This post was written by Senior Local Coordinator Luca Bertoletti
These days, there is a growing minority who believe that Islam needs to be banned in our countries, that it’s not a peaceful religion, and that Muslims who believe in peace need to convert to Christianity.
But what is Islam? Does Islam really want only war and destruction? Or is it more closer with classical liberalism than we can think?
At first sight, the social, economic, ethical, and political connotations of Islam might give the impression to be unfavourable for believers in liberalism.
Superficially it looks like to have features of authoritarianism or even totalitarianism: Islam is an all-embracing creed that provides its followers with certain and indubitable knowledge of ethics, law and religion.
Important is, also, the fusion of church, as well as scepticism about fundamental ethical and political truth, which is absent in Islamic doctrine.
Professor Norman Barry, in his article Civil Society, Religion and Islam, tries to explain why we can say that Islam is not so far from classical liberalism.
Berry’s article is concentrated first on the character of Islamic law. That sovereignty ends in God means that there can be no absolute sovereign.
According to Barry’s view, the lawmaking process in Islamic traditions is also very interesting in his opinion. In Islam, there is an Hayekian understanding of lawmaking, that is no final and absolute power to make law but it comes from individuals.
In the last part of his article, Prof. Barry speaks about ethical imperatives in Islam, such as respecting human beings, even including enemies, and the Islamic idea of human rights.
It is not too difficult to read about a set of human rights in Islam which, according to Professor Berry, “is not radically different from Lockean tradition of the West”.
Indeed, in 1981 a very important document, titled “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Human Rights in Islam” was published. This document put Islamic human rights theory in the context of contemporary debate.
There are a lot of similarities between Western and Islamic approaches. There are not only the fundamental rights of human beings but also in this document we can read the conventional clams to freedom of thought and discussion, including religious freedom, property, dissent, non-discrimination (including LGBT rights), and free movement.
At the end, Professor Berry, after pointing out so many positive points in Islam with respect to its relation with civil society and market economy, raises a very important question: “Why have Islamic countries, with of course some exception, not been recognised as part of mainstream liberal social and political theory since much of its doctrine is consisted with it?”
It is not difficult to share Barry’s conviction that “Muslim states took the wrong doctrines from the West and many ideas which are alien to pure Islamic tradition,” but, I believe this answer is not sufficient to explain the problem in itself.
To explain it, we have to ask: can Islam co-exist with the modernity?
Like every religion I think yes, it can. But exploring that, we should reject a prejudice.
This suggests that Islamic religion is irrational. This view should be rejected because it fails to recognise the centrality of religious and experience to so much of human society, Islam, as well Christianity, as well as Judaism and many more. At least the people who spread this idea do not say anything about what might be put in its place (we cannot convert 1.57 billion people to Christianity or make 6 billion people Atheists).
Islam is not the problem it is often presented to be even thought it is true that there have been Muslim tyrants — as many, perhaps, as there have been Christian, or Hindu ones.
Islam is not in contrast with democracy or modernity.
The key to understanding this, is to understand that Islam recognizes that a religion cannot hug the entire society for as long as there are people who don’t believe in it. It has therefore concerned itself with the question of the treatment of those who dissent from its teachings.
The earliest Muslim community had its origins in the seventh century as a persecuted minority in Mecca. As is well-known, Muhammed and his followers eventually left Mecca for Medina in order to establish a community of the faithful.
Nevertheless, when the success of Muhammed’s mission saw the expansion of the Islamic community, it was itself forced to address the question of how to deal with the diverse people, and what forms of diversity to accept in its community. Its response was to develop a political tradition which was remarkable for its tolerance of non-Muslim communities.
Islam today, particularly in the west, conjures up images of fanaticism and intolerance. Yet much of its history is in contrast with this impression.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantine empire was destroyed under the force of Islamic expansion, and Muslim armies eventually overran the Persian empire before also taking the regions of Syria, Iraq, North Africa, southern Europe and Spain. These areas, many of which were already subjugated to foreign rulers, particularly in Byzantine and Persian territories, were re-purposed to Islamic ones.
Islam, for the most part, proved more reasonable and tolerant, and more disposed to grant its populations a measure of local autonomy — with lower rates of taxation. To Jews and Christians it accorded greater toleration than they had been accorded until that time.
In fact, the local Christian churches had also helped the invading Muslim armies to escape persecution for “heresy” that had suffered at the hands of Christian orthodoxy.
The Muslim rulers left existing governmental institutions intact, and left religious communities free to govern their own internal affairs according to their own faiths.
To be sure, these rulers sought to eliminate idolatry and paganism, and regarded Islam as the one true religion. But the Islamic ideal demanded that others be invited and persuaded to convert, not forced.
If they refused, they were to be left in peace. This was most notably so in Jerusalem, which had been captured by Muslim armies in 638 CE. Under Muslim rule, not only were Christian churches left unharmed, but Jews, long banned from the city by Christian rulers, were allowed to return in several centuries of peaceful coexistence, brought to an end only by the Crusades.
The point of noting all this, is not to insist that Islam’s history is stainless, or that those of its rivals are bloody.
Like any tradition with a history spanning centuries, it has had its periods of stagnation as well as its periods of flowering. And those traditions have varied from the harshly austere, to the mysticism of Sufism.
Now, we can find a lot of Muslim countries where the minorities are protected: Morocco, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan, as well as Iraq before the fall of Saddam, Indonesia and many more.
Within Islam’s traditions, we find not only the practice of toleration but also the concepts which give it theoretical expression: concepts of opposition and disagreement, consensus and consultation, and freedom of thought and expression.
Like that of any doctrine, Islam’s humanity and capacity for toleration depends on questions of interpretation.
In the Qu’ran, the injunction to Fight to defend Islam (jihad) is capable of of many interpretations, but not all consistent with the use of armed force to persecute non-believers.
In the same way, if you read the Leviticus book of Bible, as well some sentences of the Gospel according to Luke, you can get a lot of interpretations. Fortunately, not all of them consist with the use of armed force to kill the non-believers.
Luca was born in 1990 in Brescia, Italy. He studies economics and political science at the University of Milan and is a Senior Local Coordinator for Students For Liberty.