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The problem with “liberalizing” Islam

Since the advent of the War on Terror, and perhaps now more than ever, calls for a liberal Islam and support for moderate Muslims echo loudly from both the left and right. They come from politicians, the public, as well as scholars. As some scholars have pointed out, the idea of liberalizing Islam is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which are its disturbing implications of interfering with and undermining entire ways of life. But if we took the broader debate about religious change seriously, how is it actually playing out on the ground, within Muslim communities themselves?

In my research of Muslim minorities in India and France, I found that debates over a “liberal” Islam are inseparable from the role of social class. What are often depicted as purely theological differences instead fundamentally overlap with differences across class.

In Hyderabad, India, and Lyon, France, the two cities where I conducted two years of ethnographic research, middle-class and elite Muslim activists find ways to participate in mainstream politics. They struggle either to secure religious rights, in the case of Lyon, or to promote economic welfare, as in Hyderabad. But in both cases the middle-class and elites distance themselves from, and sometimes directly criticize, religious practices among poor and subaltern Muslims. Their judgments focus especially on women’s wearing of the djelbab or niqab and sometimes on the decision to withdraw children from secular schools or enroll them in full-time madrasas.

“I’m a liberal Muslim, and I want something to change, change drastically” exclaimed one prominent Muslim elite in Hyderabad. Denouncing practices like full-time madrasa education and religious interpretations that undermined gender equality, he lamented, “Nobody can reform this community.” Another Muslim elite and philanthropist in the city said to me, “It wasn’t so fundamentalist fifty years ago in Hyderabad. Now, when I see young men wearing their Islamic caps, I just have an allergy to it…I don’t want to make religion an institution. It should stay in the heart.” In Lyon too, middle-class Muslim activists held practices associated with the Salafist movement in the working-class, urban periphery with disdain. Although most opposed state legislation such as the ban on the niqab, they believed that the niqab was at best a grave misinterpretation of Islam. One activist argued it might even be bida, an “innovation” or corruption of Islam.

Selimiye_Camii_ve_Mavi_Gökyüzü
Silimiye Mosque – Edirne – Mimar Sinan by Ahmet Baris ISITAN. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This class struggle over correct Islamic practice, despite employing nearly identical discourses, fundamentally differs across the two cities—because of different sets of class relations among Muslims. In Hyderabad, middle-class and elite Muslims are deeply connected to low-income Muslims through patronage. They connect to them though a paternalistic relationship but marked also by a sense of responsibility and solidarity. These relations in turn built on a long history of royal patronage and a shared cultural pride. Partly as a result of these strong cross-class ties among Muslim minorities, debates within the Islamic tradition have a certain dynamism and freedom. Whereas in Lyon, middle-class activists and associations remain estranged from subaltern Muslims, especially those of the Salafist tradition, living in the stigmatized urban periphery. This estrangement developed after the collapse of civil society associations in the banlieues that occurred because of state surveillance. As a result, during my research I saw nearly no cross-class debate or conversation over issues such as gender relations.

What material effects do these differences make? In Hyderabad, low-income women—who wear the niqab and practice strict gender segregation—draw on elite resources to build political communities. For example, they actively promote women’s education, skills training, and Islamic rights within the domains of marriage and divorce. Looking at this case in terms of “moderate Muslims” or “liberal Islam” overlooks these important gains that women have made precisely through their Islamic revival. In contrast, sectarian women in Lyon’s banlieues find themselves facing immense challenges because of discrimination and anti-veiling legislation, which pose barriers to education and work. They are also vulnerable to anti-Muslim harassment in the streets. As one Salafist woman from a banlieue said to me, “I see two options: get married or leave France.” Unlike in Hyderabad, middle-class Muslims are not in the position to help them economically nor in terms of political mobilization.

If we think from the standpoint of deepening democracy, the question of liberalizing Islam, then, is far less important or meaningful than the question of whether or not Muslims of all class locations have the freedom to participate in a political community and build associations without fear of state surveillance or violence. Such participation has material and moral effects and lies at the heart of democratic practice. For minorities with a long history of disadvantage, cross-class debate and mobilizing are critical to participation. But these relations themselves might only take root when religious freedom is secure, which has not been the case for Muslims in France.

A “liberal Islam” is not something that can or should be forced or even encouraged from the outside. Doing so only embraces the racist legacies of the colonial project. And in fact, Muslims have engaged debates about the truth and correctness of their religious practice for centuries. But the contours, robustness, and dynamism of these debates depend on the political conditions under which minority class relations unfold.

Featured image credit: ‘_DSC5108.jpg by AMISOM Public Information’. Public Domain via Flickr.

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