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Mustafa Akyol’s Defense of Liberty is also about peacebuilding

Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty, Cato Institute senior fellow Mustafa Akyol offers a nuanced critique of these problems by acknowledging their roots in the religious tradition. Yet he also shows that there are strong grounds in the same religious tradition to defend freedom of speech and religion and to harmonize Islam with liberal democracy, the market economy, and peaceful world order.

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I just finished reading Mustafa Akyol’s Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty for the second time, and that is when this peacebuilding component struck me. But first, as an Islamicist and Christian theologian, I deeply appreciate his articulate defense of individual human rights and his advocacy for a polity in which rulers are accountable to the people, who themselves are empowered to freely express their religious and political views, and thereby contribute to a diverse, rich and dynamic society where all contribute to the common good. He rightly calls this a “liberal” political order, which also includes “a system of free markets, limited governments, and charitable civil society” (117).

So first allow me to comment on his demonstration that Islamic theology and law if rightly understood, lead to such a view, and then I want to show that the tone and tenure of his last two chapters make this an admirable work of peacebuilding between Muslims and a general Western public, whether secular people, Christians, Jews or people of other faiths.

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Classical Islam and modern liberalism

It is significant that Akyol turns to 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill for his definition of liberty. People should not be forced by the state or any other authority to adopt beliefs or behaviors against their own will. The only exception is when someone causes harm to others. That is because, along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Mill believed in the inherent dignity of the human person and therefore spoke of people’s “rights.” This Enlightenment conviction gave rise to the values enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, for example. Civil rights and freedom of religion are central to the “classical liberalism” of European states, among many others, including the United States of America.

That is the point: this liberal order arose in Europe in the 18th century, but when we think of “classical Islam,” we are referring to the period during which Muslim theologians and jurists hammered out the central doctrines of their faith and established the main Sunni and Shi’i schools of jurisprudence – roughly between the third and sixth centuries of Islam (ninth to twelfth century CE). As Akyol points out, this is also at a time when Islamic imperial power was at its zenith. “Religious practice,” therefore, was fused “with state power” (36).

Though classical Islam was in some ways ahead of what we call “the West” today (most notably by establishing rules of war and securing at least some rights for minorities), it was still a child of the medieval period. The Qur’an banned coercion in religion (Q. 2:256), but state coercion was the norm everywhere, so “the Christian Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Sassanids … all imposed their official religion, with laws that criminalized apostasy, often with the death penalty. That was also the norm in Islamic jurisprudence, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The apostasy law is not found in the Qur’an.

Since the Qur’an has so little legal content, Muslim jurists turned to Prophet Muhammad’s example. Early on, his words and deeds had been passed down and transmitted orally, but already in the second century of Islam, as they were beginning to be transcribed, it was clear that some of these hadiths (short quotes of the Prophet and short stories of what he did) had been fabricated to bolster one faction over another in the many debates that had arisen. So, for example, in several of the recognized collections of the third century, one finds the hadith that stipulates the death penalty for anyone leaving Islam. To this day, this command stands in all five of the remaining schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Medieval societies were not just oppressive; they were also patriarchal and openly demeaning of women. This is the main theme running through Akyol’s Chapter 2, “Why We Need to Rethink the Sharia.” The Quranic penalty for sex outside of marriage (zina) is 100 lashes (though you can find the death penalty in the Hadith). But one verse states that in order to be prosecuted, this crime has to be witnessed by four people. We know from its context that this verse was revealed to protect women from false accusations of zina, but the wording does not specify the person’s gender. Still, in some Muslim countries, courts routinely use this verse to protect rapists and prosecute their victims. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) consistently applied it to men, not women – a blatant injustice.

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That is why most Muslim jurists today distinguish between Sharia and fiqh – that is, between the clear teachings of the Quran and the well-attested hadiths – which have divine authority – and the jurisprudence of Islam’s legal schools, which by definition has much human input and is, therefore, fallible. One area where this discrepancy shows is that fiqh confused crimes and sin. The Quran forbids a number of acts, like drinking wine, eating pork, gambling, lying, practicing usury, dressing immodestly, among others, but reserved punishment for these acts in the Hereafter.

The Hadith, by contrast, assigned corporal punishment for those committing some of these sins – thereby turning them into crimes prosecuted by the state. Clearly, the jurists’ fiqh was confusing two very different categories of acts that were kept separate in God’s Sharia. One reason for this confusion is the blending of religion with the state.

The authoritarian religious state

In the story of the Sultan who had just conquered Constantinople (now named Istanbul) in 1453 and who got so angry with his architect for building a mosque lower than the Hagia Sophia that he had his hands cut off, Akyol remarks that this only illustrates “the misery of the medieval world, where people’s precarious lives were at the arbitrary hands of capricious rulers” (42). Yet the story is not over. The architect sues the ruler, and the judge, upon hearing both sides in court, rules that the Sultan is guilty and must compensate the poor architect ten silver coins a day out of his own salary for the rest of his life. Apocryphal or not, this story purports to show that God’s law is above all citizens, including their ruler.

Considering the authoritarian nature of so many Muslim-majority nations today, Akyol argues that the main takeaway from the Sharia, at least in its traditional interpretation, should be the rule of law, which must also include “the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches” of government. The reforms initiated by the New Ottomans in the 19th century were designed to do just this, but they knew that the Islamic jurists would not allow this, so they enacted a series of secular laws to sideline their opposition. Unfortunately, the constitutional regime of 1876 only lasted fourteen months. The new sultan, Abdulhamid II, suspended it and it wasn’t until 1909 that a “Second Constitutional Period” began, only to be scuttled by World War I.

Akyol rightly reasons that even though religion can easily become an instrument of political oppression (witness how religious rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran both excel in this domain), an emphasis on Sharia’s intentions, or objectives, can turn religion into an instrument of liberation. Notably in Islamic Spain of the 14th century with the jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi and running through the writings of the late Tunisian scholar Ibn Ashur, a minority tradition of Islamic legal theory has now become mainstream. The Sharia’s “overarching aim” is to promote human wellbeing by protecting five rights in particular: religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. Ibn Ashur added liberty.

I had the privilege of translating from the Arabic original a twentieth-century classic on this theme: the Tunisian politician Rached Ghannouchi’s The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State, mostly written while in prison in the 1980s (forthcoming, Yale University Press). Co-founder of the Islamist party Ennahda (or al-Nahda, “Renaissance”) and, until the current president’s coup in July 2021, speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Ghannouchi uses these same arguments to demonstrate that a genuine “Islamic” government is one which is democratic by virtue of guaranteeing the separation of powers and the rotation of parties in power by means of free and fair elections. In fact, at the Tenth Congress of Ennahda in 2016 he was reelected president and said in his opening speech that Tunisia no longer needed an “Islamic” party. He also saluted Tunisia’s civil society “Quartet” which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

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For Ghannouchi, therefore, Ennahda is no longer an Islamist party; rather, it’s a party among others, some of which are secular, but one that is intentionally imbued with Islamic values, the central one being liberty, or the fight against all forms of despotism. Though the nation that gave us the “Arab Spring” owes much to Ghannouchi’s consistent leadership, it still teeters on the edge of despotism at the moment. Still, Tunisia stands as a model of a nation that managed for a decade to balance religious and secular forces and seek freedom for all.

Akyol’s commendable peacebuilding skills

Mustafa Akyol wrote this book with three audiences in mind. First, of course, is his publisher and employer, the Cato Institute. Both the theme of liberty and the way he weaves it in and out of his chapters demonstrate his loyalty to the libertarian cause and the certain freedom he enjoys in marking it with his own stamp.

Plainly, his second audience is his Muslim correligionists – who, a billion and a half strong, display a wide spectrum of views and practices, to be sure. Akyol deploys some of the arguments he has made before, and most notably in his substantial work, Reopening Muslim Minds. Yet he offers new ones too, and especially new anecdotes and new sources along the way. By highlighting Islam’s achievements of the past – like the Prophet’s Medinan Constitution, laws to protect minorities, giant leaps forward in the arts and sciences by Muslims working together with Jews and Christians in ninth-century Baghdad and beyond, to name a few – he is able to draw his readers into discovering some of the reasons for the decline in later centuries, of which all Muslims are painfully aware.

Akyol’s third audience may be the most important to him: non-Muslims in the West and elsewhere. As we should all acknowledge, Islamophobia is the only prejudice that seems fair game in the American and European public square these days. Blame it on politics, if you will, it nevertheless has roots that go back long before – likely to the early Muslim conquests, then the Christian Crusades over two centuries, and more recently to the Islamic-inspired terrorism of the Middle East and Central Asia. A 2015 poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans had unfavorable views of Islam (much more than for any other faith) and a September 2021 article from the Pew Research Center revealed that “Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say they believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions”.

This is where Akyol’s peacebuilding efforts and skills shine through the most. Throughout the book his tone is balanced and honest, and nowhere more so than in his last two chapters. In Chapter 7, for instance (“Islam’s Lost Heritage of Economic Liberty”), he quotes extensively from two Western scholars who give the Islamic civilization credit for sowing the seeds of capitalism in the West.

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At one point he quotes Gene W. Heck in his 2006 book, Charlemagne, Muhammad, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism: “the Arab Muslims . . . provided much of the economic stimulus, as well as the multiplicity of commercial instruments that helped pull Europe up from the Dark Ages’ stifling grip” (104). He also shows that the central institution of medieval Islam, its religious endowments (waqf, pl. awqaf), because they were private fortunes untaxed by the state and so numerous that they financed untold charitable causes, “such as hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages, mosques, schools, libraries, or monuments” (108).

By contrast, he has little admiration for “Islamic socialism” spearheaded by Egypt’s Gamal Abd Al-Nasser in the 1960s and “Islamic banks” that took off in the late 1980s, many of which turned into shameful pyramid schemes. The other shame, borrowing the words of Iraqi intellectual Ali Allawi, is that despite the presence of a “Muslim super-wealthy class, there are no major research foundations, universities, hospitals or educational trusts that are funded by large charitable foundations. The scale and scope of the philanthropic work of the modern West – especially the US’s – is inconceivable amongst the Muslim rich” (118).

In my own experience, it is Akyol’s last chapter (“Is Liberty a Western Conspiracy?”) that is most effective in getting both sides to rethink their assumptions and hopefully begin to listen to each other. Why? This is because the suspicion of many Muslim conservatives that Western promotion of their liberal order is a tactic to better subjugate them allows him to make a historical incursion into 19th-century Western colonialism. And here Akyol does not mince his words. Napoleon, who in 1798 invaded Egypt, told its people that he had come to “rescue” them “from the hands of the oppressors” (123). Thirty years later, the French invaded Algeria inaugurating a 132-year rule, marked by “appalling—say, uncivilized—brutality.”

Yet many Muslims seem not to know that a whole cadre of Muslim intellectuals (“the first Muslim liberals”) weaponized these concepts of freedom and rights to fight for their independence. These liberals like the Egyptian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (d. 1822), Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (d. 1873), the New Ottoman thinker, Namik Kemal (d. 1888), and the Tunisian statesman Khayral-Din (d. 1890) and the Indian Syed Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) – all of these raised the banner of freedom and human rights in the name of Islam and their national identity. Sadly, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and the dissolution of the Islamic caliphate, the mood among Muslim leaders and thinkers turned to conspiracy theories. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 “with no real justification” and the consistent support of Arab dictators has not helped the cause of freedom either.

Yet Akyol, ever conscious of speaking truth in a balanced way, immediately notes that Muslims cannot simply blame foreign powers for their authoritarian regimes. The responsibility lies with them in the end. Turkey in the 1990s, for example, was ruled by “authoritarian secularists” who “demonized the liberals [who were defending women demanding the right to wear a hijab to the university] as Western puppets, CIA agents, European Union mouthpieces, and payees of German foundations, which all supposedly had nefarious schemes against Turkey.”

Meanwhile, “conservative Muslims respected those liberals, gave them a voice, and even began considering their views” (140). Fast forward to the 2010s, when these Muslim conservatives had been in power for a decade: “they also turned authoritarian – quite rapidly and unabashedly – and turned against these same liberals who were criticizing them. After all, they proclaimed, “liberals [are] the pawns of a heinous Western conspiracy against our embattled country – and its righteous, glorious, unquestionable leader” (140).

The same dynamic can be observed in Iran and elsewhere. Sadly, “liberalism” is the ideology of the enemy for many Muslims today. Yet liberalism is not a lifestyle, avers Akyol. It’s a “political philosophy” that defends both “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion.” It is simply “a framework that allows different religions, metaphysical worldviews, or lifestyles to coexist, without oppressing each other, and follow their own ways, in peace and dignity, and free of the yoke of all kinds of thugs and tyrants” (143). Ghannouchi would agree, and in fact, this is the sentiment you can see expressed throughout my own blog.

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In the end, Akyol – very adroitly, I would add – is using this book as a tool to bring many sides closer together – staunch Muslim conservatives and Muslim liberals; Muslims and their neighbors in Western nations; and even non-Muslim Americans who strongly disagree among themselves about how to evaluate the growing presence and influence of Muslims in their nation. I hope this book circulates widely. Truth-telling is so important to healing our divides. And balanced truth-telling, like it is here, has even more of a chance to be heard and acted on. This is peacebuilding at its best.

The writer is an affiliate Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and Adjunct Lecturer at St Joseph’s University, USA. He blogs at www.humantrustees.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.