Muslims need liberalism, not just democracy

Muslims need liberalism, not just democracy

Since 9/11, much ink has been spilled in the West over the troubles in the world of Islam. The problem was painfully obvious: There were only a few functioning democracies in the Muslim world and simply none among the Arabs. Accordingly, some presumed a fundamental contradiction between Islam and democracy. Islam, they argued, could only produce dictatorial regimes.

But there was a serious flaw in this argument. Most of the Middle Eastern dictators - Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, or Bashar al-Assad of Syria - were secular, not Islamic, figures. In fact, the Islamic groups in these countries, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and its various franchises, were often brutally suppressed by the secular autocrats in question.

Most Islamic opponents of these dictators, to be sure, were hardly democratically minded themselves. But in the past two decades, among the more moderate of these Islamic groups, there has been a growing discussion about democracy and a growing acceptance of it. Moreover, in recent years, Turkey has evolved into a source of inspiration for would-be Muslim democrats, as its incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) showed pious Muslims can be part of the democratic game and gain from it.
That is why, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Islamist parties did not emerge with cries of jihad and domination, as some had feared. Instead, they participated in democratic politics and emerged victorious in the first free and fair elections in their countries. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda won the ballots, whereas in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, had the upper hand.

So, it seems, Islamist parties have accepted democracy. Even the super-fundamentalist Al Nour party in Egypt, which used to see democracy as heresy, participated in the elections and did pretty well. In fact, in Egypt, Islamists have emerged in the past few months as the most vocal defenders of democracy, rejecting both military rule and “supra-constitutional” principles that would be accepted before any popular vote. 

But this will not be the end of the debate about Islam and politics. As Fareed Zakaria has warned, there can easily be illiberal democracies, where the dictates of the majority oppress minorities or dissenting individuals. To protect the liberty of a group and the individual, Zakaria also noted, you need not just democracy but also a constitution and society built on the foundation of classical liberalism, as articulated in the West by thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith.

I am sure, at this point, some readers will remember the illiberal aspects of Islamic law and insist the solution will be found in secularism. But this might be the wrong emphasis, for secularism is no guarantee of liberalism. The most secular state in the whole Muslim world, Turkey, used to have many oppressive laws, banning the Kurdish language, criminalizing “insulting Turkishness” and limiting Christian worship; all as a result of secular nationalism, not Islam.

The right emphasis is not secularism then, but liberalism and it should be sought in both secular and religious sectors.

The latter is what I focus in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” I ask whether Islam is a religion that appreciates individual liberty and find the answer can be yes, if one follows the more pluralist and rationalist strains in Islamic thought. Then I argue for “freedom from the state,” “freedom to sin,” and “freedom from Islam,” the latter being the right to apostasy. 
I know these are big issues. But they are also the issues that Muslim societies will have to face if they want to have truly liberating democracies.