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The Inherent Link Between Islam and Liberty

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

The Inherent Link Between Islam and Liberty

by Eva Forslund

[reprinted from the Foreign Affairs Association of Uppsala’s Uttryck Magazine (2015 #3)]

Washington DC is a vibrant city. Throughout it, there are think tanks and organizations promoting literally any cause you can imagine. One of these is the Minaret of Freedom Institute (MFI), an Islamic libertarian think tank. While it’s not the most expected combination, the Minaret of Freedom truly is a unique place, as I had the privilege to experience during my two-month internship there.

The co-founder and current president of the Minaret of Freedom is Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. Educated at Harvard University as an astrophysicist, he has both religious and academic expertise, and believes he can improve the world the most by giving a voice to Muslims and non-Muslims who actually know what they are talking about. As an economics major, I am quick to point out “Oh, so you have a comparative advantage,” and Dr. Ahmad laughs and agrees. Other people can do scientific research, but advancing the notion of freedom as an Islamic idea is not something many are qualified to do.

That is why Dr. Ahmad started the think tank Minaret of Freedom in 1993, together with Shahid N. Shah, who served as treasurer. The institute has a fourfold mission: to counter the common distortions about Islam; to show that certain modern values originate from Islamic civilization; to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about the value of freedom and free markets; and to try to advance the status of Muslims, whether they live in the oppressive East or the hostile West. It’s an ambitious goal, and Dr. Ahmad describes the work as a kind of “two steps forward, one step back” process. He recalls that in 2008, he spoke to Iranian and American officials about starting negotiations concerning the nuclear proliferation. The Iranian officials were convinced the US would not want to negotiate on the matter, and the American officials believed Iran would not allow investigations into their nuclear program. Dr. Ahmad started writing articles to try to persuade the Americans and the Iranians to see their common goals. Although it is always difficult to trace back policy changes to the opinion pieces that advocated for them, the truth remains that on July 14th 2015, Iran and six other world powers, including the US, reached a historic deal to control the Iranian nuclear program.

The Minaret of Freedom Institute has also worked hard to prevent female genital mutilation. While people in Somalia, Egypt, and other African countries have claimed that Islam requires female genital mutilation, the MFI has worked tirelessly to counteract these ideas, by addressing that Islam does not endorse it, but actually prohibits it because of its prevention of female sexual enjoyment, and its dangers to women’s health.

The way I see it, what the MFI has done in regards to female genital mutilation is the core to its work; they use their religion to prevent immoral things from happening in the world. Being brought up in a secular society and considering myself an atheist, this was new to me. Before interning at the MFI, I figured that the institute was supporting women’s rights despite the religious purpose of the institute. I assumed the MFI was sacrificing some of its religion in order to truly be libertarian – but I was wrong.

To Dr. Ahmad, libertarianism is right at the heart of Islam. What Islam tells the believer is that every individual has a direct responsibility towards the divine. Just like in libertarianism, the individual is at the center. This might be hard to grasp for people who think that religion should be separated from morality. But Dr. Ahmad quotes the verse 2:256 in the Qur’an: “There shall be no compulsion in the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut (which means to believe in something other than God, such as idolatry) and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it.” This does not only mean that there is no compulsion in submitting to God; religion in this sense, as understood by the context, means a “just way of life.” Thus, there is no compulsion in how to justly live one’s life. When reading this, it is not hard to notice the resemblance to the libertarian ‘no coercion principle’: it is always immoral to initiate force towards another human being.

Identifying as both atheist and libertarian myself, I cannot help but wonder what Dr. Ahmad thinks atheist libertarians miss out on. He humorously tells me that some of his best friends are atheist libertarians. But on a more serious note, he believes that many libertarians who are not spiritual in any way wrongfully assume that the only moral principle is the ‘no coercion principle’. Many believe this is the defining principle for libertarianism – as long as I do not use force against you in any way, I am allowed to partake in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as much as I want to. Dr. Ahmad thinks otherwise; there are actually several other moral principles (of which many can be found in the Qur’an). The question is whether one can impose those on other people. He believes we cannot, but that we have an obligation to teachand educate those principles to other people. He also recalls some prejudices atheist people have towards him as a religious person, as someone asked him at an academic conference once “how does someone as smart as you believe in God?” But this does not seem as severe of a problem, as he laughs when he says it.

So why do so few see this connection between libertarianism and Islam, that is so clear to Dr. Ahmad? He asks himself the same question frequently, it seems. “How often does the Qur’an demand Muslims to follow rules and teach them how to live a life?” he asks. Indeed, it happens, and those are rules Muslims should live by. But, he asks, how many times does the Qur’an tell Muslims to be just, tolerant, and to help the oppressed? More or less on every page. Despite this, for some reason, many Muslims still treat things as wearing a hijab as some sort of litmus test for a successful Islamic society, as if wearing a hijab determines whether one is a faithful Muslim or not. How can that be? The hijab is not even mentioned in the Qur’an. Rhetorically he asks “Where are your priorities?” and his voice changes pitch. The frustration is clear. I don’t know what to say, because I am humbled; this makes me realize the helplessness he must feel when he sees people commit atrocities in the name of a religion that he believes has the most just and helpful teachings in the world.

So I ask him what should be done about the atrocities made in the name of Islam. Well first of all, he points out, it is only a fraction of a percent of all Muslims who endorse these acts of terrorism. But Muslims have to speak out about it; they have to condemn it. After working at the Minaret of Freedom for two months, this answer puzzles me. Part of what I have been doing is collecting articles that show why it is inherently wrong to connect Muslims to the terrorism that is being conducted in the name of Islam – since Islam is a religion of peace. One would think the responsibility to condemn it should not be Muslims, since the atrocities themselves are as far from Islam as anything can be. Dr. Ahmad’s expression when I raise this concern is somewhere between amused and restless. “We have to do it,” he says, “it’s illogical, but we’re dealing with human beings.” This is the kind of saying that would sound cynical if it came from any other person, but when it comes from Dr. Ahmad it somehow sounds hopeful; he is eager to take on the challenge. He goes on to explain: these people, like Daesh, are trying to redefine Islam. The real definition of Islam has to be spread and recognized and this has to be done by Muslims. That is what the Minaret of Freedom is all about. Still, Dr. Ahmad seems frustrated by how many times he and other Muslims have had to explain how Daesh and others do not represent Islam. But, he says, “it’s like when I as an astrophysicist time and time again have to explain evolution to some people,” – perhaps a way to remark at some conservative Christians’ unwillingness to accept scientific truths.

 

The Minaret of Freedom truly is a unique organization and maybe that is why the MFI is so small; Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is currently the only person working at the institute. Keeping this in mind, it is impressive to hear about the impact the institute has had. One might think the institute would benefit from widening its purpose; how many people can it attract by being both Islamic and libertarian? How much change can the MFI make possible at its current size? But before asking these questions, lest not forget the most important effect the Minaret of Freedom has on the US society and, indeed, the world: that neither Muslims nor libertarians are monolithic groups. As both Islamophobes and extremist Islamists try to redefine Islam to fit into their narrow worldview, the MFI’s work could not be more important. Showing that there is an inherent connection between liberty and Islam might be detrimental for a continued open American society. Because, as my father says, Muslims are not threatening the American society, hatred towards Muslims is. So what better way to make non-Muslim Americans accept and respect Muslims than to show that what Americans value the most – their freedom – is inherently Islamic?

As I leave the door of the small Minaret of Freedom office I ask Dr. Ahmad one last question: what message does he want to send Swedish university students? As eloquently as always, he answers me:

“To the university students in Sweden, as someone who strongly believes in ideas driving change in the world, I invite young intellectuals in Sweden to take on their role to combat ignorance, and to use every opportunity you have to speak the truth.”

go to Minaret of Freedom Institute home page

News and Analysis (7/29/15)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Shutting down Muslims’ bank accounts over dubious accusations of terrorist links encourage extremism by “sending the message to law-abiding Muslims that they are excluded from simple privileges”:

As central Asian countries are trying to crack down on Islamist extremists, they continue to violate people’s rights regarding religious freedom:

The real importance of the Iran nuclear deal is that “at a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility”:

Qaradawi says that the victims of the Israeli occupation are no longer exempt from the ban on suicide bombings “since Palestinians are now able to hit Israel with rockets, missiles, and mortars, the use of suicide bombers”:

“‘God says, I have created you all different so that you can know one another and befriend one another and not despise one another” — Nadia Hassan, quoting the Quran:

Is he dead or alive? “This month, a written message from Mullah Omar suddenly appeared, to mark the Islamic Eid Festival”, saying that “peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited” by Islamic law:

“Many … democratic leaders have rallied to the sides of Muslims in the community, condemning the actions of these two “members of the “Northern League party [which] has built a reputation for xenophobia”:

 

News and Analysis (7/28/15)

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

It’s bad enough when an “expert” witness on terrorism doesn’t know his subject; how much worse when his biases are withheld from the record:

These Muslim-American siblings write Islamic children’s books, because they want “young Muslims to see themselves in the books they read”:

In entertainment, Maz Jobrani thought he could “play anything,” but instead he is “the latest iteration in Hollywood’s long history of racist casting, reducing his religion and culture to a bunch of villainous, cartoonish psychopaths” …

… while in the world of education, “At a minimum the selectivity and psychology of treating Islam in this way will have a tendency to discourage any better approaches to the subject matter”:

“The trial, which involved more than 30 former Qaddafi-regime officials, is being severely criticized as both unfair and unprofessional. It could also deepen Libya’s political chaos”:

Mustafa Akyol explains why an honest look at “jurisprudential facts might help Muslims today to develop a more tolerant attitude toward gays,” citing Islamic scholar Ihsan Eliacik’s reminder that “Islam stands with the downtrodden”:

Since Syrian Kurds have been aided by the US but targeted by Turkey, it complicates cooperation between the two countries in creating a IS-free zone on the Turkish-Syrian border:

“I am sorry that my precious listeners in Iran will be denied my music for sometime, but I will not apologise for performing in Palestine,” says Sami Yusuf’s after his music was banned for performing in Nazareth:

“The U.S. Government, its allies and … apologists constantly propagate standards that have no purpose other than to legitimize all of their violence while de-legitimizing [that of] their enemies in the ‘war’they have declared”:

Recent fatal bombing by Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabab raises fear that their violence is escalating:

Overlooked Consequences of the Iran Nuclear Deal

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

On July 14th, Iran and the US reached a historic deal concerning Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Essentially, what the deal means is that the US and five other countries will stop enforcing sanctions on Iranian products, while “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will [they] seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons” (look here for the full text of the deal, or here for a simplified version).

The deal has sparked heated criticism. Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio told Reuters that he is not going to “support a deal with Iran that allows the mullahs to retain the ability to develop nuclear weapons, threaten Israel, and continue their regional expansionism and support for terrorism.” This is by no means unique to Senator Rubio. House Speaker John Boehner claims that “[the deal is] going to hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” as do several other Republicans. Many Democrats are also skeptical about the deal, and the Israeli Prime Minister warns that the deal is a threat both to Israel and to the US. He (dis)informs us that Iran has “killed a lot of Americans. It’s killing everybody in sight in the Middle East.”

Moving away from the scaremongering rhetoric, the criticism against the deal is largely based on a belief that the deal will be ineffective in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons; that it will threaten the security of the region and eventually lead to an armed conflict. Those who support the deal claim that the deal actually will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; Iran will still be allowed to enrich uranium, but inspections will be conducted regularly to ensure that the enrichment is insufficient for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.

Most of the media coverage focuses only on whether the deal will be successful in preventing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons or not, the salubrious effects of lifting the sanctions on future Iranian policies seem to have been overlooked. To the extent the removal sanctions are covered, they are only related to Iran’s increased capacity to use wealth to fund foreign terrorist groups. According to CIA, however, it is unlikely that Iran will spend a game-changing amount of the sanction relief funds on terrorist groups. Furthermore, similar critique can (and arguable should) be made towards the Saudisas they have funded Al-Qaeda (and some say, ISIS).  Still, the US remains a close ally to Saudi Arabia.

 

By overlooking the implications of lifting the sanctions, the media has ignored what may be the most important argument in support of the deal – the argument concerning the effect of free trade on interstate conflict. The notion that countries that trade with each other do not go to war with each other is an old one; Montesquieu said in 1748 that “[p]eace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who differ with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.”

In addition to this, more recent empirical data show a significant negative correlation between trade and interstate conflict. Economists Polachek and Seiglie found in their paper that “overwhelming evidence indicates that trade reduces conflict regardless of the proxies used to capture the gains from trade and conflict.” Further, they argue that “[t]he policy implication of [their] finding is that further international cooperation in reducing barriers to both trade and capital flows can promote a more peaceful world.” Thus, with this in mind, it should be clear to any reader that the lifting of sanctions against Iran will actually decrease the risk that Iran will go to war, in contradiction to what skeptics to the deal are arguing.

Not to be forgotten, sanctions traditionally hurt civilians the most; when the country have to be more self-sufficient, the population cannot concentrate on doing what they are best at – utilizing their comparative advantage – but have to produce more things by themselves. This leads to a decrease in consumption possibilities for the populations. This has also been the case in Iran, where people have struggled to acquire food and medicine. Therefore, it is also likely that the Iranian population will be better off as a result of the sanctions being lifted, and hostile attitudes towards the US might change.

 

This is not saying that the deal is perfect. It is not even saying that the deal will nullify the risk of Iran going to war. There is important research suggesting that it is not only trade, but economic freedom as a whole, that prevents countries from going to war – something that Iran still lacks (as they are ranked 171/178 on the Economic Freedom Index). What this is saying, however, is that the risk of Iran engaging in warfare will decrease as a result from the recent nuclear deal. As more countries trade with Iran, they will have less reason to go into interstate conflict, and considering their military history (the Islamic Republic has never invaded another country), the risk of an Iran-initiated war seems diminishingly small. Therefore, in order to support a more peaceful world, one should support the Iran nuclear deal.

Eva Forslund
2015 Summer Intern
Minaret of Freedom Institute

News and Analysis (7/27/15)

Monday, July 27th, 2015

In an effort to debunk Islamophobia and radicalization, a group of Muslims are releasing educational videos online to show what Islam really teaches:

The complexity of why young women are radicalized to join ISIS is addressed as a perfect storm between seeking identity and freedom, trying to follow one’s faith, and giving in to curiosity:

“The solution to extremism lies through strategies that enable rather than constrain the space for Muslim free expression”:

An eyewitness says that the victim was unarmed and  dead man’s family charges that the FBI “engaged in a concerted effort to manipulate and conceal the evidence concerning the brutal death of Abdullah'”:

An Irish Muslim leader thinks the “likelihood of widespread radicalisation in Ireland … is minimal”, yet warns, that unless Muslims must actively combat any radical interpretation their children face Islamophobia” …

… for regardless of the issue, “be it cultural practice or immigration rules, regardless of how religious they are or how much they practise, by simply being Muslim the youth are made to feel that they are on the wrong side” …

… and across the ocean, Canadian converts are subject to prejudice as well. “When people hear I’m a convert, they go, ‘you chose this? There’s something wrong with you. What rational modern person chooses this religion?'”:

Incarcerated journalist Mohamed Fahmy worries about the violations of freedom throughout the world, “as a realist, I know the true meaning of free speech does not exist, but I also believe we have to fight toward reform”:

“If a Muslim had a similar website, which includes bomb manuals and details about assassinations and establishing paramilitary groups, then you can be sure action would be taken” — Nick Lowles, Hope Not Hate chief executive:

After his mother refused to pray at a mosque because the ablution room was unsanitary, 22-year-old Sultan al-Subhi invented a robot to help Muslims keep it clean:

“Turkey’s unexpected move to launch raids against Kurdish rebels at the same time it is cracking down on the Islamic State group risks ending a period of relative calm that has been a boon for Turkey’s democracy and economy”:

News and Analysis (7/23/15)

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

While the holy Qur’an has been interpreted by patriarchal scholars and resulted in misogynist policies, there is nothing inherently misogynic in Islam, as modern feminist scholars are now working to show:

The Lebanese Muslim Association accuses the government’s new plan to prevent radicalization for being just a “box-ticking” exercise and a waste of tax money:

“Given that [the] technology [to suspend travel privileges] exists, there is no need for the US government to add powers that could end up stripping passports from citizens unnecessarily,” writes Patrick Weil:

Although Islam is the second largest religion in Russia, practicing it is difficult as authorities will not permit building of new mosques:

Here’s why the Iran deal is not like the Munich deal of 1938, and while it is not solving all problems the US and Iran has, it is a step in the right direction…

…which is also emphasized by Secretary of State, John Kerry, who defended the deal before Congress saying Iran already has knowledge of nuclear technology and “[w]e can’t bomb [nor] sanction that knowledge away”:

While Israel tries simultaneously to weaken Hamas and strengthen it to make them seem more like the “beheaders of Islamic State,” Israel continues to ignore Palestinians’ rights:

“The overtures to the Brotherhood included a visit to the kingdom by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, whose offices in Qatar were closed just in January at the Saudis’ behest”:

By 2050, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians in the world, according to The Pew Research Center. In the United States, there will be more people who identify as Muslims than identify as Jewish”

After Chattanooga. the Muslim community is yet again called upon to condemn killings;  Zahra Billoo finds this counterproductive, since “we continue to associate ourselves with these crimes when we condemn them”:

News and Analysis (7/22/15)

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Alaa Murabit argues that “[t]hose who used religion to justify discrimination against women were using cultural standards, not scriptural standards” and calls for women to reclaim the religion …

…but French feminists are abandoning the cause of empowering women by buying into the new, changed notion of political secularism, now used to advance anti-Muslim laws:

One of the oldest examples of the Qur’an have been found at University of Birmingham, possibly transcribed by someone who met the Prophet in person, supports the standard text:

Obama talks about the Iran nuclear deal on the Daily Show, pointing out that the deal is better than no deal at all, but dodging Jon Stewart’s question on whom we are fighting in the Middle East:

In fear of militant Islamists, the UAE clamps down on freedom of speech:

“I’m sure Ford wishes OJ (Simpson) hadn’t driven a Bronco and Kraft wishes Jim Jones hadn’t poisoned the Kool Aid…. Obviously none of these … endorsed their actions, just as I do not endorse this heinous act”:

After arguing that presuming the “Big Bang”to an accident is more fantastical than presuming it to be an act of agency, physician Kashif Chaudhry finds himself kicked off of some atheist blogs on a false charge of proslytization:

News and Analysis (7/21/15)

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Nathan Robinson points out the absurdity of the call to treat Muslim-Americans as the US treated Japanese-American during World War II, calling it a “racist disgrace that … left traumatic scars that last to this day”:

His Muslim missionary and theologian father taught him the hadith, “Loyalty to your country … is part of your faith,” so he sees “nothing Islamic” in the slaying of his comrades, “only the actions of a sick and twisted individual”:

Christians calling on Muslims to condemn terrorist attacks is problematic: it assumes there’s a inherent link between the two, it ignores Muslims who have condemned it, as well as Christianity’s own violent history:

He says the ban on Muslims does not extend to those who don’t threaten innocent civilians, but announcing the ban while standing in front of a Confederate battle flag could be dangerously inflammatory …

… considering that evangelist Franklin Graham’s statement that “[e]very Muslim that comes into this country has the potential of being radicalized” is an invitation to further radicalization into right-wing extremism:

“Campaigns like Reclaim … emerge and grow within an enabling environment where ideas that we once would have deemed unreasonable, intolerant and against our national character become mainstream”:

The true desecration of the memory of the Prophet (pbuh) and of the Qur’an is perpetrated by those who unleash fatal violence against people they dislike by accusing their victims of the self-same charges (no proof required):

As Cameron broadens the definition of extremism, a journalist and political commentator wonders , “[W]ill I be censored from the numerous platforms that I currently write for because of my religious and political views?”:

The fundamental right of religious freedom should not be violated because you are incarcerated. Still, Muslim prisoners of the Miami-Dade prison are denied Halal-food:

“Instead of banning the release of such videos, Baghdadi should have rather banned the crimes behind the scenes. But he has already justified the barbarism of his followers” — Ferid Hisso, Syrian politician and lawyer:

News and Analysis (7/20/15)

Monday, July 20th, 2015

The Iran deal is not perfect, but critics need to remember that the alternative to a deal would most likely be worse:

And therefore, the EU will back the deal, hoping it will push the US Congress to do the same:

A newly opened Palestinian TV station has been ordered to shut down, and the Ministry of Culture frequently cracks down on Arab or Israel-critic media, “Israel’s liberal [newspaper] Haaretz daily [calling it]  ‘ugly’, ‘Stalinist'”:

While the analysis of what attracts people to terrorism may be accurate, it is not clear how Cameron will implement policies in a way that will not further alienate the Muslim community:

Playing on people’s fears from the Chattanooga shooting, presidential candidate Rand Paul calls for extra scrutiny of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries …

… but no connection to any Islamic terrorist organizations have been found, and the recovery of the suspect’s diary reveals a picture of a man struggling with addiction and mental problems:

Daesh fighters are training young children how to behead, indoctrinating them with their disturbing interpretation of Islam; they have “given up” on the older generation, and now they “care about the new generation”:

A queer Muslimah knows well-enough that some “attempts at queering the Quran … feel like stretches, like playing with words” and she relies “instead, on my faith, on my practice. My trust in justice, in mercy”:

News and Analysis (7/18/15)

Saturday, July 18th, 2015

Muhammad Youssuf Abdulazeez spouted Muslim jargon, but his shooting spree in Chattanooga on Thursday violated Islamic teachings as indisputably as his arrest for driving under the influence last April:

In a world where crimes are made in the name of religion, Alon Goshen-Gottstein reminds us that religion actually can, and is supposed to, help us in our peaceful coexistence:

As Ramadan comes to an end, Christian Science Monitor rounds up the past month – from the difficulties of Chinese Muslims to fast to the American Christians who have fasted in solidarity with Muslims:

An Australian MP has announced he will attend a Reclaim Australia rally, where people previously have worn neo-Nazi regalia and anti-Islam banners …

… while in France, politicians along the whole spectrum oppose the suggestion to reform abandoned churches into mosques:

You don’t think Muslims are capable of irreverent humor? Dave Chappelle is back and a doorman gives fair warning to potential targets (including Chappelle’s fellow-Muslims):

A fatal Eid present from ISIS to their fellow-Muslims: