The rapid rise and threat of the jihadist group Islamic State has confounded the secularist West. The idea that their motivations could truly be driven by religious ideology simply fails to register with those who view religion as an individualistic, private affair.
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.
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!
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.
The Acton Institute released a new short video to mark Religious Freedom Day. The proclamation from President George W. Bush points to religious freedom as a fundamental right of Americans and, indeed, people of faith all over the world.
Religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society. On Religious Freedom Day, we recognize the importance of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. We also celebrate the first liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which guarantee the free exercise of religion for all Americans and prohibit an establishment of religion.
Our Nation was founded by people seeking haven from religious persecution, and the religious liberty they found here remains one of this land’s greatest blessings. As Americans, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Though we may profess different creeds and worship in different manners and places, we respect each other’s humanity and expression of faith. People with diverse views can practice their faiths here while living together in peace and harmony, carrying on our Nation’s noble tradition of religious freedom.
The United States also stands with religious dissidents and believers from around the globe who practice their faith peacefully. Freedom is not a grant of government or a right for Americans alone; it is the birthright of every man, woman, and child throughout the world. No human freedom is more fundamental than the right to worship in accordance with one’s conscience.
More on religious freedom from the Acton Institute:
— China’s March Against Religious Freedom. By Ray Nothstine
— A Patriarch in Dire Straits. By John Couretas
— Review of “Catholicism and Religious Freedom: Contemporary Reflections on Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.” By Marc D. Guerra
— Turkey: Islam’s Bridge to Religious and Economic Liberty? Interview with Mustafa Akyol
— Review of “The American Myth of Religious Freedom.” By Marc D. Guerra
— “The Birth of Freedom” official site for documentary trailer and added features.
New from the Heritage Foundation:
— “Religious Liberty in America: An Idea Worth Sharing Through Public Diplomacy.” By Jennifer A. Marshall
— “Religious Freedom Day: A Timely Reminder.” By Ryan Messmore