Ibrahim al-Buleihi

Muslims have been exalted through liberalism. Liberalism is the most suitable climate that allows Islam to embody its great principles of justice, equality, the maintenance of human dignity and human prosperity.

One of the realities of Islam today is that Muslims are divided up among almost 60 states, most of which remain deeply backward. Islam in itself cannot be held responsible for these miserable, squalid conditions; it is its guardians who have shrivelled its teachings, masked its lights and channelled it to narrowed purposes.

Turkey: an experiment in Islamic liberalism

It is liberalism, with its promotion of diversity, integration, mobility, flexibility, activity and alertness, that allows the lights of Islam to shine with their most radiant.  Malaysia is evidence of this; it is one of the nations most consciously focused on Islam and Muslim affairs, and yet it has adopted liberalism. It has consequently been able to secure a visibly impressive prosperity worthy of emulation. So too Turkey after the accession to power of liberal Islamists. They placed limits on the absolute power of the military, and through their Islamic liberalism managed to make important strides ahead in all spheres. If Turkey succeeds in pursuing its mature opening up and its comprehensive rapid growth, it will become an important power not only on the Middle Eastern level but globally too. But if the grip of the military returns to strangle the new-born liberalism, Turkey will revert to a state of dull stagnation with its bright promise choked off. Turkey and Malaysia’s distinctiveness among Islamic nations is an indication that the climate of liberalism constitutes the solution.

Liberalism is a Latin word denoting ‘freedom’, but in its philosophical sense of a responsible freedom disciplined by ethics and civic and religious law. The reason for the ambiguity in our culture concerning the concept of liberalism stems from the fact that the word has not been Arabized. It has lingered on in the Arabic lexicon as a foreign expression, and this is something which has kept it opaque. A second reason is our strong sensitivity to co-operating with any form of western thought. We are apprehensive about imported ideas, particularly if they have a political, cultural or social content, and we do not accept from outside anything other than data or ready-made technologies - that is, matters shorn of their philosophical context. As for ideas, we reject them from the outset without attempting to examine them. This simply deprives us of the chance to acquaint ourselves with their content, even though it is ideas that are the source of prosperity.

All intellectual, political, cultural and religious trends in the Arab world have fought against liberalism; this is because an acceptance of liberalism would require the abandonment of cultural seclusion and political oppression and require society to unfreeze itself. Everyone in the Arab environment has grown up with the closed, single view, and those wielding cultural, scientific, political, party, social or tribal authority have become accustomed to being masters of the single view:

“If we are not in primacy over all others, it is better for us to die.”[1]

So the Arab environment was not prepared or open to such an exalted human concept. Liberalism was fought against by the Arab revolutionaries, the general populace also fought against it, as did the Nationalists, the Ba‘athists, the Nasserists and the Islamists. Perhaps the Arab Marxists were the most inimical to liberalism since their loyalty to the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc and Marxist ideology caused them to associate it with capitalism, which they saw must be brought down and continually fought against until they achieved this aim. This is a faulty understanding, since the humane sensibility in liberalism actually tames the savageness, egotism and greed of capitalism.

Islamic societies are no different from the rest of human societies, they need a liberal climate to grow

The essence of liberalism may be summarized as ‘responsible freedom.’ Its aim is Mankind’s progress in knowledge, ethics, dignity and prosperity, while its operative mechanisms vary according to culture. In philosophical terms it aspires to a free climate or a free methodology or a free social, cultural, political and economic environment. It is founded upon the rehabilitation of the individual and the recognition of his right to choose, the guarantee of his basic freedoms, and the ordering of life, laws and policies and institutions on the basis of the primacy of the individual in his constituting an independent entity. That is, one with responsibility for himself, and committed to the fulfillment of his obligations, while his rights are vouchsafed and his dignity is preserved.

Liberalism is the mature fruit of a mature humane vision concerning the nature of Man, of culture, politics, society and the individual, and the commitment to what this vision entails. For each man is an individual being, and cannot preserve his individuality or develop his capacities, nor safeguard himself nor secure his dignity unless he is free. But if there is corruption, and his abilities are dammed up, his thinking restricted, his mind bound, his movements watched, his choices restricted and his opportunities closed off to him, he will lose himself and turn into a puppet, he will be left to the mercy of his surroundings and become a plaything of ideologues.

Arab revolutionaries: masters of the single view

Liberalism is not a product of a first opinion, but the fruit of mature philosophical reflection, a buzzing, open climate in which ideas, tools, applications and mechanisms appear, grow and develop. Through live practice and relevant criticism the culture of society develops, its products diversify and its way of life improves automatically.

Liberalism means freedom disciplined by law, not an anarchic freedom but one that is mature, governed by civic and religious law.  It is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging vision for civic society, an open, magnanimous, humane climate that can accommodate all and in which all co-operate and are equal. The standard for distinction is efficiency and people enjoy equal status before the law. The public good is the concern of everyone, and it rests upon transparency, openness, honesty and accountability. It is the interest of everyone; they are responsible for it and they participate in it.

The experience of other nations confirms the fact that no true prosperity, no lasting growth, can be achieved without an open, liberal climate where all energies are invested and irregularities exposed, mistakes corrected and abuses stopped. One where capabilities are developed, possibilities opened up, and components are mutually supportive. To the extent there is liberal openness, there is prosperity; to the extent there is a closing-up, there is backwardness.

Islamic societies are no different from the rest of human societies, they need a liberal climate to think fluently, learn effectively, work skillfully, operate with flexibility and grow rapidly. With liberalism energies may be integrated, capabilities brought to maturity, hopes opened up and aspirations diversified. This is how prosperity is achieved. The flowering of intellects depends on the freedoms made available and the equal contest of ideas and mutual recognition among all trends. Islam speaks to people through the intellect and presents them with reasons and convinces them with evidence:

Say: Bring your proof  [Qur’ān II,111]

Liberalism is freedom conditioned by law to accommodate and confront all opinions

Islam cannot work in the dark, nor achieve the prosperity it deserves in its position as the final faith of God, and absolute truth, without an open liberal climate. Islam is not for one people to the exclusion of all others, but is a general call openly made and declaring its principles and teachings to all Mankind. It is a call to all people, and bringing the great truths of Islam to all people requires an ability to communicate with everyone. Liberalism provides an environment suitable to a faith founded upon the appeal to the intellect and based upon persuasion and not on subjugation.

Liberalism is freedom conditioned by law, an open climate that reassures all and offers them the opportunity to hear all the facts and see all the knowledge, deriving benefit from all directions, and confronting all opinions. Islam is not exalted through others dominating it or standing guard over its content, monopolizing all discussion in its name; it is exalted when it is allowed to present itself directly to all who differ with it, or all of those within it who differ among themselves.


[1] A citation from the medieval Arab poet Abu Firas al-Hamdani. (Ed.)