Friday, July 07, 2006

Islamism Can't Get Away from the West

Here's another essay I did while at St. Andrew's. My professor didn't like this one too much. I'd like to read any comments you -- my small, but incredibly smart readership -- have.

Is there a specifically “western” form of political Islam?

The simple answer is no, a specifically “western” form of political Islam does not exist. Yet, I will argue that while a specifically western form of Islam does not exist, there does exist more western forms of political Islam. The reason I take this nuanced approach is that political Islam cannot get away from “the West.” For Islamists, whether of the fundamentalist veneer or the more liberal variety, the main referent is the West, whether or not they acknowledge it. They can either be repelled by it as something alien or “Other” and therefore opposed to it or it can function as something to be accommodated within their project to repoliticize Islam, but it can never be completely evaded. This is because Islamist discourse appropriates the discourse of the West – concepts such as the state, vanguard, revolution, freedom, democracy – and tries to situate it in an Islamic context, sometimes using imprecise Arabic words from the Koran as facsimiles.

To demonstrate the Islamist’s preoccupation with the West and its appropriation of its discourse, I will engage with the two opposing poles of Islamism. To the right lies the fundamentalist position of Sayyid Qutb, which regarded the West, especially liberal democracy, as the antithesis of Islam, yet sought to keep the West’s technological innovation. Nevertheless, Qutb’s discourse has more in common with Marxist-Leninism and Che Guevara’s “New Man” with his talk of revolution and vanguard than anything in the Koran.

At the left pole reside the modern liberal Islamists that argue that western concepts such as freedom, democracy and reason have specific Islamic corollaries. They do not see a contradiction between Muslims following Islam and participating democratically in a modern, secular society. Using Arabic words such as hurriya (liberty), shura (consultation) and ijtihad (rational interpretation) they seek to demonstrate the compatibility between traditional Islamic concepts and modern liberal democratic concepts.

By juxtaposing the rejectionism of Qutb with the accomodationism of the liberal Islamists, liberal Islamism can therefore be rightfully conceptualized as a more westernized form of political Islam. Unlike fundamentalists like Qutb, liberal Islamists believe individuals should be free to worship as they please, free to participate politically, and free to interpret the Koran as they see fit according to the needs of modern Muslims living in the twenty-first century. Most importantly, liberal Islamists argue Islam or more specifically the shari’a may provide guidance for the law but is not the nizam or all encompassing system fundamentalists argue it to be. The shari’a is therefore not a legal system; it is ethics.

To show how the ideational influences reactions to real world situations, I will show how Muslims in the West’s reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy demonstrates liberal Islamism’s influence toward liberal democratization as opposed to the fundamentalist and illiberal Islamist response throughout the Muslim world earlier this year. I will conclude with thoughts relating to whether the rise of liberal Islamism and its tangible manifestations relating to the Danish cartoon controversy demonstrates Islam and liberal democracy are not as contradictory as previously thought.

Conceptual Clarification

One of the main barriers to understanding political Islam and its uneasy relationship to concepts such as the West and liberal democracy is clarifying what we mean by these terms. Therefore I want to take a short interlude to define precisely what I mean by these concepts.

Unlike Bassam Tibi , I do not agree that political Islam coincides primarily with fundamentalism. Rather I agree with Robin Wright that political Islam “is not a monolith; its spectrum is broad.” Fundamentalism is only one variant of political Islam or what Wright more accurately deems “Islamism” in accord with most scholars. Islamists, whether of the fundamentalist or liberal vein, are attempting to use Islam to solve the crisis of fragmentation felt by modernity. The arena for this struggle is the political. This can be as disparate as waging jihad, or holy war, such as Al Qaeda or running in elections like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Whatever their shade, Islamists are fixated on the West.

The West is not merely a geographical location. The West functions as a subject. It is the originator and perpetrator of modernity: the idea that knowledge and truth come from rational inquiry into nature without divine guidance. Culturally, modernity sees the person as:
…an autonomous subject/individual free to discover and master nature and place it at the service of one own society for fulfilling human needs. This worldview is both secular and man-centered, and as such required the replacing of the cosmological views of the world by a rational worldview based on modern science.
It is primarily in this cultural sense that fundamentalists like Qutb concentrate their antagonism toward the West.

The political organization that originated out of the modern project was liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is constructed from the notion that the free citizen en masse wields political power and not God or his intercessors. Individuals are free and equal under the law made consensually by the citizenry through their elected representatives. Simply put, liberal democracy in practice is “the general method of choosing or removing governments that developed in England and then spread among English-speaking peoples and beyond.” As we will see, Sayyid Qutb rejected all that was culturally western as jahiliya or pre-Islamic ignorance.

The Ironic Rejectionism of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb’s rejection of the West, especially its cultural aspect, is logical when starting from his initial premise that Islam is an all-encompassing system that regulates all life for all time. Islam is not a mere religion in this view, but a system devised by the divine and bequeathed to man through the prophet Muhammad. Allah “made it to be a guide for all the inhabitants of this planet in all their affairs until the end of time.” It is as political as it is religious for the two are inextricably meshed together. Sovereignty remains God’s alone. Any deviation from the Islamic system of shari’a that acknowledges God’s sovereignty is therefore jahiliya.

This Jahiliyyah is based on rebellion against God's sovereignty on earth. It transfers to man one of the greatest attributes of God, namely sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others. It is now not in that simple and primitive form of the ancient Jahiliyyah, but takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behavior, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed. The result of this rebellion against the authority of God is the oppression of His creatures.
This directly relates to why Qutb believed democracy was idolatrous. Sovereignty was situated in the human person rather than Allah. The rules that governed the society did not stem from a perfect divine source, but through the collective and flawed desires of the human political collective. The only outcome from “this rebellion” could be “the oppression of His creatures.” The West and its sovereignty of man (and not to mention its colonialilsm) fit perfectly Qutb’s typology of what constituted jahiliya and what Islam was the polar opposite of. Nevertheless, as Qutb would propound his theory of Islam against the cultural modernity of the West, he would ironically draw on the concepts associated with the West’s modern project to reject it. The West is always present in Qutb’s writing, whether setting the terms of the debate or as the subject to be fought against.

Qutb’s Pseudo-Western Discourse

First, Qutb uses thoroughly modern terms such as sovereignty and the state which have no relation to Islam. Sovereignty as a concept arose out of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that resulted in the creation of the modern state system based on a secular foundation, which ironically ended religious warfare. In Milestones, Qutb equates the Arabic phrase “La ilaha illa Allah” (There is no deity but Allah) with sovereignty, stating that during the Meccan period Muhammad and his followers “knew that 'Uluhiyah' means 'sovereignty.'” Qutb provides no evidence that the two concepts share the same denotation.

Moreover, Qutb concentrates his attention on the shari’a or what he terms “the divinely ordained law” as a legal system in the modern sense. Qutb’s conception of the shari’a is an all-encompassing system of governance.
…[T]he Shari'ah which God has given to man to organize his life is also a universal law, as it is related to the general law of the universe and is harmonious with it. This obedience to the Shari'ah becomes a necessity for human beings so that their lives may become harmonious and in tune with the rest of the universe…
Whereas Qutb conceives of shari’a in the modern sense as an enforceable legal system governing the Islamic state as well as all life, scholars today argue shari’a did not mean anything approximating Qutb’s definition in the Koran itself. As Bassam Tibi notes, the term shari’a occurs only once in the Koran. Husain Fawzi al-Najjar, a critic of the Islamic state concept, asks the necessary question of fundamentalists for whom Scripture is the be all and end all of Islam: “If Islam was meant to be a political order, then why does the Qur’an leave this issue without further clarification?” As we will see with more liberally inclined Islamists, shari’a is an ethical framework, not a divinely revealed legal system in which punishment is derived. Worse, Qutb violates his own fundamentalist tenets, as the shari’a was not constructed into a coherent legal body until the eighth century, long after Muhammad’s death and his revelations termination. This is why Tibi argues it is a post-Qur’anic construction.

But the most striking modern aspect of Qutb’s theory for change in Milestones is his reliance on Marxist-Leninist terminology. Much like Lenin’s vanguard that would hasten the day communism spread the world by conquering one state at a time, Qutb conceptualized an eerily similar program for Islamic militants.
It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination [to begin the “Islamic revival in some Islamic country”] and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah which has encompassed the entire world. During its course, it should keep itself somewhat aloof from this all-encompassing Jahiliyyah and should also keep some ties with it.

Much like the Bolsheviks before him, Qutb argued this Islamic vanguard would wage the struggle for the Islamic system through a worldwide revolution, albeit dressed up Islamically as jihad. Jihad, or striving, was the means to reestablish God’s authority on earth and thus the Islamic vanguard “has the right to take the initiative… It has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions which limit man's freedom of choice.” Yet, Qutb does not allow humans the freedom of choice to govern themselves, because it would deny God his rightful sovereignty:
“In all other systems, human beings obey other human beings and follow man-made laws. Legislation is a Divine attribute; any person who concedes this right to such a claimant, whether he considers him Divine or not, has accepted him as Divine.”
Human legislation is therefore heresy, meaning democracy as a political framework is jahiliya and must be abolished. Therefore Qutb resides in the rejectionist wing of political Islam where western concepts like state, revolution, and freedom are Islamicized and projected back into a past that never existed to create a totalitarian state governed by a legal system ostensibly derived from God. Thus, Qutb’s theory and program has ironically more in common with the Communists he so hated and the Soviet Union they spawned than anything in Islam’s history.

Whereas Qutb believed the Koran justified a political system governed by God, liberal Islamists argue that same Koran justifies a more open society by stressing Islamic concepts they argue are close, if not synonymous, with liberal democratic discourse. They provide the closest thing to a westernized form of political Islam operating today.

The Accomodationism of Liberal Islamism

Liberal Islamism should be seen as a direct confrontation with Qubt’s fundamentalist Islamism, seeking to accommodate Islam within Western modernity. It is a movement that argues fundamentalists like Qutb have hijacked Islam and its terminology through misinterpretation for rigid ends. As Gudrun Kramer observes:
Moderate, pragmatic Islamists…are remarkably flexible with respect to modes of political organization, providing for institutionalized checks on the ruler in the form of separations of powers, parliamentary rule, and in some cases even multiple parties. They are more positive than is often acknowledged concerning the protection of human rights, which are generally founded on duties toward God but nevertheless widely seen as part of the common heritage of all humankind.
As such, it is a movement seeking at best dialogue and reconciliation with the West or at least détente, by highlighting certain Islamic concepts that show compatibility with liberal democracy. I will therefore look at these concepts – hurriya (liberty), adl (justice), shura (consultation), and ijtihad (rational interpretation) – through the work of liberal Islamists such as, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Laith Kubba, Radwan A. Masmoudi, and Abdul Karim Soroush.

Before analyzing these concepts, I think its important from the start to address liberal Islamists’ views on the shari’a. Whereas the fundamentalists believe the shari’a to be of divine revelation and legally binding, liberal Islamists counter the shari’a functions as a moral ethos, is historically contingent, and therefore flexible to whatever changing times require. Take for instance Laith Kubba. He affirms his belief in the Koran as the divinely revealed scripture of Islam, stating, “Islamic authority is the Koran’s alone.” And if the Koran is the be all and end all of Islam, then the shari’a, as previously shown, appears only once without elaboration. Kubba underscores this, observing, “…if we refer to shari’a law there is no holy book called Shari’a.” Being outside the Koran, the shari’a is the not the immutable law of God, but a contextual human interpretation of Islamic morality within the Koran. Agreeing, Abou Filali-Ansary quotes Fazlur Rahman: “Islamic law…is not strictly speaking law, since much of it embodies moral and quasi-moral precepts not enforceable in any court.”

When shari’a law is seen as a human construction and prone to evolution with changing times and not the immutable legal system bequeathed by a sovereign God to humanity, it provides an Islamic glasnost, where traditional Islamic concepts can be drawn on to fit modern contingencies. Soroush’s understanding of shari’a is illustrative of this viewpoint: "Shari'a is something expandable. You cannot imagine the extent of its flexibility,”…"in an Islamic democracy, you can actualize all its potential flexibilities.” I will now turn to the three most compatible Islamic concepts with liberal democracy.

Much as Qutb tried to Islamicize western concepts such as state and revolution, liberal Islamists are guilty of the same conceptual importations from the west – specifically freedom. According to Bernard Lewis, “the use of ‘freedom’ as a political term was an imported novelty, dating only from the time of the French Revolution and General Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s arrival in Egypt in 1789.” To Muslims, “freedom” had only the shallowest meaning in relation to its western connotation and “meant simply the condition of not being a slave.” Nevertheless, scholars should not fall into the trap of essentialism and deny Islamists the chance to culturally modernize as Christians and Jews did previously. What matters is that liberal Islamists are favorably addressing “freedom”, in the broadest sense.

As Radwan A. Masmoudi explains hurriya is the Islamic approximate of the West’s liberty. Masmoudi stresses that God created human beings free and therefore are free to think what they choose, free to believe in whatever religion they choose, and free to move wherever on earth they choose. As Masmoudi argues, “Without freedom, life and religion have no meaning and no flavor. God, in his unlimited wisdom, intended human beings to be free.” Abdul Karim Soroush agrees, but provides a deeper philosophical reason for God’s gift of freedom to human beings. To believe in God, one must be free. If an individual is coerced or forced to accept belief, it is false and adhered to because of fear of punishment. To remain free and a true believer according to Soroush’s logic is also to retain the liberty to leave the faith.

Bernard Lewis also points out that civil disobedience exists legitimately within Islam, although it does take on a more theological cask. While obedience is an obligation of the ruled to the ruler, it can lapse if the ruler commands something sinful. Unlike western political thought such as that of Henry David Thoreau where civil disobedience is a right, in Islam there is a “divinely ordained duty of disobedience.”

Freedom matters on more pragmatic grounds as well. If Muslim countries are to succeed in the modern, globalized world and violence extremism is to be defeated, Masmoudi argues freedom is the only cure. If the freedoms associated with liberal democracy are expanded – those of the press, of religion, of thought and of association – then an open debate about the problems affecting the Muslim world can be breached. If that means Islamists come to power, it is for the best. The only way for Islamists to come to terms with democracy is for them to be experience democracy. Masmoudi points to the different trajectories Turkey and Algeria to bolster his argument. Islamist inclusion in Turkey led to a semblance of democracy while Islamist exclusion in Algeria led to a spiral of chaos and violence.

For Orientalists, the notion of a pluralist democracy functioning within an Islamic context is a contradiction. Yet Gudrun Kramer observes that pluralist democracy is being called for throughout the Islamic world or at least its basic tenets – the rule of law, human rights, political participation, government control, and accountability – through the Islamic concept of the shura. As Kramer argues, the shura is “the idealized Islamic concept of participation -qua- consultation.” The concept of shura appears twice in two short Koranic passages. Tibi writes:
The first honors “[those] who avoid gross sins and indecencies and, when angered, are willing to forgive, [those] who obey their Lord, attend to their prayers, and ‘conduct their affairs by mutual consent”…(Qur’an: Surat al-Shura, 42/37-38). The second passage is in the sura of ‘Imran: “Take counsel with them in the conduct of affairs…” (Qur’an: ‘Imran, 3/159).
Again, while Tibi argues shura is the historical leftover of the “pre-Islamic system of intertribal consultation among the leaders of ethnic groups,” all that matters is that the concept of shura is being used to derive modern notions of democratic processes and norms.

Radwan A. Masmoudi is illustrative of this trend to reconcile the concept of shura with liberal democracy. For Masmoudi, God is a benevolent being that loathes oppression. If human beings are to remain free then the decisions of the community must be made collectively, free of coercion. Bordering on a form of direct democracy, Masmoudi argues, “[c]onsultation must include all members of the community and must be binding on the rulers or officeholders.” He forcefully argues that the Prophet intentionally did not pick a successor to his rule so that the community of believers would freely elect their leaders. Masmoudi therefore travels in a popular Islamist notion that democracy was an originally Islamic concept adapted by the West and not vice versa.

It should be noted that shura is only a limited approximation of liberal democracy, which underscores why I argue liberal Islamism is only the most western form of political Islam. According to Kramer, even liberal Islamists have a problem privileging the political over the religious (which we’ll see when we turn to the Danish cartoon debate). Although there is recognition that God created human beings as diverse creatures, “and that therefore differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) are natural, legitimate, and even beneficial to humankind and the Muslim community.” There’s an important caveat: Differences of opinion must “remain within the confines of the faith and of common decency.” As Kramer strongly concludes, “The bottom line remains: There can be no toleration of, and no freedom for, the enemies of Islam – the hypocrite, the skeptic and the atheist, the libertarian and the subversive.” Therefore, western notions of rights – especially freedom of expression – would be severely circumscribed by shura.

Ijtihad, or rational interpretation, may be the most important concept to liberal Islamism for it allows reinterpretation of Islamic concepts such as hurriya and shura to accommodate changing times. Abdou Filali-Ansary explicates the logic of this new position well; he calls it “enlightened” Muslim thought. “Enlightened” Muslim thought denies the ahistoric essentialism of the fundamentalists and opts for modern epistemological premises. Islam, therefore, cannot be separated from the historical contexts in which it originated and evolved from for almost one and a half millenniums. Nevertheless, it affirms that the norms that emanated from the Prophet are of divine origin and universal in application. The most important living expression of enlightened Muslim thought according to Filali-Ansary is Abdul Karim Soroush.

The most pressing issue for Soroush is to reopen the doors of ijtihad closed by the conservative ulema or religious scholars. The responsibility of this lies with the modern Muslim intellectual. Soroush advocates that the modern Muslim intelligentsia engage in a critical reading of the Islamic corpus of texts. The aim is to find solutions that fit as snuggly as possible between Islam and modernity. In Soroush’s thought, the Muslim intellectual acts as a bridge between two worlds. He is “a hybrid species”…which…. “emerged in the liminal space between modern ideas and traditionalist thought.” His objective is to take the best from the Islamic tradition and the best of modernity without catering to the historically based dogmas of either.

One interesting direction Soroush takes this is concerning the ulema. The ulema is not a clerical hierarchy and therefore has no a priori right to rule like it does in Soroush’s Iran. With no special privileges accorded to them, they are equal with the general population politically. Thus in Soroush’s “Islamic Democracy,” whoever wins popular election would govern the society. This helps to maintain the integrity of Islam since the ulema are “freed” from being pawns of the state (in Sunni countries) or its people (in Shiite communities). In this, Soroush’s logic sounds familiar to the western liberal tradition’s separation of church and state.

Masmoudi can also be seen as advocating the same position to Soroush regarding ijtihad. According to him, God has prescribed moral goals to be achieved on earth for justice to prevail. Muslims, with revelation’s guidance, must do their best to see that these goals are achieved using the intellectual trinity: reason, knowledge, and faith. Because Islam did not confer power on a clergy or a hierarchy, it is all Muslims’ duty to voice their opinions on critical social issues. Passionately, Masmoudi writes, “It is vital for the Muslim ummah today that the doors of ijtihad – closed for some 500 years – be reopened.

“A glimmer of hope” for a more liberal Islam, Masmoudi argues, lies in those Muslims who escaped both the secular fundamentalism and the Islamic fundamentalism reigning throughout the Muslim world and emigrated to the West and “now live in freedom.” These Muslims have the ability to prop the door of ijtihad open for the foreseeable future. They have the ability to modernize Islam and promote “liberal and moderate views of Islam in the Muslim world.” To evaluate how well the thought of liberal Islamists has hewed to the line of democratic norms, I will compare the reaction of Muslims in the West, where liberal Islamism is strong, with Muslims in the Middle East, where it is weak, to the Danish cartoon controversy.

Between Freedom of Expression and Blasphemy
The controversy and violence that surrounded the publication of caricatures of Muhammad -- the most explosive being a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb for his turban – pits liberal democracy’s freedom of expression against the Islam’s injunction not to produce likenesses of the Prophet or blasphemy against his name. The reaction in much of the Islamic world demonstrates that religious values still have hegemony over more liberal politics values. In reaction to the cartoon’s repeated publication, Saudi Arabia pulled its ambassadors from Denmark while Libya closed its embassy there. Boycotts of Danish goods led to a steep decline in sales for Danish companies in the Middle East. Yet, boycotts and the closure of embassies, however illiberal, still fit into a democratic framework of protest even if the protest is against freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, protests did not remain within the liberal democratic framework throughout the Middle East. As Hamas and Fattah organized large protests in Gaza and the West Bank, an imam at a popular mosque called for those responsible for the cartoons to be beheaded. In Nablus, an imam preached, “If they want a war of religions, we are ready.” In Ramallah, protestors burnt a Danish flag, chanting, “Bin Laden our beloved, Denmark must be blown up.” Protests organized by Islamic political parties in Pakistan set fire to Danish and French flags. Indonesian Islamists in Jakarta went on a destructive spree within the building that held the Danish embassy. Syrian protestors were more successful, burning down both the Danish and the Norwegian embassies. The protestors chanted, “With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God.” In Afghanistan, several died in riots against the cartoons while police in Bangladesh had to beat back 10,000 protestors marching on the Danish embassy. Underscoring the Muslim world’s misunderstanding of Western society, Khader Habib, leader of Islamic Jihad, stated, “So far we have demanded an apology from the governments, but if they continue their assault on our dear Prophet Mohammad, we will burn the ground underneath their feet.” This implies that Habib does not understand the structure of liberal democracies in the West or that the press is separate from the government and free from its control. This underscores the great strides need to be made in the Islamic world, for if and when Islamists come to power, like the authoritarians they so hate in power currently, freedom of the press will be fragile, if nonexistent.

Apart from a small number of death threats aimed at the cartoonists responsible for the Mohammad drawings and other isolated threats of violence, Muslim protests throughout the West remained within the liberal tradition of peaceful protests. In Dublin, 300 marched peacefully. The protest’s organizer Sheikh Dr Shaheed Satardien said the peaceful march was an “appeal to our Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world to stop the violence in the name of Mohammed.” Summoning the concept of shura, Anas Altikriti, a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, said “We want to move on to positive dialogue.” At a peaceful protest in Montreal, Canada, more liberal sentiment was evoked. An imam and the protest’s spokesman Said Jaziri told reporters, “We are here to denounce the insult to the prophet, we are not here to be provoked. We are here to condemn violence on all sides.” Protestor Metin Selvi agreed, “Muslims are portrayed as terrorists, but we are not terrorists. We want democracy, we are for the respect of all the prophets, for all religions. All we want is equal respect." (my itl.) Other peaceful protests occurred in Paris, Berlin and other European countries as well. In the United States, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) rejected a violent response to the caricatures of Muhammad. Using the concept of universal rights over religious duty, CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper stated, “Everyone has the right to peacefully protest defamatory attacks on their religious figures, but protesters should not reinforce existing stereotypes by resorting to violence or inflammatory rhetoric.”

What we can see in western Muslim’s response to the cartoon controversy is an interaction between Masmoudi’s “glimmer of hope” and Olivier Roy’s “westernization of Islam.” Whereas Masmoudi’s Muslims in the West, free from the fundamentalisms of the Islamic world, are redefining what it means to be a Muslim, Roy’s observation bears out that “[e]ach Western country integrates Islam according to its own paradigms, and Muslim citizens tend to express their identity through these Western models” with Muslims expressing their grievances through their right to assemble peacefully while talking of tolerance and freedom of religion rather than retribution and the religious absolutism experienced in the Muslim world. These two phenomena interacting together produce the most western form of political Islam, and in some circumstances (e.g. CAIR) possibly produce merely Muslim liberals content to keep their religion private and interact politically in a secular, liberal democratic space.

A specifically western form of political Islam cannot exist because political Islam is inextricably tied to the West, whether it defines itself as the opposite of the West in the fundamentalist strain or seeks to accommodate the West in the more liberal strain. Whether political Islam wants to topple the West in pursuit of an Islamic world or bring the fruits of modernity – both technical and cultural – it cannot get away from conceptualizing its objectives in Western terms, however hard its proponents try to re-lslamicize them. For fundamentalists, the talk of making the world safe for Islam comes primarily through Marxist-Leninist theory as the Islamic vanguard seeks to replace the sovereignty of man with God by conquering states through revolution or jihad and instituting the shari’a or divine law, which is institutionalized like in modern legal systems.

For liberal Islamists, their insistence on the right of Muslims to ijtihad or rational interpretation, allows them to rescue traditional Islamic concepts such as hurriya and shura and modernize them to fit liberal democratic concepts such as freedom and democracy. Like the fundamentalists, liberal Islamists believe the Koran is the immutable, timeless revelation of God to mankind, yet unlike them, they believe everything after the revelation is historically contingent and represents Muslims’ attempt to apply the Koran’s moral truths to changing times. This difference is critical in explaining the divergent trajectories fundamentalist and liberal Islamist thought takes. As the more liberal Islamists point out, shari’a is not divine law, but a system of Islamic jurisprudence based on the Koran that was not codified to well after the death of the Prophet. It is therefore a human construction and open to interpretation. Ijtihad therefore opens Islam to reconciliation or at least détente to western conceptions of liberal democracy, because the right to interpretation logically leads to difference which leads pluralism, however constrained. Therefore, liberal Islamism can be rightfully deemed a more western form of political Islam.

The Danish cartoon controversy bears this out. Whereas much of the Muslim world saw violent protests stoked by fundamentalist Islamists, Muslims in the West were mostly content to peacefully protest and exert their liberal democratic rights in the face of what is considered blasphemous in Islam. At least in this instance, the religious took a backseat to the democratic and that is an encouraging development in the evolving relationship between the West and political Islam’s more liberal strain.


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