Lecture| Are Islam & Democratic Liberalism Destined to Clash?

The Oxford Gulf & Arabian Peninsula Studies and the Oxford University Islamic Society jointly organized the lecture titled “Are Islam & Democratic Liberalism Destined to Clash?” on May 23, 2014 at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Lecture was delivered by prominent Turkish writer and journalist Akyol, who presented an overview of his book Islam without Extremes: a Muslim Case for Liberty. Ali Aslan Gumusay (Lecturer, Magdalen College, Oxford) was the discussant and the event was chaired by Dennis Sammut (OxGAPS Convenor).

Mustafa Akyolopened the lecture with reference to a May 23, 2014 New York Times column by Shadi Hamid titled “More democratic, Less Liberal,” as the article addressed a key theme covered in Islam without Extremes. Akyol explained the differences between democracy as a political system and liberalism as a political philosophy. He noted that many Islamist political movements call for free elections, while many secular movements block democracy.

He explained the logic behind the “secular paradigm” or, those who call for secular authoritarianism. He also referenced groups calling for Islamic reform and the Muslim Martin Luther. Akyol disagreed with both perspectives, explaining that Martin Luther is not perhaps the right historical Western example.  Rather, John Locke, a key important thinker from the British Enlightenment, offers “a reinterpretation of religion based on more individualistic terms.”

Akyol defined “imposition of piety” with examples from Saudi Arabia and legal injunction of religious practice—an injunction on the same level of Kemalist bans on the headscarf. Thus,Islam without Extremes “is about rethinking Islamic law and theology by going back to the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition and the evolution of thick jurisprudence and Islamic law.” He continued by asking which sources did this more authoritarian tradition to coerce piety come from, arguing for the need to go back to basics in order to see “a liberating message of Islam, from which we can construct something compatible to liberalism today, but we also need to reinterpret some laws for today.”

Akyol outlined this liberating message and need for interpretation with examples on the medieval origins of laws against apostasy, of corporal punishment, the early Mujiites and their call for judgment by God and not by man. Thus, “looking at early debates of Islam, we can find roots for tolerance.”

He also touched on the link between such arguments and Turkey. He began by explaining that the Ottoman Empire already faced the struggle with reconciling some Western values with Islam during the tanzimat reforms of the 19th century. Towards the present, he emphasized the positive aspects of the Kamalist state, as in the form of the provided “freedom from disputes of Sharia’.” However, in the past decade the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken power and achieved substantial economic progress and religious freedom for conservatives. 

It is in the idea of enforcing religious morality on society, even if done in reference to family values or health concerns that a potential clash with liberalism emerges. “AKP is at a critical point. It has to decide whether their mission is to serve all citizens, to focus on government services, the economy, and foreign policy and liberate conservatives from secular oppression, or to bend society to their ideal of the good Muslim and engage in imposition of piety.”

With this conclusion, Ali Aslan Gümüsay opened the discussion by applying his own research focus, Management and Organisation
Theory, conceiving democracy and religion as two different “institutional logics.” Within this frame he concluded the lecture with the following questions:

  • If both democracy and religion are conceived as institutional logics, are they destined to clash?
  • How do we judge progress itself and the success of potential liberalism? And how liberal is the present?
  • If we consider that liberal democracy and capitalism are in crisis, do we need something new? Can Islam help shape the modern notion of a political economic system?