Islam Will Find Its Own Way to Freedom


With extremism losing momentum, there is hope that the Muslim Middle East is beginning once again to embrace the liberalism of early 20th-century Islam.

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Predicting history is always a tough, if not risky, business. Hence to a big question such as “How do you think the Middle East will be a decade from now?”, my answer would normally be, “Well, we will see.” And yet I am tempted to agree with Michael Novak’s “not-so-bold prediction” that we will see a much freer and more democratic Muslim Middle East by the year 2020. Let me explain why.

First of all, one should acknowledge the problem: the Muslim Middle East, broadly speaking, is quite an illiberal part of the world, in which political, religious, cultural, and even economic freedoms are either limited or, in some cases, non-existent. (In the world freedom map of Freedom House, only a few Muslim-majority countries rank as “partly free,” while most of them are simply “not free.”)

Recently, this problem has become a major concern to those in the West, partly due to their appreciation of liberty in principle, but also due to some of the disturbing byproducts of the lack of liberty in Islamdom, such as terrorism and other forms of seemingly religious violence.

This Western interest in the liberty of Muslim lands is understandable, and is even welcomed by the liberal Muslims of the Middle East, such as myself. But the same Western concern, in my view, has led to some misinterpretations of the problem. The most common, and the most mistaken, is the argument that the root of the problem is nothing other than Islam itself.

This argument, knowingly or unknowingly, ignores two crucial facts:

First, the scarcity of liberty in the Muslim world is not always connected with Islamic theology. There are many other factors, such as nationalism, political conflicts, secular tyrannies, and the deep-seated “oriental despotism” in that part of the world. Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, maps out some of these problems in his recent book, A World Without Islam, in which he persuasively argues that the political problems of the Middle East would probably be very similar if the region were dominated by some other religion. These problems, Fuller notes, stem from “nonreligious sources, not Islamic theology.”

Secondly, while there are surely problems with regard to Islamic doctrine, such as misogyny, imposition of piety, or the ban on apostasy in classical Islam, this same classical Islam also has the interpretive tools to reform these illiberal aspects. There are many different schools of Islam, some of which have advanced quite liberal views, as I have shown in my just-released book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W.W. Norton, 2011). The medieval Islamic theological school called Murji'ah, for example, has laid a ground for religious pluralism by arguing that all unsolved disputes can be “postponed” to the afterlife, to be resolved by God (hence their name: “Murjiite” means “Postponer”). Another school, the Mu'tazili, developed a doctrine that stressed the role of reason in interpreting the scripture, defended freewill, and even supported people’s right to make different religious choices. The influence of these early schools has survived in later ones to varying degrees.

Now, Michael Novak is right to point out themes in Islamic thought that can be utilized to promote a liberal and democratic culture. He is also right to remind us that some illiberal strains of thought existed within Catholicism, as well, until quite recently. So if Catholicism has changed its attitude about freedom, especially religious freedom, and undergone a “development of doctrine,” why can’t Islam do the same?

Of course, there is an important difference between the two traditions in question, for Islam, unlike Catholicism, lacks a religious hierarchy that can issue binding doctrinal statements. There is no central authority in Islam, in other words; there are just learned men (imams) whose views become popular by persuasion. In that sense, Islam is more “Protestant” than “Catholic” (and, ultimately, I would say it is actually more “Jewish” than “Christian”). So, a “development of doctrine” within Islam would be a much more decentralized and ad hoc job than the steps taken by the Catholic Church, such as Vatican II.

From the Liberal Age to the Arab Spring

At this point, there is something I would like to add to the discussion: Significant efforts for such a “development of doctrine” are, in fact, not unknown in the Muslim world. They were actually very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Intellectuals and statesmen from the Ottoman Empire, including some of its Arab provinces, admired the achievements in Europe—not just in science and technology, but also in freedom and democracy—and embarked on a mission to emulate them in Islamdom. These Muslim modernists, as they were called, saw problems in the Islamic tradition but not at the core of the religion, and believed that the Koran could be reinterpreted in a liberal spirit.

Thus in the 19th century the Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the caliphate, made important reforms—reforms such as giving Christians and Jews equal citizenship status, drafting a constitution, opening up a representative parliament, and accepting freedom of religion. Similarly, in the Arab world, there emerged the period that the great Arab historian Albert Hourani defines as “the liberal age.”

Quite notably, this liberal strain was the dominant trend in the early 20th century among Islamic thinkers, statesmen, and even theologians. This trend declined sharply, however, in the second quarter of the 20th century, and soon was replaced by a synthesis of Islam and totalitarianism, which is commonly known as Islamism.

The reason for this tragic decline of liberalism in the Muslim world of the 20th century is one of the themes I have probed in my book. And I have found the answer, at least in large part, in the changing political context of the Muslim world: This was when the Ottoman Empire fell, and most of the more than dozen Muslim states that emerged from its ashes were colonized by European powers. Colonization provoked an anti-colonial reaction, which defined not just Europe, but also Europe’s liberalism, as the enemy. This reactionary trend led to Arab socialism, Arab nationalism, and ultimately to the Islamist ideology.

When the colonial period ended in the mid-20th century, another terrible trend began: secular dictatorships, which promised to “modernize” their countries with iron fists, often at the expense of the conservative Islamic groups that they typically suppressed. That is why the political movements that emerged from these Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, became increasingly radical, and even gave rise to radical offshoots that resorted to armed struggle (jihad) to fight the regimes that suppressed them and even their Western patrons.

The modern Middle East, in other words, has been haunted by the vicious cycle between two extremes: secular authoritarianism and Islamic authoritarianism. Islamic liberalism, which had its roots in tradition, and which looked promising in the 19th century, was obscured.

But now, with the Arab Spring of 2011, we seem to be at a critical turning point: First in Tunis and then in Egypt, the secular dictators who dominated these countries were overthrown by popular uprisings. But the Islamic groups that joined and even helped lead these revolts did not attempt to establish dictatorships of their own; they vowed to join the democratic process for which the masses have yearned. This embrace of democratic principles seems to have freed these countries from the extremes between which they were caught, and has created the right context in which Islamic liberalism, once again, might flourish.

That is why I am optimistic about the future of the Muslim Middle East. I even hope that I can congratulate Michael Novak in person in the year 2020, and tell him, “Mr. Novak, you were right.”

Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, and the author of the just-released Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W.W. Norton, 2011).

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