By Mustafa Akyol
These days, a part of northern Syria is dominated by the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” the latter term meaning Greater Syria. Known by its acronym ISIS, this fanatic group has shocked the world with its brutal executions, including beheadings, of not just the supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, but even elements of the more moderate opposition. It is clearly an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and thus proudly executes the acts of violence that the rest of the world considers as terrorism.
The northern province of Rakka is one of the strongholds of this “ISIS.” Recently, they put up posters there on big streets, showing a women’s silhouette in full-black Burqa, and declared:
“Sorry, but this is the FREEDOM we want in accordance to the Qur’an & Sunna.”
In other words, the ISIS declared that the “freedom” they believe in is about forcing women to wear a certain dress code. (They not only advocate this dress code, but also impose it at the barrel of a gun.)
The absurdity here must be most obvious to Western readers, but I will still try to dissect it a bit. For the idea that “real freedom” equals “submission to Islam” is very popular among conservative Muslims, even among those who are not nearly as fanatic, let alone violent, as al-Qaeda.
I have a more simple definition of freedom: The state of not being coerced to do something against your will. In this sense, being coerced to wear a Burqa, a headscarf, or any other “Islamic” dress code, real or perceived is certainly a violation of freedom. Similarly, however, being coerced NOT to wear such dresses, like authoritarian secularists in Turkey or elsewhere have done, is a violation of freedom, too.
In other words, there is no inherent freedom in any dress code — whether it be the Burqa or bikini. Freedom is about being able to choose what to wear. Some conservative Muslim women really choose to wear certain forms of veiling; it is their choice and thus their freedom. Other women might choose to wear bikinis, miniskirts or whatever; it is their choice and thus their freedom, too.
Similarly, there is no inherent freedom, or the lack thereof, in Islam or any other religion. If people accept religion and follow its rules willingly, out of their genuine convictions, then they are exercising their freedom. The observant Muslims who deprive their bodies of food and liquid throughout the thirty days of Ramadan, for example, are doing this willingly, so they are enjoying their freedom. But if someone forced them to fast, and deprived them of eating and drinking, then this would be an attack on freedom.
A big question today that faces the Muslim Umma (the global community of believers) is whether Islam will be articulated as a religion that respects freedom and acts within it, or as an authoritarian “system” that violates and threatens freedom. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda are the worst examples of the latter understanding. But even some more moderate yet still illiberal-minded Muslims need to think about some of their attitudes that involve imposing Islam rather than merely proposing it.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to why the Qur’an declared, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Because, humans, especially, when they achieve power, tend to use compulsion to impose what they believe to be right. When they do this in the name of religion, however, they do not create genuine religiosity. Besides violating freedom, they only create hypocrisy.