It is commonplace to argue that the problem of Islamist terrorism and extremism would be solved if only Islam reformed itself and became more liberal. But is that right—or even possible?
From religious leaders to former extremists and western governments, a consensus has emerged since 9/11 that stresses the compatibility between Islam and the liberal values of civility, freedom and tolerance, as opposed to terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS). Yet in many ways Islamist militancy and Islamic liberalism—though seemingly opposed—are two sides of the same reformist coin. They are both engaged in ideological projects for an Islamic revival in a time of western ascendancy. And they are equally plagued with the problems encountered by movements that rest their legitimacy on claims to a unique and timeless authenticity.
Muslim liberals tend to prescribe modern answers to postmodern questions. Their focus on reviving supposedly representative forms of religious authority show them to be ill at ease with the ways in which Islam has become increasingly atomised in a fragmented world. Their intellectual antecedents are the 19th-century modernist movements such as the al-Nahda or cultural “awakening” in the Arab world and the Aligarh movement in British India. They cling to these modes of reform grounded in synthesising Islam with western notions of progress. Post-9/11 calls from western governments and civil society for Muslims to counter the extremism in their midst have reactivated these agendas.
Four problems in particular blight attempts at Islamic liberal reform—none of which have anything to do with duplicity or conspiracy, as Islamophobes allege. The idea that Muslims only pretend to be liberal for strategic reasons is a red herring that has done much to divert attention away from the real dilemmas facing Muslim liberals. In fact, the strategies of Islamic liberalism are usually transparent. But does this make them any more coherent and effective than the forms of Islamist revival they rail against?
The first of these problems is that liberal Islam is based on a mostly imagined account of Islamic history.
Like other projects for reform which glorify the past, Muslim liberals rationalise history to serve the ideological purposes of the present. Ironically, they steamroll the actual existing pluralism of Islamic history to make way for a “correct” or “true” reading amenable to contemporary western conceptions of tolerance and freedom. This creates a marriage of convenience between history and ideology in which illiberal tendencies in Islamic history are airbrushed out of existence.
For example, Muslim liberals often present the Abbasid “Golden Age” of the caliphate (8th-10th century) or the multi-faith Andalusian Convivienca in medieval Spain as examples of a timeless and authentic Islamic tolerance. In reality, during the Golden Age the Muslim world was a competing mosaic of tribal empires which violently suppressed internal dissent and were often at war with each other; in Muslim Spain some non-Muslim minorities were given comparative protection though not equal status, while Muslim minorities were seldom tolerated. My point is not that there wasn’t any tolerance—indeed there was—but that there wasn’t only tolerance. And that tolerance was not solely as a result of Islamic tenets.
When we acknowledge both the good and bad of previous Muslim empires then the edifice of Muslim liberalism tends to fall apart, pointing to its fragility as an antidote to extremism. It is not that Islam cannot change and develop as other religions and cultures have done, but that fixing on such idealised visions of history is inadequate to the task.
The second problem is that, despite its claims to be an authentic reading of the faith, liberal Muslims cannot escape seeing Islam through a western gaze.
Forged in the age of empire in the 19th-century, one of the central paradoxes of liberalism has been its propagation of universal concepts in the service of particular interests. In the 19th-century Muslim world, these interests were defined largely by British imperial concerns. Today, liberal values are defined more broadly as stemming from a shared western heritage reaching back for legitimisation, as the British colonialists often did, to antiquity. Classical economic liberalism has recently even been prescribed as a panacea for both the Muslim world’s civilisational underdevelopment and its problems with extremism by the American scholar and policy adviser Vali Nasr and the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol.
For Nasr and Akyol, Muslim liberalism is a happy coincidence between the values of Islam and those of the west. But such Muslim liberals grasp for connections between Islam and the west through a modern ideology which by its nature has no provenance in the Muslim world. In this way, liberal Islam’s relationship to the west becomes parasitic rather than based on any elective affinity. This is why the more that Muslim liberals aim for synthesis, the more their faith is seemingly diminished.
This is not, of course, the same as saying there was never any freedom or tolerance in the Muslim world or that Islam precludes the free market. But it does go some way to explaining why attempts to refit Islamic concepts such as ijma (consensus) or shura (consultation) to those of liberal democratic values are so awkward. A liberal caliphate is an oxymoron. In fact, the language of “Reformation” associated so often with calls for new thinking symbolises the almost wholesale assimilation by Muslims of western ways of thinking about their faith.
Liberal Islam’s third problem is its preoccupation with the idea of defining a “true” Islam that excludes or even labels as heretics or non-Muslims those who don’t adhere to this perceived consensus.
Perhaps the most popular response to Islamist extremism has been to reiterate the idea that the majority of Muslims are moderate. The problem here is not that most Muslims are not moderate (they are) but that projects encouraging Muslim moderation can be used against minorities, including within Islam, because they involve a process of “orientalising” others. This has been evident in the British government’s fostering of “moderate” Islam through its Prevent policy agenda for over a decade and its promotion of Britishness in more recent years—strategies which arguably have both divided Muslims and alienated them from wider society, especially those with conservative beliefs.
This mode of “othering” in the name of moderation also conflates extremism with heresy. So similar arguments about being beyond the pale of “mainstream” Islam can be applied to both terrorists like IS and those on the margins of Islam who may disagree with established forms of religious authority, or simply represent the wrong sect. It also ties together the will to marginalise dissent to the need for more authoritarian forms of leadership: witness the strange sight of western governments bolstering traditional Islamic centres of authority such as Al Azhar in Egypt—an institution whose legitimacy has been sustained by authoritarian governments.
These twin implications are epitomised in the contemporary revival of the Islamic concept of the “middle way”—associated with the majoritarian, and therefore moderate, legitimacy of the four major schools of Sunni law—and evident also in the rise of self-proclaimed global muftis and nationally “representative” Muslim organisations.
Theological distinctions such as these are important and legitimate undertakings in their own way, not least as they demonstrate the pluralism inherent in the religion. But nobody really expects the principles of a religious movement to be liberal, only that believers’ practices should be tolerant: otherwise there would be nothing distinctive about religion separate from a secular liberal order. Perhaps this is why in trying to meet the expectations of western models of toleration, Muslim liberals can find issues around the law among the most thorny to reconcile. The harder they try to justify their moderation through the sharia, the more difficult their own strategies of toleration become. There can be no easy fit between such demands, which rest on the theological arguments of a majority, and the precepts of a secular state.
Finally, as a form of religion, perhaps liberal Islam’s most stark problem is that it is largely devoid of any transcendent or mystical content.
Like the militant revivalist movements it opposes, the elevation of a legal and institutional ideal of a polity or society which expounds, or at least does not contradict, sharia remains the major plank of its reformist projects. This has made liberal Islam a largely technocratic concern focused principally on legitimising the state via law. Consequently, it is more regulatory than spiritual in its ambitions.
The preoccupation with management rather than mysticism has led liberal Muslim commentators, such as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, to confuse the advocacy of sharia with the injection of Islamic spiritualism into politics. This is ironic given that his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism, is pitched as an apparent provocation against conventional western calls for Islamic liberalism. It is little wonder that Hamid vaunts Indonesia and Malaysia as models for the wider Muslim world while papering over Malaysia’s increasingly draconian sharia laws which have suppressed its dissenting Muslim and Christian minorities. Instead, like other Muslim liberals who see them as beacons of progress, he welcomes the normalisation of sharia in these states which, for him, reflects a positive “coming to terms with Islam in public life.”
Yet modern liberalism has, of course, always had its own western critics who see in its Enlightenment-grounded ideals of unerring rationality, cold impartiality and relentless progress, a dehumanising means of control rather than emancipation. Some of them, however, from Soren Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson and the spiritualists of the 19th-century to Dada, the Surrealists and counter-culturalists of the 20th, were also concerned more explicitly with the west’s re-enchantment—or a more theosophical response to the death of God than the Nietzschean “will to power.”
While globalisation and western values have affected many traditions in one way or another, one of the reasons for the Muslim world’s seeming inability to forge its own reformist movements without being swallowed up by western liberalism may lie in the extent to which modern Muslim thinkers have been so completely preoccupied with defining themselves against the west or in relation to it—particularly since the 19th century.
But the deeper problem is that Muslim liberals have yet to offer a clear spiritual alternative to both Islamist militancy and western secularism. And the vital question is whether this is, in fact, possible, given liberal Islam’s rationalist retreat from more affective, romantic and aesthetic expressions of faith. This retreat is symptomatic of the way in which the resurgence of liberal Islam in the face of extremism has gone hand in hand with the reconstruction of Islamic orthodoxy—and the forging of an uneasy alliance between the interests of western states under siege and traditional religious authorities on the wane. Concerned more with policing ideas than creating space for them to flourish, liberal Islam represents little more than the ghost of a renaissance. The horizon of possibilities between liberal and militant Islam is vast but has been shut down by their competing narratives. Glimpses of alternative visions have been evident, for example, in the rejection of both neoliberalism and moderate Islamism during the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013, or in the relevance of anarchism among Muslim thinkers such as Mohammed Bamyeh or the aesthetic and literary critiques of figures as diverse as the writer Michael Muhammad Knight, whose latest book reevaluates the ideas of magic in Islam and the academic Sadia Abbas who points to the limits of postcolonial thought in At Freedom’s Limit. But, after liberalism, if Islam’s intellectual re-energisation is to be truly realised, it is likely to come, as it has in the past, from more radical, even heretical, thinking which takes neither the liberal state nor the imagined caliphate as its templates.
Clearly, Muslim liberals do not advocate terrorism like the militants they oppose. They stand for something different—even if what that actually is can sometimes be not entirely clear. But the intellectual tensions inherent in their projects for reform are ill-equipped to counter extremism. This may explain, in part at least, why Islamist violence continues to thrive. But it may also signal why liberal Islam can often appear to be so illusory and how it can inadvertently expose the very spiritual and intellectual malaise that its disavowal of extremism is intended to redress.