Is There Room For Islam In Democracy, Freedom Of Speech, And Secularism?

by Catherine Shakdam/MintPress News

Amid growing concern that radicalism is gaining ground against Western democracies, media, politicians and scholars have increasingly moved to focus their narratives on the notion that Islam is inherently opposed to the Western core values of democracy, freedom of expression, and secularism.

“You cannot say that [jihadi terrorism] has nothing to do with Islam. Jihadists are using the freedoms of democracy to achieve political change to try to destroy that democracy and the freedoms which it enshrines,” Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, told MintPress News.

Though such beliefs have been pushed forth often, Dr. John Andrew Morrow, a Canadian scholar and director of the Covenants Foundation, explained how such a premise is not only false but profoundly biased and xenophobic.

“True Islam is not a threat to humanity; on the contrary, it represents its very salvation. Islam is not opposed to democracy, secularism, and freedom of speech in the true sense of these terms. Islam has historically supported both direct and indirect modes of political participation,” Morrow told MintPress.

“If Islam is portrayed as a mortal enemy to Western civilization and values it is because it poses a formidable obstacle to imperialistic hegemonic interests. Democracy, freedom of expression, and secularism are merely masks worn by the one-percenters (1%), the global elite that seeks to enslave all of humanity as it simultaneously destroys the planet in its greed for resources, wealth, and absolute power. Having succeeded in destroying, subjugating, and co-opting all remnants of resistance, only Islam stands in their path. This explains why the globalists are engaged in a concerted campaign to use false ‘Islam’ to destroy true Islam,” he added.

With U.S. President Barack Obama taking the lead, Western leaders have made strong efforts toward separating terrorism and Islam. Speaking at the closing of a summit on countering violent extremism on Feb. 18, Obama asserted: “We are not going to give them [ISIS militants] the religious legitimacy they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists … We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Still, the faith appears to remain the object of much public animosity. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have been called upon to collectively carry the weight of ISIS’ guilt. An entire faith is being held responsible for the religious deviations of a terrorist group that comprises less than 1 percent of the religious population.

Indeed, while ISIS and al-Qaida have declared war on the Western world, it is Muslims — both Sunni and Shiite — who have suffered most. Thousands of Muslims have perished at the hands of ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria, while tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes and communities to escape the violence of this black flag army.

“Muslims more than any other community have a stake in this war against terror, as terror is directed at them,” Prince Abdul Ali Seraj of Afghanistan told MintPress.

A new take on an old narrative

As France and the rest of Europe slowly come to terms with the fallout from the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January, a conversation has emerged from Western capitals, whereby Muslims as a religious group and Islam as a faith have been branded anti-Western.

Militants have anchored their twisted ideology on the Quran for political purposes, and it has been widely assumed that Islam itself is the main catalyst of radicalism.

“Do we blame cancer on healthy cells? No, of course not, because that would be illogical. By labelling an entire segment of the world population are we not following the same irrational logic as those radicals? Islam is not the problem, radicals are. Islam teachings are not the problem, radicals’ interpretation of religious texts is,” Prince Ali said.

Yet Islam is not the only religion to have ever been hijacked by covert political powers to serve alternative agendas. While disguised under the cloak of the holy, these agendas became clear as intelligence reports revealed that ISIS was receiving funding and arms from oil-rich monarchies whose ultimate goal is to destabilize the Middle East through sectarianism so they can better control and exploit the region’s vast oil reserves.

Since its beginnings in the 1860s, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group which proclaimed itself a Christian organization, has committed heinous crimes against the black community and the community’s supporters and sympathizers. At the height of its popularity, the KKK had an estimated 4 million to 5 million members in its ranks — roughly 15 percent of the country’s eligible population. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler used the banner of Christianity to orchestrate the Holocaust.

The KKK and Hitler used Christianity while ISIS uses Islam, yet all have spewed hateful bigotry and committed atrocities against those they’ve labelled undesirables. Though the KKK rose to dizzying heights with millions of members, much more than ISIS and al-Qaida combined, the American people as a whole were never called upon to answer of the actions of a minority within their ranks.

According to the CIA, ISIS had between 21,000 to 31,500 fighters at the ready, as of September. “This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity and additional intelligence,” a CIA spokesman told CNN in September.

And, as Morrow noted to MintPress, “1.6 billion Muslims in the world have seen their faith held hostage by a thousand crazed few.”

In the post-9/11 era Muslims are lumped into one of two categories: good Muslims and bad Muslims, Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Anthropology, Columbia University, pointed out in an essay for the Social Science Research Council.

According to Prof. Tariq Ramadan, a prominent scholar and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, this binary predates terror and is actually rooted in colonialism.

“Back in the colonial era [19th and early 20th centuries] European orientalist scholars depicted Muslims in the same binary manner: good Muslims versus bad Muslims, depending on whether they stood with or against colonial powers. Times may have changed, but the old mindsets and simplistic portrayals continue to cast a shadow over today’s intellectual, political and media debate about Islam,” Ramadan told MintPress.

“And because the narrative has so far assumed that Islam draws no distinction between religion and politics, it was then agreed that no distinction would be made to differentiate religious conceptions and practices from political actions, thus reducing the very concept of Islam and the Muslim world to a very simplistic and inherently biased formula.”

Addressing Western prejudices toward Islam, Ramadan says that he personally believes the root of the problem has more to do with religious misconceptions than ideological dichotomy.

“From this skewed viewpoint, Muslims have been viewed and perceived as a threat to an otherwise ‘open’ and modern society,” Ramadan said. “But our histories, cultures, and reference points are not identical, and therefore we should not use each other’s system of reference to judge one another, as our perspective can only be biased.”

As Ramadan alludes to, Westerners’ skewed understandings of Islam and Muslims may have created this so-called clash of civilizations, rather than the values Islam professes and Muslims strive to live by.

Ramadan stresses that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share core similarities. Though tensions indeed continue to exist in “some countries between Christian and Muslim communities for political, social, or economic reasons, by and large if I look at the world, the great majority of Christians are living peacefully with Muslims, and vice versa,” he said. “And this has been the case in Muslim-majority countries, so we need to be very cautious with perceptions that there is something intrinsically different between the two religions.”

He added: “Now, it’s true that if you come to the deep or the principles and lessons from those respective religions we are indeed very close. This is actually mentioned many times in the Quran.”

On democracy and secularism

Since President George W. Bush declared war on Islamic radicalism in 2001, the Western world has been taught that Islam is antithetical to democracy and secularism, as mentioned by Baroness Cox.

Yet what if there were no divide and this belief held no real substance? Is it possible that America and the broader Western world simply created a Muslim boogeyman out of their own desire to reduce the world to their own predetermined sets of values?

“It is important to understand that there is no real clash between Islam and secularism. Envisioning the two as antithetical simply arises when one relies on a binary understanding of the world,” stressed Ramadan.

“We need, first of all, to define what we mean by the secular world because the secularization process was to differentiate between the state power and the church power — the power of religion. But again, because the religious structure of Christianity and Islam are so different, the secular and the religious mean different things. In Islam we don’t have a clergy and there is a clear line between the state and the religious already set in place.”

Indeed, where the Church used to regulate and dictate the affairs of the state through a tight and controlled hierarchy, Islam has always drawn a clear line between the religious and the political, Ramadan explained.

“If we are talking about the sharing of powers, Muslims don’t have a problem because this concept actually matches Islamic tradition, whereby the affairs of the state and the religious are naturally separate. If we reduce secularity and the process of secularization to less religion or no religion in the public sphere, then it is different. The new discussion in the West on secularity is coming because of the new visibility of Muslims,” he said.

According to Ramadan, Western calls for the secularization of the state were born from this understanding that limits would have to be defined and state institutions claimed away from the Church for democracy to become a reality.

“Because Westerners are confronted with Muslims practicing their religion, they feel suddenly that secularism is being challenged. But can we really say that because an individual practices his or her religion he or she automatically rejects the separation of powers? No, of course not. It only means that in their daily life they are practicing their faith. I can be a Muslim, pray, wear the headscarf, and all these things, and at the same time respect the secular legal system. There is no clash between an individual’s religious life and civic duties and responsibilities,” Ramadan emphasized.

“Muslims don’t have a problem with this, by the way. Quite the opposite, I would say. It is Western powers’ distorted vision and understanding of Islam which has fed this misconception and led to tensions. Muslims in the West do not have a problem with the system, they live perfectly well within the system,” he said, adding that the problem is not in the legal framework but in “inequalities, racism, sectarianism, and so on.”

On freedom of expression

Where 9/11 came as an attack on democracy, the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was understood as a declaration of war on freedom of expression, one of the founding principles of all Western democracies.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.38.59 AMAs the world rose in condemnation of the attackers’ heinous crimes against free, unarmed people, Islam and Muslims were subjected to much criticism, their faith dissected and analyzed to demonstrate how inherently anti-Western Islamic values really stood before the concept of absolute freedom. Le Figaro, a French daily, ran a headline which read, “Liberty assassinated.”

Though arguably all people should be able to express themselves freely, without fear of persecution or repercussion, Ramadan asks: Is it ever possible to abide by principles of absolute freedom? At what point does our freedom impede on that of others?

“This conversation we’re having on freedom of expression is something quite important, but once again our starting point is prejudiced and wrong. In no philosophy, in no social organization, in no philosophical structure is there such a thing as absolute freedom of expression. Absolute freedom of expression is impossible,” Ramadan said. “In all Western countries there are laws regulating freedom of expression. If I’m a racist, for example, there are things that I cannot do and cannot say without breaking the law.”

As an example of this, Ramadan pointed to the French law which criminalizes the act of challenging the factuality of the Holocaust. “[W]here people would agree that the Holocaust was a historical fact and therefore should be open to discussion or debate, France legislated that none would ever be able to challenge the pre-set validity of the event,” he said. “How can you take a law on history?”

“In the West there are things you can say and others that you cannot say. And to know your freedom is understanding the scope of your freedom.”

While Islam does not recognize absolute freedom of speech, as it would entail that every individual could in all impunity inflict harm on to others in the name of such freedom, it is not to say that it stands in negation of freedom of expression, per se.

As Ramadan told MintPress, “From an Islamic viewpoint we have to differentiate between the legal and moral system — good behavior. There are some things that are legal and some things that are ethical. And not everything which is legal will be ethical, and vice versa.”

He continued:

“And, yes, sometimes we hear people cry out blasphemy in relation to certain issues, but it really comes down to social sensitivities and cultural sensitivities.

When it comes to decency, when it comes to mutual respect, it is not a question of law — it is a question of education and ethics. It comes down to an individual’s ability to recognize that one particular attitude is socially reprehensible. We need to ask ourselves, do we want to live in a realistic society?

We live in a multicultural world and we need to learn to respect one another and accept one another for our differences with kindness and empathy. And though some will argue that it is their inherent right to say what they want and attack however they want, is it moral to do so? Is it right to do so?

We cannot talk about rights without talking about responsibilities, as well. Islam teaches that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities.”