Discussion and Book Launching of “Islam dan Kebebasan”

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Is Islam compatible with liberalism as an idea that upholds civil economic liberty?

If you ask that question to the people who live in Western society, they most likely will give you negative answer. Undoubtedly, Islam has been a target of harsh criticism in Western society, especially post-9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Since then, Islam has been associated with religious extremism, terrorism, and backward thinking.

For me, such allegation is understandable, especially if it comes from people who never read or learn anything about Islam in any way. Almost all terrorist attacks in the 21st Century that have been massively exposed by mainstream media in Western countries, both which happened in European countries and the United States, are committed by people or group of people that use Islamic teaching based on the Quran and hadiths to justify their action.

Not only terror acts, people also associate Islam with religious extremism and fundamentalism, Islamic countries or countries with mostly Muslim population are usually ranked lower at various indexes on democracy, economic freedom, and civil liberty. In 2017, for example, an England-based think tank, The Economist Intelligence Unit, published the index on world’s democratic countries, and 18 out of 25 countries ranked at the bottom are countries with Muslim population majority.

Amidst all that, we are faced with the initial question: Is Islam compatible with liberalism?

The book I’m reviewing right now, Islam dan Kebebasan (translated from the original version Islamic Foundations of a Free Society), which was translated by Suara Kebebasan, tries to answer that exact question. This book, containing essays written by many prominent muslim intellectuals and scholars from around the world, offers its readers the argument why the idea of free society has its roots in Islamic teachings and traditions.

To introduce this book to wider audiences, Suara Kebebasan held a launching event and book discussion on March 15, 2018, at Tjikini Lima Restaurant & Cafe, Jakarta. Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a famous muslim scholar, was the keynote speaker, while Suara Kebebasan’s editor-in-chief, Muhamad Iksan, moderate the whole discussion.

Opening his speech, Ulil paid his utmost respect and appreciation to all scholars who author the essays in this book for their credibility and expertise. In addition, Ulil also expressed his admiration towards the book for covering almost all important aspects in Islamic teachings and traditions in relation to the idea of liberty, such as free will, government’s role in society, freedom to choose, jihad (struggle for one’s own welfare), finance, free market, and women’s rights.

Ulil brought forth several important points. First of all, he criticized how people, including Muslims, see Islam as a finished product that has stopped growing, where its initial form as it was intended in the 7th Century BC must be preserved. Ulil argued that we should see Islam teleologically where the main focus should be the ultimate end of Islamic teaching, which is to create a society based on the value of peace and justice.

Ulil also criticized the current trend on how we are too Western-centered in the way we conceive liberty and freedom, where individual liberty and freedom are placed in a diametral position with social community, church, and even the state.  According to Ulil, we need to understand that such formulation of liberty and freedom is very much a Western phenomena where the unlimited autonomy of the state and the church, historically speaking, became the bane of individual liberty everywhere. Therefore, we need to develop a discourse on liberty and freedom where the individuals are not positioned antagonistically with the communal.

Islam has a long tradition with the idea of liberty and there are various practices in Islam that are compatible with it, one of them is the implementation of legal jurisdiction during the caliphate era in the past, as we can learn from the book and Ulil’s explanation during discussion.

For example, Ulil said, during the Islamic caliphate era, religious freedom was one of the guaranteed rights and every religious teaching and group was free to to run their own religion in accordance with their respective idea and philosophy. Further, Ulil reminded us to take away our modern perspective first to see how such practice was considered a breakthrough and was highly progressive during that time.

In regards with economic freedom and limited government, Islam has many specific practices that are compatible with both ideas. For an example, Ulil explained the concept of wakf in Islam, where someone donates an asset to be used for the benefits of other people and, by law, must never be overtaken or infringed by anyone else. Wakf played an important role in the Islamic world in the past as the basis for social autonomy.

Any asset donated as a wakf was used to fund activities as specified by the wakf donor. Many academic and scientific institutes during the caliphate era were funded with wakf funds. One of the most prominent institution from that era and is still surviving today is the Al Azhar University in Egypt. As we can see, the practice of wakf is pretty much different with modernistic approach where the state collects wealth (tax) from its subject to provide various kinds of social benefits.

The final, but not least important, aspect of Islamic teaching compatible with the idea of economic freedom is on the freedom to make contract with other people. According to Ulil, Islam considers the freedom to make contract between individuals as an important freedom as any other, as long as the content of the contract does not violate Islamic rules. The Quran even obliges Muslims to obey every contract that they have agreed to enter into.

As a closing statement, Ulil said that the time of publication of this book further signifies its importance because it coincides with the time when many people seemed to turn to rigid and conservative version of religious teaching while bury away the one that put forward the idea of liberty, which has been an integral part of Islamic teaching since antiquity. Ulil hopes more people in Indonesia will read this book, both Muslim and non-Muslim, so that they will be interested to study Islam further to ward off the stigma of terrorism and extremism that plague Islam, and so that Muslims, especially in Indonesia, can create a better society based on the value of freedom and liberty.