It is not difficult therefore to understand why most policymakers and governments, even the most tyrannical, have erred away from this option and shunned any talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’, although frustrated voices are consistently heard amongst liberal ideologues who argue other approaches have either appeased or not brought results.

The second option therefore appears superficially preferable and the one behind which the greatest resource has been allocated by threatened governments. It suffers from a fundamental problem however – it ultimately requires some reference to Islam and specifically its texts, in order to re-read, reform or reinterpret them.

In fact, this approach as demonstrated by its most recent champions has encouraged reference to text and classical theology but with a view to re-read them in a ‘modern’ light. Most advocates believe this will make Muslims more comfortable with the outcome particularly if they’re engaged throughout the process or, better-still, if the process is led by ‘qualified’ Muslims. To the unqualified who are duped by pseudo-theologians (broadly government officials who compete over their ignorance of Islam) this may appear plausible if not a good strategy, but to those a bit more familiar with the territory it’s a dead end.

Why is this approach problematic? Well, the problem is quite fundamental and has afflicted many who have attempted to follow this route previously: the weight of Islamic orthodoxy, of classical Islamic jurisprudence, simply emerges triumphant. Better to bypass Islamic texts and declare it pre-modern than to try and play Islam at its own game and on its own sources. Islamic texts, practices, scholarly debate embodied in material over 1400 years becomes fairly apparent and difficult to dodge unless you’re willing to make some quite drastic re-interpretations but which then lose credibility due to there sheer absurdity.

Ideas such as the Caliphate, the Shariah, the Islamic criminal code, dress code and the like, whilst not in favour in the west, are deeply orthodox, dominate Islamic history and still carry broad support today. It is difficult to argue these are un-Islamic ideas or that they need to be re-interpreted as Islamic texts are quite unequivocal as to where they stand on these issues.

In addition to this difficulty, it is also hard to understand whether Islam and secular liberalism can ever be reconciled. The philosophical route and starting point of each is quite different and no matter how some of the branches of each may be shaped to resemble each other, they are fundamentally different at source.

As Anshuman Mondal points out in a Prospect Magazine essay. ‘Liberal Islam’, that with Islam we have “the belief in an originating point of knowledge, a sacred text…Here knowledge returns to its point of origin, the metaphysical absolute that guarantees truth” whilst the foundations of secular liberalism “has no point of origin and its trajectory is quite different. It is a text that is always liable to be rewritten.” He goes on to say “if the Rubicon that no Muslim worthy of the name would cross is belief in the absolute omniscience and omnipotence of Allah, then it becomes hard to accommodate secularism. Very few Islamic thinkers have self-consciously espoused secularism, even among those who passionately desired modernity”.

If this were the start of the process of attempting to re-form Islam in the image of western secular liberalism, some may argue that these are natural difficulties one may expect when trying to change the status quo. But after a century and half of high profile attempts that have failed, that expectation is a little out of place.

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