>Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs. Dean Ahmad on Islam and Liberalism


Ali, the famous and controversial (former) Dutch MP and very vocal critic of Islam – in its entirety – spoke to the Toronto Star newspaper and had this to say:

The basic tenets of Islam and the basic tenets of the rule of law are mutually exclusive.

Contrast that statement with that of Dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, a classical liberal Muslim think tank, delivered to an audience at the Institute for Humane Studies (similar though secular think tank):

Shari`ah is not any particular system of laws, but the notion that there is a fixed law supreme not only over individual human actions, but collective institutions as well, including the institutions of government. Islam is neither democracy nor theocracy, but nomocracy. The law is to be discovered by the human intellect through rational study of human nature and the divine texts. In the context of a worldview in which religion governs all spheres of life the commandment of the Qur’an “let there be no compulsion in religion” amounts to a restatement of the non-aggression principle.

Ahmad believes that the basic tenets of Islam are more open ended and potentially respective of the liberal values of, more or less, a “live and let live” attitude and political system. Ali does not.

Ahmad elaborates:

The Achilles’ heel of a fixed law [Sharia in state form] is the danger of an inflexibility that will lead to stagnation. For hundreds of years Islamic civilization avoided this problem by a willingness to reinterpret the law as conditions changed and new knowledge became available. This flexibility of interpretation was gradually dropped during the declining years of the classical Islamic civilization as the door to ijtihâd (original legal thinking) was considered closed, and the backwardness of the modern Muslim world is the fruit.

Ali doesn’t seem to allow for the concept of ijtihad in the way that other feisty female Muslim (currently or formerly) critics of the Islamic world do, such as Irshad Manji. In response to the idea that Ali may be too sweeping in condemnation of Islam, she somewhat evasively states that

Muslims are locked in this mindset of submission, with women subordinate to men. But only if you are free as an individual can you take responsibility for what you do and how you behave, and we Muslims are not free as individuals. We can only be part of the collective, the ummah.

To be fair, I’m reading an edited transcript of the interview, so I’m not sure if this statement was directly preceded by a clear question of stereotyping Islam in total. If so, it would seem to answer the problem of alleged collective punishment, as it were, by pointing out that that which you punish is itself collective in orienation. But of course that gets us nowhere, because that assertion itself would be collectivist, disallowing for differences among the religion’s adherents.

There you have it, Ali vs. Ahmad, both of whom claim to be upholders of the classical liberal tradition. At least that’s what I’m led to believe, given this description of the American Enterprise Institute’s (of which Ali is now affiliated) MO:

AEI’s purposes are to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism–limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.

That’s about as classical lib as you get, save the “vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies” stance, perhaps. Though in practice AEI defies much of the thought of the original classical liberals – on the issue of war most especially – we’ll save that discussion for another day.

Given Ali’s roots in the Netherlands as a member of the left wing Dutch Labor Party, and her eventual break from them on grounds of opposition to their “naivete” on the issue of immigration, it seems that her presence at AEI is almost wholly due to her stance on the danger of Islam. She has certainly never, as far as I can tell, made any statements on the merits of the free market and whatnot. Hm.


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