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Liberal Iranian
Liberal as in Liberty and Freedom. Iranian as in Cyrus and Ferdowsi.
Friday, September 15, 2006
Islam, Freedom, Democracy
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For all the talk and thought that goes into this topic, the answer is very simple: Islam is not compatible with freedom, nor it is with democracy. We need not set up a complex decontruction scheme or a hermeneutic reading of religion to find the asnwer. The answer sits simply in Qur'an, the foundation of whatever may be ever called Islam. In the fourth chapter (Surah) of the book, titled "Women" (al-Nesa') lie some of the most foundational rulings of Islam regarding freedom of opinion, role of women, etc. Verses 88 and 89 read

What is the matter with you, then, that you have become two parties about the hypocrites, while Allah has made them return (to unbelief) for what they have earned? Do you wish to guide him whom Allah has caused to err? And whomsoever Allah causes to err, you shall by no means find a way for him. [4:88]
They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper. [4:89]
Here, Qur'an lays the basis for killing whomever comes to the conclusion that he does not want to be a Muslim anymore--the apostates. They are deemed "hypocrites" who are misguided by no other than Allah (God) himself. Once they choose to act on their personal belief, they must be killed wherever they are found. This ruling has been used over and over again in the history of Islamic societies to kill those who chose differently from not just their fellows, but their parents and grandparents. The same law applies equally forcefully to those who have converted to Islam. There is no way back! In recent history (1988) Ayatollah Khomeini infamously issued an edict (fatwa) to kill Salmun Rushdie, the Indian-Muslim-born British writer, deeming him an apostate for his book, The Satanic Verses. The fatwa also included "all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content," resulting in the death of the Japanese publisher of the book and injuries to a few others.

Now, what is freedom, if not to change one's mind? And what is democracy without the chance to choose differently? Islam is neither free, nor democratic, if for the sole reason that apostates must be, and are killed. 
So basically all Muslims should convert, or all Muslims are inherently evil.
I don't understand where yo got that idea, Nema! The logical conclusion is that Islam shall not be a part of the political sphere of the society, or a part of its law-making apparatus (at least not in its coherent form) if they are to be free and democratic.

So far as Islam is (kept) a personal matter or belief, anyone can beleive or practice it in whatever way they wish.
But you just said Islam is neither free or democratic. So then the followers of Islam, i.e. Muslims, must believe in a repressive and totalitarian religion. Or am I wrong about that?
No, you are not wrong about that.
I'm not in a position to tell if Islam is free or not so I'll have to base my opinion on your post.

Still I think that one is not living in a free environment, if one is not able to convert out of the beliefs-institution one is born regardless of the institution being Islamese, Christian, Capitalistic or Communistic.

I think that people should have the possibility to follow their heart and brain to whichever direction, so that they do not have to fear for their life or bodily integrity. Religion and beliefs can dictate the rules in the believing society, but not the rules for those outside it. That is why the constitutional laws of any society should not be drewn by any major or minor religions opinions, but by the ideals of freedom of belief, speech and criticism.

People have to have the right to criticise the political sphere and religious leaders and turn away from them without having to fear for their life and freedom. I'm not sure if that is possible in Islamese world. You tell me.

-Finnish university student

That's right! In the Islamic world, that is, where Islam is the source of the legal codes, converting out of Islam is not legal for Muslims. Of course, there are those who do convert out, either explicitly or just in their own quiet, but they must pay the price in different ways. In remote places where international community and human rights activists have no access or leverage, say, in some parts of Pakistan, the price is either to die or to escape. In other places where the international community has some power, say, today's Afghanistan, the price is to stand on trial. There was recently a case with much media coverage, of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Christian convert who faced trial with the possibility of a death sentence. The court dismissed the case, but there remained the threat of fundamentalist vigilantes. He managed finally to escape and take asylum in Italy.
If thats true, then why are most Muslims against oppressive regimes? The majority of Muslims in the Middle East are discontent with their government because they are repressive. Vvaltavi makes the false assumption that the way religion is governed in various states is the way Islam is, and yet we know for a fact that the vast majority of people living in those countries object to the policies of their countries. Mind you, if thats the case, then why can't we look to the Inquisition and see a repressive Christian faith? Why not look to the Middle Ages. The fact is you can look to any point and time, and any locality and find that the application of every faith can be fundamental if mixed with politics. The problem with your assertion, however, is that you are arguing that the faith itself and those who follow it are totalitarian. That to me is the roots of bigotry, the kind, in fact, that led to the Holocaust. There's nothing different between saying "Islam is oppressive" and what Hitler used to say about Jews.
Regarding to the compatibility of Islam and democracy you noted: “We need not set up a complex deconstruction scheme or a hermeneutic reading of religion to find the answer”. You can manage to do that since “the answer is very simple [for you]: Islam is not compatible with freedom, nor it is with democracy”. Well, the answer is not that easy for me since I want to and I have to deal with Muslims who are not going to give up their undemocratic and intolerant believes.
You put some verses to show the incompatibility of Islam and freedom/democracy. I think you are in a right track as far as explaining the causes of Islamic intolerance. However, it doesn’t rule out any possibility of a tolerant version of Islam. I am not in fond "a complex deconstruction scheme or a hermeneutic reading of religion" either, but I would go for it if I find it helpful to reconcile tolerance-freedom with Islam. Unless it is shown that this reconciliation is totally impossible, I wouldn’t give it up; neither will Muslim give up their intolerance.

I think that we can look at the inquisition or American neo-christians and see a repressive Christian faith. That is a way Christianity can behave when intepreted by extremists and politicalized. I guess it's the same thing Islam can behave too.

You speak true when you say that we should be able to distinguish between the way religion is governed and the way the religion is seen amongst the majority of the believers.

Still I will not take back my opinion about freedom of choice. But I'm wholeheartedly willing to believe that many Muslims do not share the viewpoints of the religious governing institutions.

So if I got your point, you are saying that the modern day common peoples Islam is very different to the official politics.

Both Christianity and Islam can have as many faces as there are believers and I don't see that Islam is oppressive on some fundamental level.

If you are saying that in case the laws of society were written again today, according to the opinion of the common folk in an Islamese country, they would differ on this kind of rules, then I think that one has to admit that Islam doesn't have much to with repression.

Then again the society isn't free at this time, but it depends on the people in power and not the religion.

The bottom line is that both Islam and Christianity can be used to promote repressive governance, and that is why one has to be very careful when mixing religion and politics.


The case of Abdul Rahman is known also in Finland and is referred again in todays newspaper, in a article that deals with a similar case in Malaysia. More about this case elsewhere. The fundamental question here is if one can be Muslim and approve someone else to convert out of Islam, and who is to decide that.
the second post is mine as well.


It seems the answer must be clear to you as well, since you talk about dealing "with Muslims who are not going to give up their undemocratic and intolerant believes." It seems you are trying to solve a differnet problem from the one discussed in this post, namely, the problem of "how to establish a free society (or a democracy) in a country where the majority of people are muslims?" Muslims who, in your words, "are not going to give up their undemocratic and intolerant believes."

If I may, I suggest that you completely forget about finding a "tolerant version of Islam." Not because it is "totally impossible" but because even if you succeeded in that, there would be many more reasons not to mix even a "tolerant" religion in politics. In case of the intolerant religion of Islam we are facing today, of course, the first reason, i.e. the intolerance takes precendence. Instead, we shall find a way to separate the institutions of religion and politics. As Nema points out, there are many "musims" in these Islamic countries who are more than happy to see this happen. They are natural allies for such a project.

As I wrote in my first response to you, and I repeat, the logical conclusion of my argument is that Islam shall not be a part of the political sphere or the law-making apparatus (in its coherent form) if they are to be free and democratic. On the personal level, this has nothing to do with bigotry or Hitler. I am not suggesting any repressive action against those who believe in the repressive ideas of Islam but do not cause anyone any harm, especially because the whole of my argument is precisely in opposition to such actions. The same is true for all believers of other repressive ideas, say, neo-Nazis. Of course, those who believe in such ideas and cause others harm by acting on them must be tried and punished accordingly.

Now, taking your statements seriously that, "the majority of Muslims in the Middle East are discontent with their government because they are repressive" and that, "most Muslims against oppressive regimes," it is only further evidence that they agree with this argument. Otherwise, they could not be against a government, say, in Iran, whose raison d'être is to implement Islam in all public spheres.

More to the point, however, is the fact that, all stripes of "muslims" who oppose dictatorship truly for their being repressive and for the love of freedom are those who would not label themselves primarily as muslim in their activism. They may call themselves muslims and be quite devout as well, but when it comes to their struggle for freedom they subscribe to a different set of ideas from those put forward by Islam, especially those in the abovementioned verses of Qur'an. Look at Akbar Ganji or Shirin Ebadi in Iran, for example, and many more like them.

Of course, there are also those muslims, like al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, who oppose their oppressive, secular governmentsin order to establish another repressive government in which Islam is the rule. These are the ones who, in their politics and activism, subscribe to Islamic ideas, including the verses iin question.
I am not sure if the government problem in Iran and the Middle East is mainly a political problem. You guys are right that there are Muslims in the Middle East that are against their suppressive regimes. However, 1) I don’t think that is the mainstream interpretation/version of Islam in the Middle East; 2) opposing and being unhappy with a suppressive regime doesn’t mean to support a secular government, and I don’t think we can use those examples to support the idea that the majority of the middle easterns are for a secular government.
I think the separation of Church (/Masque) and state is not only a political but also a cultural venture. We can not maintain a secular state in a society that its people believe (and consequently practice) in an intolerant and suppressive ideology. I am not suggesting to stop political efforts of establishing a secular governments in the middle east; however, at the same time we have to reconcile the majority’s mindset with this form of government. In this perspective, I suggest the revisiting and revising of Islam; yes, I am suggesting to come up with a new interpretation of Islam, even a Surah such as Al-Nesa. I am not sure if it will be a successful project, but I can not think of any other option (except eradicating Islam which doesn’t seem to be possible).

Do you believe "revisiting and revising Islam" and "coming up with a new interpretation of Islam, even a Surah such as Al-Nesa" are easier problems to solve than "establishing a secular government" in Iran?
These ancient texts (Koran, Bible, ...) are SO VAGUE and UNCLEAR you can extract anything you like out of them. I'm sure someone out there will find another piece of Surah that can be interpreted in a very democratic and contemporary fashion.

It always makes me laugh when people discover things like that in Koran. I wonder why they never discover such things before they actually happen!
I am not sure which is easier than which, but I think that even if it is possible to establish a secular government in Iran, it is impossible to maintain it without a secular cultural, which in Iran’s case is a new interpretation/version of Islam.

Where is the vagueness in the quoted verses?

Perhaps you can also corroborate your claim about other "democratic" pieces of other Surahs by pointing out some examples that are not abrogated?

How can we establish and popularize a secular culture when the government cracks down on all related activities and considers them heresy?

Don't you also think that even if we do come up with a new (democratic) reinterpretation of Islam, we stand negligible chance today of being able to establish that as the mainstream interpretation in the religion-driven political sphere of a country like Iran?
You have taken that verse totally out of context and assumed that the fundamentalist interpretation is the only "authentically" Islamic one. First of all, according many Shiah jurists, like Motahhari and others, the verse does not abrogate the ones that came before it. Rather, the verse is abrogated by the verse "Fight those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities..." Interesting that you failed to post the verses that come right before the one you quoted..hmm.

Islamic Modernists who are quickly becoming the voices of mainstream Iranian Islam, that there is a distinction between religion and our understanding of religion. While Muslims believe the Qur'an is divine, no Muslim can claim their interpretation is divine, which means they cannot impose it on others.

You should really keep up with the trends in modernists Iranian Islam before making essentialist comments about what Islam "must be", or what Islam "really is".

You can read Dr. Soroush's arguments here, you may find them interesting.

The verse is completely in context as it relates to how those who think and believe differenlty must be dealt with according to Qur'an.

This is not an essentialist statement. I am not debating the essence of Islam, etc. and I grant that there are muslims who have different readings of their beliefs. The point is, as I said in response to Nema above, that Islam shall not be a part of the political sphere of the society, or a part of its law-making apparatus (at least not in its coherent form) if they are to be free and democratic. Take your favourite, say, Soroush's modern reading of Islam. Then go ahead and set up a political and judicial system based on this reading. If you call it "Islamic" what would prevent some other reading of Islam from claiming ownership of this system? That would also be Islamic, though according to a different, likely a fundamentalist, reading. As you see, the problem still exists, no matter which reading you want to advocate.

This is not a theoreticcal problem. The recent history of Iran is testament to exactly this sort of problem.

Oh, BTW, "Islamic Modernists ... are quickly becoming the voices of mainstream Iranian Islam"? Are you joking?!
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