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Political Islam is certainly a bad idea. The past and the present show us that even in its most benign manifestations, such as sexist courts in Indonesia, particular forms of Sharia tend to encroach on human rights. Unfortunately, many mainstream Muslims have yet to fully shed the problematic notion of mixing state and religion. The oft-cited Pew research1 on the Islamic world offers some valuable insights into how Sharia registers with Muslim populations. The immediate impression is that there are many Muslims that want Sharia and many that do not. Furthermore, the survey delineates opinions on specific aspects of Sharia law, such as civil jurisprudence and corporal punishment. Plenty of people have already delved into these numbers and drawn the obvious conclusions, e.g. we should be concerned of the extent to which the death penalty is supported within the Muslim community for adultery, apostasy etc. The takeaway is fairly straightforward: plans to implement crude and harsh interpretations of Sharia are simply inhumane. We should all be able to agree on this, and in my experience, most Muslims do so.

However, I argue that rejecting the obvious evils of these extremist states is insufficient and that we need to completely eschew the concept of political Islam. In my experience, mainstream Muslims tend to assume one of the following positions on the matter: a) Sharia law should only be applicable to Muslim populations, and its derivation should consider many interpretations or b) Sharia law has no place in the modern world – but it was good for the time.

“Sharia law should only be applicable to Muslim populations, and its derivation should consider many interpretations”

This is a good approximation of the position that I come across most often when discussing religious law with fellow Muslims in the US. It is commonly put forth by liberal-minded individuals who sincerely desire to reconcile cultural traditions with modern-day political systems. Realistically, few forms of popular Islamic political thought are completely compatible with liberal ideals. If you don’t believe me, then I challenge you to find a major school of thought which espouses a form of Islamic law that is in harmony with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. If such a tradition does indeed exist, then it definitely has not found consensus amongst the Muslim majorities (see Islamic states A through G).

One may read this and think I’m being unfair; after all, what’s wrong with aspiring to engender a new brand of Islamic politics that ensures civil rights? Well, use this as an example: if a Christian were to come up to you and share a vision of a Biblically inspired, yet truly progressive state that ensures human rights, what would your reaction be? Most people still have a bad taste in their mouths from the religious oppression that pervaded the Western world for over a millennia (and today there are enough states which partially implement one form of Sharia or another to embitter our taste buds for centuries to come). The submission of Biblical law, no matter how well-intentioned, would leave most people asking the question: if liberty has been globalized for the first time in history under the current secular model, then why experiment with a historically and empirically failed idea? Along these lines, my question to the well-intentioned political-Islamist: why gamble with the freedom and welfare of future societies, especially whilst many Muslim countries are already struggling to protect civil rights? Why not forgo Islamic politics altogether and embrace the proven systems of our day?

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The notion of Islamic law must be as tolerated as the notion of Biblical law – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While there is nothing wrong with the proposal for a liberal Islamic state, it simply is not practical. Most importantly, when you leave the conception of religious law to ambiguity (i.e. “open to interpretation”), you indirectly create room for the radical Muslims to tout fundamentalist interpretations and to impose corresponding rule. No matter how abstract the discussion, the proposition of religiously derived law conjures hypothetical circumstances that can be bent to the will of those with dangerous beliefs. Therefore, just as the West has culturally shifted away from theocracy, we’d be wise to reject the false pill of “liberal Sharia law”.

What Muslims should be saying, with an added consideration

This brings us to the other response often argued, that “Sharia has no place in the modern world.” I come across this viewpoint often enough to reinforce my hope that we are moving in the right direction. To make myself very clear, this is an opinion that we should strive to make popular – it is practically ideal. If most Muslims thought like this, then the aforementioned Pew polls would likely paint a very different picture.

My qualm is that this response is often delivered within the following bundle: “Sharia law has no place in the modern world and it was only good at the time.” The added bit about Sharia law being “good at the time” is definitely not inconsequential. Saying that something was good for the time is implying that it was right for the time. However, it was never right to launch aggressive military campaigns and punish adulterers. This is a nuance that often goes unchecked. If you ethically ground Sharia law, but solely rely on the argument that it is anachronistic or that the conditions for an Islamic state are not in place, then you do half of the work for the radical Islamists. By saying that it was good for the time, you risk leading impressionable and often disenfranchised young Muslims to ask: why isn’t it good for our time?

Morality, like human well-being, is timeless. Similarly, anything that detriments well-being, or is immoral, should not be judged with regards to its timing. Thus, I implore society to stop saying that Sharia was good for the time and to explicitly censure any deplorable aspects of historically practiced Islamic law. This may make some Muslims uncomfortable, but I do not believe that what I am saying is blasphemous. We can comfortably agree that the rightly guided caliphates and revered imamates were better than the depraved pre-Islamic Meccan societies, but it is irresponsible and wrong to say that killing apostates was ever good or right.

What Muslims should be saying, with an added consideration

This brings us to the other response often argued, that “Sharia has no place in the modern world.” I come across this viewpoint often enough to reinforce my hope that we are moving in the right direction. To make myself very clear, this is an opinion that we should strive to make popular – it is practically ideal. If most Muslims thought like this, then the aforementioned Pew polls would likely paint a very different picture.

My qualm is that this response is often delivered within the following bundle: “Sharia law has no place in the modern world and it was only good at the time.” The added bit about Sharia law being “good at the time” is definitely not inconsequential. Saying that something was good for the time is implying that it was right for the time. However, it was never right to launch aggressive military campaigns and punish adulterers. This is a nuance that often goes unchecked. If you ethically ground Sharia law, but solely rely on the argument that it is anachronistic or that the conditions for an Islamic state are not in place, then you do half of the work for the radical Islamists. By saying that it was good for the time, you risk leading impressionable and often disenfranchised young Muslims to ask: why isn’t it good for our time?

Morality, like human well-being, is timeless. Similarly, anything that detriments well-being, or is immoral, should not be judged with regards to its timing. Thus, I implore society to stop saying that Sharia was good for the time and to explicitly censure any deplorable aspects of historically practiced Islamic law. This may make some Muslims uncomfortable, but I do not believe that what I am saying is blasphemous. We can comfortably agree that the rightly guided caliphates and revered imamates were better than the depraved pre-Islamic Meccan societies, but it is irresponsible and wrong to say that killing apostates was ever good or right.

Doing away with dangerous ambiguity

We know that just like most religions, Islam can be interpreted radically, and we know that most Muslims do not support these interpretations. Nevertheless, when we observe that a staggering 27% of British Muslims3 sympathize with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, who were responsible for the deaths of 12 in Paris in January this year, we must earnestly ask ourselves how these fundamentalist world views prevail within our often integrated and contiguous communities. It is sometimes argued that answering a poll in favor of stoning does not necessarily mean that one is willing to exact the punishment themselves3, i.e. “saying” isn’t necessarily “doing”. This distinction is not as significant as some people may think; at the end of the day, masses can provide the ideological validation that legitimizes the extremist’s actions. As most Western Christians have done, Muslims need to recognize that grey lines can be exploited by radicals and evil-doers. Therefore, we must do away with ambiguous and unrealistically wishful ideas of progressive Islamic law. If you truly believe in the humanistic values of our religion, then do as you can to support a global culture that embraces the virtues of the Quran within a liberal democratic framework.

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