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Muslims and Human Liberty

On December 11, Irshad Manji along with Mohammed Dajani addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of Manji’s remarks.

The difference between “reformist” Muslims and “moderates” is not semantic. The latter term is misleading because many “moderate” Muslims exhibit all the traits of orthodoxy, including dogma and a fear of challenging their communities’ groupthink. The qualities associated with religious moderation are positive and desirable as a goal, but they are inadequate as a means to realize positive change in Islam. Although Islam has the potential to be wise and tolerant, it has been deeply corrupted, and rooting out this corruption requires something more potent — even radical — than moderation. It requires reform. As Martin Luther King Jr. said about a racially segregated America, moderation in times of moral crisis is a cop-out.

Irshad Manji

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The good news is that a new generation of Muslims is increasingly using the word “reformist” to describe their pluralist and humanist aspirations for Islam. Their vision for “reformist Islam” is not one that merely abstains from terrorism. It includes dignity for gays and lesbians, full equality for women, respect for religious minorities, and tolerance for different points of view. In all likelihood, a critical mass of this generation’s Muslims will provide audible calls and visible evidence for each of these principles.

Society should seek out and support budding reformists, just as humanist Christians and secularists in eighteenth-century Germany rallied behind reformers of an insular, walled-off Judaism. Muslims must lead the movement for Islamic reform and prepare for the inevitable backlash from Muslim elders and self-appointed community leaders. Their success will also require mainstream backing.

Steeped in group identity, many Muslims fear they will be ostracized if they speak out in their communities. This dynamic inhibits them from naming imperialism within Islam, even though Muslim imperialists target and kill fellow Muslims in far greater numbers than foreign powers.

The fear of stigma is cultural more than religious. The Quran contains plenty of passages about the need to display moral courage by standing up to abuse of power inside one’s own tribe. Islamic scripture also calls on Muslims to think rationally. There are three times more surahs advocating introspection and analysis than blind submission. In this sense, reformist Muslims are at least as authentic as the moderates and, quite frankly, more constructive.

More Muslims need to read — not simply recite — the Quran. Instead of reading, grappling with, and understanding it, many moderate Muslims simply repeat stale cultural shibboleths. Among the most damaging of these is the Arab custom of group honor, which intimidates moderate Muslims into silence lest they be accused of selling out their communities and dishonoring their families by sowing internal chaos and division. Group honor narrows the possibilities for individual liberty, freedom of thought, and personal responsibility. It victimizes women because they are assigned the burden of carrying familial shame. Men also face cultural pressures to conform to low expectations of behavior, which leads to their infantilization. In this way, both genders experience limited choices and lack of empowerment.

Arab cultural norms, with the assistance of petrodollars, have colonized the faith of Islam, undermining even traditionally pluralist and tolerant practices such as those of Indonesia. This reality is all the more disturbing given that 80 percent of Muslims worldwide are non-Arab. Yet instead of exposing the cultural imperialism that emanates from Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich neighbors, “moderate” Muslims tend to obsess about American, Israeli, and Indian colonialism. Out of defensiveness, they practice a dangerous form of distraction. This highlights the shortcomings of moderation — in theory, it is an admirable end state, but in practice, it is incapable of reclaiming Islam’s better angels.

Practically speaking, then, moderation may be the objective, but reform is the means to that end. Moderation as a destination is beautiful and Islamic, but only reform will generate the creative tension necessary to push Muslims out of their comfort zones and engage with the critical questions facing Islam.

In pursuing this goal, reformist Muslims can be assured of their religious integrity. Muslims are obliged to worship one God, not God’s self-appointed ambassadors. Because nobody can legitimately claim a monopoly on truth and knowledge, the paradoxical conclusion is that Muslims have a spiritual duty to build societies in which we can disagree with each other in peace and with civility. In short, commitment to one God obliges us to defend human liberty.

This summary was prepared by Patrick Schmidt for The Washington Institute.

Comments (1)

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    The country has become repressive in a way that it has not been since the Cultural Revolution. What does its darkening political climate—and growing belligerence—mean for the United States?

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