Modern conservatism and liberal Islam are far more closely aligned than you think…
I was born in a household that supported the Labour party. For three years, I was a senior advisor to Britain’s most successful Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. Capitalism was a dirty word in my social circles. Conservatism was seen as uncool and stuffy. Yet I knew I harboured an inner hypocrisy: my parents, as with so many British Muslims, bought their own home thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist and conservative policies. With the passing of time, experience of travels, reading, reflections, and conversations with conservatives, my views have progressed to grasping why, for five reasons, modern conservatism and liberal Islam are more aligned than we know. And combined, can save Western civilisation from internal and external threats.
First, the prophet Mohamed, the founder of Islam, was a capitalist. In seventh-century Mecca, a city of trading and commerce for Arabia, he was a fund-manager for the Lady Khadijah. He represented her stocks and assets in the markets of Mecca, Damascus and others parts of the Levant. His success in increasing her profit margins with honesty and integrity led her to proposing marriage to Mohamed. Islam is the only religion, therefore, to be instituted by a businessman.
Mohamed struggled with the clamour and chaos of commercial Mecca. It was during his spiritual retreats in Mount Hira that the divine voice inspired the poetry and passages that became the Quran.
“Shall we teach you a more profitable and ever-lasting trade?” asks God in the Quran, again and again. The parables with trade are many. When in the year 622 Mohamed migrated to the city of Medina, the first action he took was to create a mosque for his community of believers. When the land was offered as charity, he refused and insisted on buying it as private property. Unlike Plato’s Republic, Islam has always honoured property rights, a fundamental difference with Marxism or socialism. Mohamed then went to the market with his companions and they traded freely with others. When a famine hit Medina, some lobbied him to fix prices: he refused. Supply and demand should not be interrupted.
Second, Islam was and is an inherently conservative faith and civilisation. The Burkean adage that we must “change to conserve” has been the hallmark of Islam since its beginning. Wherever Muslims conquered, the governance and social structures were conserved. The Umayyad caliphs from Damascus and into Spain ruled as the Romans did with law, taxes, and imperial expansion. But with Muslims, Jewish people thrived as viziers and senior officials. Early Muslims protected the pyramids of Egypt as symbols of knowledge and civilisation. Euclid’s principles informed the architecture of new mosques. The great Al-Farabi’s tenth-century philosophy revived Plato and Aristotle, but al-Farabi was also a musician, botanist and mystic who deeply influenced the prodigious Rabbi Maimonides. In India, the Muslim Moghuls honoured Hinduism and initial emperors even included Hindus as “people of the book.” Under the Ottomans, Constantinople remained a Christian-majority city until the nineteenth century. Islam did not seek destruction and revolution, it merely sought to inject the spirit of one God into existing ways.
Britain’s pre-eminent conservative philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, defines conservatism as an attitude, an inheritance, a respect for custom and convention, and love for freedom and civilisation. Muslim history and belief naturally reflects that vision. Granted, there were periods of hostility and imperialism, but we must never forget that in the ancient world the unwritten code was “conquer, or be conquered.”
In that ethos, Islam sought to conserve, rather than abolish.
Third, it was in that spirit of creating and conserving civilisations, Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, penned his 1377 book al-Muqaddimah on history, sociology and economics. Ronald Reagan and Boris Johnson have both cited Ibn Khaldun. Mark Zuckerberg recommended Ibn Khaldun’s book. He was the first thinker to analyse the workings of an economy, the role of technology, foreign trade and specialisation in economic surplus, and the role of government in the economy. Four centuries before Adam Smith, Ibn Khaldun argued that the division and specialisation of labour serves as the basis for any civilised society. The principles of modern capitalism were, arguably, pioneered by Ibn Khaldun with his writings on production, supply, cost, consumption, demand and utility. Muslims were a trading people: Mohamed’s business ethics and charity, compassion, and giving to the travellers and orphans were in tandem with profit. Adam Smith’s important first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments went in conjunction with his The Wealth of Nations. Only in the Marxist caricature and amoral cartels of corporatism is capitalism corrupted. At its core, for Ibn Khaldun and Adam Smith, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, ethics and enterprise went together.
Islam is the only religion to be instituted by a businessman.
Fourth, conservatism, as Scruton reminds us, was an outcome of the European Enlightenment and a bulwark against the excesses of liberal individualism. When the disciples of Rousseau and Voltaire overthrew the French monarchy in 1789, and cast away religion and tradition, it was Edmund Burke who warned against the pursuit of unknown, untested, and unrealistic ideas in the abstract. He coined the term “terrorism” to predict rightly the disasters of the French revolution. This commitment to the natural order, to convention, custom, and preserving our inheritance mattered for conservatives. For Burke this was the “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
The sharia, as taught by the earliest Muslim jurists such as the eleventh-century Imam al-Juwayni, and preserved and practised for ten centuries, has as its higher aims or maqasid to preserve life, provide security, allow for worship, protect the family, and fully uphold property laws. These maqasid, tried and tested, are fully aligned with natural law conservatism. Free from abstract ideology inspired by the French revolution, be it Marxism or political Islamism, we find a harmony in the forces of Islam and conservatism if understood historically.
Fifth, it is not an accident that these great ideas were pioneered and applied in Britain. A century before the French, the English beheaded King Charles I and then hastily re-instated the monarchy after learning the lesson of Oliver Cromwell’s own attempts at a new dynasty. Neither is it an accident that the oldest political party in the world, the Conservative party in Britain, understands that Burkean balance of monarch, merchants, the masses and clerics. From this island, the English charter of liberties spread around the world. Absent of this understanding, in Turkey, Libya, Iran, Egypt and Iraq, monarchies have been destroyed and political disorder, extremism and economic imbalance reign supreme. There are deep and valid reasons why Britain stands as an attractive model of a constitutional monarchy for many Muslim nations today, including Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and others. American presidents cannot dispatch a “Prince of Wales” in the way Britain can and then command immense prestige for doing so. The soft power of conservatism still sways billions of people.
Conservatism as a body of thought, as an inheritance, is now at risk in Britain, its natural home. And if it withers here, it will elsewhere too. For us, for our children, for the future of civilisation, we must ensure that we ward off the growing threats to this great tradition. And Muslims at home and abroad should be our natural allies.
The danger to conservatism is internal and external. Many in the Conservative party and conservatism more broadly wish to parrot on about policies on roads, police, schools or housing. While these are important, without understanding the ideas underpinning society we risk becoming bureaucrats and apparatchiks. We are pruning the trees while the soil is being poisoned. What makes us unique is our thoughts and heritage, not budgets and bureaucracy. Worse, the arrogance of some from within the conservative tradition, when it comes to issues of class, sexism, racism, keeps at bay many millions of our natural allies among women and ethnic minorities as well as family and faith-loving conservatives. These traits – arrogance and ignorance – must go, or we risk negating our very essence.
Then there are several external threats. Across university campuses, there is the return of the 1970s alliance of the Red-Greens, the Islamist-Marxists in Iran. That alliance in Iran that toppled the Shah, only for the Greens to then eradicate the Reds. In Britain, for almost 25 years now, this Islamist-Marxist alliance has been wreaking havoc in northern towns, communities, campuses and civil society organisations. They both seek utopias: a caliphate for Islamists, and communism for Marxists, or socialism in the first instance. George Galloway can go from Tower Hamlets to Bradford because of this alliance. Labour can dismiss “the Jewish vote” and widespread fear of anti-Semitism because it knows it has the Islamist-Leftist bloc in over 30 constituencies at work. This same bloc intimidates Jewish students on campuses in more than 20 campuses. Our allies across the Middle East are threatened with revolutions and extremism by the very same Islamist-Leftist alliance of “resistance.” Anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and anti-Semitism are their hallmarks.
Along with politics, comes a culture of repudiation of the past. They roundly condemn every element of past slavery in the West, but will be silent on slavery in China, India or the Ottoman Empire. They dismiss Greek and Roman philosophers as “dead white men”, they wish to uproot the “patriarchy”, but are silent on south American dictators or Stalin’s mass murders. Wilberforce led attempts to ban slavery; Victorians began to honour children with education and protection; Disraeli and other Tories extended the vote and established the first foundations of the modern welfare state. The West did nothing right in the past; all must be repudiated, and a new world of liberation created. And for that new moral framework, a culture war is underway.
Identity politics is the new culture war. Where Martin Luther King taught us to judge by the “content of our character,” now a new generation seeks to hate all “white, middle class straight men” for their “privilege.” Gay, female, transsexual, Muslim, black, non-binary and other characteristics are the central features of identity. And to make it all worse, there is a constant allegation that “white men” and “whiteness” are powerful, and all other groups are victims at an “intersection” where grievances merge. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray masterfully unpacks the inner contradictions of this new craze. Their sworn enemy is anything remotely conservative, yet their entire provision to think freely, blaspheme, offend, rebel, subvert, and confront are all freedoms provided by the men and patriarchy they despise: Whigs, Liberals and Tories. Who will explain to this generation that they owe it to their future progeny to preserve the best of the West, and stop the behaviour of this self-destructive cultural suicide bomber?
Unless conservatives understand our heritage, have the confidence to defend and advance it, cherish the best of the West then we allow the Islamist-Leftist alliance to grow and culture wars spread further. Conservatism is about much more than only winning elections. Love for our people, love for our country, love for our music, art, history, books, cuisine, landscape, architecture, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and monarchy. From love stems the greatest defence for all that is worth defending.