Revealed Libertarianism

Minaret of Freedom tries to square the Quran with the free market. A Reason interview


The idea that devout Muslim faith, strict adherence to shari'ah, and even Islamist politics can be compatible with libertarian ideas would have been a tough sell even before the September 11 attacks. Since then, the Islamic world and the liberal west have viewed each other with skepticism and horror. Nevertheless, the Minaret of Freedom Institute seeks to bridge the divide between the two civilizations—or rather, to show the bridge that, it says, has always been there.

Imad A. Ahmad is the president and director of Minaret of Freedom. In books, lectures, and classes at the University of Maryland, he draws on everything from astronomy to medieval history to Murray Rothbard's economic theories to show that Islam is not only compatible with but intimately related to free speech, free religious exercise and free markets. Although Minaret of Freedom, founded in 1993, is still a tiny organization with a minuscule budget, Ahmad says the organization and its principles are attracting a growing number of followers. He spoke with Reason from his office in Baltimore.

What's the mission of the Minaret of Freedom Institute?

We have a fourfold mission: to counter the common distortions about Islam; to show the origin of certain modern values that came out of Islamic civilization; to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about the value of freedom and free markets; and to try to advance the status of Muslims, whether they live in the oppressive east or the hostile west.

How difficult is it selling a Muslim audience on libertarian and free-market ideas?

It depends on the particular idea. Most free market ideas are easy to persuade Muslim audiences on. They're very much promoted by Islamic teachings and history. An example: The value of trade and traders is easy because the Prophet Muhammed was himself a merchant. On the other hand there is one free market idea that is very hard and almost impossible to sell to Muslims. That's the permissibility of charging interest on a loan.

On other libertarian ideas beyond market ideas, it depends really on what the issue is and to whom you're speaking. For example, most Muslim immigrants to the United States are social conservatives. Most African American converts have had family members who have had such bad experiences with drugs that that's very difficult to talk about.

On the other hand, when you talk about civil liberties, it's not as hard as you might think given the bad civil liberties records of most of the Muslim world. On the contrary, one can point to the practices in those Muslim countries and contrast them with certain Islamic teachings in order to make the point.

In your article on Murray Rothbard and the medieval economists, you speculate that theories of relative value and dynamic taxation were pioneered by Ibn Khaldun, and might even have influenced the Scholastic economists Rothbard treated. But what caught my attention was your negative commentary on the Quranic prohibition on lending at interest; you even seem to be arguing against it. Would you advocate the elimination of the usury prohibition? If so, how could such a change be squared with Islamic law?

I have another article on riba and interest that might resolve those questions for you. Basically, this so-called quranic prohibition is a little more complex than it seems, in that the Quran does definitely prohibit riba, which is usury. The question is: Is all interest usurious? Although 99 percent of all Islamic scholars have said it is, I simply believe they're wrong. And I make that argument using not only economics but the example of the Prophet and his companions. Even the majority of Islamic scholars, contrary to the claim that all interest is usurious, will allow certain forms of interest. For example, they'll allow a vendor to offer a discount for cash or surcharge for credit. This is interest; there's no way of getting around it. That tells you that interest is not inherently forbidden.

So that raises the question: What is usury? Usury is something that's analogous to overcharging of any kind. I cite some Hadiths in which it's clear the Prophet was against any form of overcharging. For example, he talked about if a broker dealing with somebody from out of town were to misrepresent the buy and sell prices of the products he's dealing with, then that would be riba. Clearly, that kind of overcharging is not interest, but it is prohibited. So my argument is that overcharging of any kind is prohibited to Muslims. A Muslim has to engage in honest business practices.

And you haven't made any headway with this argument?

Very little. It's amazing. It's the one issue I have a very hard time with. I think that's because it's so widespread in the Muslim mind that interest is prohibited that people are not willing to look at it rationally. Also, I haven't gotten much help from non-Muslim economists; they tend to shrug their shoulders because the prohibition on interest is so easily gotten around.

But I can think of two areas where you can't get around it. One is in government bonds, which may actually be a good thing. Unfortunately, there's another one I can't think of a way around, and that is when you have an entrepreneurial idea that is so radical that you can't convince anyone that there is a profit to be shared in it. I believe this may be why Islam never had an industrial revolution. If you look at Islamic history, they had strong business, they had international trade, they had factories, science, innovation. Yet somehow they never made that final leap to an industrial revolution. And when I look at the fact that the steam engine was called Fulton's Folly, I can't help but wonder, to what degree did the availability of interest play a role in the commercialization of the steam engine? And is it possible that the Islamic prohibition on interest meant that that just wasn't gonna happen in the Muslim world?

We see very little in contemporary political Islamic movements that would seem likely to expand the scope of human freedom, and even less that would indicate an interest in free market economics. (Just the other day, for example, there was a protest in Spain by various Islamic groups urging the end of capitalism). Is there any prospect that any current trends in political Islam might lead to greater liberty?

I think there are problems of terminology. I just returned from the International Society for Individual Liberty conference in Vilnius, where the libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson noted that there are at least three definitions of capitalism. The one that we usually think of, of course, is the free market system. On the other hand, it's understood by many to mean crony capitalism. And for some it means acquiring wealth by any means, including force and fraud.

You mentioned the conference in Spain. That may be an example of this miscommunication. I'm somewhat familiar with the writings of Umar Ibrahim Vadillo, who held that conference. And his number one mission is to re-establish the gold standard. Now he may call that anti-capitalism, but Ayn Rand was for the gold standard, and for good reason. His hope—and of course he's coming from an opposition to interest—is that if you re-install a gold standard, you'll prevent bankers from plundering the wealth of entrepreneurs through manipulation of the money supply. One can disagree with the premise he comes from and still agree with the conclusion that we should get rid of the central banks.

How about on non-economic issues?

Muslim thought is not monolithic. If you look at my book Islam and the West, A Dialogue, you'll see that people have different views.

And people's views evolve. For example, look at Algeria, and at the views of Anwar Haddam, who was one of the Islamists who would would have come to power in the 1991 elections. What his views were when he was arrested I don't know, but the experience he has gone through has led him to a more mature view, which is much more about freedom of expression. Because he understands from his own experience the degree to which governments can use noble-sounding objectives to silence opponents. My view is that there's more potential for greater freedom than against it in the Islamist movement. What we should be doing, those of us in the west who are pro-liberty, is to engage in a constructive dialogue.

Is current American policy encouraging or discouraging that?

With a few possible exceptions, I'd say current American policy is discouraging it.

What exceptions?

Though I was not in favor of the invasion of Iraq, I do notice that there are some developments in the aftermath, in the nation-building process, that may actually be trying to create private property and free markets. The trouble is that, being part of the neo-imperial adventure, I don't know how successful they can be. It may be a case where you have good intentions, but because of the means that have been chosen, they may not be realized.

How about the various types of engagement that basically involve handing out money, as in Jordan and Egypt, or even to a much lesser extent the Palestinian Authority?

I consider all that stuff to be counterproductive. It's like the oil for food program for Saddam Hussein. That goes to prop up the elements in the society that are most oppressive. I don't think the money going to the Palestinian Authority—even though it's small—is helping the average Palestinian. Similarly with Egypt, and I'd also say with the money that goes to Israel, all those things are counterproductive.

Olivier Roy draws a distinction between the previous generation of Islamists, who, though they were extremists, provided opportunities for women and engaged to some degree with modern economic and political theory, and the current generation (exemplified by what we see in Pakistan today), whose ideology is almost entirely sterile. Do you see any trends toward a more freedom-based approach in political Islam today?

Again, political Islam not a monolith. Besides my book you can also take a look at Noah Feldman's new book After Jihad. I think the positive potential far exceeds the negative potential. The problem is not that there isn't a pro-freedom trend in Islam. The problem is that western liberals—and I'm using "liberal" in the European sense—have alienated themselves from their potential Muslim counterparts by abandoning the anti-imperialism that is rightly part of the liberal tradition. When I was at a free market economics conference in Turkey recently, the students never, not once, challenged any of the economic views that were presented by the speakers. But they were turned off by the speakers' seeming indifference that the tyrants ruling most of the Muslim world were backed by one or more of the Western powers. We are confusing the issue because our actions don't match up with our words. And from their point of view it's very hard for them to see beyond whatever's currently in their faces.

Wahhabism tends to get blamed for the worst excesses of Islamism today. Is that a fair assessment?

I think it's an oversimplification, but it's an understandable one, because there's one sense in which it's true. The Wahhabis have used their oil money to influence if not dominate the Islamic movement around the world. That effort has been very harmful, and has supported the most reactionary elements in the struggle to map out a direction for the Islamist movement. They very much hurt the need for a revival of original thinking in Islam by imposing their own form of taqlid, or blind imitation. It's ironic that the Wahhabi movement was founded by a man opposed to the blind imitation that had taken over the Muslim world. But as soon as he had laid out his own ideas, his followers tried to impose them by a process of blind imitation.

The case of Hashem Aghajari in Iran was described as a call for "Islamic Protestantism." That would probably make some sense in Iran, where there is a real clerical hierarchy, but elsewhere it seems as if Islamist movements—Wahhabist movements in particular—echo Protestantism in important ways: They're iconoclastic and puritanical, hostile to the traditional clergy, opposed to cults of the saints, and so on. And they're driven by the expansion of literacy and a renewed emphasis on reading original texts. Is there any scenario under which Islamist movements might eventually (and even unintentionally) lead to a greater emphasis on individual conscience, as Protestantism did in the West?

I'm a little reluctant to use terms taken from Western history and apply them to events in the Muslim world, so let me address your question by using some Muslim terms instead: The opposite of taqlid is ijtihad. This is the struggle by the individual scholar for understanding. In the first few hundred years of Islamic history, it was one of the tools of jurisprudence. However, starting in about the 12th Century and, at least in the Sunni world, the 16th century, it had been replaced by taqlid, just blind imitation of whatever the previous generation of scholars had concluded. I believe this process of ijtihad needs to be revived in the Muslim world. And it is being revived. We need original, rational, critical thinking. To the degree that we have it, I would be optimistic about what you would call Islamic Protestantism.

I don't particularly care for the term "Islamic Protestantism." If you look at western history, the establishment of Athanasian Christianity in Europe coincided with the advent of the Dark Ages. Protestantism was part of the transition out of the Dark Ages and into modernity. It was Islam itself that had the same effect on the Arab world, which had been in an age of ignorance. When Islam came it brought about the translation movement of the ancient Greek works, the rise of rationalist philosophers like Ibn Rushd, who had a profound effect on the Scholastic philosophers, and Ibn Tufayl, who had an influence on John Locke. The development of modern science—all these things happened in classical Islamic civilization.

Islamic apologetics always seems to involve reaching far back for great civilization examples from history: "There was a university in Baghdad while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and living in caves," that sort of thing. Is the sort of historical work you do a version of that?

I don't see what I'm doing as apologetics. It's bringing to light the historical record. All you have to do is look at the number of people now calling for Iraq to adopt "Western values." That's a view that's totally ignorant of history. The idea is that Muslim people have always been irrational, mystical, belly-button-staring, whatever. The people making these claims, who are presumably admirers of Aristotle, would not have heard of Aristotle if not for the Muslim philosophers who kept Greek philosophy alive. So my point is not to engage in that kind of polemic but to counter it.

Sure, but if somebody made the case that right now western values are not respected in the Muslim world, I wouldn't argue with that. Even if these values were once held in high regard, does that really matter once they've been dead for centuries?

The question is biased by referring to universal values as western values. They're not just western values, and that's the point. That's why I say you should notice that during this period of time Muslims were engaged in empirical research. Why is that important? Because people are saying only the west was doing empirical research; until the modern west, nobody knew that was of any importance. It's really a kind of ethnocentrism that is absurd.

But we're assessing contemporary problems in the Muslim world. So how relevant is this to contemporary reality?

There it has a relevance that may not be what you're thinking of. When I bring these things up, it's not only to educate non-Muslim westerners to a part of history they may not be familiar with, but also to do a kind of preaching or sermonizing to Muslims, to say this is not the Muslim world today. And I think, to go back to your original question, my purpose is the opposite of apologetics. I'm not trying to make Muslims comfortable but uncomfortable, and to get them to change their ways. You can't recapture that lost glory by reminiscing. You have to rehabilitate yourselves.

You say there is positive potential in political Islam, but where is it? There certainly doesn't seem to be anything encouraging coming out of Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt.

Egypt is actually a mixed case. Take a look at Carlyle Murphy's book Passion for Islam. It's not what we'd like to see, but there are signs of hope there. Where we see more signs of progress is in Turkey. The Islamist movement in Turkey started out as a neo-Ottoman movement. They were people who looked to the great position the Ottoman Empire had in the world and wanted to reclaim that. But in the process of having to fight against the Turkish military that has repeatedly taken them out of power despite their success in the elections, they have become more sophisticated, and are more sincerely engaging these modern liberal ideas. The Justice and Development Party has as its main plank human rights rather than the reclaiming of an ancient glory. Earlier versions of the Islamist party had talked only about the rights of Muslims. Now they're talking about the rights of all citizens in Turkey.

In your review of Bernard Lewis' book What Went Wrong, you note an interesting point: that Islamic societies misinterpreted the French Revolution as an anti-Christian movement rather than a disestablishment of state religion. We see some of the same thing today, in the misconception that America's separation of church and state makes the U.S. an irreligious society; bin Laden himself has made comments about that. Where do you come down on the matter of separation of church and state, and of mosque and state?

First we have to define the term secularism. There are two different versions of secularism: an American version and a French version. The American version is the view that the state has to maintain absolute neutrality on questions of religious belief. In the American system this manifests itself in the two parts of the freedom of religion clause: free exercise and disestablishment.

The French version is different, in that it says there should be no role for religion in public life. This I find is a very un-libertarian and oppressive concept.

As far as my view, I favor the American version, although I would tolerate one that only implemented the free exercise of religion and ignored the disestablishment. That's what you have in England, where the Anglican Church is established as the state religion. I think the American system is better than the British system, but I would not impose the American system on the British. Therefore I think it's mandatory that Muslims insist that their governments allow total free exercise of religion. I don't insist that Muslim countries not establish Islam as the religion of the state, although I think it would be better for them not to do so. Because I think all history has shown that to the degree the state gets entangled in religion, it's harmful to religion.

You have said the notion that democracy allows people to make their own laws is not Islamic because the law is divine rather than man-made; you cite Natural Law philosophers in the west as correlating that view. But as far as I can see, natural law is a completely discredited theory: Even such seemingly natural laws as the prohibition of slavery and equal protection under the law were not naturally held but had to be written in as constitutional amendments. In practical terms, how can any natural law-type approach be compatible with a free society where, among other things, people are free not to believe in God at all?

The way to do that is through the method that was applied in the earliest Islamic political entity. That was the Medina compact, which the Prophet drafted, and in which the non-Muslim minorities were allowed to practice their own laws to the degree that it did not result in conflict with the Muslim population. For example, as you're probably aware, Islam prohibits alcohol. However, wine is used by both Jews and Christians in religious ceremonies. Therefore it was never prohibited for Jews and Christians. This is a principle that could be easily extended to all religious minorities, and has been many times in Islamic history. As long as they obey what you might prefer to call the civil law, the law that governs general interactions in the society, they are exempt from any law that doesn't affect them.

But in practice, doesn't this render a de facto second class citizenry? I mean, whatever the agreement was in Medina at the time of Muhammad, today, non-Muslims aren't even allowed to set foot in the holy cities, and throughout Saudi Arabia non-Muslims aren't allowed to pray in their own homes.

Those are two different questions there. As to whether non-Muslims should enter the pilgrimage sites, I don't see a problem with that. All religious groups have shrines dedicated to particular purposes. Why would a non-Muslim want to enter those sites?

But that's a different question from the Saudi law prohibiting the open practice of any other religion in Saudi Arabia. I don't think that is consistent with Islamic law. And it's certainly not consistent with libertarian principles.

Many of your political positions—in defense of the Palestinians, in defense of Muslim civil rights—tend to put you on the same side with people on the American left who are still tied to command economy models and other poor political and fiscal notions. Is there any place for your way of thinking in the current political climate?

I don't think it's true these views only attract people on the left. The right wing in United States can be subdivided into three groups: you've got libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives. And my experience has been that most of the libertarians, being anti-interventionist, are not going to be in favor of support for Israel. The paleo-conservatives I've also found to be critical of Israeli policies. It is only neo-conservatives who have been the problem on the American right.

But more to the point: If one will look at the facts of Israeli polices, and indeed at the origins of the Zionist movement, they are not in any way compatible with what I think you mean and certainly what I mean by right-wing thinking. The Zionist movement had two wings to it. The majority wing was socialist and the minority wing was fascist. Neither wing was supportive of classical liberal policies. The Jews of Europe who were most committed to classical liberalism were not part of the Zionist movement. If you look at Israel today, you see it is characterized mostly as a socialist, militarist and racist entity. I don't think any of those are compatible with libertarian ideals.

But in the last 25 years, the Labor party has lost its grip on power. At the same time, many of Israel's new historians, in questioning the image of Labor Zionism, have helped rehabilitate formerly untouchable figures on the right—notably Ze'ev Jabotinsky, whose economic thinking was pretty strongly pro-market. Hasn't the rise of Likud reversed at least some of the trends you're talking about?

I'm not impressed. The Likud's embrace of market ideas in recent years, it seems to me, has two elements to it. The first is a pragmatic element. I can't fault them for their pragmatism. Obviously Israel's socialist policies were harmful to Israel; so you can't blame them for wanting to clean up that act. But I think that doesn't go deep enough, because fundamentally they still embrace the apartheid system, the concept that the only people who can have property rights in Israel are Jews. Even if they reject the collectivist premise that the land of Israel is collectively the property of the Jewish people—and I'm still waiting for them to say they're ready to reject it—I'm also waiting for them to say they're ready to accept the property rights of the Palestinians who owned most of the land in 1948, negligible amounts of which were transferred by legitimate means.

For example, the plot of ground on which the Likud wants to set up the United States embassy in Jerusalem was seized from the original owners of that land. The largest portion of it had been owned by an Islamic waqf or charitable organization, and the rest was all owned by individual Palestinians. They've even traced who the heirs of those owners are, and interestingly enough, 94 of them are American citizens. It's understandable that the Likud doesn't want to talk about this, but I'd like them to come out and say, are they for or against property rights? And if they're for them, then would they please address this question of these people whose property has been taken away from them. Not to mention all the other people whose property has been taken away, including my mother and father.

Speaking of property rights, you've been arguing that there has to be an emphasis on titled property rights in postwar Iraq, in accordance with Islamic tradition, rather than the sort of corporate/state socialism you believe the administration is leaning toward. Since war is inherently disrespectful of property rights, and the job of pacifying the country appears far from over, do you think any kind of systematic protection of property rights is going to be possible?

It's going to be tricky because we're held in suspicion as an occupying army. Nevertheless, since property rights would be in the interest of the Iraqi people, and since some if not many of the Shi'a clerics believe in property rights, and since we have some clout with Kurds, even though they may not be as committed to property rights, there may be an opportunity here if we can do it in the right way. The real challenge is going to be tactical and not one of principle. There was an article in the Washington Post the other day that was interesting: When a group of engineers who had been suppressed by Saddam wanted to get involved with rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure, they went not to the American armed forces but to the Shi'a clerics, to ask for their support. And the clerics, according to the Post, said they would support them on three conditions: that the engineers not build any jails, that they not build any bars, and that they not confiscate any property.

So is there a possibility of Iraq leapfrogging the United States in enhancing protections against eminent domain?

Yeah, I wish. I'm afraid the corrupting influence of power is such that once you have a government, it's not going to abandon the power of eminent domain. What they might do is put constraints on it to the point where it becomes almost impossible. That would be my hope. This is what I mean about the strength of religious motivation: If you can convince people that it's morally unacceptable, then there's a chance of preventing it.

You've given some provocative insights on school vouchers and their potential pitfalls. During the twentieth century, the Catholic Church built an enormous parochial school system without the kind of incentives vouchers provide. Would it be possible to build a similar Islamic school system?

That's not a difficult question. It is possible, and the big question is how you compete against a tax-subsidized system. The reason the Catholics were able to compete is frankly that they were so discriminated against. They had a double motivation in setting up their system. They would set up one that was not only intellectually superior, but where they were not being discriminated against. Until September 11 that was not the case with the Muslims. Not to say Muslims weren't discriminated against, but the discrimination against Muslims was not powerful enough to motivate them to pay the additional cost involved in building their own school system. However, lately the discrimination against Muslims has become much more severe, and if it stays that way, they may well be in the position the Catholics were in when they set up their own system.

I hope that doesn't sound like I'm advocating discrimination against Muslims.

What is the proper place for religion in public life?

The American system is on track for that. The government has no place in religion whatsoever, but people in the public eye—even if they're government officials—have a place for their own religious beliefs. If George W. Bush wants to have Billy Graham or even Franklin Graham invoke a blessing on his inauguration, he has the right to do that. And I'll respect that just as I know that if somehow a Muslim got elected and had an Imam giving a Muslim blessing, that would be accepted. As long as the government isn't telling people what to believe or subsidizing or obstructing religious beliefs, that's fine. I think we are moral beings, and for people who are religious, their religion articulates their moral values, so it's quite appropriate for them to be open about their religious beliefs. It's better to be open about it than secretive about it.

What do Islamic law and Islamic economics have to say to secular, agnostic or atheist libertarians?

Just as when some westerners talk about "western values" when they're really talking about universal values, I think some Muslims go around talking about Islamic values when they're really talking about universal values. They're universal values that have been articulated by Islam, but they are values for everybody whether they're Muslim or not. I think that the biggest thing for agnostic or atheist libertarians to learn from Islamic law and economics is how the experience of Muslim civilization confirms our libertarian theory. In fact, when I see people try to deny the role of Islamic teachings in the success of Islamic civilization, I propose a thought experiment: Ask yourself, as a libertarian, if you really believe that free markets and liberty are necessary to human progress, then how was it possible for the Islamic civilizations to have been so successful for so many hundreds of years? Either they were established on similar principles, and therefore prove our point, or they were established on different principles and disprove our point. As someone who firmly believes that we are correct about these things, I find it important to note that the Islamic civilization was built on those principles.