News ID: 325262
Published: 0614 GMT November 09, 2022
Bosnian scholar of political sciences Joseph J. Kaminski:

Islam and liberalism are fundamentally irreconcilable

Islam and liberalism are fundamentally irreconcilable

1. You argue that there are “ontological incompatibilities … between Islam and liberalism” which generally make them – as two discourses – irreconcilable. One might argue, however, that despite those fundamental differences, the notion of a “liberal Muslim” could still mean something, in the sense that Islam cannot morph into a liberal discourse but there could be liberal Muslims. What’s your take on that?

I think this really depends on what precisely is meant by ‘liberal.’ I am using liberal in a very specific sense throughout my book, a Lockean, classical liberal sense. Sure, there can be Muslims that embrace “progressive” interpretations of Islamic fiqh and “progressive” interpretations of the Qur’an itself, but I don’t think this should be conflated with ‘liberal.’ At the same time, there certainly are Muslims today like Mustafa Akyol who do identify as liberal in the classical Western sense but I think even he would agree that his particular reading and understanding of Islam is steeped in significant amounts of reform and is hardly an orthodox interpretation of the religion. The main point in my book is that, at the root of liberalism is the expansion of personal autonomy and individual liberties – moving forward this tendency is only going to expand rather than retract. Islam – like all Abrahamic religions – at its core is about self-restraint and personal piety. This distinction lies at the root of the incompatibility of the two discourses. Once one removes self-restraint and personal piety from Islam’s oeuvre, they basically negate the religion itself.

2. Somehow following the above question, what would you say about those devout Muslims who seem to be fully functional citizens of western liberal democracies?


The claims offered in my book have nothing to do with how Muslims themselves can live in non-Islamic societies – it is a focus on discourses at a more textual/theoretical level. I think it is fully possible for devout Muslims to be functional citizens of Western liberal democracies; however, I do think they face increasing challenges and not all liberal democracies treat devout Muslims the same. Devout Muslims have a much easier time expressing themselves in Canada than France, for example. Despite the significant differences between how the different liberal democracies treat Muslims, to my knowledge at least, one does not hear of Western liberal democracies banning Muslims from praying or forcing Muslims to eat pork or cut their beards – in other words, do things that force Muslims to not follow the most basic tenets of their religion.

3. You’ve correctly observed that “in reality, people all over the world have been living in relative peace with those they believe to be damned for centuries now.” As a foundation for toleration, certain long-standing traditions within Islam, at least in some less or more mystique versions of Shia Islam that I know of, have been preaching tolerance towards “sinners” and “non-believers”, with their pious leaders promoting ideas like “their defects are obvious ones, and ours are hidden ones, which are even worse,” which has a certain degree of self-depreciation and humility to it. Given that, don’t you think that Islam might have some built-in capacities for true and practical tolerance?

Yes, I do believe that meaningful self-reflection is at the core of toleration. Many of our hidden sins are far more damaging long-term than minor sins that one may witness in public. Islam has built-in capacities for true and practical tolerance. Historically Islamic civilization has been very accommodating towards Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims living within Muslim lands so long as they accept the authority of the ruling powers. The problems that arise between Muslim rulers and non-Muslims, historically, has primarily been related to politics and the control of political power more so than any deep-seated theological disagreements. This reality is true in all cases; whenever any minority group challenges those in power, the results are usually not so peaceful. The challenge today for those interested in Islamic politics is figuring out more precisely what should and what should not be tolerated – this is a question that even liberal democracies struggle to answer. It really is one of the core questions of modern politics.

4. No one other than Fukuyama himself once conjectured in 2009 that “the widespread demand for a return to Shari’a in many Muslim countries” might actually be a backlash against a form of secularization that brought about secular dictators and despots in many Arab countries. Don’t you think that in the context of your discussion, one also needs to take note of specific historical situations in Europe which helped steer the process of “the separation of church and state” toward democracy rather than something even worse than their original settings?

Fukuyama is right on this one. History moves in ebbs and flows – while demands for Shari’a increase during times of perceived injustices by secular rulers, the opposite happens as well. When religious regimes are seen as unjust there is increased resistance towards religion and a desire for increased secularism. There is no reason to assume this reality will ever change. People ultimately want political systems that they perceive as just and that allow for them to put food on the table to feed their families. History has shown over and over that people will gladly trade liberty for security. And yes, of course, one must always keep in mind the unique historical circumstances in Europe (centuries of horrific religious wars, the rise of Protestantism, the rise of the nation-state, etc.) that helped steer the process of the separation of church and state. The imposition of secularism on the Muslim world was more of a top-down process driven by elites without any real support from the masses, whereas in Europe, it was a process driven by many of the prevailing intellectual currents of the time as well as the will of the masses.

5. You argue that “the past and adherence to tradition and precedent are essential elements of living a proper Islamic life.” Does it necessarily mean that “adherence to tradition” keeps a people from becoming modern? Isn’t linking liberalism to its roots in Enlightenment just yet another example of linking the present to the past?

The prominent contemporary critical theorist Nikolas Kompridis argues that a major part of the ‘modern’ outlook is the ability to look to the future without any need to turn back to the past for guidance. This will never be possible for Islam since the religion itself is so dependent upon the past. I don’t think anyone can dispute this. I think liberalism on the other hand is a continuously evolving doctrine in many ways with the key point being the continual expansion of personal autonomy – an expansion which today has reached points that many of earlier liberalism’s theorists would never have envision or even supported. Rather than liberalism ‘grounding’ itself in its earlier Enlightenment roots, it continuously reformulates those roots and expands upon them. Modernity, according to the likes of Jose Casanova and Talal Asad, is a multifaceted phenomenon that does nonetheless revolve around certain core assumptions of human rights, private property, the nation-state, and a type of hegemonic universalism. Islam understands human rights differently, has no conception of the nation-state (it didn’t exist 1400 years ago), and does not utilize the same totalizing categories that are used within liberalism.

Joseph J. Kaminski is associate professor of political sciences at the International University of Sarajevo, and author of ‘Islam, Liberalism, and Ontology’, published by Routledge in 2021.



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