The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

By Zaheer Kazmi April 4, 2014

The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

The Shari’a State by Bassam Tibi
The Arab Awakening by Tariq Ramadan

IN HIS semi-fictional account of Barbary Coast Pirate Utopias, Peter Lamborn Wilson traces the unwritten dissident history of a communion of outsiders — heterodox Muslims and Christian renegades. Unanchored from the conformist dictates of law and organized religion, “temporary autonomous zones” like the Coast flourished for a time between the 16th and 18th centuries, and they were the embodiment of a mode of engagement between Islam and the West detached from interreligious conflict or any dialogue patronized by power. Wilson aims to show how radical forms of religious liberty can be the harbingers of progress and understanding between civilizations, creating the space to experiment with novel forms of cross-cultural exchange. “[O]nly later,” he laments, “do the Orthodox Authorities arrive to straighten everyone out and make them toe the line.” The practice of stamping out the dual sins of radicalism and heterodoxy has continued to color the character of religious practices. Today, it is most evident in the largely state-sponsored strategies of moderate or liberal Muslims in an age of resurgent militancy and sectarianism in the Muslim world.

Engagement with “moderate” Islam is currently enjoying a modest resurgence since the heady days following 9/11. In August 2013, the US State Department launched an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, with security and religious freedom among its aims. A month later, Ed Husain, the reformed British Hizb ut-Tahrir militant, now Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, published an “innovative” policy note that essentially regurgitates the United Kingdom’s counter-extremism agenda as it existed under the previous Labour government. In December, the current UK government released a report by its own “Extremism Taskforce” that echoes the long-standing Western policy quest to identify and empower Muslim moderates. With the 12th anniversary of 9/11 not long past, and recent events in Kenya, Syria, and Pakistan a brutal reminder that Islamist militancy continues unabated, redundant calls for a Muslim Reformation persist. Liberal Muslims believe they can hold back violent extremism by demonstrating that Islam is not at odds with progressive Western secular modernity. But what purpose has liberal Islam really served? In its quest to cleanse Islam of radicalism, it has also played a part in closing down freethinking and open debate, deepening rather than assuaging real-world conflict.

The age of liberal Islam

Liberal Islam has been a staple of scholarly and public debate from at least the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and it has since gone through several iterations in meaning. During the 1980s, Albert Hourani’s reissued Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age and Leonard Binder’s Islamic Liberalism, for example, centered largely on the historical legacy of the rationalist modernism of late-19th and early/mid-20th century Muslim reformists, such as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Indeed, it is this early obsession with rationality, and its narrow juristic and authoritarian character, that has left a lasting legacy on present-day Muslim liberals. While the innovative hermeneutics of Fazlur Rahman had already begun to break free from this linear Arab-centric narrative, it was only after the Cold War that Muslim liberal intellectuals themselves came to the fore. Among them there were Rachid Ghannouchi, Tariq Ramadan, Bassam Tibi, Abdolkarim Soroush, Farid Esack, Asef Bayat, Omid Safi, and Abdullahi An-Na’im. At the same time, the notion of an “Islamic Reformation” also gained currency in Western academic circles, where many of them now resided.

Since 9/11, the focus of several of these thinkers has turned more squarely on Islam in the West and the promotion of “moderate” against “radical” Islam. New interlocutors have emerged to join them, including scholar-activists like Hamza Yusuf in the United States and Tim Winter in the United Kindom, “de-radicalized” think-tankers such as Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, and a host of younger-generation Muslim academics and civil society advocates. Divergent voices in the latter cohort of self-appointed moderates have been quick to refract their own brands of liberal Islam through the translucent prism of the “Arab Spring,” including Tariq Ramadan’s post-left Islamism and Bassam Tibi’s unreconstructed Enlightenment rationalism. The intellectual hegemony of liberal Islam, and its colonization of the terrain upon which “radical” Islam is contested, has also placed limits on any alternative, nonviolent visions of Islamic thought and practice that challenge the liberal state. This has been in no small measure a consequence of the state’s role in the construction of “moderate” Islam and the immense governmental resources plowed into the counter-extremism agenda, which has helped commodify it.

The constriction generated by liberal Islam has created a binary discourse of “Muslim militancy versus Muslim liberalism,” making Muslim radicalism synonymous with Islamist militancy. This bolsters institutional orthodoxies that have little room for the free expression of “heretical” religious tropes and impulses. Forms of anti-authority and anti-statism in Islam are equated with the parlous pulverization of conventional religious authority. Far from being liberating, Muslim liberalism sometimes tends to act as a disciplining force, buttressing religious orthodoxy and the authority of the state.

Some works by Muslim liberals, such as Tibi’s The Shari’a State, and Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening, may seem poles apart in their views on the place of shari’a or the role of the West. But their disagreements belie the philosophical ground they share. For, even as they seek to synthesize, adapt to, or critique Western liberalism, they cannot exit its language and categories. The way Muslim liberals have accepted the institutional parameters of the West’s liberal modernity (the state, the rule of law, representative democracy, human rights) has inhibited or co-opted radical and creative thinking in Islam. The ubiquity of this pared-down liberalism not only confounds attempts to meld “Islam” with “liberalism,” it compels Muslim liberalism into a posture of intellectual closure by pressing for an interventionist state. Whatever their differences, Muslim liberals tend to regard state authority as a critical guarantor of a free society and Islam as not at odds with the values of secular liberal democracy. They also see Islamic religious authority, grounded in some institutional form, as elemental to a virtuous Muslim society.

Brand Islam

The hegemony of Muslim liberalism is evident in this recycling of formerly conservative postures and figures, now marketed as liberal gatekeepers, but it is also apparent in the way liberal discourses have increasingly subsumed more radical forms of Muslim critique. The recently established journal Critical Muslim, whose editorial board includes an ex-member of the Muslim Council of Britain and is tied to the Muslim Institute, a once-vocal body in British Muslim politics, exemplifies these trends. The British counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, is run by ex-militant Islamists — including former Salafi jihadi, Usama Hasan, also a fellow at the Muslim Institute — who have public profiles fostered largely through this liberal contestation of “radicalism as militancy” since 9/11, public profiles they have consciously courted. Like Zaytuna College in the United States (headed by Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, and Hatem Bazian, and recently the subject of a largely apologetic study, Light Without Fire, by Scott Korb), which claims ownership of “classical” Islam, they jostle for the attentions of the growing target audience that their battle against militancy has fostered: young, educated, middle-class Muslim professionals seeking a modern Islam which offers an authentic Islamic classicism as an antidote to the rise of a putative “pseudo-scholarship.”

These purveyors of moderation are an emergent body of religious entrepreneurs in the Islamic marketplace. They are symptomatic not only of the diffusion of Muslim liberalism but also of the growing neoliberal capture of Islamic authority. Much of this propagation centers on “celebrity” scholars, whose media presence has colonized the public space vacated by a receding ulema, whose religious gravitas they seek to appropriate. In fact, benefiting from these media-savvy strategies is a small group of prominent conservative ulema, including the Saudi-based former vice president of Mauritania, Abdallah Bin Bayyah, and the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Goma’a, who have both, at one time or another, been promoted by the Quilliam Foundation, Zaytuna College, and Tim Winter as exemplars of “mainstream” Islam. It is perhaps no accident that the authority and public profiles of Bin Bayyah and Goma’a have been due, in large part, to them being state-sponsored scholars who have built their reputations under the patronage of authoritarian regimes.

Counter-extremism policies have been pressed into service by liberal states, implicating them in the construction, individuation, and continual regeneration of Muslim identities. In turn, these identities have fractured what those states hoped would be the centralizing tendencies of their policies. As the Muslim world has become more ideologically activated, divisions within it have deepened, and this divisive undertow is obscured by the “common ground” talk practiced by Muslim liberals and Western governments. The latter have used figures such as Bin Bayyah and Goma’a to aid Western counter-terrorism efforts, while scholars have deployed these endorsements to reassert a religious legitimacy long since eroded. It is unsurprising, therefore, that state-led projects for preventing violent extremism in the West have been open to accusations of functioning as mass-scale surveillance operations intent on ideologically policing Muslim communities. A global market of ideas promises opportunities for liberal outreach as a kind of postcolonial civilizing mission, but it also harbors a disintegrative logic. A new US religious diplomacy seeks to introduce its secular liberal values into this already fractured ideological landscape, but it is difficult to see how that will aid conflict resolution or the pursuit of human rights in the Muslim world in any meaningful way.

The purported “double-speak” of Islamists, the inherent incompatibility between Islam and liberalism, apologetic attempts to show how Islam is quintessentially liberal, the West’s violence as the cause of Islam’s ossified predicament — such arguments obscure what is really at stake in the rise of liberal Islam: the suppression of more radical and creative departures in Islamic thought, departures that might fuel a more genuine renaissance. By providing an alternative to the institutional politics of creating a “European” or “American” Islam — projects to which Muslim liberals are increasingly tied — nonviolent forms of aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual radicalism illustrate how Islam’s engagement with the West might be deeper and more creative on the fringes than at any center.

An Islamic Awakening?

As at the end of the Cold War, the recent tumult in the Arab world was not anticipated by weathered analysts. Neither was it foreseen by Muslim liberals who have staked their reputations on elucidating the Arab and Muslim “mindset” to Western audiences. Nevertheless, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan have both recently published books on the Arab Spring, which they believe has vindicated their respective bodies of work even as they concede they had not anticipated it. A Syrian-born German-based academic, Tibi came out of self-imposed retirement from public life, these events making him feel compelled to write his latest book, The Shari’a State. With several axes to grind — not only against his critics, but also against the whole enterprise of Islamic studies in the West — the light of his missionary zeal shines so brightly on the perils of his pet hate, the “double-speaking” Islamists, that at times it is difficult to discern anything other than the white heat of rage in his words.

As has become clear since the ouster of President Morsi in Egypt, far from “hijacking the Arab Spring,” as Tibi warns incessantly in the core message of his book, Islamists may now be set to be among its biggest losers, especially in the medium-term as the military, of which Tibi says next to nothing, reasserts its control. But this is only one of several profound misjudgments that plague the work, written with unapologetic emotion (“I do not claim to be detached,” he states early on), which, unsurprisingly, does not translate into analytical clarity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tibi’s odd assertions about his ancestral homeland, where, he insists, speaking as a “Sunni Syrian,” the threat of jihadism is a specter of Assad’s imagination, and the atrocities committed have been, more or less, one-sided. That he would prefer to live under the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood than Assad, despite viewing Islamists as an amorphous mass tied, in some vague way, to jihadists, only adds to the muddled thinking.

Most relevant for the latest US initiative in religious diplomacy, perhaps, is Tibi’s mantra of dealing with Islamists through a strategy of “engagement without empowerment.” This is a hackneyed slogan, pedaled by Western governments struggling to come to terms with Islamist electoral success. It is an appeal that has now been somewhat superseded by events. It is also a contradictory policy prescription. In demanding that Islamists must respect and adhere to liberal precepts, liberalism must, at the same time, both precede and frame any supposedly open debate between them and the liberals. To confuse matters further, Tibi dissociates himself from the label “liberal.” A contaminated epithet, in Tibi’s eyes, liberalism has been degraded by its Muslim defenders and requires an enlightened cleansing before it can be rehabilitated once again. Apparently oblivious to the irony of imposing his brand of liberalism on others, Tibi prefers instead to call his approach “enlightened Muslim thought.”

Equally impatient to make his own voice heard above the clamor of commentary on the Arab Spring, Tariq Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening has all the editorial hallmarks of a rush to press (with more than the odd spelling error and a large appendix of already published articles). Like Tibi, Ramadan is one of a number of prominent liberal Muslims who share a background of political dissidence in the Muslim world and who have found a level of fame in the West that belies their negligible relevance in their region of origin. Their views have been shaped, in part, by familial migration from specific authoritarian environments in the Middle East: Swiss-born Ramadan is famously the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder and the son of exiles.

Often attacked by liberals himself, Ramadan, just like Tibi, positions himself as eminently balanced, rational, and reasonable: neither Tibi nor Ramadan is particularly self-reflexive about the cultural baggage they carry. Ramadan attempts to steer clear of “both the idealism and wide-eyed optimism of those who are blind to the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the politicians and the conspiratorial paranoia of those who have lost their faith in the ability of human beings to assert themselves as the subjects of their own history.” Curiously, in light of their public disagreements, there is far more they share than separates them. Much of what both say boils down to the assumptions that Islam and Western liberalism are compatible, that the Muslim world needs its own Reformation and Enlightenment, and that the liberal state is the best solution for the social, political, and economic plight of Muslim countries. No amount of terminological acrobatics about the rights or wrongs of Islamism on Tibi’s part, or those of secularism on Ramadan’s, changes this in any significant way.

Not for the first time, Ramadan’s arguments end up occupying a rather banal middle ground, which rejects blaming it all on the West, but equally guards against utopian visions of a new Muslim world emerging. This is not news to most political and cultural observers, nor to people in the “Islamic Orient,” as he calls it. The problem is that in stating this, he is not saying much beyond liberal platitudes about the need for freedom, equal citizenship, democracy, and a functioning civil society. This lack of depth is certainly not a reflection of Ramadan’s own learning, but may be attributed to his eye to the general public readership and to his self-assumed position as a representative of liberal Islam. As is often the case in the semiotic Muslim politics of which he is emblematic, the more he has become a brand, the less policy details matter, and the more he reverts to periodic reminders of his Unique Selling Point to a now-crowded market of Muslim liberals.

Like Tibi, an abstracted liberalism floats over Ramadan’s prescriptions, in which both the West and the Muslim world are hollowed out to make room for a disembodied universalism. This is less a synthesis between Islam and liberalism than a deculturation of both. Despite arguing against the view that the West controls outcomes in the Arab world, he implies that Western intrigue laid the foundations of the unrest in the Arab world, through a long-standing policy of training young leaders in the region in new media techniques. While recent revelations of the panoptic reach of Western surveillance may vindicate his suspicions to some extent, he somewhat flatters Western governments who can only dream their outreach programs could achieve such influence.

Beyond Muslim liberalism

While Tibi and Ramadan continue to court Western liberal opinion, radical and creative thinking in Islamic thought that is concerned more discretely and earnestly with freethinking and toleration is to be found in places quite detached from the dominant narratives of liberal Islam. Some examples: the theosophic approach to Islam of French philosopher Abdennour Bidar, which draws on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Muhammad Iqbal; the counter-cultural anarchistic critiques of Peter Lamborn Wilson (pseud. Hakim Bey) and Michael Muhammad Knight, inspired by discourses of heresy and paganism (a syncretism not alien to Islamic history in India and Africa); the anti-statism of free-market libertarians, such as Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, who, in an ironic genealogical twist given their associations with American conservatism, draw on Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard to call for a radical Islamic neoliberalism. All trace alternative genealogies of Islamic liberty that, in their own ways, question the premise that the future of Islam lies in its assimilation to the liberal state. One may not agree with any of their positions, but terrain such as this is where a truly radical Islamic hermeneutics takes place today. Unlike jihadists, who are often considered exegetical heretics, but who work to subvert a broadly recognizable and accepted Islamic canon, these are cultural interlopers deploying dissident traditions.

Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.

Their underlying intellectual uniformity has produced a particular kind of aesthetic, which includes specific sartorial codes (modest Arab-infused Western dress), musical tastes (the fashion for nasheeds), and linguistic tropes (conversations interspersed with Islamic phrases or sayings in Arabic). Such practices often hark back, if only in oblique ways, to liberal Islam’s modernist origins in the cultural politics of the Middle East and echo the continued prominence of dissident Arab intellectuals in the present. Here, the suspicion of “double-speak” may even be strangely relevant, although not in a standard, paranoid alarmist way. If this is a distinctive manifestation of religion, then why, apart from dress and practices, does there seem to be nothing significantly different about it? Its hollowness may appear less mystifying once we appreciate that, even its Sufi dimensions simply infuse some affective life into liberal Islam’s fundamentally rationalist edifice. “Islamic economics,” which is essentially classically liberal, despite its claims to a distinctive Muslim authenticity, only reinforces this observation.

Liberal Islam has a paradoxical relationship to the vexed idea of Islamic “culture.” It calls for a deracination of culture in its abstracted, universalized liberal vision, coupled with a simultaneous grounding in an indeterminate form of Middle Eastern Islamic revivalism. For Muslims who abhor conformity while valuing liberty, for whom oriental cultural paraphernalia may be alien or irrelevant, but who seek communion with God and a mode of being that reconciles Western and Islamic dimensions of identity, it may appear more like the imposition of orthodoxy by other means.


Zaheer Kazmi is currently working on two books: a monograph on Muslim “anarchism” called Jihadutopia: Visions of Anarchy, and a co-edited volume with Faisal Devji, Beyond Muslim Liberalism.

LARB Contributor

Zaheer Kazmi is ESRC Mid-Career Fellow in the Faculty of History, Oxford University. He is the author of Polite Anarchy in International Relations Theory (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and co-editor of Contextualizing Jihadi Thought (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2012). He is currently working on two books: a monograph on Muslim 'anarchism' called Jihadutopia: Visions of Anarchy, and a co-edited volume with Faisal Devji, Beyond Muslim Liberalism. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Times, and The Times Literary Supplement.


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