Apr 09 2017

CATO Event: Islamic Liberalism: Real or False Hope?

By Ramy Osman
April 2017

The CATO Institute in Washington DC hosted an event on February 15, 2017 titled “Islamic Liberalism: Real or False Hope?” (see the video at bottom of this page). The event was a discussion/debate between Turkish journalist and author Mustafa Akyol and American author Shadi Hamid, moderated by CATO’s Ian Vasquez. Akyol presented an optimistic view that Muslims around the world are increasingly accepting and promoting ideas of freedom and liberty. Hamid presented a more pessimistic view saying that Muslims, like all other humans, are more inclined to “illiberalism”.


The following is my summary of the speeches and then of the questions. It’s not verbatim since it’s summarized and re-written in my own words.

Mustafa Akyol begins his speech at minute 5:00 by mentioning Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish enlightenment scholar in the 18th century, who argued during his time that Judaism is compatible with ideas of freedom and liberty. Mendelssohn’s optimism was dismissed by other scholars of that era who stated that the nature of Judaism is law, rooted in halakha, while the nature of Christianity is rooted in spirituality without law. Thus Christianity has an inherent flexibility which allows its followers to develop concepts of individualism and to develop their laws however they want and based on liberal ideas. Judaism does not have that feature (of flexibility) but rather is locked in Rabbinical interpretations of Jewish law, ‘halakha’, that are tied to the Jewish community as a whole. Mendelssohn’s ideas eventually prevailed enabling Jewish scholarship to develop their own enlightenment called ‘haskalah’.

Akyol highlights the difference between Christianity and Judaism in order to mention that Islam is similar to Judaism – in that Islam is also rooted in law, ‘shariah’. He says that there are many Muslims today engaged in the same intellectual exercises in freedom and liberty that Mendelssohn was engaged in. There are also examples in Islamic history where scholars and movements developed these same ideas [but these ideas were lost due to historical circumstances]. Today, two important trends in Muslim intellectual thought which assist in liberal interpretations of Islam, are: 1. subordinating the interpretation of hadith literature to Qur’anic principles; and 2. Contextualizing the Qur’an and hadith to the society and culture that they existed within (7th century Arabia), and using that understanding to interpret and translate the Qur’an into a modern context.

Despite modern intellectual trends in Muslim scholarship calling for a flexible interpretation of Islam, Akyol also said that Islam inherently lends itself to liberal interpretation because there were significant accomplishments of social liberation during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh); Among other things, two major social accomplishments of the first Muslim community was the liberation of women from oppressive cultural traditions, and the promotion of a free and equitable market (especially since the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself was a successful merchant before becoming a prophet).

These ideas have difficulty taking root in modern Muslim societies because during the past two centuries, Muslim populations have been under siege, first by colonialism and then by despotic authoritarian regimes. This state of siege doesn’t create an environment conducive to the development of ideas of toleration and liberalism [but rather creates ideas of survival, self-preservation, and resistance against oppression]. So the reason why ideas of liberty and freedom haven’t yet taken a prominent role in many Muslim societies has more to do with oppressive historical circumstances rather than there being any problem with the Islamic religion and scripture. Based on this understanding, the best way for Western and non-Muslim people to help promote freedom and liberty in Muslim societies is by advocating for safe and secure conditions for Muslims, and by encouraging economic development. Peaceful conditions will crate a bourgeoisie-like class of people who will be the carriers of a liberal message.  Wars and occupations must be opposed, and dictators and oppressive regimes must not be supported.


Shadi Hamid begins his speech at minute 20:40 saying that he agrees with Akyols argument for the most part because he (Hamid) also believes in a liberal interpretation of Islam. But most Muslims have trouble signing on to this perspective because of three main reasons: 1. they don’t see an urgency to to do so, 2. don’t see it as a compelling argument, and 3. they don’t want to risk their salvation in the afterlife by believing in something that is still on the fringes of Muslim society. Hamid says that even though there might be some progress in developing liberal ideas among Muslims, it’s a very slow process that leads one to conclude that freedom and liberty will not take root in Muslim societies any time soon.

But a more significant reason that liberal ideas will probably not develop in Muslim societies is because humans by nature always tend be more illiberal than liberal. This can be seen by looking at human history as being one big illiberal trend, and also by looking at modern Western countries, that are supposed to be the leaders in liberalism, that have in recent times been increasingly illiberal by infringing on people’s rights and freedoms.

Hamid then mentions Francis Fukuyama, a modern author and political scientist, who in his book “The Origins of Political Order”, says that liberalism is not natural to the human condition. Fukuyama says, “Individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts.” In other words, liberalism is an artificial human condition that requires using modern institutions to “force” us to be liberal. Hamid ends his speech by asking why does Islam or Muslims need to be liberalized in the first place? And why can’t Muslims choose to be illiberal if they choose to do so through a peaceful and democratic way?


At minute 35:20, Mustafa Akyol responds to Shadi Hamid’s points.


At minute 39:05, Hamid mentions that there are examples in Islamic history where Islamic laws were developed that promoted pluralism (instead of liberalism). [My comment: Within the history of Islamic pluralism you’ll find (as alluded to by Akyol) some intellectual threads of liberal thought that were developed by some scholars].


At minute 41:05, Akyol explains why liberalism is needed as opposed to pluralism.


Question by moderator to Hamid at minute 43:10: Your description of Islamic history sounded more like Islamic liberalism as opposed to Islamic pluralism. Does that mean you think the Muslim world can actually become liberal?

Question by audience at minute 47:30: If the Qur’an is immutable, and it commands the Muslim state and Muslim individuals to kill apostates, then how can you have liberal Islam?

Question by audience (Dr Charles Butterworth) at minute 51:35: Ali Abdul Raziq published his book right after the end of the Caliphate and insisted that Muhammad (pbuh) was not a politician but instead was a founder of a religion. What do you say about this?

Question by audience at minute 56:00: Ten centuries ago, Muslim countries were more economically prosperous, scientifically advanced, and had substantial achievements in law, literature, etc, than Christian countries at that time. What happened since that time which caused such a dramatic change as we see it today?

Question by audience at minute 1:01:50: How do people’s social positions and relationships affect their interpretation of Islamic topics like abortion, interest, etc.?

Question by audience (Dr Imad ad Dean Ahmad) at minute 1:07:33: The Qur’an itself has almost no laws in it, just a handful. If you’re looking for a way for Muslims to become more liberal, rather than focus on the historicization of the harshness of those laws, why not instead focus on what those laws were trying to address? These were punishments for breaking contracts, punishments for theft, etc. So isn’t this (focus) a more important aspect of liberalism, rather than insist that ‘to be a liberal you have to agree with me on everything’?

Question by audience at minute 1:14:05:  It’s been said that Islam hasn’t undergone a reformation similar to how Christianity did. Can you speak about that?

Question by audience at minute 1:14:45:  Isn’t Islam itself a liberal religion because in the Quran it mentions “To you is your religion, and to me is my religion”. Similar to a contract, religion is a contract between you and God. But as for punishments, liberals would want to enforce punishments on people who [harm others] similar to how the Qur’an commands punishments for those things. What would you say about that?

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