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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Book Review: Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty

Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty, by Mustafa Akyol offers religious tradition to defend freedom of speech and to harmonize Islam with liberal democracy, the market economy, and peaceful world order. He also reminds us that liberty isn’t merely a Western idea but a universal value also long cherished by Islamic liberals.

I was appalled by the ghoulish epicaricacy shown by the deranged zealots in Sialkot when they took selfies with the burning body of Priyantha Diyawadana, instead of protecting him from the vigilantes, who accused him of blasphemy. This was not an isolated incident. Many individuals lose their lives when they are accused of blasphemy or apostasy and even the political ‘dissenters’, who are living under authoritarian regimes, are not safe. These fanatics were influenced by the extremist interpretations of one of the peaceful religions of the world, and it seems they never come across the words like tolerance or liberty in their lives. In this horrific milieu, it is more pertinent to dig deeper into the concept of ‘liberty’ and to understand its relationship with Islam. Mustafa Akyol wrote a timely book titled: Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty.

In this remarkable book, he emphasized, by using anecdotes from the contemporary world and past Muslim history, that the concept of ‘liberalism’ has its roots in Islam and it is not a western conspiracy against the Muslim world; however, there is a need to understand this term in its broader connotation.

Read more: Book Review: The Road to Balance in Asia Pacific

What does the book actually talk about?

The book begins by underscoring the Quranic verse 256 of the second sura which says: “There is no compulsion in religion”. The author argues that religion is a private matter and cannot be enforced. Enforcement of religion will only increase hypocrisy and ultimately people will end up detesting their religion because no one can win the hearts and minds by force. Moreover, enforcing secularism is as bad as forcing religion. For instance, the bans on hijab in France and the persecution of Uyghurs  Muslims in china depict aversion towards religion and are actions contrary to liberal teachings. So, he contends that states must not interfere in the private lives of their citizens, and coercion under any pretext must be stopped.

The author points out that the door of Ijtihad( rethinking of Sharia) cannot be closed. New challenges cannot be tackled with centuries-old interpretations of religious texts. It is also essential to understand the context and intentions behind the revealed verses. He highlighted the very fact that how the sharia law of four witnesses was misused, and rapists took advantage of these provisions to scot-free, however, the intention behind this law was to protect the women from false accusations. Slavery was also not initially banned in Islam but later through the reinterpretation of sharia, it was abolished in the 19th century.

So, reinterpretation of sharia can be used in other areas of life as well. One point that I think needs more clarification, which is not mentioned in this book: who can be allowed to reinterpret Sharia?  Is it the responsibility of parliament or scholars or even individual Muslims could be allowed to reinterpret? Allama Iqbal wrote in his book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam that this responsibility can be given to the Shura (the assembly of Muslims). This can be answered in future research work.

The concept of ‘unity of powers’, all powers vest in one individual, was used to justify authoritarianism. Even the medieval English principle says “the monarch can do no wrong.” Consequently, the revival of Sharia is required to protect human rights. Sharia opposes sovereign immunity and it upholds the rule of law, protects human rights, not state coercion, and emphasizes the separation of powers. Sharia also allows humans to use reason when they fail to find answers in divine law.

Read more: Book Review: Circular History of Pakistan

Islam is not a religion of conquests as portrayed by Islamophobes

The past conquests of Islam must be seen in a historical context: first, if the Muslims of Makkah were allowed to practice their religion in a peaceful manner the history of Islam would have been very different; and secondly, conquests and building of empires was a natural course of humanity, in early periods there was no concept of  Westphalian model of states sovereignty. Akyol rightly articulated that when Muslims criticize Western supremacy and the rise of Hindutva nationalism in India, they must not forget to criticize the Muslim supremacy, as we have seen Hagia Sophia was reconverted into a Mosque and widely celebrated by Muslims.

The Charter of Medina could be a guide for states; it did not establish an Islamic state but created a civil state, in which people of all faiths were free to practice their religion. Interestingly, the tribes, including Jews and Muslims, that signed this charter were declared Umma. Montgomery Watt also noted that under this charter no absolute powers were given to the ruler. Besides this, Muslim individuals must be free from the servitude of any form. At present, there is no central authority in Islam, so Muslims by getting guidance from sharia and using their rational mind can make choices. The concept of Ulu’l Amr— obey those who are in authority among you— cannot be used to curb the freedom of Muslims because today no prophet or caliph is among us to command. In short, neither Muslims seek supremacy over others nor be subservient to authoritarian regimes.

To counter the wave of atheism, Muslims have adopted an easy way: silence all opposing voices, instead of arguing with them rationally. Akyol pointed out that there was a time when there was a Salon of Debate and House of Wisdom in the Muslim world, where people of all faiths were allowed to express their opinions freely. There is a need to revive that spirit of open dialogue, as Namik Kemal once said “the spark of truth, rises from the clash of ideas.” Moreover, the author gave the example of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders who said “The Quran should be banned,” pointing to some of its belligerent passages. Therefore, silencing others can be harmful because others may consider our language as harsh or blasphemous.

Read more: Book review: Political Economy and Bad Governance

Akyol mentions that Islam supports economic liberty

It favors merchants, respects property rights, and treats state interference in the markets as transgression. However, it is concerned about the welfare of the downtrodden. Thus it emphasizes alms and donations to protect the poor. In the words of Izetbegovic “ the goal of Islam is not to eliminate riches but to eliminate misery.” Islam supports a free economy with compassion for the needy and a market free from state intrusions which generates a competitive milieu. On interest, MuhammadAbduh argued that Quranic riba was not any kind of interest, but a specific form of usurious lending that was prevalent in pagan Arabia; so a reasonable interest, which is more a charge or rent for the use of money cannot be considered as riba.

The recent downfall of the Turkish lira is the result of Erdogan’s desire to make the Turkish economy more ‘Islamic’, by lowering the interest rates of the Turkish lira. Akyol opines that it is not the right approach to try to find the “Islamic” version of everything— just as there is no “Islamic” physics, chemistry, or biology. In the last chapter, the author makes the case that it is unfair to consider liberalism as a Western conspiracy. Western powers even supported dictators or authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world rather than promoting liberalism. The rulers of the Muslim world also represent liberalism as a conspiracy, to hide their corruption and protect their illegitimate rule.

In a nutshell, Muslims should embrace liberalism as a concept that is not contrary to the teachings of Islam. Only by holding this principle, the tragic incidents like the killing of  Priyantha Diyawadana can be avoided. Muslims established a successful civilization when the West was in its dark ages because they cuddled liberalism, the rule of law, economic liberty, and political freedom. Even Jews when persecuted by the Christians of Europe, sought refugee in the Ottoman empire. Akyol’s work will help young Muslims to progress in the 21st century, bridge the gulf between the Muslims and the West,  and speed up the reformation movement within the Muslim world.


The writer is studying Political Science at the Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University, Sweden. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.