”Islam is neither ” a religion of war nor a religion of peace” – it’s just a religion”. That’s what Maajid Nawaz thinks. You may have heard his name before. He was a former leading light in Hizb ut-Tahrir and is today a top man in the London based Quilliam Foundation that is committed to combatting religious extremism. Including of course islamism. The quote is from the newly published Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a book co-authored by Maajid and the atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris. And the theme? How free are scholars and believers to interpret islam’s texts in their own way. And this raises a problem.

Can Nawaz really think what he thinks and believe what he believes in these terrorist times? And then of course there are the liberal Muslims. Where do they come in? When I recently gave a talk in Norway at a conference on religious ekstremism, one of the other speakers was Haras Rafiq who today shares a directorship in the Quilliam Foundation with Nawaz. And interestingly enough during the dinner aterwards it turned out that none of us was an atheist.

And since it’s become the custom in these columns to say what islam/islamist debaters drink, I can now reveal that Rafiq said no to wine but yes to a shot of vodka in his cola. He also told me that for several years he had belonged to a Sufi order in Great Britain.

Yes, that’s right, the Sufis, these mystical people who can be orthodox or unorthodox. Among the latter you can also find people like Ibn al-Rawandi who wrote a poem where he talked about ”A monastery for monks/a tempel for idol-worshippers/a Kaaba for pilgrims/the tablets of the Torah and the book of the Koran/I myself believe in love”. But shouldn’t I then like any relentless islam critc worth his salt have given him the third degree? And confronted him with rabid verses from the koran?

No that would be meaningless. During the last 20 years I have often met and talked to liberal Muslims like the French rapper Abd al Malik who has also chosen sufism and who in this magazine has asserted that Muhammed had no political programme. I’ve met young, unveiled women in Sarajevo, who told me that they covered their hair with a veil when they prayed. I’ve met an author from Cairo who was interested in both buddhism and islam. And many more.

But I’ve also heard, during a conference dominated by ex-muslims, the loud disapproving growls of Muslim apostates when a liberal Muslim takes the stand and says that she still sees herself as a Muslim. And still adheres to the moderate islam she was brought up to believe in.

”I have a problem with liberal Muslims”, the Moroccan ex-Muslim Imad Iddine Habib told me. Maryam Namazie who co-founded The Council of ex-Muslims in Great Britain has openly said that ”the more Muslims that leave islam, the better”. And of course both ex-Muslims and other islam critics can have grounds for scepticism. Quite a few Islamic organisations and preachers have promoted themselves as liberals during the course of the years – and then have turned out to be something quite different. The litmus test for liberals is probably the acceptance of their daughters’ marrying an unbeliever without demanding that he convert. And in this respect mainstream islam has a problem.

But with regard to how liberal Muslims are perceived by their critics, there are possibly chances of a thaw on the way. Even the atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is starting to change her stance. In her latest book, Heretic, she points to the difference between Muhammed’s teachings in Mecca, (where he was simply a preacher), and his later religious commandments in Medina, where he introduced the islamic system of law. Hirsi Ali’s ideas are not new. She is following in the Sudanese theologist Mahmud Taha’s footsteps – fortunately without meeting the same end as he did. Aged 76 he was hanged in 1985 by the Sudanese regime for propagating the same theses as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Which again underscores the difference between Muslim apostates and islam critics (who are content with vituperation against liberal Muslims but stop short of killing them) and fundamentalists who all too readily resort to violence, murder and terrorism. Especially against those who make no attempt to conceal their apostasy. A good book on the subject is The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular, where various Muslims tell their own story. One of them is a 100% believer – and also a major in the Dutch army. He incidentally grew up in the same block as Theo van Gogh’s murderer, Mohammed Bouyari.

Some years ago the mullahs tried to get the Kuwaiti poet and philospher Alia Shuaib hanged for a line in one of her poems: ”The dream of having access to God’s secret map”. Fortunately they failed, but the idea is an interesting one. Whether we have a spiritual approach or an aesthetic approach to life, is a personal choice. We make our own map, and nobody can do it for us. So let us leave the liberal Muslims to their own map, their own dreams and their own conception of God.



Translation Geoffrey Cain