Is Liberty an Islamic Value?
KUALA LUMPUR: “Freedom, in my view, is central to Islam. It is actually within Islam’s DNA. A full commitment to being a Muslim really demands you to accept the concept of freedom. To deny or reject freedom is really to fundamentally, I think, misread the core message and moral trajectory of the Quran and the message of the Prophet Muhammad” said Dr. Nader Hashemi at Istanbul Network for Liberty’s webinar on Saturday, 24th February 2018.
Dr. Hashemi, who is currently an Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in University of Denver as well as the Director at the Center for Middle East Studies at the same university, stressed that there is a widely held view that Islam is a totalitarian religion that does not accept modern concepts such as freedom and liberty, be it from the Muslim world or non-Muslim world. In addition, the believe that ISIS embodies Islam and the reality of people such as Donald Trump and other right-wing authoritarian populist is seemingly increasing in popularity.
In the Muslim world, there are many who have negative views against the concept of freedom and liberty and view these ideas with scepticism and rejection as they believe that God has provided a “blueprint” or a “manual” for Muslims to follow that is contained in the Quran. Learned scholars among us have explained and interpreted these verses written in the Quran and all that is left to do for believing Muslims is to follow these rules and commandments of God as taught by these scholars. In this view of Islam, there is no freedom to choose, only to obey. To them, the concept of freedom and liberty is almost identical with moral perversion, chaos and the breakdown for social order thus leading to Muslims to argue that it is best to avoid such concept of freedom and stick to Islam as traditionally understood.
However, Dr. Hashemi mentioned that he rejects this widely held position as he sees Islam as a civilizational and religious tradition like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other religions that can be interpreted in different ways. While he respects the rights of Muslims to interpret their religious tradition in their own way, his own personal reading of Islam’s religious tradition is one that presents an interpretation of Islam that is fully compatible with liberty and freedom.
Even so, Dr. Hashemi acknowledged that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. According to him, all societies should and have established limits, and these limits are debated in a democratic context whereby the limits of freedom are to be agreed upon. Muslim societies, to an extend that they have a voice and ability, should engage in public conversation and deliberate on the question of freedom and liberty then collectively decide on what the limits are. However, at the same time, they should not reject the concept of freedom entirely and should not allow only a handful of people within their society to decide what those limits of freedom should be.
One of the key points of friction that often emerge on this debate of freedom and Islam is the issue of religious blasphemy which is a deep fear many Muslims have. They fear that if the concept of freedom is allowed in to the society, it allows people to target, ridicule and attack sacred symbols that are considered important elements of their religious identity such as the figure of Prophet Muhammad, his family and companion, as well as the Quran. Dr. Hashemi gave an example of Post-Arab Spring Tunisia during the writing of a new constitution whereby the issue of blasphemy and limits of freedom of expression was one of the most difficult issue to resolve. In their constitutional convention, some argued that if an article in the constitution for blasphemy was imposed, it could lead to abuse and human rights violation which will then lead to more problems. However, religious members of the constitutional delegation insisted on protection for the sacred symbols of Islam. In the end, the constitutional delegation was able to compromise and reach a balance accepted by both sides.
The webinar was attended by several individuals from different countries. Raza Ullah of Pakistan asked Dr. Hashemi on the role of religious scholars in law making and their position in state governance. To this, Dr. Hashemi replied that it is indeed a problem when the state appoints a group of religious scholars as the spokesperson for Islam as this leads to injustice. For example, if an individual has a different interpretation or understanding of Islam when compared to those said by state appointed religious scholars, he will surely be branded as an enemy of Islam and the State. The state will try and silence him while accusing him of being un-Islamic and an ally of Western powers. Dr. Hashemi stressed that religion have to be fundamentally freed from state control as when a state tries to control religion and notify the society how to believe and which interpretation of religion is more authentic, it will surely lead to a problem. He is fully in favour of religious scholar being active in public debates, sharing opinions and advising governments but the fundamental decision on what constitutes the law should not be given to the religious scholars but to the elected representatives of the people. In a situation whereby the state adheres to the decisions of religious scholars, it will often lead to a situation whereby one can see religious prosecution, human rights violation and political prisoners as in Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran and many other Islamic states.
Ahmad Luqman Fahmi from Malaysia questioned if there is any ‘un-Islamic’ concept of freedom in liberal Islam understanding to which Dr. Hashemi answered that anything which violated explicitly the teachings of the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet would be an un-Islamic understanding. He does not believe that the liberal understanding of Islam is a completely open terrain whereby people can say what they want. An ethical and modern understanding of Islam would still require engagement with the Islamic tradition which requires the interpretation of texts and debates from previous scholars which are as important as modern debates such as human rights, democracy and liberty.
Saleena of Singapore mentioned that she believes one of the basic principle in Islam is the enjoining of what is good and the forbidding of what is evil. Muslims look to their leaders (elected or otherwise) to implement this basic principle. There are several Muslim majority countries that have laws which forbid certain un-Islamic acts in the public sphere such as eating in public during Ramadan which has received fairly widespread public support. She then asked how would the ethical approach that Dr. Hashemi speak of handle such issues. Dr. Hashemi replied that there is no ethical issue towards the scenario whereby majority members of the society requested that people observe certain rules of abstaining food and drinks in the public spheres during Ramadan. However, he was reluctant to support the use of state coercion whereby there are cases when individuals whom are not observing those rituals during Ramadan was handled with force and sometimes imprisonment to stop them from consuming. He stressed that states are allowed to have a guideline but strongly objects to the idea that laws which allow the state to arrest, prison and punish Muslims that chose not to fast to be pass. Muslims should be able to choose if they would like to practice the religion and it is not the role of the State to tell Muslims what to do and what not to do.
Istanbul Network for Liberty held their second webinar of their 2018 Islam and Liberty Webinar Series with Dr. Nader Hashemi as the guest speaker. Istanbul Network CEO, Ali Salman, moderated the webinar. Dr. Hashemi spoke on whether “Is Liberty an Islamic Value” whereby he stressed that the concept of liberty and freedom is rooted in Islam which many are unaware of due to the traditional interpretation of Islam. “This challenge is an ethical challenge. It requires Muslims with goodwill to become specialist and are knowledgeable to go back and re-read original resources and come up with interpretation that are more ethical and in-keeping with modern challenges. That, fundamentally, is the way forward” exclaimed Dr. Hashemi. The webinar was joined by participants from Malaysia, Turkey, Singapore, the United Stated of America, United Kingdom and Pakistan.
*To watch the full webinar, please visit our YouTube channel here.
Reported by: Isabel Loke