I share Michael Novak’s optimism that in ten years' time we will see a high degree of freedom in Muslim-majority countries. This movement towards greater freedom began in the late 1990s, following a long period of government oppression, and is rapidly advancing.
After the Second World War, when various Muslim-majority countries gained their long-sought independence, their new autonomy generally did not lead to a greater level of freedom for their citizens. Instead, authoritarian figures quickly took over the newly independent states, often ruling with an iron fist.
From Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, to Nigeria, with its less substantial Muslim majority, military officers seized power and sidelined popular political leaders, severely restricting religious and intellectual freedom as well as political freedom. The ascendency of strong military men in Muslim governments, exemplified by such figures as Soeharto, Muammar Qaddafi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Zia ul Haq, and Saddam Hussein, was evident in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Since the two Cold-War superpowers took negligible interest in supporting greater levels of freedom, whether in the form of political freedom, democracy, or human rights, they in fact facilitated authoritarian dominance.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent increase of freedom in much of Eastern Europe were just a few of many events that impacted people in Muslim-majority countries as well. As the wave of freedom across the world began to shake the foundations of authoritarianism, the military men and other autocrats who, until then, had felt comfortably supported in their fiefdoms by one superpower or the other became suddenly aware that their positions were no longer secure.
During the past decade we have begun to see slow but real change in the political landscape of Muslim-majority countries. In the Arab world, despite some promising advances, such as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, what appeared to be the Arab resistance to liberty remained an exception to the general trend to democratization until the beginning of this year’s Arab "spring," when the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and other countries challenged aging but powerful strongmen and began to topple them. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Soeharto and Musharraf, for example, are now gone, and countries from Indonesia to Turkey are beginning to embrace democratic principles and promote greater freedom.
Even the much-maligned "global war on terror" is playing a significant part in this call for freedom in the Muslim world. While for a brief period the strongmen used their alleged efforts against extremism and in support of the "global war on terror" as a pretense to restrict their citizens' freedoms further, many people soon realized that they were being deceived. Authoritarianism was, in fact, fueling the very extremism that was a key target of the "war on terror." Fighting extremism, therefore, also meant fighting authoritarianism and supporting greater freedom, democracy, and human rights for Muslim societies. This further weakened the foundations of despotism, forcing these regimes to introduce a series of political reforms, even if only half-heartedly.
Restrictions on Muslim women is another pillar of repression under threat. While many Muslim societies still have a long way to go in allowing women’s full civic participation, the trend in even some of the most conservative societies is extremely encouraging. In the Gulf, for example, one of the most conservative regions of the Muslim world, the rising level of women’s education and the large number of women who are receiving higher education is a strong indicator that the pillars of authoritarianism are weakening. Only 40 or 50 years ago, controversies existed in places such as Saudi Arabia about whether girls should even attend primary school, and yet current evidence from the region indicates that even at the university level female students’ numbers are higher than those of their male counterparts: they perform better overall, and they earn better grades. More importantly, these women’s economic power appears to be growing substantially.
While many Muslims still do live in extremely repressive societies, a substantial number of those in Muslim-majority countries are enjoying a level of freedom comparable to that in the West. With such freedom, Muslims have been able to discuss, promote, and propagate ideas about intellectual, political, and religious freedom, topics that were taboo until recently. Debates on human rights are taking place on internet sites and blogs, as well as in academia. Even the most controversial issues, including religious freedom, apostasy, and blasphemy, are being openly discussed.
State censorship of writing and speeches, which managed to successfully eliminate any public call for freedom, is no longer as pervasive, and where it still exists, it is no longer as effective. People’s greater freedom to express themselves has resulted in an ever-rising level of intellectual output, in books, television programs, discussions, debates, and on the internet, which has further weakened the despots’ hold over Muslim societies.
The use of such platforms of communication is important for encouraging grassroots support for freedom. For a discourse to have legitimacy, it must occur at various societal levels, and such multi-level debates are happening in the Muslim world right now. The internet has provided a particularly valuable forum for the open discussion of ideas about freedom, especially for Muslims who live in countries where public debate may not be possible. Many Muslims are effectively using web-based forums to inject new ideas about freedom into the public domain. Such new media, as well as global television networks, have helped to provide the mechanism for promoting freedom without being subjected to state control.
Repression in Muslim societies is not necessarily a byproduct of a lack of support for freedom in the Islamic tradition. In fact, with Michael Novak, I believe that Islamic theology and thought do indeed provide resources that promote freedom. The diversity of the Islamic tradition means that it naturally includes a wide range of views on all theological issues, but the broad thrust of the Qur’an as well as the traditions of the Prophet strongly emphasize personal liberty. Personal liberty is the Qur’an’s core message, for each individual must choose to believe in God for himself or herself: it is free and genuine personal conviction that is the basis of salvation. No one—not community, family, clan, tribe, or state—may require or impose this belief. A freely chosen, personal relationship with God is fundamental to who Muslims are. Very early in its history, the Islamic tradition also developed tenets about the proper limitations of political rule: rulers are subject to God’s law and not above it, and people should have the necessary freedom to function as citizens. Though many rulers simply ignored these ideas in practice, the resources are there, and they can be used to offer theological justification for greater levels of freedom today.
Even as far as religious institutions and authorities are concerned, the Qur’an does not tolerate religious authoritarianism. Religious leaders are not there to mediate between individuals and God, and people are free to relate to God without any intermediary. The Qur’an declares that religious establishments should not play the role of God, and it stipulates that people should be free to believe in God, to relate to God, and to be connected to God without restrictions. It does not support religious authoritarianism, describing such rule as akin to the greatest sin of idolatry.
Many factors are fueling the move towards broader freedom in the Muslim world, including the overall political situation in the world today, our greater interconnectedness, technological advances, the efforts of Muslim scholars and thinkers to present new ideas and arguments publicly, and grassroots engagement in Muslim-majority countries. Freedom is expanding in Muslim societies at the political, religious, and intellectual levels, and the momentous changes that these societies are experiencing, most recently in the Arab spring, are unlikely to be reversed. I think that Michael Novak will prove to be right in his assessment of the potential for greater freedoms in Muslim societies. All the achievements discussed above, grounded not just in theory but also in practice, provide the basis for freedom’s further expansion in the Muslim world.
Abdullah Saeed is the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. This summer he will be leading the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Seminar.