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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Liberalism going global

As IS swept across the Near East, an international consensus emerged: IS and its ideology must be wiped out. Helpfully, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, America’s most pivotal ally in the region, proclaimed that IS and the ideas it represented “are not in any way part of Islam.” The stage for an ideological war seemed set: the constructive, just forces of Western liberalism and its allies versus regressive fanatics dedicated to destroying the entire region. Yet it is Saudi Arabia's Islam, where decapitation punishes offenses from apostasy to adultery, and women are forbidden from exiting the house without a male relative, so different from IS’s? IS and Saudi Arabia share a devotion to the austere Wahhabi creed of Islam, created by an 18th-century political-religious alliance between the Saud clan and Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. IS “circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls.” Interestingly, as American officials and NGOs urge modernization, secularization and liberalization in Arab states, between America’s foremost Middle-Eastern ally and bitterest enemy, it is hard to imagine two polities that more thoroughly reject western liberalism. Perhaps rejecting modernity is better than accepting it. Of the various post-colonial project states imposed on the Middle East, all either lay dead (Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen), dying (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan), or mired in stagnation (Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon). The political prospects of states that have rejected Western paradigms of governance are brighter. Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading Sunni Arab power, stands tall as the guardian of Mecca and Medina. IS, although it appears to finally be snapping under the weight of the global coalition assembled against it, carved out a state in a stunning series of conquests, while becoming the central locus of hardline Islamic religious enthusiasm, thus gaining enormous social and political relevancy. Beyond their disconcertingly similar brands of Islam, Saudi Arabia and IS both reject the Western state order, as do two of the Islamic world’s other politically and economically dynamic societies, Turkey and Iran. Both states were, like Saudi Arabia, never fully colonized by European powers, and are presently led by Islamists politically well outside the norms of Western politics. Could it be that modern liberal democracy is a “historical derivation from the particular experience of modern Europe,” and unsuited for universal application?

The post-Arab Spring elections ushered in moderate Islamists, not secularists. Whether or not Islam and modern liberal democracy can eventually fully harmonize with each other remains an open question. Indonesia’s vibrant, if periodically troubled, democracy is proof that the ideals of modern liberalism and Islam are not utterly incompatible. Regardless, modern liberal democracy ought never be externally imposed on a society. It is Eurocentrist and shortsighted to attempt to force modern liberal democracy on Muslims’ societies, and the attempts to do so are clearly linked to present crises in the Islamic world. Beginning with the shambolic legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement and all the way to neoconservatism, attempts to impose Western structures and politics on the Middle East have each time further deteriorated order, peace and prosperity in the region. Most of Afghanistan is scarcely better off than it was 20 years ago, and each day the Taliban erodes the central government’s control. In Iraq, it is difficult to imagine a worse long term scenario. The country has dissolved before the international community’s eyes, with the western half of the nation now ruled by an apocalyptic death cult.

Yet there may be a way forward, besides the blind universal imposition of a historically contingent system. We must allow societies to determine their own fate and structure, while continuing to engage across all boundaries in non-coercive exchanges of wealth and ideas. Muslims do not need to abandon their faith or retreat into dogmatic fundamentalism to construct a working state. Islam has been flexible and open to tremendous change in the past. Thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal, who proposed that the process of interpreting and applying Islamic law demands the use of the modern legislative assembly, or Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who dedicated his life to synthesizing Islamic doctrine and the discoveries of modern science, might offer in the future an authentic Muslim alternative to the rabid dogmatism of the Salafis and the Wahhabists. Ultra-conservative Islamic groups have frequently been the response to European intrusions in Muslim societies – perhaps collective Western disengagement from the Middle-East will lead to a flowering of innovative and creative Islamic theology. Regardless, the issue of reform may soon be forced. Muslims must soon address “complex political questions about how to draw the line between those areas of life where public authorities may coerce and legislate, with only the broadest imprimatur of the religious scholars.” Let us hope they are allowed to do so on their own.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.