f t 24 Apr 2014

Europe On Moderate Islam and The Dutch Party for Freedom

A View from Muslim Modernism


Islam is primarily a political ideology, a totalitarian doctrine aimed at domination, violence and oppression. … Of course there are many moderate Muslims, but a substantial proportion of Muslims is not. … What definitely does not exist is a moderate Islam … Islam assumes the fundamental inequality between human beings. It sees two categories: Muslims and non-Muslims. The first is superior, the latter inferior. Islam wants to dominate the world.

 Geert Wilders – The Agenda of Hope and Optimism. A Time to Choose: PVV 2010-2015


Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) –– the third largest political party in the Netherlands –– has a crystal clear image of Islam. With the air of a nineteenth century Orientalist he claims that all Islam is x and that all “Mohammedans” are y –– and altogether they cause many of the “problems” taunting the lower lands. There may be moderates amongst these Muslims, but “what definitely does not exist is a moderate Islam” (Wilders, 2010, p. 13).

Wilders’ statements about Islam are demonstrably wrong. Islam is not primarily a political ideology aiming for dominance, violence and oppression. The vast majority of Muslims is moderate, and es gibt definitely a moderate Islam. This essay will demolish three common myths about Islam, and will prove Wilders wrong by introducing the moderate Islamic modernist movement (1840-1940) and its transnational legacy.


Three Myths of Political Islam

“Over the last decade and a half, but especially since 9/11, three major assumptions have inspired much of the popular discussion about political Islam,” writes Michigan State University Professor Mohammed Ayoob in The Many Faces of Political Islam (2008). It’s a myth that the intermingling of religion and politics is sui generis Islamic. It’s a myth that (political) Islam is monolithic. And it’s a myth that political Islam is inherently violent and oppressive.

The intermingling of religion and politics is not sui generis Islamic. Subservience of religion to politics means subservience of ideology to politics, and to say that the intermingling of ideology and politics is sui generis Islamic is evidently false. All major religions can and have been employed to pull the political cart. Ironically, anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders himself mingles religion and politics, much like fundamentalistic Islamic political parties: Wilders and Islamists both build their political visions on contingent interpretations of Islamic teachings, and both claim to represent “true Islam.”

That political Islam is not monolithic follows from the above. Islamic teaching can be interpreted in various ways, resulting in various political Islams. That many people don’t recognize this as evident is not just ignorance –– both Islamic and anti-Islamic groups represent their version as “true Islam”, leading laymen to believe there is only one true Islam rather then a myriad.

Political Islam is not inherently violent. Violent Islamist groups are marginal. “Most mainstream Islamist movements operate peacefully within national boundaries and attempt to influence and transform their societies and polities largely through constitutional means, even when the constitutional and political cards are stacked against them” (Ayoob, 2008, p. 17). Violence is the exception, not the rule. Most major Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan and the Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia have functioned well within the legal framework of their respective countries.


Colonialism and Religious Authority in Islam

Islam has as many faces as Christianity: there are many Islams. Unlike Christianity, religious authority in Islam always been divided between five law schools: four Sunni and one Shi’i. Although these sometimes clashed, it has generally been accepted by Muslims that scholars from these schools, the ulama, were the sole legitimate interpreters and representatives of Islam. Until Europeans invented colonialism, that is. Due to eighteenth and nineteenth century European invasions, this agreement collapsed. Colonial rule replaced local rule, and the Muslim world was carved up into a myriad of nation-states. Many blamed the ulama for the colonial walk-over. As a side effect of colonialism though –– Europeans had brought their printing-presses –– literacy spread and Islamic scripture became available to the masses. Laymen could become the new interpreters and representatives of Islam, and the ulama lost their grip on the Muslim community (the ummah). Much of the cacophony we still experience in the Muslim world today “is the culmination of [this] process” (Ayoob, 2005, p. 27).

New representations of Islam in the post-colonial era can be roughly divided in three categories: modernism, traditionalism and fundamentalism –– the latter being marginal. And modernists, contrary to what Geert Wilders claims, represent moderate Islam.


Muslim Modernism

Islamic modernism, which flourished between 1840 and 1940 in reaction to European colonization, was an attempt to reconcile Islam with European modernity. Modernists believed the ummah to be backwards vis-a-vis Europe, and argued that the colonial oppression could be diminished by adopting European ideas and values such as constitutionalism, women’s rights and science.

Modern Europe “appeared to threaten the very existence of Islam” in five ways (Kurzman, 2002, pp. 6-7). Militarily, Muslims had no answer to modern European warfare. Economically, European modernity generated a wealth which was unheard of in the Islamic world. Cognitively, modern science challenged traditional Islamic dogma. Politically, modernity had brought Europe institutions to maintain peace and unity unseen in Islamic states. Culturally, modernity introduced novel forms of behavior such as European fashion that affected traditional Islamic practice. Only by modernizing the ummah, argued the modernists, could the ummah survive.

Islamic modernists used the printing press to their advantage, propagating five main ideas (Kurzman, 2002). Firstly, they preferred rational reinterpretation of Islamic sources (ijtihad) over interpretation by the tradition-loyal ulama (taqlid). Secondly, they envisioned the utopic revival of a Golden Age Islam, which supposedly was wholly compatible with modernity and modern values but had over the years been corrupted by ruling elites. Thirdly, they wanted the ummah to adopt a constitution. Fourthly, they wanted to reform educational institutions in the Islamic world by introducing modern science. Fifthly, they supported women’s rights to equal treatment, education, divorce and suffrage. Never did the modernists aim to dominate, call for violence, or oppress citizens or foreigners. They rather emerged in reaction to European dominance, violence and oppression. And still they tried to be more like Europe, because they recognized something admirable beneath the surface of colonial violence. Muslim modernist simply wanted to revitalize the ummah in face of European colonialism. Modernism was a moderate Islamic political movement. And its legacy still is, as we will see below.


Muslim Modernists: Al-Afghani and Abduh

Two leading figures of Muslim modernism were Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Iran, 1838-1897) and his student Muhammad Abduh (Egypt, 1849-1905). Al-Afghani is considered the pioneer of Islamic modernism (Rahnema, 2005). In a lecture on education he argues that the ummah must adopt modern European science “as a means of civilizational survival” (Kurzman, 2002, p. 103) –– nota bene not as a means for dominance, violence and oppression, as the Europeans did. “Science makes one man have the strength of ten, one hundred, one thousand and ten thousand persons,” he said. “The acquisitions of men for themselves and their government are proportional to their science” (p. 104). According to al-Afghani, Europe has been able to “put their hands on every part of the world” because of their successes in modern science.

In a rebuttal to French Orientalist Ernest Renan (1823-1892), who’d written that Islam is in its very essence opposed to science, and that Arabs by nature do not like philosophy, al-Afghani blames the ulama for stifling science and blocking its progress: “Yoked, like an ox to the plow, to the dogma whose slave he is, [the Muslim] must walk eternally in the furrow that has been traced for him in advance by the interpreters of the law [the ulama],” al-Afghani writes (Kurzman, 2002, p. 108). To Renan’s second point he replies accurately that it were Muslim scholars, and not Europeans, who preserved, translated and brilliantly commented on the ancient Greek philosophers. “Is not this the index and proof of their natural love for science?” (p. 108). Al-Afghani blames scientific backwardness of Islam vis-a-vis Europe on Arab despotism and not on the Muslim religion. “Religions,” he writes, “by whatever names they are called, all resemble each other … So long as humanity exists, the struggle will not cease between dogma and free investigation, between religion and philosophy” (p. 110). This accounts as much for the religion of Ernest Renan.


Muhammad Abduh was a student of al-Afghani, and as prominent a Muslim modernist. Like his master, Abduh was fiercely anti-European colonialism. The two of them being exiled from Egypt for criticism against the pro-European regime, they co-published the newspaper The Strongest Link (or al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa) from Paris, a newspaper “dedicated to the general task of warning non-Western people of the dangers of European intervention, and the specific cause of freeing Egypt from the bonds of British occupation” (Rahnema, 2005, p. 32). In general, Abduh wanted to show the compatibility of Islam and modernity, to revitalize and unite the ummah and to reform Islam by reforming its educational institutions.

In his writings on law Abduh opposes European colonialism, arguing that one nation cannot and should not apply its laws to another, wholly different nation (Kurzman, 2002). Law corresponds to the specific needs of a nation, he says, and what is a cure for one nation can be a disease for the other. Colonial subjects cannot be blamed for disregarding colonial law because it is hard to understand and generally a “scattered mess” (p. 53). “The laws should suit the conditions of the populace and their level of comprehension, enabling them to understand the laws and abide by their requirements, each one according to his own situation.” To make society better, he concludes, the focus should not be on changing laws but on changing people through education. Nowhere does he call for domination, violence and oppression, or regard Muslims as superior to Europeans. He rather reacts to the dominance, violence and oppression by European colonizers thinking themselves to be superior to Arab Muslims.

According to Abduh, the “weakness and backwardness” (Kurzman, 2002, p. 35) facing Islam were due to European colonialism on the one hand and to internal division, ignorance, misunderstanding and taqlid (the hegemony of scholarly interpretation of Islam) on the other. He agreed with Europeans who regarded the Muslim world as backwards vis-a-vis Europe, but what he did not accept was the assumed reason for this: Islam. The real reason was the educational system. Abduh regarded both traditional education and missionary schools as insufficient for the education of children –– including girls –– in order to create a generation of responsible Muslim citizens. For him, scientific knowledge and rationality were of vital importance to counter the decline of the ummah. He promoted a system “which was to include education for all children, both male and female. All should acquire the rudimentary skills of reading, writing and arithmetic” (p. 51).

In Abduh we find a falsification to the accusatory generalization that Islam is necessarily oppressive to women. Not only did his plans for educational reform include education for girls –– he furthermore wanted to change “the prevailing customs regarding the role and status of women” (Kurzman, 2002, p. 56). He saw the equality of man and woman as revealed truth. The fact that men are leaders of family units is pragmatic, he said, not because men are superior, which they are not.


The Muhammadiyah Movement

Modernist Muslims are an example of moderate Islam. Attempts to reconcile Islam and modernity employed not the sword but the pen. Modernists felt contempt for European colonizers, but blamed the colonization mainly on the backwardness of the Muslim community and practice of taqlid by the religious scholars. Modern Western ideas were received positively and the contempt for Europe was aimed not at culture but at the violence and the oppression of the colonialist undertaking. Modernists furthermore promoted women’s rights and education.

Islamic modernism didn’t end with Muhammad Abduh. Its legacy lives on. “Mass education, rapid international communication, and globalized commodities markets have generated huge populations in the Islamic world who are imbued with modern values such as cultural revival …, democracy …, science and education …, and particular rights for women” (Kurzman, 2002, p. 27). The Muhammadiyah movement –– meaning ‘those who follow the example of Muhammad’ –– is an example of a contemporary modernist Muslim movement. It was founded in 1912 by the modernist Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923) in Yogyakarta in Indonesia, a country with a Muslim population of 200 million –– the largest Muslim population in the world –– and home to several Muslim movements. The Muhammadiyah movement has a modest 29 million followers.

Similar to the al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, the Muhammadiyah reacted to European colonialism and the backwardness of the ummah. The movement aimed to counter backwardness by rationally reinterpreting Islam through ijtihad and contrary to the ulama to look for ‘the spirit of Islamic teaching’ rather than for its literal meaning. This spirit of Islam is regarded compatible with modernity. To facilitate the individual and rational reinterpretation of Islamic heritage through ijtihad, the movement focused mainly on reforming the educational system.

            As said, the Muhammadiyah’s role model is the Prophet. To be able to deduce from the Islamic sources how Muhammad lived, every Muhammadiyah Muslim has to be educated to the extend that he or she can interpret the Qur’an individually and rationally –– i.e. ijtihad, meaning for Muhammadiyah Muslims mostly working hard, not waisting time and being self-disciplined.

The Muhammadiyah movement endeavored to reform religion, education and society and its success is illustrated by its growth: from a small movement in 1912 it rapidly grew into vast movement it is today, becoming a political force to be reckoned with in Indonesia (though never becoming an actual political party). The movement is modern, has reformed education and accomplished the institutionalization of secular education for both men and women, has stimulated personal responsibility and liberalism, and has improved and promoted (and keeps promoting) women’s rights and the general status of women in society.



In this essay I have showed the falsity of Wilders’ views of Islam. The ideas of Muslim modernists as Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and the Muhammadiyah movement show that Islam can certainly be a moderate political force, that it is not necessarily totalitarian, violent, dominant nor oppressive. We should not forget that many Muslim movements –– whether modernist, traditionalist or fundamentalist –– have been formed against the background of European colonialist violence, dominance and oppression. If anyone wants to dominate the world, it is not Islam, but it is Europe’s former self.

In a spin on Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, we have here a black swan which can take down the red-white-and-blue seagull of the PVV with a single stroke of its wings. Let many more swans fly.



Ayoob, M. (2008). The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics

     in the Muslim World. Michigan: University Press.

Kurzman, C. (2002). Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: a Sourcebook. Oxford:

     University Press.

Rahnema, A. (2005). Pioneers of Islamic Revival. Kuala Lumpur: Unknown


Wilders, G. (2010). De agenda van hoop en optimisme. Een tijd op te kiezen: PVV 2010-2015.