Zaheer Kazmi in Prospect:
It is commonplace to argue that the problem of Islamist terrorism and extremism would be solved if only Islam reformed itself and became more liberal. But is that right—or even possible?
From religious leaders to former extremists and western governments, a consensus has emerged since 9/11 that stresses the compatibility between Islam and the liberal values of civility, freedom and tolerance, as opposed to terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS). Yet in many ways Islamist militancy and Islamic liberalism—though seemingly opposed—are two sides of the same reformist coin. They are both engaged in ideological projects for an Islamic revival in a time of western ascendancy. And they are equally plagued with the problems encountered by movements that rest their legitimacy on claims to a unique and timeless authenticity.
Muslim liberals tend to prescribe modern answers to postmodern questions. Their focus on reviving supposedly representative forms of religious authority show them to be ill at ease with the ways in which Islam has become increasingly atomised in a fragmented world. Their intellectual antecedents are the 19th-century modernist movements such as the al-Nahda or cultural “awakening” in the Arab world and the Aligarh movement in British India. They cling to these modes of reform grounded in synthesising Islam with western notions of progress. Post-9/11 calls from western governments and civil society for Muslims to counter the extremism in their midst have reactivated these agendas.
Four problems in particular blight attempts at Islamic liberal reform—none of which have anything to do with duplicity or conspiracy, as Islamophobes allege.