Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1997, p. 36

Special Report

Istanbul Conference Traces Islamic Roots of Western Law, Society

by Antony T. Sullivan

When history texts record the imposition of the Magna Carta on King John by the English nobility in 1215, they don’t reveal where those English aristocrats got the idea for a charter defining the duties of a sovereign toward his subjects, as well as subjects toward the sovereign. In fact, according to Imad al-Din Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, MD, the genesis of European legal structures, as later reflected in the Magna Carta, was brought back by Crusaders who were influenced by what they had learned in the Levant about the governing system established by Salahuddin (Saladin), Sultan of Egypt and Syria. In comments on “Culture and Economics: Islam and a Free Society,” Ahmad told participants in a three-day conference in Istanbul Sept. 15-17 that much of the West’s understanding of liberalism in law, economics and society has roots in medieval Islam.

The conference was sponsored by the Association of Liberal Thinking of Ankara, a Turkish think tank established in 1994 by Professor Atilla Yahla of Hacettepe University. The conference, or “workshop,” as it was described in the program, focused on issues of political economy, culture and religion as related especially to individual liberty and limited and democratic government. Discussion was wide-ranging, emphasizing especially economic theory and governmental regulation, relationships between religion and a market economy, and how Islam may be understood as congruent with a free society.

Among Turkish participants were professors Eser Karakas of Istanbul University, Mehmet Aydim of Ege University and Ali Karaosmanoglu of Bilkent University. Other participants from Turkey included Besim Tibuk, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Serdar Aktan of the Turkish-Arabic Bank, and Suseyin Sak of the Office of the Prime Minister. European speakers included professors Burhan Ghalioun of France and Hardy Bouillon of Germany. Participants from the United States included Deepak Lal of UCLA, Leonard Liggio of George Mason University in Virginia, Antony T. Sullivan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, President Imad al-Din Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, Dan Peters of the Philadelphia Society, S. Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, and Jo Kwong of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. The conference was organized in conjunction with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation at George Mason University.

The desire for democracy and human rights is in no way a monopoly of the West.

“Liberalism,” as that term was understood and employed at the conference, had precisely the opposite meaning of the word “liberalism” as used in the contemporary American context. The “classical” or “European” liberalism of interest to the conferees extols market economics, free trade, private property, decentralization of political power, and maximization of the freedom of individuals to the extent that such personal liberty is not inimical to a cohesive and stable society. In short, the “liberal” ideas discussed in Istanbul were what many Americans understand as “conservative.” But whether liberal or conservative, what was remarkable about the notions debated in Istanbul was their appeal to Turks and Muslims. Given recent signs of similar interest in the Arab world, what transpired in Turkey indicated that the desire for constitutional government, democracy and human rights is in no way a monopoly of the West.

To illustrate his reconstruction of the Islamic roots of European law, Imad al-Din Ahmad noted that as early as the Christian reconquista of Spain, local Christians accustomed to Islamic rule insisted that their new masters sign agreements similar to those they had long had with their Muslim overlords. Those agreements specified that no monarch was above the law. This adherence to a rule of law to which both kings and commoners were subject, Ahmad maintained, was in fact an enduring gift of Muslim Spain to Christian Europe.

As far as political economy is concerned, Ahmad observed that the West first became aware of the perils of statism, bureaucracy and excessive taxation neither from the ancient Greeks nor from Adam Smith but from the great 14th century Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun. “Ibn Khaldun’s commitment to the free market exceeds that of some modern ”˜liberals,’” Ahmad stated. “The clarity of [Ibn Khaldun’s] vision can be seen in sub-chapter titles like ”˜The ruler engaged in trade will bring about the ruin of the dynasty’ and in such observations as ”˜At their beginnings, dynasties raise large revenues from low tax rates, and near their end obtain small revenues from high tax rates.’”

Islamic Endorsements

Finally, Ahmad described the Islamic system’s endorsement of both pluralism and freedom. He argued that today, as in the past, Islam is characterized by enormous adaptability and the ability to incorporate within it the most heterogeneous civilizations. For that reason he suggested that Islamists not endeavor to impose any monolithic culture on Turkey by fiat, or attempt such projects of social engineering as requiring all women to wear the veil. “If we accept the Qur’an when it says that Muhammad is not the disposer over our affairs,” he inquired, “how then can some of us grant ourselves a title denied to the messenger of God himself?”

The writer of this article evoked similar themes in his paper entitled “Conservatism, Pluralism, and Islam.” In particular, Sullivan criticized the argument of Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard that the new, exigent threat confronting the West in the post-Cold War world issues from an informal alliance between Islamic and Confucian civilization. Sullivan argued that Western and Muslim conservatives have long had much more in common than they have differences, and advocated the opening of a dialogue between conservatives from both traditions to address the universal problems occasioned by the decadence of late secular modernity. Those Westerners influenced by such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Eric Voegelin, Gerhart Niemeyer and Russell Kirk, he suggested, might make ideal interlocutors for such contemporary Muslim intellectuals as Anwar Ibrahim, Charles le Gai Eaton, Rachid al-Ghannoushi, Fahmi Huweidi and Abdul Wahab al-Messiri. “Religious and social conservatism, which is at once respectful of cultural patrimonies, tolerant of religious and political pluralism, and mindful of the importance of both private property and some form of limited and responsible government,” Sullivan maintained, “may enable Christians and Muslims together to march into the new century, and together to make it their own.”

In conversations outside the formal workshop program, Turkish participants emphasized their belief that the West had greatly overreacted to the coming to power of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and the increasing support for his Refah party. For example, none of the Turks present foresaw any possibility that Erbakan or Refah will attempt to withdraw Turkey from NATO. Moreover, none anticipated any deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations, especially given Erbakan’s recent acceptance of Israeli assistance to establish an anti-Kurdish “security zone” in northern Iraq. Several Turks expressed their belief that Erbakan has little use for Prime Minister Hafez Al-Assad of Syria, given Assad’s hosting in Damascus of the leadership of the Kurdish PKK. Most were convinced, however, that Erbakan will refuse to make any significant compromises on Cyprus. All in all, the consensus of Turkish workshop participants was that Erbakan will make no attempt to invigorate any “Islamist international,” and will conduct Turkish foreign policy entirely on the basis of his understanding of Turkish national self-interest. His visits to Iran and other Muslim or Arab states out of favor with American policymakers, they suggested, should be understood in that context.

Additional information concerning the Atlas Foundation and its plans for similar workshops in the Muslim world may be obtained from Alejandro A. Chafuen, President, 4084 University Drive, Suite 103, Fairfax, VA 22030-6812, tel. (703) 934-6969, fax 703 352 7530.

Additional information