Muslims and Christians: Some Questions to Abbas Ali

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Jun-05 | Author: Michael Ashkenazi

A recent article in World Security Network Newsletter dedicated to “What is the path for Muslims and other religions that leads to a common, peaceful future?

Abbas Ali responded by an article entitled “Winning the Peace, Ending the Chaos”. It appears that though the original article addressed one issue – in the realm of political ideology — Professor Ali’s article has turned what should have been an interesting discussion on the discontinuities between Western and Islamic political thinking, into a worn reiteration of diplomatic point-scoring. Instead of an analysis that would bring the debate forward, Abbas Ali has merely recycled tired and worn arguments.

Rather than attempting to respond to the points raised in Professor Ali’s article, I would like to suggest that there are fundamental Islam/non-Islam issues that need to be addressed at the ideological, political, and legal levels. Professor Ali (and any other) is invited to respond or not, as he wish’s.

The essence of the disagreement between Islam as a religio political philosophy and Western political ideology is not the existence of this or another state (or state of affairs). I argue, that there are certain fundamental differences that make Islam (almost unique in its overt religious domination of political thought in certain states) a dicey partner in political dialog, for virtually any other position. In order to elucidate this point, and from a position of little knowledge of Islam (though a great deal of familiarity with other religions), I would like to frame my reaction to the issue in the form of five questions. Others may well occur to the readers of this piece as well.

1. Most modern Western political philosophies (which is the dominant political paradigm today, and which the Islamic political paradigm overtly states its wishes to replace) are based on the idea of individual freedom to choose. This is circumscribed (in theory) by the demands only of the absolute necessity of the commonwealth: the raison d’etat. Different specific political expressions of this idea in different Western (and Western-influenced) polities, express this idea in different concrete forms, for better or worse. Islam in contrast (here referring both to the religious thought and to the political thought that emerges from it) overtly denies freedom of choice. This is most obvious in the choice of religion: the idea that the simple choice of religion must be enforced by the state. The idea that the apostate is worthy of killing is not directly mandated in the Quran, this is true. Islamic political thought flows from the Quran through the Hadith and Sharia. And in those, unquestionably, it has been accepted that the religious choice of Muslims is completely restricted: there is no choice whatsoever. This religious injunction has been turned into law in a great number of Islamic states ranging from kingdoms (Saudi Arabia) to democracies (Egypt).

How does Abbas Ali propose to bridge these fundamental differences between personal freedom and violently-imposed boundaries?

2. Related to the previous question is that of the legal status of non-Muslims. To illustrate, while in recent years Muslims have built magnificent mosques in most Western cities, there has been no such construction in Muslim countries. I am unaware of a single instance in which a new, large, public place of worship has been built for non-Muslims in a Muslim state in recent years. This too is a fundamental divergence of thought. In Western thought all citizens are equal before the law. Islam, in contrast, makes a strong legal distinction between the property and ritual rights of Muslims, non-Muslim "people of the book" (that is, Jews and Christians) who have limited rights, and pagans, who have few rights in civil, economic, and ritual matters. Abbas Ali obviously expects equal treatment under the law (of course laws can be violated and are, but we are discussing here legal issues, which are expressions of political thought) in his place of residence in the US. Yet he is prepared to deny it, presumably (inasmuch as he supports Islam as an equivalent political system to Western thought) to Christians living in Muslim countries. So, question 2:

How is it possible, under a Muslim system, to ensure equality to all citizens, regardless of their confessional membership, given that a-priori, in Islam, this equality in all things is denied?

3. Much has been made about the degree of equality of women in Islam in comparison to Christianity and the West. Much cited are the Sura which notes that women children have an equal share in their father's inheritance, as evidence of Islamic equality between men and women. In contrast, in most Muslim countries, women are not treated equally in this regard. Here I and Professor Ali would probably agree that this is a travesty of Islamic legal thinking (though, it nonetheless is recognized even within the Islamic framework as 'local law [Islamic term]). However, very clear legal determination is made elsewhere (e.g. S2: 282; S33:55) that women are not equal to men under Islamic law: at the very least their evidence is greatly discounted. In contrast, Western political thinking since the end of the nineteenth century, and to a very strong degree in the late twentieth, has come to the conclusion that equality under the law cannot distinguish in any way between the legal personae of women and men. Such distinctions as do exist, e.g. restrictions in certain professions, are allowed exceptions only in light of physical ability and safety (and these exceptions to the principle of equality too are contested). So here as well, we find two different fundamental legal-political positions which contradict one another.

Question 3: In an Islamic state, therefore, how could one expect women to exercise their basic legal rights when they are denied that by religious proscription?

4. Wrongly or rightly, the fundamentals of Western European thought rest upon two foundation stones: the construction and eminence of the domain of written laws, on the one hand, and the absolute undisputed final sovereignty of the people, to create, amend, and remove laws, on the other. The sovereignty of the people is undisputed, and expressed by the will of the majority. Privileged majorities do exist: any provision of, for example, the constitution of the United States (a much touted, hallowed document) can be amended by a privileged majority. In contrast, under Islamic thought, and particularly under some legal schools in Sunni thought (e.g. Wahabi), and in Shi'a thought, all laws must be accepted by the Ulema, who represent the will of God. Not only that, but in all Islamic religious thought, laws are subservient to the will of God (and I will agree with the critical view that the ways in which the Ulema have interpreted the will of God have often reflected their personal narrow interests rather than any expression from on high). However, there is, nonetheless, a major contradiction between the final authority in Western political thought (the people) and in Islamic political thought (God).

Question 4: Given the sovereignty of God in Islamic political thought to make and unmake law, how can the people at the same time have real sovereignty in both a substantive and a formal sense?

5. As several recent cases have demonstrated (the Rushdi affair is one example, the threatened Elsaadawi - Hetata divorce case fatwa in Egypt, another), legal process in Islamic thought very much includes individual initiative. That is, one legal authority can make at any time legally binding pronouncements that are not agreed on by other legal authorities. Not only that, but the executive process is similar to old Saxon law: under a process of law, any individual may be pronounced outside the law – in effect, legally a non-person – which any legal entity, including any individual, may execute the law upon. Thus a fatwa can announce that so-and-so is outlaw, and the right of pursuit falls on all and any. In contrast, Western law, originally founded (at least in Britain and the US, and to a lesser extant in Northern Europe) on this principle, has now moved away from this thinking. Only duly authorized officers of the law, in the pursuit of their duty, carrying a due warrant from the legal authority may bring a criminal to justice. Execution of a sentence can only be carried out in a manner, and by persons, authorized by law and instructed so by the judicial authority.

Question 5: Given the enormous potential for miscarriage of justice, and for lack of due process, would any Muslim political scholar be prepared to indicate how (a) the right to pronounce fatwa would be incorporated in a universal law? (b) restrictions would be placed on those who are to carry out a fatwa? and (c) punishment would be meted out only by a restricted roster of duly appointed, professional officers of the law?

6. Finally, it ought to be noted that all I have written above is in violation of Muslim legal thinking. Virtually any questioning of Islamic thought can be subject to automatic sanction. One of the fundamental freedoms of Western political thought (to return to question 1) is the freedom of expression and the freedom of thought (again, raison d’etat aside). It is worth keeping in mind that the oft-cited Golden Age of Andalusia, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars worked openly side by side, freely expressing and exchanging ideas was not brought to an end by the [Christian] reconquista, but by the invasion of Muslim fanatics from North Africa.

Question 6: How could these freedoms of expression and thought be guaranteed under a Muslim regime, in view of the fact that religious law is both ubiquitous, and open to interpretation with accompanying mortal sanctions?

In conclusion. It is clear that the Western and Islamic political systems have great differences between them. I hesitate to say a chasm. It is true also to say that Western political action has rarely, if ever, lived up to its own ideological standards. This is something that can just as easily be said about Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish law and their application. This is not the point. The question that has yet to be addressed, and was so markedly missed by Mr. Ali in his article, is the fundamental political-ideological-legal differences between the two systems. We may be able to blur them for pragmatic reasons, but scholars would be unwise to do so.

The six questions above do indicate that a great deal more reflective research needs to be done. Not being a scholar of Islam, I am sure the liost is far from exhaustive. Islam cannot claim to be a proper advocate of a universal political ideology to replace the Western one until these, and other questions are addressed to our satisfaction. Western political thought is very far from perfect. Its execution even less perfect. But in the realm of political ideology, the misdeeds, real and overstated of Western countries against Muslim ones are not the issue. The question needs to be addressed, at least here, on the ideological plane. Perhaps the greatest political weakness in Islam -- less so during the Golden Age of Andalusia, and other efflorescence than today -- is the absolute refusal to accept a simple sentiment (one that early Islamic thinkers -- el 'Arabi springs to mind -- may well agree with), best expressed by Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." .