Attempts to fuse Islam and modern liberalism represent little more than the ghost of a renaissance. True reform will require bolder thinkingby Zaheer Kazmi / August 22, 2016 / Leave a comment
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.