Archive for the ‘Intern’s blog’ Category

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

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

Abdul Hadi and the Leotard – A Look at the Media Coverage

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

At the Southeast Asian Games of 2015, 21-year-old gold medalist Muslim Farah Ann Abdul Hadi from Malaysia was wearing a leotard. For this, she received criticism from, among others, mufti Harussani Zakaria, for not complying with received standards of modest dress according to Muslim jurisprudence. Abdul Hadi also received support from Malaysia’s minister for youth and sports, Khairy Jamaluddin, and several Western media outlets for her stunning athletic ability and performance. All this was to be expected. But how did media portray the incident? It is clear that the perspective on their news story is a Western perspective. Western news media is condemning the Muslims for criticizing Abdul Hadi’s choice of attire, with no respect for the norms of other cultures as to proper dress. It is almost as if they didn’t know, or perhaps it would be more fair to say do not care about the role of culture in determining the where the line is drawn for “appropriate dressing.”

What seems to be the problem for the Muslims criticizing Abdul Hadi is that the leotard is revealing Abdul Hadi’s aurat (the parts of a person that should not be revealed in public). Therefore they are speaking out against Abdul Hadi, as a Muslim woman, showing this at the Southest Asian Games. Australian News writes: “Not that the country’s religious hardliners noticed the impressive tally – they were too busy looking at the 21-year-old’s vagina.”

Outline of her vagina would be more precise, but we get the point. Valid as the Australian news outlet’s point may seem, they have forgotten that their own culture and society, like all cultures and societies, has norms and rules that govern the way we dress and affect their own notions of decency. For example: not only would it be frowned upon, it would also be illegal for any gymnasts to appear completely naked, or for any woman to unveil her chest, in the Southeast Asian Games. To put this in an American perspective: not only would religious leaders most likely condemn a bare-breasted gymnast, but so would news anchors and other officials. Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? Is there an objective, inherent moral argument to draw the line between bearing one’s breast and revealing one’s thighs and the shape of one’s vagina? Rather being a clear moral issue, this is an issue of cultural difference – of different degrees of nakedness permitted in different societies.

This brings the discussion back to another thing written in News: “The head of the National Muslim Youth Association’s female wing, Roszida Kamaruddin, also released a statement condemning Abdul Hadi’s costume. ‘Women should not be stopped from sports, but they must prioritise the Islamic codes in sports attire,’ she said.” Notice the use of the word condemning when talking about Kamaruddin’s statement. Then imagine, if an American woman would appear naked at a gymnastics competition and an American counterpart to Kamaruddin would give a similar statement: “Women should not be stopped from sports, but they must prioritize the norms in sports attire”. The likelihood of an American counterpart issuing a statement like this seems great. Yet, it would not be seen as her condemning the clothes, merely pointing out what everyone who supports the norms of that society is thinking.

Thus, what News, The Independent, and other news outlets do is report yet another news story in a manner that makes the Muslim community more misogynistic and intolerant than themselves. Just because the Islamic guidelines differ from the Western norms, it does not mean that the Western norms are liberating women and the Islamic guidelines are not – they rather differ in terms of degree of coverage they deem appropriate to the dignity of a woman. Still it would be fair to ask why so many Muslims are more obsessed with the dignity of women than they are of men. As Malaysia’s minister of sports put it: “I think this whole incident also smacks of sexism. Nobody has complained about… kinky Speedos, or Sazali (Samad) wearing tight shorts when he flexes his muscles but when it comes to gymnasts, suddenly it’s a big problem.

A more fruitful debate would have been to ask the general question of to what degree should and can government regulate nudity/modesty. A libertarian could argue that that the it should be legal both to be completely naked and to reveal one’s aurat in this kind of competition, as long as individuals were allowed to follow their own religion, customs, or personal opinions.

Of course Westerners are not the only ones wearing cultural blinders. On the Muslim side of the aisle we have the case of Jean-Baptiste Michalon, a Muslim grocer who was shocked, shocked, at the anger he provoked by posting a sign inviting female customers to shop on different days from male customers. He did not realize that such an invitation was illegal in France, punishable by a 25,000 Euro fine. He quickly removed the sign, yet marveled, “I’m shocked that I have been accused of discrimination. After all, hammams (steam baths) have different times for men and women.” Well, Jean-Baptiste, when in Rome, or in this case Bordeaux, do as the Romans, we mean the French, do.

By the same token, when in Kuala Lampur, do as the Malay do. As we were saying, to fix the debate in a framework that presumes that anyone who differs one particular culturally set standard of modesty is intolerant is a logical fallacy. It is telling that no one is calling for the athletes to compete completely naked, as was the practice in the original olympics games in ancient Greece; that was another culture.

Eva Forslund and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
www.minaret.org

Trade Facilitation Ideas Aim to Help Those Who Need Trade Most–But will it work in the very worst of scenarios?

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

On July 11th I had the privilege of attending CATO’s Capitol Hill briefing on the merits of trade facilitation for encouraging economic growth. on behalf of the Minaret of Freedom Institute. Cato trade policy analyst Daniel Ikenson and World Bank economist Simeon Djankov touted trade facilitation (TF) policies—including streamlined administrative procedures and infrastructure—as beneficial for both industrialized countries as well as developing ones. The benefits of trade for developing countries are unquestionable. I agree, it would therefore make sense to pursue trade facilitation policies geared at making the most of that beneficial trade.

However, from what I gathered from Friday’s presentation, Ikenson and Djankov consider trade facilitation the decisive factor in a country’s ability to develop, and I wonder how well the argument for trade facilitation stands when the very countries needing the benefits of trade most lack in the first place those policies and infrastructures Ikenson and Djankov suggest they amend. Take, for example, Afghanistan: years of ongoing war and instability have certainly mutilated structures of both trade and government.

First, the administrative structure, where it exists at all, is fractious at best. Charged with the assisting the reconstruction of a new Afghan government, the U.S. has stressed security issues and thus promoted a strong, Kabul-centered government. In an ethnically divided country where regional rule has historically prevailed, it comes as no surprise years later to see the lack of affinity afforded a central government that has too often resorted to corruption and favoritism. With such little confidence in a national government, how can one expect any liberal internal trade policies pursued to be uniform and, more importantly, respected?

Second, after years of war, there exists little infrastructure at all to speak of, and any improvements would quite literally be made from the ground up. Furthermore, the geography of the country itself creates additional challenges to a policy of development. The Hindu Kush mountain range, located in the very middle of the country, is the main geographic feature inhibiting transportation of goods. An internal road system is lacking. Afghanistan does have a highway network encircling the mountain range. However, much of the so dubbed the “Ring Road” passes through Taliban territory, and after years of war and neglect conditions have deteriorated so much that one can only drive 10 km/hour in some sections.

Simply speaking, the geographic and political situation of Afghanistan is a trading nightmare.

While the U.S. has contributed $37 million toward a bridge spanning the Panj River to facilitate trade between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, ease of trade between Afghanistan’s North and South areas has yet to be addressed. While top-down security operations are underway to counter the rebirth of Taliban forces, resistance is still growing and conditions are still not friendly for trade. While public/private partnerships might help build new infrastructure, it is hard to imagine that the average Afghan with a $1000 GDP per capita can afford to contribute their income to the massive government expenditures required by Ikenson and Djankov’s recommendations. While foreign investment, as an alternative, might contribute to the construction needed, it is hard to imagine still that any company in its right mind would invest in a nation plagued by instability, or that any foreign government would find reason to voluntarily abet easier shipment of Afghanistan’s opium exports.

So how would one even begin to consider trade facilitation policies? Citing Robert Guest’s experience following a beer truck that was horrendously stalled in Cameroon due to inefficient checkpoints and corrupt officers, Ikenson obviously read The Shackled Continent. However, he must have forgotten the take-home message: a country needs good governance.

The opium poppy is not a safe crop option for the Afghan farmer. Cultivation of it continues, however, because it is simply more profitable than grapes in the current market. Bad government is the same way. It, too, continues because someone along the line profits. In the case of Afghanistan, it is the American-installed group ruling Kabul that stands to gain. In my conversation with Djankov after the lecture, he insisted that Afghanistan has untapped opportunities in dried fruits and vineyards, as well as natural resources in marble and gold. If anyone should ever expect those to be viable economic activities, they should first consider a government with a federalist-style configuration and strong local autonomy to answer questions of security and government accountability.

Trade facilitation is important but it is by no means a comprehensive solution to developmental challenges. Rather, a base of infrastructure and governance must first exist before one can expect TF policies to be implemented fruitfully.

Kasia Rada
Minaret of Freedom Institute Intern