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The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl (Beacon Press)

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Questioning Liberalism, Too

A response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”

Saba Mahmood

8Khaled Abou El Fadl’s essay is an erudite attempt to explore those principles and values within Islamic political and legal traditions that could be made compatible with ideas of liberal democracy. Abou El Fadl joins a growing number of scholars who have been writing on this theme in the last three decades—some of these writers are located in the Muslim world and others in Europe and the United States. These thinkers represent a wide spectrum of political perspectives: some of them are supporters of the reformist trend within the Islamist movement (such as Tariq al-Bishri in Egypt, the Tunisian scholar Rashid al-Ghannouchi, who lives in exile in France, and Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran), and others espouse a more straightforward secular-liberal line (such as Said Ashmawi in Egypt, Nurcholish Madjid in Indonesia, and Aziza al-Hibri in the United States). The increased attention that the Western media has recently given to these explorations is an indication of the hope that “liberal Islam” has been invested with, following the events of September 11, a potential resource for “saving Islam” from its more militant and fundamentalist interpreters.

What’s curious to me is that in these explorations by Muslim scholars Islam bears the burden of proving its compatibility with liberal ideals, and the line of question is almost never reversed. We do not ask, for example, what would it mean to take the resources of the Islamic tradition and question many of the liberal political categories and principles for the contradictions and problems they embody? Or, how would one rethink these problems by bringing the resources of Islamic political history to bear upon them? For instance, many of the aforementioned authors, including Khaled Abou El Fadl, urge that liberal conceptions of individual autonomy, human rights, and individual freedom be incorporated into Islam. Thus Abou El Fadl argues in his essay that the “Qur’anic celebration and sanctification of human diversity” should be made the ground for incorporating what appears to be a liberal conception of tolerance: “an ethic that respects dissent and honors the right to adhere to different religious or non-religious convictions.” It is striking that the normative claims of liberal conceptions such as tolerance are taken at face value, and no attention is paid to the contradictions, struggles, and problems that these ideals actually embody. As scholars of liberalism have shown, the historical trajectory of a concept like tolerance encompasses violent struggles that dispossessed peoples have had to wage to be considered legitimate members of liberal societies—not to mention the ongoing battles about what it means “to tolerate” someone or something, who does the tolerating and who is tolerated, under what circumstances, and toward what end. Given this fraught history, is it not worth pausing to reflect whether other traditions, such as Islam, might have their own resources for imagining such an “ethic that respects dissent and honors the right to adhere to different religious or non-religious convictions?”

There were different conceptions of religious and communal coexistence, for example, that informed the social and political life of the diverse communities that lived under the Ottoman Empire and even under Mughal rule in South Asia. These conceptions were not organized around the problem of majority and minority populations. In the Ottoman system, for instance, non-Muslim communities were vertically integrated into a hierarchical ruling structure, but had their own independent legal systems. This mutual accommodation enabled different social groups living under a shared political structure to practice distinct ways of life; life-worlds were the preconditions for the individual’s existence, rather than the objects of individual interests as they are conceived within liberal democratic thought. The system did not make non-Muslims the social or legal equals of Muslims, but it did grant them a certain autonomy to practice and develop their traditions in a manner that is almost inconceivable under the present system of nation-states. The reason I bring up this different understanding of coexistence is not because I believe in its moral superiority, or consider it to be an example from the Islamic tradition that could be made commensurable with a liberal understanding of tolerance. Rather I want to use this history to ask what I think is a far more interesting set of questions, such as: how does this history make us rethink the politics of tolerance and pluralism beyond the confines of individualism to include the rights of plural social groupings? Or, for that matter, to ask whether the liberal meaning of tolerance is the best or the most desirable one; what does this understanding preclude, under what kinds of presuppositions, and for whom?

I believe the reason these kinds of questions are seldom pursued is because of the hegemony that liberalism commands as a political ideal for many contemporary Muslim intellectuals, a hegemony that reflects the enormous disparity in power between the Anglo-European countries and what constitutes the “Muslim world” today. Indeed, the idea that the liberal political system is the best arrangement for all human societies, regardless of their diverse histories and conceptual and material resources, is rarely questioned these days. One would think that proponents of “pluralism and diversity” in the world, like Abou El Fadl, would want to explore some of the contrasting ways that questions of difference have been imagined and politically instituted within different non-liberal traditions.

It should also be pointed out that Khaled Abou El Fadl’s essay is largely a philosophical exercise, one that does not take into account the practical impediments to the institutionalization of democracy in the Muslim world. Had he been concerned with practical issues, he would have had to deal with complicated questions such as why some of the worst violations of democracy in the name of Islam have been perpetrated by states (such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan) which have been propped up by liberal democracies like the United States—support without which these states would not have survived in their present form. A more practical engagement would also have had to deal with the fact that the problems of religious and ethnic strife, or the abrogation of democratic freedoms, do not simply reflect the “undemocratic” tendencies within Islam, but characterize most secular regimes in the Third World today. As many scholars have recently taught us, these problems are not unrelated to the liberal forms of government implemented by colonial and postcolonial states. I do not fault Abou El Fadl for his philosophical inquiry. But what I do find problematic is his failure to subject to critical scrutiny our liberal notions of justice, autonomy, tolerance, individual rights and so on, from the standpoint of the Islamic traditions he so clearly holds dear. Rather than ask the question of how Muslims can become better liberals, I believe it is far more pressing to ask how the world is (or can be) lived differently—confronted as we are with a historically unprecedented homogenizing force of modernity that will brook no arguments for an alternative vision.<

Saba Mahmood teaches at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on issues of secularism, gender, and modernity within the context of Islamist movements in the Middle East and South Asia.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” with Khaled Abou El Fadl and respondents.


Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review




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