A Muslim’s Personal Account of a Week Exploring Liberty

by Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org

I recently had the opportunity to attend a weeklong seminar on “Freedom, Tolerance and Civil Society” sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies. The seminar solidified my understanding of liberty and classical liberal thought. Through lectures by philosophers, lawyers, and an economist along with discussion with a wide-spectrum of participants, I realized that while Islam guides my personal moral behavior, classical liberal thought (which is, generally, compatible with Islamic principles) could provide a solution allowing Muslims to co-exist and thrive in this diverse World.

Some of what was discussed was difficult to discuss from a Muslim perspective. Issues over sexuality, alcohol and drug use, and gambling are areas which in Islam is clear about what is and what is not pleasing behavior to God. As Muslims, we voluntarily obey these laws knowing that every person will be judged for his/her behavior on the Day of Judgment, but God also tells us “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Some of the wisdom behind this command is evident in the Muslim world today. As one of the lecturers stated, “Because vice threatens, virtue grows.” In societies where the State has legislated morality, immorality seems to thrive behind closed doors. In the Islamic context, for example, if someone else forces a person not to drink that person no longer receives the reward and virtue of voluntarily submitting to God’s laws. Issues surrounding legislating morality are especially important for Muslims living as minorities. If Muslims were to try and force their morals on non-Muslims, it would seem quite probably and fair for the non-Muslims, in return, to try to force their morals on Muslims. At the seminar, we discussed a possible solution to this dilemma, which was explored in the writings of Friedrich Hayek. In this view, society would have an overarching principle that people have the liberty to do with their person and property what they like as long as they do not harm other’s person or property. Under this idea, a small group wishing to live by their own moral codes would be able to voluntarily enter a social contract permitting and forbidding what they like in their own community, as long as they do not force their views on their neighbors.

There are still areas and issues that need to be resolved and explored between classical liberalism and Islam. But that is why the work of the Minaret of Freedom Institute is so important. It is through Islam that I came to classical liberalism, and I believe it is through liberty that people of various backgrounds and persuasions can come together and agree to live peaceably together.

One Response to “A Muslim’s Personal Account of a Week Exploring Liberty”

  1. Dain says:

    Very well put. It was great meeting you at the conference Sarah.

    With regard to the question of what some have called “Pluralist liberalism” – the support of communities abiding by their own rules within the context of an overarching liberal framework of law – there is alot of wiggle room to effectively snuff out these communities. That is, if the rule must be that these communities can be respected as long as they are hurting no one else, the question becomes “How do others ensure that they are remaining liberal?”, that they are not violating the harm principle?

    I myself got into a heated debate on this topic, defending the Amish not putting their children in state schools. My opponent said it violated the harm principle to not expose them to the outside world and all its knowledge. The temptation to interfere is strong, even lacking clear and present harm.

    So, communal autonomy becomes somewhat restricted if one takes a consequentialist viewpoint that states that these communities must be constantly monitored to ensure that they are not becoming internally illiberal. And that is where the “Rationalist liberals” come in, ala John Stuart Mill, who put forth a mild defense of imperialism for the reasons stated above.