It’s Tough Being a Secular Democratic Liberal Muslim

Maajid Nawaz is one of many reformist Muslims taking a tricky route through the quick sands of Islam. Danger is all around. I don’t think it helps is case if he’s not completely honest and consistent with his words. I support his efforts, but sometimes I think he’s in danger of playing the rhetorical games that make Islam such a mess.

In response to a tweet by Maajid Nawaz.

[UPDATE: 15/11/2014: And Maajid responded – see end]

Maajid Nawaz,

I wish you well, I really do, so I hope you’ll consider this criticism.

On your specific points:

1) Islam is a religious ideology with political requirements built in. How could it not be. Any religion that contains social commentary, prescriptions and proscriptions is inherently political.

2) Sharia is a law or a guide depending on how those implementing it and/or enforcing it use it.

3) Ummah is a political bloc if those building it say it is.

4) Caliphate does mean theocracy if those building it use the Caliphate as part of government – i.e. if religion is the state religion or the religious leaders have powers that control the state, and if the religious leaders determine what religion the politicians must belong to. You know this is standard stuff in Islam, regarding what posts that can be held, what taxes are imposed on non-Muslims. Have I misunderstood? Have many Muslims misunderstood too?

Your secular democratic liberal efforts are to be greatly admired, given your unfortunate history. But if you insist on going down this “Islamism isn’t Islam” route you’ll be making a rod for your own back. While it may pander to moderate and near moderate Muslims, and even dissuade some Islamists from following that path, I feel using tactics like this may well backfire.

Religions have many varieties of sects within them, and the specific intent of the originators is so lost in history and interpretation by those that follow their lead that there is no clear definitive Islam, or Christianity or any other religion. There is no true Islam, and nobody has the authority to declare one. It’s for every religious person to declare what their religion means to them.

If you say you are a Muslim and your holy book is the Quran, I accept your word. If less secular Muslims claim they are Muslims too, I accept their word. If ISIS followers are brandishing the Quran, quoting it, praying based on its teachings, believing in Allah, then they are Muslims, and evidentially so, and I accept their word that they are, even if I like their Islam far less than yours.

In your response to a tweet you said, “your words assume there’s a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There’s no ‘true’ interpretation of any religion”. Well, precisely. So are there several Islams, or one? Several true ones or one true one? And who decides which is the true one, or the true many?

I support your efforts to distance moderate democratic secular Islam from ISIS and other extremist ‘Islamist’ versions of Islam, but they are all versions of Islam. Obama and Cameron may be taking your lead in this narrative, but it is a dishonest one – dishonest to reason and evidence. ISIS may not be YOUR Islam, but it is THEIR Islam. Saying that ISIS are not Islamic, or that they are not following the REAL Islam, is just playing the usual takfir word games – you are playing the ISIS game, albeit from a secular democratic liberal perspective.

I read your book, Radical, and I sympathise with your early experiences that took you on your journey, and I deeply respect the role you are trying to play for us all now. I feel you are very sincere. But when you say in your book that you must use the tactics that you learned in Hizb ut-Tahrir I think you need to be careful of the extent to which you use duplicitous language when doing that. Firing up political interest and activism is a great cause, so it would be a shame to sully it with slippery language.

I’m a secular atheist and I disagree with your religious beliefs. But here I accept, respect and support your right to hold your Islamic beliefs. I accept your claim to being a Muslim. And yet I think you are making a mistake playing this game of rejecting what others claim their beliefs to be, over who gets to name it. It’s fine to say “Their Islam is not my Islam”, and “I want a reformed secular democratic liberal Islam”. I think the latter an impossible task without a serious reform of Islam, to the point of being little more than deism – but I support your efforts in that regard.

I find it hard to imagine a ‘true’ Islam that abandons constraints on apostasy, for example, though I’d welcome such an Islam as a step in the right direction. But I think the real problem here, for you and other moderate Muslims, is this business of the inerrancy of the Quran. It contains some verses that like the Old Testament Bible are hardly suitable for modern times; but, it’s the inerrant word of God. That leaves it for anyone to interpret it in either traditional terms or modern terms, and to interpret it as they please. Reforming Islam is a mammoth task while this inerrancy claim persists. And yet if you drop it the Quran loses any power it has. That’s quite a challenge for you.

This business of interpretation is a problem for all religions. It’s not as if the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a history of only decent and good pontifications to its name, but it is a single authority that can be held to account – and it has a lot to account for. But Islam is even more of a problem, for lacking a central authority Islam is open to all comers and all interpretations.

So, I don’t think you have a case for claiming that ISIS and Islamists generally are not Islamic. Your statements in your tweet feel very much like a fatwa: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/09/17/fatwa/ (In this episode I think the person of Mo is played by Maajid Nawaz, no?).

A tweet reply by you on Twitter: “right, so instead of guiding 1.5 billion Muslims to secularism gradually, we’re expecting them all just to apostatise”

That would be nice. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, and the difficulty you face. But I can see right through this abuse of words. Should I be so disrespectful to human intelligence to think that Islamist Muslims don’t see it too? Does the takfir game ever work out? Are you not simply begging to be accused of haram practice of making a false accusation? You’re the Muslim, so I’m asking you. Should I not ask followers of ISIS too? Can you not see the futility of this particular move of disavowing ISIS, as if that clears the good name of Islam?

Best wishes, and I hope you can see your way to taking a clearer route, though it may be a harder one.


Maajid Nawaz response:

There is no “correct” Islam.It is all interpretation (Ijtihād).Only secular pluralism guarantees an equal right for all clerics to interpret.

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