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