Zaheer Kazmi in Aeon:
We live in a liberal world. In some senses, liberalism enjoys a global victory. Even its opponents often make their case based on essentially liberal ideals of a society built on political liberties or free trade to best maximise individual freedom. In the vital details, liberalism comes in many guises. As the grounds for revolution or a midwife to empire, over the past two centuries it has shaped how we see ourselves and the world.
While Europe’s empires may have worn liberalism like a badge of civilisation, liberal values were often taken up more vigorously in the lands they colonised, including in the Muslim world. Debates about ‘liberal Islam’ are almost as old as the ideology of liberalism itself. From the Aligarh movement in 19th-century British India to the al-Nahda, or renaissance, in the Arab world, Muslims have sought to synthesise Islam and liberalism to advance Islam’s civilisational progress.
The ‘Christian’ West might have established liberal societies, but it has struggled to produce liberal citizens. The resurgent fascistic movements in Europe and North America today seeking to restrict the freedoms of others are distinctly Christian and Western identity movements. On the other hand – and for largely historical rather than metaphysical reasons – Muslims have struggled to establish liberal states. Yet, by and large, within the liberal societies of the West, Muslims have been exemplary citizens, claiming their rights and pursuing their interests rather than focusing on persecuting others. Why then can the projects of Muslim liberals – who see liberalism in Islam – seem so quixotic?