Can the Liberal State Ever Be Neutral When It Comes to Muslims?

With his usual eloquence, Shadi Hamid attempts to make sense of an issue dominating Muslim dinner table conversation on both sides of the Atlantic, that of LGBTQ-themed lessons in state schools. His basic argument? It is not a dereliction of liberal norms to tolerate the protest of Muslim parents who fear the ever-encroaching state imposition of liberal social mores on their children. Liberalism, he surmises, especially within the US constitutional context, prioritizes the neutral state, one that does not side with any particular version of the good life. Instead, in the case of the US, it guarantees to protect sincerely held convictions through the First Amendment rights to religious beliefs — however disturbing these views may seem to wider society.

The recent case of Hamtramck is an interesting example and one Shadi cites. A Muslim-run municipality voted to prohibit flying all “contentious” political, social or religious flags on council buildings. Many liberals have taken this as an affront to liberal tolerance understanding it as an attempt to marginalize pride flags and the LGBTQ community. Shadi rightly points out that the decision did not deny the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people nor seek to discriminate against them; rather, councilors justified their decision using the state neutrality principle. 

The argument is neat, and the logic is reassuring to many Muslims. Islam as a faith should be left to flourish as long as it does not make unreasonable demands upon the actions and lifestyles of others. We should live and let live. Shadi once told me he was an American liberal, and his argument demonstrates how a religious liberal would look to find succor in the ultimate nobility of liberalism. Yet, there remains a problem with this analysis. Shadi is in the minority, the decision by Hamtrack repulsed most liberals, and many find it difficult to accept the parental rights of Muslims to “safeguard” the moral values of their children. Are these liberals being “bad liberals”? Well, it’s complicated. 


Liberalism as an idea is fraught with internal contradictions, but most liberals take this as a sign of its veracity. Liberalism is a broad church, and thinkers and practitioners have attempted to emphasize elements of the ideology that inevitably rubs up against other liberal norms. This friction can be observed in the United States, where progressives, social liberals and classical liberals (many of whom today belong to the Republican Party) are involved in an almighty conflict over the most important virtues in society. Most liberals who belong to the left have long deprioritized the neutral state ideal, tempering the state’s detachment when it comes to concerns of the good life with a government that protects minority groups and their quest for recognition. Furthermore, they believe government must create an equal society where citizens can show their individuality. This requires for government to take sides. 

The “enabling state,” as John Rawls would have it, is responsible for engendering a more equal society both in economic and social terms. Canadian philosopher, Will Kymlicka is keen to point out that to reach the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s call for individuality, the state had to not only “tolerate” minorities but to actively acknowledge their existence through what Charles Taylor refers to as “acts of recognition.” This potent liberalism would thus have to move beyond acting as a guardrail against intolerance and instead actively pursue a program of recognizing communities and their cultures.

In this liberal iteration, Hamtramck council has enacted a “grievous wound” as Taylor would put it, to the LGBTQ identity — “saddling its victims with crippling self-hatred, denying their desires for full self-esteem and stifling a sense of their own authenticity.” Acceptance is not enough; for people to feel comfortable in their own identities, they must be actively recognized by others. Kymlicka acknowledges the neutral state is ultimately being weakened here, but as a liberal, he identifies the ultimate trade-off between competing liberal ideals. Shadi points out that liberalism does not emphasize group rights, which is undoubtedly true for classical liberals who focus on individualism. Still, most social liberals today, particularly progressives, are enthusiastic about giving the group the rights afforded to individuals. Of course, classical liberals would accuse social liberals of liberal heresy, a form of bid’ah, but without an ultimate ideological arbiter, it is impossible to argue one remains more correct than the other. 

Will the real liberalism please take a stand up?

I want to accept Shadi Hamid’s motherhood and apple pie version of liberalism as the halal form. But all too often, Muslim communities in the West have been confronted with an altogether less benign variety of the ideology: A universalist missionary liberalism. This is brilliantly summed up by John Gray in his book, Two Faces of Liberalism, where he points out that liberalism has always been torn between two contradictory ideals; one where it acts as a benign mediator and another where it advances a project of enlightenment universalism. All too often, it is the proselytizing mission of liberalism that has dominated the liberal state. Gray points out that this is not a modern aberration, the two faces have been present from its inception in the seventeenth century. This crusading spirit of liberalism, and I choose these words deliberately, has for some time observed Muslims as the last stubborn adherents of anachronistic belief systems. For Muslims to be chastened, or as they would put it, enlightened, Islam had to be brought kicking and screaming into modernity. 

This is why the conservative President George Bush Jr. emphasized the need to liberate Muslim women in Afghanistan through America’s invading armies and why today, democrats in the US and liberals in Europe pass laws to prevent parents from actively opting out of sex-education lessons they find problematic to their faith. In France, a new draconian law effectively prohibits Muslim parents from homeschooling. This ensures the state acts in locus parentis over the child’s mind. It is not unreasonable for Muslims across the West to label this an inquisition. Many are actively talking about hijrah, or migration, to a place where the government will not look to tear a child away from their religion and family. 

Shadi Hamid recently interviewed an American Muslim actively courting the right wing to build political allies against progressives and their social agenda. I would suggest Muslims have become more savvy. From the countless conversations I have had with Muslim leaders on my podcast, The Thinking Muslim, I find little appetite for the left-right duopoly within the Muslim community. Instead, what I witness is a new political maturity, where Muslims look to assert their rights without having to enter into a Faustian pact with political opportunists who only end up bombing another Muslim country, drone-striking innocents because they are losing hopeless wars, supporting Arab dictators like Sisi and MBS and giving Israel the green light to act with impunity despite professing to stand for democracy and human rights. At home, they treat the Muslim community as a docile collective vote and then “empower” a shallow representation of Muslim leaders who sell out every Islamic value in exchange for a seat at the table. 

The most recent battle over who has ultimate responsibility over the thoughts and moral well-being of Muslim children has demonstrated what liberals of all shades fail to appreciate — the Muslim community has come of age. We no longer crave validation from others, instead, we are looking to carve out our very own post-liberal future.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Photo by Teddy O on Unsplash

Muhammad Jalal

Muhammad Jalal is a lecturer in politics and international relations and the host of The Thinking Muslim Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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