The Muslim Open Society

Paul L. Heck (May 20, 2015 — Marrakesh)

I’m going to talk about something else. People want to know.

Are they Muslims?

ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia. The list goes on…

The reality can’t be ignored. But I’m going to talk about something else, something that comes from my experiences in Morocco over the last several years. It’s known as the Muslim Open Society. But is it the reality on the ground? Let’s see.

Everyone in Morocco wants freedom for their ideas. I’ve not met anyone in Morocco, from secularists to salafists, who doesn’t want freedom for his or her ideas. All want their ideas to win over those of others. (And who doesn’t?) But this is the point. All want freedom for their ideas without reprisal. What are we to make of this? And how are we to think about it?

The Muslim Open Society is a concept with traction. It’s a society under the banner of Islam where ideas freely circulate without reprisal or recrimination and where citizens have the right to dissent (حق الاختلاف). And it’s not an ideal to hope for but an emergent reality on the ground in many places: Are there signs of the Muslim Open Society in places as diverse as Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia?

We need to be cautious about models that define what a Muslim Society should be. Here we’re talking about a reality: a society that’s always open to alternative views. But we’re not talking about chaos. Every society has its values, its norms and customs that allow people to interact with some sense of what to expect from one another. We’re talking about a society with a rich heritage of values where the right to dissent is not the exception to this heritage but rather one of its values. There’s lots of evidence to back this claim. I’ll mention just one. It comes from Malik Ibn Anas, a scholar who lived in the eighth century in the city of Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is buried. Malik compiled the customs of the people of Medina that would become the basis of a school of law in Islam, which is now prevalent in North Africa and the Sahel. He had this to say, “None of us does not dispute and is not disputed save for the one in this grave.” (ما منا إلا ردّ وردّ عليه إلا صاحب هذا القبر)

In other words, only the prophet is infallible. The rest of us debate, and debate means freedom for ideas. It means a free flow of ideas. But freedom has been conceived in lots of different ways. How does it work in this emergent reality called the Muslim Open Society? It might differ from concepts of freedom in other societies, but it shares the same goal: a dynamic and prosperous society.

First, some perspective: There are well-known economic challenges and cultural suspicions.

The economic challenges include the widening gap between rich and poor; the disconnect between the economic interests of the elite and the interests of the nation; the lack of equitable distribution of national resources; and the desperation of the poor to migrate to countries where they might hope for a chance to succeed.

The cultural suspicions include the suspicion, percolating for some time in the Middle East and North Africa, that secular liberal societies are models worth imitating. What is the sentiment on the ground these days in many places with Muslim-majority populations? It’s this: “Best to avoid secular liberal societies and preserve our own ways and values!”

And radical groups intensify this suspicion by declaring the so-called West to be enemy rather than partner. This closes the door to cooperation with a western civilization that is keen to cooperate for global solutions. And it turns freedom into a western threat when, in point of fact, it has long been integral to Islam. And so, ironically, freedom comes to be seen as the enemy of Islam, along with democracy and a market economy. In rejecting freedom, these groups reject their own heritage, all in the name of obedience to the cause they profess.

Obedience is a peculiar concept. Some say it’s the essence of Islam, but it easily becomes a way of life. I exist to obey – the god, the ruler, the father of the family. Is religion a call to obedience or a call to liberation? There’s nothing wrong with obedience per se, but what are we to obey? A system external to us that is not clearly of divine provenance (let alone a system of our own making)? Or a voice within that beckons us to great things?

Obedience might be cast as a noble sacrifice: I obey for the greater cause (religion, nation, family). But it is never given without something in return. Obedience actually nurtures a system of beggary. I obey the elder, the professor, the master, and I’ll get something of the table scraps, which I’ll hungrily devour.

Obedience … clientage … patronage … beggary …

To go back to the cultural suspicions that cast freedom as a problem and even a threat: The result is that one puts oneself in an agnostic relation to one’s own human nature, which was created for freedom; and also in an agnostic relation with the human nature of other persons in society. Their nature, which was created to be free, gets viewed as irregular if it does not conform to cultural assumptions of obedience.

What is the result of all this? Freedom gets dismissed as the enemy of religion in favor of a simplistic notion of obedience (and youth today have grown tired of obedience). As a result our human nature doesn’t make sense, since it was created for freedom, but it’s cast as a threat to our human nature. Thus, life doesn’t make sense. Life, in this scenario, becomes nothing more than a waiting room for death. Obey God, obey God, obey God, and then die. Is there another way to understand the purpose of religion?

Freedom is critical to survival and to development and growth, and religion calls for prosperity (صلاح). This makes freedom necessary for achieving the goal of religion. It’s not simply obedience. Religion, at heart, call us to be free of obstacles to our human nature, which seeks to grow and develop and discover new horizons and create new possibilities.

Without freedom, a society cannot move from one situation to a better one. Without freedom, a society becomes static. Is life but a trial in obedience? Is life just a test of one’s commitment? Either you obey or you lose? If so, then something in the human spirit will gradually shrivel and disappear: the basic human desire to grow, explore, think, create, search, and innovate … freely. Is this not what God wants for humans? God did create humans with a purpose, and it’s clear that that purpose is to achieve great things. How do we know this? Because God created us with the ability to achieve great things. Surely, God did not create us with this ability for no purpose?

But what is this freedom to be? And here I’m taking about the concept and not about limits on it. People often talk about freedom … and then say it has limits. Either it’s freedom or it’s not. It can’t have limits. Rather, we need to ask about the concept itself. It can’t be freedom without a purpose. What is the purpose of freedom? Why were you created to act … freely?

Freedom is not liberal versus conservative. Both claim to be free, and both liberals and conservatives are economically successful. We need to move beyond dichotomous categories. And freedom is certainly not something that divides into secular or religious. All claim it.

Today there are a lot of calls for reform in Muslim Society: calls to spread one system or another—calls to find some type of cure for the current crises. But we can’t ignore the realities: the economic challenges and cultural suspicions. A recent survey suggests the majority of youth in the Middle East don’t think democracy can work in the region.

The concept of the Muslim Open Society is a more useful model for thinking about these realities. The concept of the Open Society is not about ideology (left or right, secular or religious). It’s simply about openness to alternative views and the right to dissent. But … aren’t all humans alike? Why speak of the Muslim Open Society? Can’t we just say Open Society? Why this special distinction?

It’s a good question. I don’t have a clear answer. But here I’m not talking about a special distinction. Quite the opposite! It’s about what Muslims share with others, and what they share with others is the desire to be free.

Indeed, the Muslim Open Society may have something to offer the rest of us in its conception of freedom. Here, freedom is not the freedom to insult or attack or dominate others. It’s the freedom to debate and discuss what’s best for society; and whose ideas, what ideas, best represent that.

It’s a purposeful freedom: I am free, therefore I have a project with ideas, ideas that are good for me and for others, but I need to be free to be able to struggle to achieve my project and its ideas; and to discuss them with others … openly … without fear of recrimination or reprisal. There’s something to be said for this conceptualization of freedom at a time when the freedom to hate has become immensely popular.

We’re talking about freedom as a means to an end, the end being a personal contribution to life. That’s one thing worth highlighting in this formulation of freedom. Another thing is that this conception of freedom assumes the existence of a project and the readiness to use one’s freedom to struggle to achieve it and to discuss the ideas it represents. This second aspect may be a bigger challenge than the idea of freedom itself. Why? In my experience, youth have a fear to take initiative. They hesitate to take on a project of their own and to struggle for it. They fear possible failure or the reaction of others, the potential to be ridiculed.

Or maybe they expect life to be handed to them on a platter, without struggle, as their mothers prepare their food, set it before them, and put it in their mouth. As a result, instead of patient commitment to struggle for one’s life project, many fall into what I call death identity. Death before death. No initiative. Life in anticipation of death … instead of life for the sake of greater life.

But many young people are tired of being told to remember death … to wait for death obediently … to wait for death when the real life begins. And maybe death is when the real life begins. But why wait for it? What is the sentiment that is now on the rise among young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): “We don’t want to wait for death. We want to live.”

All these things call us to think about the concept of the Muslim Open Society. There are big issues today with terrorism in the MENA region and big issues with authoritarianism. But we should also remember that Islam continues to be a vital source of values that hold communities together and give them moral coherency, allowing for predictable interactions among people in society. Many of the places I visit in the Middle East and North Africa are marginalized communities. If it were not for the values of Islam, there would be total chaos in the local society. We may call for free markets, but the call has to be accompanied by a concept of freedom that is in synch with this heritage of values and not destructive of it. We’re not talking about a society that is culturally isolated and clings to its values over against the rest of the world. We’re not talking about religious xenophobia, which can be real. We’re talking of a heritage that has a long legacy of freedom, a legacy that is often overlooked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The concept of the Muslim Open Society is a society where the religious heritage is recognized not as simple identity (over against others: my identity against yours) but as a source of values that enable a people to live together and to prosper together. And so the Muslim Open Society is a society where the values of Islam are promoted, and among its values is a concept of freedom. Without it, there cannot be growth and development, the search for meaning and purpose and the initiative to achieve it. But it’s a concept of freedom that is not an end in itself. (We’ve seen how destructive the concept of freedom as an end in itself is for the region: “I’m free to kill you with no clear purposefulness.”) Yet this conception of freedom, respectful of a heritage of values, also includes the right to dissent for the sake of a free flow of ideas and alternative views that are necessary for the pursuit of meaning. Without alternative views, we cannot discover ourselves. Without the right to dissent, it’s about obedience and conformity; and death to those who do not conform.

In sum: it’s about the right to pursue meaning.

The right to dissent (حق الاختلاف) for the sake of the prosperity of society is not about the right to attack a person’s religion and beliefs but rather the right to dissent from them. Here the right to dissent is not an exception to the values of Islam but is, in fact, one of its values—one of the values that allow the Muslim Society, a society ever open to new and alternative ideas, to flourish and develop. Freedom has long been at the heart of Islam. I cited above but one of many illustrations. No one is infallible. Therefore, discussion and debate are never closed. You might advance a convincing viewpoint, but someone will invariably contest it and offer an alternative. And in Islam they have this right. The evidence is abundant.

The right to dissent: it’s one of the teachings of Islam; it’s vital to growth and development; and it’s the emergent reality in many places where people, all peoples, long for greater freedom and prosperity but also have questions about models that ignore realities on the ground or that are based on a concept of freedom that is not clearly purposeful and perhaps even destructive of life.

The Muslim Open Society. May this emergent reality take its rightful place in the course of human civilization.

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