Liberalism and Islamism: A Dialogue (Part 2)

Written by Islam Hussein. Posted in + دين, English Articles, ليبرالية +

I would first like to thank Mr. Khayrat’s rebuttal “On Liberalism and Islam: Responding to the Arguments of Secular Liberalists” to my article concerning the role of religion in society that was published on

Reading through Mr. Khayrat’s, I have to say that my overall reaction is one of confusion. Mr. Khayrat confuses liberalism with many other things that are not inspired by liberalism nor condoned by it. There also seems to be a confusion as to the definition of liberalism and of liberals. I will begin by defining liberalism and what makes for a liberal first. As far as I am concerned, if you agree with that principle then you are a liberal/liberalist (or whatever label you care to give to yourself), and that that label does not contradict the possibility that you are an Islamist.

Liberty and freedom are not owned by any one person, religion, geography, country or civilization. And liberalism, the philosophy of liberty and freedom, is not either. So let me first define liberalism and what makes someone a liberal.

The core principle of liberalism is to give the individual the right to choose for her/himself. The individual has the freedom to believe and use her/his God-given (rightfully-obtained) resources as they see best fit for her/himself. The only limit on an individual’s exercise of her/his freedom is respect of the same for other individuals in society.

If that is what Mr. Khayrat believes in then he, like myself, is a liberal. In that case, choosing to use “liberalist” as opposed to “liberal” seems to be an unnecessary relabeling of a concept that he and I agree on.

As I mention towards the end of my original article, the Quran is full of references respecting the right of the individual to choose and that without choice there can be no basis for judgement on Judgement Day. And because of that, I believe that Islam is at heart in complete agreement with liberalism. Islam is a Liberal religion.

The converse, however, is not true. One can be a perfect liberal yet not confess the faith of Islam. And that is understandable. Since Man was sent down to Earth and from the moment the utopia that existed in Heaven ceased to exist for Man, the question of freedom has always been pondered, debated and fought over. The struggle with it existed since before Muhamed came with his message and lasted after him. It has been debated by people who have never heard of him, nor even of Islam.

But Muslims also debated, thought about and contributed to the dialogue over the meaning and limits of freedom. Muslims, as an essential fabric in the evolution of Human civilization, shaped what we call today “liberalism”.

I personally use the word “liberal” transliterated into Arabic because of its convenience, not because I am Westernized. Alternative words include libertarian, which would be translated into “taharoriyya“, which I believe, as much as Islamists Mustafa Akyol (@AkyolinEnglish on Twitter and on the web) and Iyad El-Baghdadi (@iyad_elbaghdadi on Twitter and on the web) do, is in no conflict with the concept of liberty and personal liberalization in Islam.

The problem with the Islamist discourse of today is that it often ignores all the Quranic verses that emphasize the freedom of the Human spirit, the right to choose and behave (constrained by not harming others). Instead of pre-conditioning any policy or political action on these individual rights, they immediately look to the State, as well as the power that they will get in doing so, to enforce morality and an Islamist social order that can only be achieved by force of the State.

In my liberal Islamic view, an ideal Islamic society can never be enforced, but can only be arrived at via free discourse, preaching and debate.

It is because of that vision that I refuse to see the State as a mechanism to get to that destination. The State acts, by its very definition, through violence. Break the law, and you go to prison or get a fine. Fail to pay the fine, and you will then go to prison. In other words, if there is no direct violence, the threat of violence always looms over your head.

That feature of the State is something that Islamists overlook or choose to dismiss. To me, the State by its nature stands opposed to the principles of individual freedoms and rights that are preconditioned on everything in Islam.

In the original article, I described in some detail that the role of the State is to ensure that the democratic process that governs what happens in the public domain is administered without any biases that infringe on the rights of the individual in their freedom to believe, think and express themselves. And that is why I advocate a constitutional democracy. It is to preserve Islam in its pristine form and enforce the Islamic value of individual rights.

For the dialogue between Islamists and liberals to remain productive, I suggest that the discourse be focused. Above I chose a key point that Mr. Khayrat makes in his rebuttal and address it. I clarified my position and I wish that he or anyone else within the Muslim Brotherhood address.

As for the rest of his article, I am sorry to say that it commits many errors that I can only brush over here for clarification as I just see them as obfuscation and propagation of misinformation about liberalism.

Much of the rest of the article is simply guilt by association and character assassination.

Firstly, I am not presenting a benign picture of Liberalism as a sinister way to “block the Islamism road” –something Mr. Khayrat suggested in his piece. I am presenting liberalism in its naked form to show that Islam and liberalism do not contradict with each other even in their purest forms, and that there is a happy medium where we can reap the fortunes of liberalism while still holding on to our traditional Islamic and non-Islamic roots, especially the former.

And if the Islamist agenda seeks to achieve the virtues of an Islamic society by way of the force of the State then not only will they fail because it stands in confrontation to the only way of achieving such a virtuous society (i.e., by means of peaceful social mechanisms carried out by members and institutions of society and not by the State), yes, I will also stand to block the Islamism road by all peaceful means possible.

This also relates to Mr. Khayrat’s suggestion that I am seeking to “void [the State] of any value-content or even a human touch”. He’s right! That’s exactly what I am trying to do. Only the legislature can reflect the value and humaneness of society, but other than that a president or a judge is no more a human in conducting his job than a mechanic fixing a car or an engineer designing a building. Value and humanity can only exist in the legislature that reflects society.

The State is not a person and is not human. Humanity and value only exists within members of society. It is society where people live and interact, not in the State. It is in Society that humanity can exist by voluntary exchange and peaceful interactions, not in the State where exchange is neither voluntary nor peaceful.

As for the liberal program in modern Egypt since Muhamed Ali, I personally do not believe that Ali was a genuine liberal. Ali sought an empire and aggressed against other nations to build that empire. Aggression and war are neither liberal policies nor Islamic. The only legitimate use of force in Islam and Liberalism is that of self-defense.

Moreover, Ali sought to build a liberal bourgeoisie class, that eventually transformed into an entitled class that has evolved and changed faces over the decades up until Mubarak’s era. Liberalism by definition can not give privileges to any class or other group of people. Liberalism can not be built top-down as Ali did, but it can only be built bottom-up, not by the State but by members and institutions of society at a grassroots level. That is why I personally see Ali as well as all the leaders who came after him, as an upfront to true liberalism.

As for the imperialism of the West, that self describes itself as “liberal”, I will only recommend that Mr. Khayrat read more about the liberal movement in the West from John Locke to Richard Cobden (who fought imperialism and managed to end the imperialistic Corn Laws) to von Mises and von Hayek (who both fought against the transgressions of the State against other nations), to modern day Western anti-imperialist anti-war liberals. This confusion, if anything, shows the lack of understanding of Mr. Khayrat about liberalism and the struggle in the West between liberal and anti-liberal forces.

Defeat liberalism in Egypt, and you will end up with our own version of imperialism (internal –of us against ourselves– and external –against other nations). If imperialism is not good for others, it should not be good for us to carry out.

If Mr. Khayrat is interested in avoiding creating a fascist system of our own making in which we attack other nations (something Mr. Khayrat denounced when committed by Westerners) then I recommend that he reads more about Liberalism as well as about the liberal principles embedded in Islam.

Liberalism is an ideal which we as a nation should seek to live by. We will never, like others, fully live it, but we can do our best to get as close to that as we possibly can. If we do that, then our society will flourish in all aspects of life –the materialistic and the spiritual.


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