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Islam and Politics ( 26 March 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Outside The Liberal Club


By Abdul Rahman Mustafa

March 27, 2014

Pakistan is under threat from fundamentalism. A minority, we constantly hear, has taken it upon itself to impose its views on the majority, to challenge the state and its constitution and to close their minds to all foreign ideas.

In a recent column the commentator Afiya Shehrbano (‘The crisis of an ideology’ March 16) condemned my use of the term ‘liberal fundamentalists’ at an academic conference to describe a group of Pakistani liberals who reject the prevailing consensus on the role of religion in the state, reject the authority of state institutions such as the courts and reject the idea of intellectual engagement with the Islamic tradition. I think such attitudes deserve to be labelled what they are: fundamentalist, even if those who hold these views like to think of themselves as liberals who, for some unexplained reason, can never be fundamentalists.

Only in Kafkaesque Pakistan could liberals bemoan the absence of democracy while approving of the track record of a “liberal dictator”, (Shehrbano’s chosen epithet for General Musharraf) and fighting to ensure that the will of the majority is subverted. An April 2013 Pew survey found that no less than 84 percent of Pakistani Muslims favoured making the Shariah the law of the land. Even long established democracies rarely achieve this kind of consensus in their elections and referenda.

But Pakistani liberals seem to be unfazed by the contradiction that in calling for a strict separation of religion and state they have committed themselves to fighting against the democratic will. Like our colonial masters of old, this rich, educated and influential minority will fight to the death (as long as others do the dying) to impose its views on the overwhelming majority that wants to see Islam play a defining role in the country’s legal system.

We are engaged in a civil war with those who refuse to acknowledge our constitution. Shehrbano refers to a decision of the Supreme Court as unlawful (she incorrectly uses the term ‘ultra vires’) because it was supposedly based on Islamic law principles. Given that it is the constitution that gives the judgements of the Supreme Court the force of law, such remarks show the contempt some liberals have for the law and the constitution which determines the status of the judgements of the courts. Here’s hoping Shehrbano’s liberal friends do not ask the state to make an example of her the way they have done with others who have failed to respect our constitution.

The attempts of some of my colleagues and myself to engage in research on classical and modern Islamic legal theory and the possible solutions it provides to many of our current problems is so contemptuously dismissed by Shehrbano. Any attempt at research in this direction is also dismissed as dangerous and misguided. Having dismissed serious scholarship on Islam, all the liberal fundamentalists can offer is their version of Islamic history, a strange mix of fantasy and eulogy which offers little besides a lament for those mythical and halcyon days when Muslim women went unveiled and nobody wanted to live under Shariah.

While very sceptical about the possibility of knowing what the Shariah really is, Pakistani liberals are very confident relying on concepts such as ‘liberalism’, ‘feminism’, ‘rationality’ and ‘modernity’ in support of their own views. But these terms are as contested and subject to as many variant interpretations and understandings as the term ‘Shariah’.

Therefore, if the Shariah is to be excluded from the deliberations of the state for being understood differently by different people, we must also make sure that economics, democracy, feminism and rationality play no role in the workings of the state because none of these concepts has a meaning that is agreed upon by everyone. Marxists and capitalists do not agree on what ‘economics’ is all about. Muslims, liberals and radicals cannot agree on what the term ‘feminism’ is supposed to signify. The concept of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ itself is subject to various interpretations ranging from Aristotelian formalism to post-modern scepticism.

Astute observers will also have noted that there is more than one kind of liberalism. One version is committed to celebrating a plurality of opinions and encouraging reasoned debate. In the Pakistani version of liberalism, by contrast, the very existence of multiple opinions about a concept such as the Shariah makes applying that concept unfeasible. While this close-minded version of liberal fundamentalism might have a lot in common with some stripes of Islamic fundamentalism, both are opposed to the pluralistic tradition of classical Islamic law which developed a system where rival schools of law were established, tolerated and allowed to engage in healthy debate with each other.

Like all fundamentalists, Pakistani liberal fundamentalists are utterly convinced that theirs is the only true way of seeing the world. All those who stand outside this very small privileged club are regarded as victims of some sort of false consciousness or mass delusion. This includes the majority of Pakistanis (men and women) who have expressed a desire to live under Shariah. Funnily enough, this projection of a false consciousness also extends to the way Pakistani liberals view their western counterparts, such as Ernest Gellner, who, in his insightful book Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, admitted that secular liberals like him were in fact fundamentalists too. But that is the west.

Here in Pakistan, you are not a fundamentalist if you support dictatorial legislation; seek to have your views imposed on the majority and fight against the idea of educational research into religion. No, pat yourself on the back because you are a liberal.

Abdul Rahman Mustafa’s book ‘On Taqlid: Ibn al Qayyim’s Critique of Authority in Islamic Law’ has been published by Oxford University Press. Email: