Muslim liberation theology on the march

Egyptian Muslim clerics join a demonstration on February 1, 20 at Cairo s Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters … Continued

Egyptian Muslim clerics join a demonstration on February 1, 20 at Cairo s Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters flooded Cairo for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their relentless drive to oust President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. LONGARI/Getty Image

Mass demonstrations for democracy have spread overnight from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan and throughout the Muslim world in ways that parallel a similar spread of liberation movements in Latin America a generation ago. Democracy toppled dictators and military juntas in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador once the post-Vatican II theology of liberation became the logic for mobilizing the public towards revolution. When I read that last week’s mass protests in Cairo began after worshipers poured out of mosques after Friday services and marched into the streets to demand democracy, I thought there might be parallels with Latin American religion. I asked a knowledgeable Muslim, “Is this a theology of liberation for Islam?” He answered, “Islam IS a theology of liberation.” Here’s how Muslim liberation theology differs from Catholicism’s.

Islam’s central premise for politics teaches that governments should be led by persons who are righteous. A government will be good when it is run by good Muslims. In that sense, every political change within Islam is also a religious change. By focusing on the faith of the politician, Islamic theology leaves little room to examine political systems. Obviously, Catholic America would prefer a saint to a scoundrel in the White House, but our theology of political change is fundamentally different from Muslim approaches. All Catholic political theology in general and Latin American liberation theology in particular is critical of the system, rather than of the politician.

Catholic tradition has traditionally applied the Just War theory to legitimate revolt against a tyrannical government. But in the 1970s we theologians of liberation* added a new analysis of how modern social structures are used to mask injustice and perpetuate oppression. A ruler like Somoza in Nicaragua or Jaruzelski in Poland – or Mubarak in Egypt — may hold elections so that he cannot be called a “dictator” in a strict sense. But the people live under a virtual dictatorship because the electoral system is rigged.

As the new theology of the 70s empowered Catholics to apply systematic analysis, we injected a moral dimension in political activity directed against an unjust regime. While Pope John Paul II was critical of aspects of liberation theology in Latin America, he applied its basic principles to his native Poland. Without trying to unravel this apparent contradiction of John Paul II, let us look at the same result on different continents: Catholic participation in bringing down unjust governments.

Islam’s theology of political liberation developed quite differently than Christianity’s. The Muslim approach of government-by-only-the-righteous may perhaps be traced to Islam’s origins. During their rapid rise to power as an empire, Muslims did not suffer centuries of oppression as a minority under the thumb of an alien ruler. Christianity, on the other hand, began as a religion persecuted for nearly three centuries by the Roman Empire. Needless to add, Jews have suffered as a minority for millennia. Those periods of minority status shaped a Jewish and Christian theology of living under governments that do not share your religious principles.

But while Islam did not need to differentiate political structures from politicians in the past, the present day is making new demands. While I am skeptical of the theological tools Muslims currently access, I am optimistic that new ones will emerge. To use one writer/theologian as an example of new things taking shape, I would cite the works of Tariq Ramadan. The Swiss theologian neither rushes to conform to contemporary secularism nor to adopt the rigid fundamentalism of the clash of civilizations school.

I don’t agree with all of Professor Ramadan’s opinions, but what I find significant is his openness to refashion the Muslim theological tools of interpretation. Much as we theologians of liberation reexamined the traditional theory of the Just War and made new applications to modern circumstances, Ramadan is developing a new interpretative key for an ancient faith. If the professor can connect with like-minded Muslim theologians instead of wasting time in side-shows with celebrities like Christopher Hitchens the final result of Egypt’s demonstrations may yet become historic.

*I was one of the theologians invited to the first conference of Theology in the Americas in 1975 that brought together Latin American and North American theologians.

  • akhtarman

    I hate to say it but keeping the democratization of the Muslim world requires limiting the influences of Jews and Christians. Not all, but too many Jews, want to keep the Middle East run by Western dictators who can be bought and won’t take a firm stand on Israeli crimes. Christians,too, unfortunately, have not helped the cause of freedom in Muslim countries but actually tried to repress it. Whether it is with Christian countries (like the US and the UK) or the Christian minorities (e.g. Copts who have sided with dictators), Christianity has not been good for democratization. All they care about is oil, Israel and evangelizing. The Muslim worlds wants democracy (including letting Islamists, Socialist, Communists and Arab-Nationalists run) but those of a Jewish-Christian stripe (in general) want to stop or avert it.Freedom for the Middle East means- and I don’t like saying it- limiting the effects of Judeo-Christians peoples. They generally want a weak a divided Middle East that they can exploit. There are exceptions (e.g. Latin American Christians and Afro-American Christians aren’t crazy) but those of white-European extract are trouble. For example, allowing openly Judeo-Christian America to interfere in Egypt’s problem is a recipe for disaster. They had 30 years with Mubarak and the US didn’t inch it any closer to democracy- it only got worse. However, I do agree with the author that Hitchens is a waste of time!

  • ThomasBaum

    Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo You wrote, “I asked a knowledgeable Muslim, “Is this a theology of liberation for Islam?” He answered, “Islam IS a theology of liberation.””This simple statement by, as you put it, a “knowledgeable Muslim” says it all, does it not?When one considers islam and democracy, one and the same, or when one considers islam and freedom, one and the same, what about those that do not consider these words as being the same?This “knowledgeable Muslim” has stated exactly what the koran calls for, the imposition of islam, not for one to choose but for the state to impose and in a case such as this, for the state and islam to be one and the same, I do give this person credit for stating this quite clearly.Even tho there have been many, thru the age, that have attempted to set up a theocracy in the name of Jesus, Jesus, most definitely, did not try to do this Himself or ask His followers to do any such thing.Can anyone say this about Muhammed’s wishes concerning islam or the god of islam’s wishes concerning islam?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • usapdx

    And what body was the backbone of control of man after the fall of ROME to the reformation? Was all done for the good of man? Even in modern time, have they done wrong? Think.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri2

    akhtarman:Not all, but too many Jews, want to keep the Middle East run by Western dictators who can be bought and won’t take a firm stand on Israeli crimes. If we want the world to have a chance at moral sanity, racist morons will have to be barred from public discourse.There are many other venues in which racist morons can mingle with their peers. The internet need not embrace them.

  • halozcel2

    Brain Disorde,Brain Disorder,nothing else.No Democracy in Muslim World.Blame Master Race(Jewish People)*Muslim World(Wrong Term) want Democracy*Wrong.Deat Wrong.Muslim World want Democracy such as Poster Halozcel(me) wants Angelina Jolie.What does it mean ? Empty Word.Do Pakistan Nation want Democracy ? Correct Question,do Pakistan Nation know Democracy ? Pakistan People want Democracy of Soda which bans Alcohol,Fine Arts,Human Rights and embraces Blasphemy Law,Desert Rules.Blame Iran,Pakistan Nations First,not Master People(Children of Jacob)Muslim World(Wrong Term) want Democracy.Why dont they install ? Why dont muslims in Texas hell them ?Conclusion:You can not install anything.You only write Palaver.

  • abrahamhab1

    Mr. Arroyo says:Who determines who is or is not righteous? The powerful clans who in most cases gain their legitimacy and influence by claiming to be descended from the Muslim prophet can force the Muslim clerics to support their claims to leadership of Muslims. Political change is considered blasphemous and that is why “rulers” rule for life. The Turks misruled the Arab countries for 500 years simply because they convinced the clerics that they are “defenders of the faith”. They would still be exploiting the Arabs till this day if it were not for British and French armies.