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Lecture: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Emory University

November 13, 2014 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

Religious Belief Requires the Possibility of Disbelief: Tolerant Public Space is an Islamic Imperative

“I speak only of Islam as I understand and believe in it, and not of Islam or religion at large. Much confusion in so-called inter-religious dialogue is due to the assumption that all participants are talking about the same religion, which is of course to each participant his or her own religion projected onto others without regard to theological foundations, doctrinal difference or historical and cultural context. Indeed, terms like theological and doctrinal are understood in Christian terms and applied to Islam. We should also note here the role of religious misrepresentation in justifying Western colonial and neocolonial geopolitics. Islam and Muslims are doomed to failure to live up to Western expectations, which justifies the colonization and post-colonial domination of Muslims to save them from themselves.

I also speak of personal commitment to the integrity and coherence of my own religious experience within my “imagined” communities, and not in defense of Islam and Muslims. It is from this perspective that I say that the possibility of belief in Islam as a religion logically requires the possibility of disbelieve. I am therefore holding that my right to reject Islam is essential to my right to embrace it, if and when I so choose. My freedom of religion is a reflection of my commitment to autonomy and choice from an Islamic perspective.

The religious neutrality of the state, which is the key characteristic of a secular state, is necessary for the possibility of being a Muslim by conviction and choice, which is the only way to be a Muslim. It is therefore objectionable from an Islamic point of view for any ruling elite to claim that the state they control is Islamic. The state cannot be Islamic and does not become Islamic because it is claimed to be so.

The perception of intolerant public space in Islamic societies reflects a post-colonial, defensive posture that is conceptually and historically inconsistent with the possibility of being Muslim, which must necessarily be voluntary and out of conviction and choice. This is not to say that colonialism as such the cause of intolerance because, as Malik bin Nabi said, colonialism is the consequence of internal weakness of Islamic societies, not the cause of that weakness. The dialectic of this colonizer and colonized is a significant factor in the current conservative defensiveness of Islamic societies that tends to inhibit the development of tolerant public space in post-colonial Islamic societies.

In light of these reflections I will argue that securing a tolerant public space is a pragmatic institutional and political project, not theological hypothesis. Muslims of the twenty-first century need to envisage how to promote tolerant public spaces in the context of post-colonial states and societies. In this context, democratization, constitutionalism and human rights protection are imperative objectives of self-determination, not geopolitical fantasy or response to external pressure. There is no alternative to the struggle for self-determination beyond political independence, on the ground at home. The Islamic justification and motivation of this struggle are inherent in the possibility of being Muslim.”

Dr. An-Na’im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, associate professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives, Professor An-Na’im teaches courses in international law, comparative law, human rights, and Islamic law. His research interests include constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, secularism, and Islam and politics. Professor An-Na’im directed research projects which focus on advocacy strategies for reform through internal cultural transformation.

Followed by a reception. Open to the public.


November 13, 2014
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm


120 Pugh Hall
University of Florida
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