Posts tagged with: islam

This was the topic of our latest Campus Martius discussion group at the Istituto Acton office in Rome. Our guest speaker was law professor David Forte, who presented some of the challenges in furthering liberal democracy in Muslim-majority countries.

Having studied and spoken on Islamic law for many years, Prof. Forte is no extremist on the question and had been generally optimistic about the democratization of the Muslim world. In the wake of the “Arab spring” and increasing persecution of Christians and other minorities in Muslim countries, he now calls himself a “cautious pessimist.” For his explanation, go to this Zenit Rome Notes feature by Edward Pentin. It’s especially noteworthy that “lapsed Catholics” (i.e., the vast majority of Catholics in the West) are considered ripe for conversions by Islamists; the same can indeed be said of “lapsed liberals,” as I will explain.
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Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.

For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.

Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”

Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.

In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Thursday, October 13, 2011

There are no more Christian churches in Afghanistan — not a single public house of Christian worship is left standing. In other news, NATO success against the Taliban may have been intentionally exaggerated, although we already knew that progress in that country is… slow. It’s no surprise, of course, that the United States hasn’t been able to establish self government-in-a-box in a country where, according to the State Department, religious liberty has declined measurably even in the last year.

Religious liberty must be at the heart of any free society, because if it is not protected, all other defenses are sure to fall. The abuses of Christians in Afghanistan violate not only their rights of conscience, but also their rights of property and even of free movement — their churches are seized and they are imprisoned. Contracts with Christians are not enforced, converts to Christianity are openly persecuted, and Afghan politicians approve of all of this.

We should not expect that in ten years our diplomats could have effected a constitutional transformation of Afghanistan. Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton said, “from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered” in Western Europe. (He delivered that address in 1877, so you’ll want to update the numbers.)

But a backslide is cause for concern. It suggests that there is something wrong with the conception of human freedom that is motivating our efforts.

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:

Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.

Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.

If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.

Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.

The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.

Read the full text here.

Five years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk titled “Faith, Reason and the University” at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The lecture set off a firestorm of controversy concerning Christian-Muslim relations. On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reflects, noting that calling it “one of this century’s pivotal speeches is probably an understatement.”

Gregg says that the reaction to the pope’s speech “underscored most Western intellectuals’ sheer ineptness when writing about religion.” More seriously:

… Regensburg shattered the inconsequential niceties that had hitherto typified most Catholic-Muslim discussions. Instead of producing more happy-talk, Benedict indicated that such conversations could no longer avoid more substantial, more difficult questions: most notably, how Christianity and Islam understand God’s nature. Regensburg reminded us that it matters whether God is essentially Logos (Divine Reason) or Voluntas (Pure Will). The first understanding facilitates civilizational development, true freedom, and a complete understanding of reason. The second sows the seeds of decline, oppression, and unreason.

But perhaps above all, Regensburg asked the West to look itself in the mirror and consider whether some of its inner demons reflected the fact that it, like the Islamic world, was undergoing an inner crisis: one which was reducing Christian faith to subjective opinion, natural reason to the merely measurable, and love to sentimental humanitarianism. The West, Benedict suggested, was in the process of a closing of its own mind.

Read “Benedict at Regensburg: Why It Still Matters” on NRO.

Is Islam a religion of extremes? It certainly can appear to be. Muslim women in certain areas of the world cannot appear in public uncovered or without male escort nor are they are not permitted to drive a car. Just last fall, we saw a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. Throw in terrorist factions like Al-Qaeda who have hijacked the name of Islam and an understandable wariness sets in. The question arises: can a religion connected with such extremism be reconciled with the principles of human freedom, justice, and liberty? In his book, Islam Without Extremes, Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol earnestly addresses this pointed question that has undoubtedly become one of the central issues of the modern world.

Akyol believes Islam without extremes is not only possible, but vital to the future of the faith and the global economy.  He also clearly believes that Islam without extremes does not require the compromise of one’s faith. Akyol’s aim in this book is to show that Islam is relevant in today’s world, and is not only NOT a threat to liberty, but a religion that has much to offer the world in terms of stabilizing economies and governments.  For instance, the earliest days of Islam showed that it was a “business-friendly” faith.  The Prophet himself was married to a well-to-do businesswoman, and property rights, inheritance laws and fairness in trade were all strengthened by Islamic teaching.

In the book, Akyol lays out a concise history of Islam (necessary for those who may be unfamiliar with the origins of the faith), and then delves into the intriguing areas of interpretation and application of not only the Qur’an, but the Hadiths, a collection of the “example” (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad (considered by some Muslims to be nearly “on par” with the Qur’an).

The Hadiths, no Muslim would dispute, were compiled by men, unlike the Qur’an, which Muslims (by and large) believe was “received” in recitation by the Prophet Muhammad from God via an angel.  However, the Qur’an is a pretty short book; it doesn’t cover a lot of territory.  In order for Muslims to apply the Qur’an, there are few choices.  Either each person decides how the Qur’an applies, or a tradition of application had to come about.  Thus, the Hadiths were born, in order to answer the question (perhaps crudely), “What would Muhammad do?”

Akyol’s contention is that the Hadiths, while borne out of necessity, were often not infused with reason.  In fact, as the author points out, in early Islamic history, there were two basic schools of thought:  the People of Reason and the People of Tradition, and that Tradition won out, at least in terms of the creation of the Hadiths  Akyol presents one anecdote where a man refused to ever eat watermelon because he could find no record of the Prophet Muhammad doing so.

The challenge of any book-based religion, bound in history, is to meet modern challenges and remain relevant in any time and place.  For instance, how does a Catholic deal with in-vitro fertilization when the Bible says nothing about it?  Is a Jew bound to each and every law prescribed in Scripture?  Akyol’s contention is that much of the Hadiths and Shariah law were formed in a particular time and place (based on political and not religious convictions) and often are not Qur’anically based, or rooted in any actual example of Muhammad’s.   They are, Akyol argues, apocryphal at best, politically- and personally-motivated at worst. Therefore, they lose their relevancy to the modern Muslim believer.

However, shortly after the death of the Prophet, Akyol proposes that the School of Tradition cut off the young Islamic community from the economic mainstream that was flowing through the Arabian Peninsula, effectively isolating Muslims from doing trade with non-believers.  This type of isolation affected not only economy, but art, language, science and many resources.  It was not until the Ottoman Empire (beginning in the late 13th century and stretching into the 20th) that Islam began to regain its economic footing.  The Ottoman Empire, of course, was a “Renaissance age”, if you will, for Islam:  a time of great innovation in many areas of thought, art, philosophy and culture.  However, there has remained skepticism of free-market enterprise within Islam and many Islamic nations.

It is here the author directs his focus on Turkey (and stays there for most of the remainder of the book).  Turkey’s unique political history (its sympathy for the West, for example, and its governmental roots in both constitutional and parliamentary rule) certainly made for a sound basis for a free-market economy.  Akyol credits men like Said Nursi and especially Turgut Ozal with creating not only a far-more stable political situation than most Muslim-majority countries enjoy, but with liberalizing the nation’s understanding of what it took to compete financially on a global scale.

Ozal’s policies were based on the freedom of ideas, religion and enterprise.  Ozal believed, according to Akyol, that a planned economy built on free trade would lay the foundation for a robust Turkish economy.  His era, ending with an untimely (natural) death, is known as the Ozal Revolution.

Of course, economic freedom does not occur in a vacuum.  Free trade brings with it exposure to travel, communication with people from all over the world, information, money to buy luxury items, and the experience of other cultural norms, fashions, mores and ways of life.  Whether one experiences such exposures as “good” or “bad” is based on many things, but the exposure is there nonetheless.  Islam, if it is to be open to the free-market economy in other places in the world, will also have to learn to deal with all of these.  Islam, Akyol asserts, must embrace democracy.

 

Once we start looking for “a state for Muslims”, we will soon end

            up with a commonsense solution.  Since no particular Muslim

            can claim to have theocratic authority, and since there are all

            sorts of Muslims with diverse views, ideas, and aspirations, the

            only system that will be fair to all would be one that would include

            all of them in the political process:  a democracy….

Akyol very clearly states that democracy cannot be based on Shariah law, as that would be a theocracy.  And, he strenuously makes the point that a secular state and a secularist state are two different things:  a secular state remains neutral to religion, while a secularist state is hostile to religion.  It is the secular state, Akyol contends, that will allow every Muslim true freedom: the freedom to pray as he or she ought, to follow the example of Muhammad as he or she sees fit, the freedom to submit to the will of God as he or she understands that.  It is also this secular state, this democratic state, that will allow Muslim men and women – so inclined – to be entrepreneurs in business, to compete fairly in the global marketplace and to bring the commandment to do good and avoid evil with them into that market.  It would also considerably strengthen the Muslim ability to bring charity to those less fortunate – a strong enjoinder in the Muslim faith.

Mustafa Akyol does a thorough job of illustrating that Islam is not a religion of extremes, but a religion of personal goodness, provided that goodness is a free choice.  The book is accessible to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Islam, as Akyol provides a succinct history lesson.  It is clear that his point of view is Turkish, and moderate in terms of politics and faith, but that moderate view is the view that leads one to conclude that Islam and its adherents can become profound contributors to the realm of free-trade and global economics.  Akyol’s book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to answer the question of whether or not Islam is an “extreme” or viable option when examining issues of liberty, freedom and justice.  Akyol’s answer is that Islam offers a coherent and vibrant addition to this global dialogue.

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Thursday, May 26, 2011

One might think that Muslim women, in traditionally Muslim countries, are under severe constrictions when it comes to becoming entrepreneurs.  After all, in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive, and in places like Iran, women are forced to veil themselves under the law.  Do such restrictions create undue burdens for women wanting to start and maintain businesses in the Muslim world?

In a study published in International Management Review (Vol. 6 No. 1 2010), John C. McIntosh and Samia Islam of the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University set out to explore the question:  “How is female entrepreneurship shaped by Islamic traditions and Shari’a  in a conservative Muslim context?”  (Shari’a law is traditional Islamic law.) The researchers looked at concepts like wearing the hijab (a scarf Muslim women wear to cover their hair), and whether or not being a women limited one’s social and business contacts due to gender restraints in Islamic society, such as adult women needing to rely on male family members to make contact with male non-family members.

The results?  Muslim women are not suffering undue constraints when it comes to entrepreneurship in Islamic countries.  Women wearing the hijab did enjoy better access to business networks, and those women with supportive families enjoyed greater social contacts that aided in building up their businesses.  However, when it comes to securing funding from banks, wearing a hijab was statistically insignificant from not wearing a hijab for the loan-seeker.

This is not startling news.  If one were to look at the business world anywhere, one could say that appropriate cultural dress, supportive families and social contacts are three keys to starting and maintaining a new business.

What does it take to become an entrepreneur?  There are many sound answers to this question, but none of them should have anything to do with gender, religion or geography.

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Friday, April 29, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair KhanaPoverty is inevitable in a war zone, right? One’s movements are restricted, buildings and businesses are damaged, people flee. Add to that random acts of violence brought by the Taliban and the already damaged economy of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and poverty seems unavoidable.

Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe, journalist and Harvard Business School student Gayle Tzemach Lemmon sets off in search women who are able to start and sustain businesses in the most harrowing of times: war.

In Kabul, Lemmon meets Kamila Sidiqi, one of eleven siblings who must find a way to support her family during the years of Taliban rule. With her father having to flee the city and her mother in poor health, it falls on her shoulders to make sure she and her siblings eat and stay safe. She decides to learn sewing from her eldest sister and literally turns the family home into a design-studio, production line and warehouse. She seeks out clients, develops new lines of clothing and makes good on delivery dates. In other words, she creates a successful business.

But Kamila Sidiqi is not satisfied with merely keeping her own family safe and sound. As a Muslim, she believes it is her duty to help those less fortunate. She begins to train and hire neighborhood women to sew and do the detailed embroidery and beading work that her business requires. Her hope is to not only grow her own business, but teach skills to women so that they, too, can start their own businesses.

Eventually, Sidiqi is approached by the Women’s Community Forum, an NGO that teaches and trains women in business. Sidiqi is asked to become a leader, to travel and give workshops to other Afghani women trying to start businesses. If trying to keep a business going in war-torn Kabul is not frightening enough, traveling with the Women’s Community Forum is absolutely terrifying. In fact, one of Sidiqi’s sisters tries desperately to take Kamila out of taking this role, fearing for her life (with good reason). Sidiqi plunges ahead, believing again it is her duty to help as many people as she can escape poverty.

By the 2005, with the Taliban out of power, Sidiqi has started another business, “Kaweyan” (after a prosperous Iranian dynasty), that seeks to train aspiring business owners in skills such as writing business plans, budgeting, and utilizing interns in Afghanistan and several other countries. Her goal at that time was to create mobile teams that were able to visit and teach those in remote areas.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a captivating war-time adventure story, but it is also a lesson in tenacity and courage. What will it take to overcome poverty? One person, with a great business idea, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make that idea a reality.

Patriarch Bechara Rai

As a Lebanese Maronite Catholic student in Rome and a new intern at Istituto Acton, I had the great honor and privilege to attend the audience of the new Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Bechara Rai, with Pope Benedict XVI. The April 14 audience gave me the occasion to think about our new Patriarch’s role in promoting the entrepreneurial vocation in Lebanon. Our new patriarch seems to be a very active, energetic man, in keeping with the majority of his flock, but both his church and his country face many daunting challenges.

The Lebanese have a great reputation for entrepreneurship the world over, dating from Phoenician times. The nation’s universities are also some of the best in the Arab world and the country has a strong capital base. But the seemingly constant political turmoil in Lebanon has forced many entrepreneurs to go abroad in search of the peace and stability required for economic growth, but entrepreneurial talent and technical knowledge still exist in large quantities — equal to any in the region.

Brain drain, how to make the best use of investments, cultural barriers and bureaucratic inefficiencies are all issues that a Lebanese entrepreneur must contend with, though all are surmountable. Indeed, a wide variety of non-profit organizations exist to provide crucial support services. And there are plenty of business plan contests that can help provide startup capital.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to starting a business in Lebanon is the country’s lagging infrastructure, not surprising due to past and recent civil wars and foreign interventions. The individual entrepreneur is obviously limited in what he or she can do to improve the quality of the country’s telecommunications and electricity grids. But if we think of entrepreneurialism as state of mind, there is much the Maronite Church can do to encourage it.

The role of the Maronite Church in Lebanon remains a very important one culturally and politically, in addition to religiously. Half of the Lebanese population are Maronite, including the President of the republic. The Maronite Patriarch has Patriarchal See in Lebanon and the church works to preserve and strengthen the power of the Maronite Catholic Christian in Lebanon. The Maronite often finds himself caught between secular Syrian instigators, Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, and Israeli military incursions, all of whom have their own particular interests and plans for Lebanon.

But, as a former seminarian, I can now see that there was very little formation in social doctrine and especially in market economics. I very much hope the new Patriarch may follow the lead of Pope John Paul II and encourage his Church to strengthen the cultural-ethical framework of society rather than intervene directly in the messy and at times dangerous realm of Lebanese politics. If Maronites could find a way to bridge the gap between the warring factions of Lebanon through dynamic commerce, it may have the possibility of helping pave the way for peace in one small but important part of the Middle East. I would love to see some basic economic education for seminarians towards this end, so that Lebanese entrepreneurs both inside and outside the country feel that their faith supports their normal activities and that their normal activities can and should be the place of their sanctification.

The old ways of businessmen leaving the country so that the politicians can ruin it is no longer feasible. I will be praying that Patriarch Rai finds new ways of addressing ancient problems for all of our sakes.

A new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, was published today in the Detroit News. This column will also be linked in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton newsletter here.

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Faith and policy: Respect others’ rights, but also their values

FATHER ROBERT SIRICO

If such an award were to be given for the Most Contentious Religious Story of 2010, the two main contenders would undoubtedly be two Islam-related stories: the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida and the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York.

These stories remind us of a valuable lesson at the core of America’s founding. I am not speaking here of tolerance, but of what makes tolerance possible: the right to private property, and of something even deeper — the freedom such property allows.

The pastor in Florida is by all accounts a marginal figure whose fame has been aided by the media, fueled by the technologies that amplify any opinion or action. Soon, the pastor will recede from the spotlight.

The plan to construct the Islamic center is supported by numerous personalities, costs a great deal of money and will be a rather permanent fixture once erected.

At the legal and political heart of each of these occurrences is a bedrock principle: the right to private property, which is to say: the right of a pastor to destroy a book he owns and the right of a group of Muslims to build in lower Manhattan on property they own.

We do well to remember that the right to property is never merely the right to the possession of some material object in itself. Beyond possession, it involves its production, creation and disposition as well. And while the right to private property is not absolute, it is nonetheless sacred and to be respected both in culture and in law for reasons relating to the very nature of human beings. The right to property is just a smart idea because it ensures numerous other liberties that make for a free society.

I find the idea of burning a text considered sacred by others to be both stupid and odious. Other than offending people, I am not sure what the purpose would be.

I can better understand the purpose of building an Islamic center, though I think it is a very bad idea and one that is generating as much consternation in its own context as had even the threat of burning Qurans has in another.

Do these people have the right to do these things, all things being even?

Yes.

Ought they to be doing this?

I’m afraid not.

And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensable and necessary if we are to have a free society.

Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than “just” but is also good.

That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how “society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”