In which a Palestinian Arab Muslim and a secular Zionist Jew find much accord.
Many take it as a given that Islam and any notion of liberty are diametrically opposed. People are quick to point out the number of Islamic dictatorships and repressive theocracies, and generalize that (for example) to Muslims in America. Dr. Imad Ad-Dean Ahmad, a scholar of Islam and history, would disagree. His organization, Minaret of Freedom, is dedicated to spreading a different narrative, that of a religion which values economic and social freedom, despite its use as a tool of repression by autocrats and theocrats in the Middle East and South Asia.
OMWC: Your background was originally in science. What sort of work were you doing?
Ahmad: My dissertation at the University of Arizona was on “Heavy Element Radio Recombination Lines from the Orion Complex.” (Robert Williams, then an Associate Professor at the astronomy program there, told me years later when he was the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute that mine was the only dissertation from which he could still remember the opening sentence: “From the belt of Orion hangs a sword.”) I focused on radio astronomy and on the conditions in the proto-stellar nebulae in which stars are formed. Comparing observations that I made with the National Radio Observatory’s 140-foot antenna with theoretical calculations I made with the Kitt Peak Observatory’s (at the time) state-of-the-art CDC 6400 computer, I was able to resolve an apparent contradiction in the astronomical literature as to the precise location from which the radiation was emitted.
I worked in astrophysics for another fifteen years after getting my doctorate, publishing models for the solar atmosphere and stellar winds, using mainly X-ray and ultra-violet data.
OMWC: What prompted your career change from science to social and religious activism?
Ahmad: By the late 1980s, I had become increasingly concerned about the inefficiency, immorality, and counter-productivity of American policy in the Middle East. I became painfully aware that of the role that ignorance and political agendas played in formation of bad policy. The so-called experts on the Muslim world had not seen the Iranian revolution coming and their retrospective attempts to account for it were incoherent. Having been a practicing Muslim and a libertarian all my adult life, I realized that the research discipline I had learned as a scientist was much more badly needed in the realm of Islamic studies.
I made the transition by writing a book on the role Islamic Civilization played in the development of modern science (Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer’s Perspective on Religion and Science). After I gave a talk on the book for the Honors program at the University of Maryland (College Park) the head of the program invited me to offer a course there on Islamic Civilization. At the same time, the great libertarian historian Leonard Liggio introduced me to the good people at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, who helped me to start the Minaret of Freedom Institute, the Islamic libertarian think tank I have headed for 23 years (www.minaret.org). The Muslim community also came to appreciate my work, initially because of my knowledge on issues related to the Islamic calendar, but gradually on an increasingly wide range of matters from Islamic civilization to Islamic law and chaplaincy.
OMWC: What was the thing or things which led you to libertarian thought in the first place? Were you raised with this or was it reading or experiences that took you in that direction?
Ahmad: My father (a businessman) was politically conservative and my mother (a teacher and media personality) was politically liberal, so my upbringing provided me a choice. The main sources that influenced how I managed to navigate between their very different views were, in order of encounter (and I think in order of importance) the Qur’an, Henry David Thoreau and Ayn Rand. From the Qur’an I learned the non-aggression principle (“Let there be no compulsion in religion” 2:256) and of the individual’s direct responsibility to the Creator (“There is none worthy of worship but God” 37:35) and the corollary of the idolatry inherent in arbitrary human authority over other humans (“Do not fear them but fear Me” 3:175). From Thoreau I learned of the value of individualism (Walden) and of the power that a righteous individual has over a corrupt state (“Civil Disobedience”). From Ayn Rand I first learned the how markets work and why state intervention is both morally evil and consequentially destructive.
OMWC: In some of your writing, you state that (in essence) you regard the Quran as axiomatic. Does your view of libertarianism derive from those axioms?
Ahmad: Axiomatic is your term, not mine. If by that you mean that I find the values articulated in the Qur’an to be the starting point of my weltanschauung, I agree: Every individual is directly responsible to God (37:35), no one bears the burdens of another (35:18); speak truth to power (28:37); stand for justice even against your own self or near of kin, rich or poor (4:135); say to those who reject your way of life, “to you your way and to me mine” (109:1-6); trade is good (4:29) and fraud (83:1-2) is bad; respond to an injury only in kind, or better yet forgive in order that you should be forgiven (42:40); defend yourself (22:39) but do not aggress (2:190).
OMWC: To clarify, I used the word “axiomatic” because of your statement “There are some things we shall take as a given. We shall not question the text of the Qur’an. While the Qur’an itself invites individuals to ascertain for themselves its authenticity by investigating its inimitability, we, as an institution, take the received Arabic text as our starting point.” So at least in my naive view, it would look like an axiom.
Ahmad: I see your point. The distinction is that an axiom is “self-evident,” whereas, the starting points for a Muslim are inherent in the definition of a Muslim. A Muslim, by definition, believes there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Messenger (i.e., that the Qur’an is His message). This is true regardless of whether the Muslim arrived at that point because he finds these things self-evident or because he had previously questioned them and found the answers convincing.
OMWC: Where in the current Muslim world do you see the possibility of libertarian approaches to social and cultural issues as having the greatest chance for a toehold? Can a Muslim country be culturally libertarian in the sense of treating all belief and disbelief equally under law?
Ahmad: I think that Tunisia is the most promising, with the Nahda Party holding fast to these principles whether their fortunes are good or bad. More secular people than I may think Dubai is the most promising since, despite its undemocratic political structure and strong religiosity of its rulers, it seems to be very tolerant socially and culturally. Until recently, Muslim countries were historically much more tolerant than the West on treating subjects of various religious belief under the law. When the Jews were evicted from Spain, they dared not move to any other Western country, but the Sultan of Turkey invited them to the Ottoman lands promising them absolute freedom to work, worship, and raise their families as they saw fit. Oppression of religious minorities in Muslim countries today is no more inherent in Islamic teachings than the oppression of Muslims (and others) in France is inherent in “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” The one area in which Muslim tradition is a serious obstacle is in the question of equal citizenship. I do not see this as a problem inherent in Islamic law so much as in the conflict of the Westphalian notion of the modern nation-state with the Muslim traditional system of autonomous confessional communities. I am not the only one who has pointed out that the resolution to this conflict may be found in the Prophet Muhammad’s remarkable covenant for the governance of Medina.
OMWC: Do you think that the US has a responsibility to promote liberty in other countries and in other cultures? (This begs the question, of course, of whether the US has a responsibility to promote liberty internally!)
Ahmad: The best way to promote liberty in other countries is to be “the shining city on a hill” and practice it here. The next best way is to trade freely with other countries and facilitate, not impede, cultural and social exchange. Speaking frankly to them can be a good way, if done with discretion and respect. Direct intervention into their internal affairs is generally counter-productive, and military intervention is the absolutely worst way, being immoral, ineffective, and counter-productive.
OMWC: In a related question, does the US, in your view, have a moral imperative to assist in the overthrow of despots where there isn’t a specific threat to us?
Ahmad: No. And there would be far fewer despots if we would stop propping them up.
OMWC: In Europe, Muslims have not seemed to have been integrated into their societies in the same way as Muslims have been in the US. When I hear about the Muslim “threat” here and examples from (say) France or Germany are cited, I ask, “Where are the American banlieues? Why are Naperville, Devon, Lincolnwood, or Orland Park (to choose Chicago suburbs with significant Muslim populations) not hotbeds of crime?” In the US, Muslims tend to be better educated and more economically successful than average, and media posturing aside, apparently as integrated as Jews or Hindus. To what do you attribute that difference?
Ahmad: It is true that Muslims in Europe have not integrated as well as those in the U.S., and while, statistically, Muslims in the U.S. have above average educations and material success, those factors alone cannot account for the more successful integration, since even those American Muslims who are undereducated and in poverty are better integrated than European Muslims. I think the most important single factor accounting for the better integration of Muslims (and other minority religion members) in America than in Europe is the unique American notion of secularity that incorporates both the disestablishment of state from religion and complete freedom of religion. Allowing Muslims the ability to freely interpret and practice their religion with neither interference nor support from the state threatens neither Muslims (and other religious minorities) nor the majority. Under French secularism, the suppression of religion from public life such as the ban on headscarves (and yarmulkes) alienates Muslims (and Jews), and even “neutral” Switzerland bans minarets as a threat to national identity. In England, the state gives preference to Anglicans over other (especially non-Christian) religions, which is a driver of discontent. In Germany the state supports all religions, which provokes resentment in the Christian majority.
OMWC: A rather open-ended question: What would you consider, in general, to be a rational US immigration policy?
Ahmad: Anyone who comes here for a peaceful and positive purpose, including to work or study, should be allowed to do so with a path for citizenship if they want it. Those who demonstrably seek to engage in crime or violence should be denied. The government welfare system should be reformed (or abolished) so that it does not attract freeloaders, and lets private and religious social service agencies carry the load of resettlement.
OMWC: What do you think is the greatest misunderstanding among American libertarians about Islam in a cultural (rather than theological) sense? If a libertarian wanted to understand more about Islamic culture beyond the usual prejudices, what should he or she be reading as an introduction and overview to gain a clearer and more accurate understanding?
Ahmad: The greatest cultural misunderstanding about Islam is the belief that it is culturally monolithic. Islamic culture spans an enormous range of nationalities, ethnic groups, cuisines, literature, arts, architecture, and political systems. If I had to recommend a single book it would be The Cultural Atlas of Islam by Ismail and Lois Faruqi. When you’ve finished reading that book head over to your local mosque and chat with the people there. (Just make sure to talk to more than one person!) Better yet, visit a few different mosques. Muslims are your neighbors and most of them would be delighted to chat with you.
OMWC: And my final question: Given an audience of libertarians with a rather wide range of views on Islam and how it relates to American culture, which question do you wish I had asked? And what over-arching message would you want to convey?
Ahmad: Given that the apprehension about Muslim immigrants is found even among some professing libertarians, I would have welcomed a question along these lines: You note the wide diversity of political views among Muslims. Since you clearly see the Qur’an as a document with some strong libertarian content, why are overt libertarians such a small minority among Muslims? I would have replied that I also see the U.S. Constitution as with a document with some strong libertarian content, and I wonder why are overt libertarians are such a small minority among Americans? In both cases I believe that ignorance of the Quran and the Constitution respectively are the problem, a problem compounded by corrupt political leaders whose interest in power motivates them to keep their respective constituencies in a state of ignorance.
OMWC: I really appreciate the time you’ve taken and the information you’ve given us. My own feeling is that ignorance is the root cause of fear, and your mission to dispel ignorance is far more valuable and effective than the moral preening and name-calling that passes for political discussion these days.