Daniel Haqiqatjou, founder of Muslim Skeptic and the Alasna Institute, spoke to a May 27th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about Islam and liberalism in an interview with Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch.
Haqiqatjou objects to "philosophical liberalism," which he defines as "a moral and technological project that aims to maximize individual freedom and equality"— freedoms he believes exist "at the expense of other important values." In Haqiqatjou's view, "marriage, family, community, [and] religious tradition" are values that require "some degree of lack of freedom and ... lack of equality." An example is "patriarchy," which he said is "biologically rooted in human psychology" and requires specific "gender roles" that limit "freedom of choice." Liberalism, on the other hand, threatens those roles in traditional marriage. "...[M]arriage and family require inequality ... a lack of freedom."
He described Islam as the "last remaining major religion" to maintain traditional values and institutions, and because of it, Islam has been under attack for the last two and a half centuries from "colonialism." These attacks have culminated in today's "neo-colonial war on terror." Haqiqatjou said that anyone opposing "liberal colonial powers" and "liberal secular forces" is labeled a radical and extremist who poses a threat to "freedom, equality, and democracy." He added that the treatment of individual Muslims who hold "illiberal views" are subject to surveillance, restricted travel, and even detention, torture, or "extrajudicially assassinated." Comparing the colonialism of the past with today, he said it has been "enforced" over the past two decades through invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He condemned "Mideast interventions" that "forced" Afghan women to attend college and insisted on yearly elections in Iraq. Haqiqatjou considered each a "hoax that neocons have peddled," and mocked these neocons for thinking "these Muslim countries will magically become bastions of liberal enlightenment."
Haqiqatjou, called an "extremist" by conservatives, said that those same conservatives are now themselves labeled extremists by secular liberals in the "latest iteration of woke, progressive liberal politics." Haqiqatjou said Muslims like him are portrayed as aiming to take over the government and "establish a Sharia state," when he said the actual threat to Americans is that "their children have ... become ... atheists, ... their sons degenerates, and their daughters are prostituting themselves." Moreover, their lives "have no meaning or purpose," all due to "the dangers of liberalism."
Westrop challenged Haqiqatjou's definition of liberalism as "quite ... broad," and suggested Haqiqatjou's objections were over the "excesses" of progressivism. Haqiqatjou disagreed, believing that liberalism and progressivism are inseparable and claiming that the progressive politics he holds responsible for society's failure are rooted in the "classical liberalism" of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. "It is one continuous project, and it is a failure." Haqiqatjou even dismisses as "superficial reactionism" those Christians who are trying to reconnect with their "heritage" out of a spiritual hunger.
Haqiqatjou advocates for Islam as the "solution" in lieu of liberalism— "a complete way of life" covered "under Sharia and Islamic law." He said Islam is a model that preserves "marriage ... family ... organic communities and belief in God," all values he said are "biologically based." The economic system he described under Islamic law has "certain aspects of free market enterprise" which would imply that capitalism, with its roots in classical liberalism, would be acceptable. "The main conflict between capitalism and Islam" is "riba [usury]," but he insisted that "business can be conducted without Islam limiting certain practices."
In response to Westrop's questioning how "apostates and atheists" would be treated in the society Haqiqatjou envisions as his "ideal," Haqiqatjou responded that the "inequality" required in the religious tradition of Islam includes punishment for "heresy or apostasy." He maintains that the "reduction in freedom and equality" is "necessary" in an Islamic system. Haqiqatjou said that in order to preserve the traditional values he upholds, those who "criticize the entire notion of belief" in God "undermine" religious belief. Therefore, he justifies "disincentives towards heresy [and] apostasy" for those who "violate norms and values."
If it were up to Haqiqatjou, he would not only "criminalize" apostasy, but also blasphemy. Anyone who insulted "Abrahamic values and prophets and figures" are blasphemers who "run rampant in the West" and are "dangerous to belief in God." He insists that for those who disagree with his position, there is a "rational basis" to "deter" apostasy and blasphemy, offering no disagreement when asked if he would "expand" punishment for apostasy to the "death penalty." Haqiqatjou justifies his position by saying that heretics and apostates were "punished" by "all religions" at different points in history in "every legal system." He believes in reviving capital punishment, both as a deterrent to apostasy and blasphemy and as an integral part of the solution to the ills of contemporary American society.
Haqiqatjou criticized liberalism's "freedom of choice" as "extremism" and claimed it originated in the "classical liberal understanding of freedom of speech" established by "theists and atheists" who were devoid of any commitment to Christianity or tradition. He criticized "both the left and right of politics because they're different manifestations of the same underlying cancer." Even though there are conservatives who offer criticisms of modern life, he finds their solutions are unacceptable because many of them propose "ethno-nationalism" and praise Western civilization for its "human rights and freedom and democracy, [and] women's rights." He said that as a Muslim, he rejects this "championing of liberalism" and rhetorically asks, "What's so great about Western civilization?"
Haqiqatjou sees a "potential ally" in anyone who fights liberalism in the defense of traditional values. In an effort to find "common ground" with detractors, Westrop pointed out that Haqiqatjou even debated Mark Collett, a "self-described White nationalist" frequently referred to as a "neo-Nazi in British media" and who implied he would accept the idea for Europe becoming Islamic, "as long as it was White." Regardless, Haqiqatjou said he would engage even with "attackers of Islam" to "rebut their claims" as part of his advocacy.
Haqiqatjou also has detractors within his own religion whom he takes to task for being too liberal. Critical of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as progressives, he also criticized Omar Suleiman, an Islamic cleric and founder of an Islamic institute in Texas. Claiming that Suleiman is "compromising Islam," Haqiqatjou thinks Suleiman sees himself as a "proud, liberal American ... Democrat," but Haqiqatjou labeled him a "pragmatist" who made too many compromises in order to "survive" outside pressure on the Muslim community for its illiberal beliefs. In doing so, Haqiqatjou said that Suleiman made a "wrong calculation" that will lead the next generation of American Muslims to fall away from Islam.
An MEF article about Suleiman describes the cleric as the "go-to imam for politicians and journalists looking to burnish their reputation as sympathetic to Muslim concerns." An MEF investigation into Suleiman's activities revealed his involvement in a variety of Islamist organizations, including the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF). MEF researcher Benjamin Baird exposed CCF as a "de facto 'martyrs fund' for American jihadists and their families." At a Texas rally in 2021, Suleiman called for the release of: (1) a prisoner convicted of assault and murder of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; (2) a black separatist who murdered a sheriff's deputy in Georgia, and (3) prisoners convicted of providing material support for Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization.
Westrop mentioned that many clerics who self-described as Salafists in the last decade now increasingly reject that term. He asked Haqiqatjou which sect of Islam he identifies with because of the latter's work with clerics from the South Asian Islamic Deobandi movement, a version of Islam the Taliban also follow. Haqiqatjou said that distinguishing between the two movements is a "strategy" used by "think tanks and policy strategists ... like RAND, or Middle East Forum, or different brands of neocons" to create divisiveness between "traditionalist Muslims" and Salafis. Their aim, according to Haqiqatjou, is for traditionalists to unite with "Muslim reformers or Muslim secularists who are backed by the West and who support Western policy points."
Instead, Haqiqatjou said that both Salafi and Deobandi strains are "Sunni, orthodox, and they care about pre-modern expressions and teachings of Islam as it's been practiced for 1,400 years, and that's what unites me and other ... orthodox conservative Sunnis." He said that "neocons" have only used the term "Salafi" over the last decade and a half to describe a "terrorist or terrorist sympathizer." The term "Salafi Wahhabi Islamist" is a label he believes has "come to mean anyone who is [a] conservative, orthodox Sunni Muslim" or "believes the Quran and Hadith are important." Haqiqatjou said that if Westrop's definition of a Salafi is "an orthodox conservative Sunni, ... I'm a Salafi."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.