Is Tolerance Liberal? Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and the Non-Muslim Minority

AuthorHumeira Iqtidar
Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 457 –482
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720956590
Is Tolerance Liberal?
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi
and the Non-Muslim
Humeira Iqtidar1
Tolerance is claimed not just as central to liberalism, but increasingly
as the sole preserve of a liberal order. This essay opens up a critical
space for examining the naturalized relationship between liberalism and
tolerance by focusing on the political thought of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi
(1951–), a prominent Pakistani public intellectual who is often labeled as
a “liberal” Islamic thinker. Ghamidi has never identified himself as one.
Using as an investigative opportunity the disjuncture between his self-
identification and how his ideas are labeled, and placing Ghamidi’s ideas
within the wider tradition of Islamic thought, this essay elaborates on
his vision of non-liberal tolerance predicated on individual responsibility
infused with humility and shari’a-inspired state minimalism. Insight into
the depth of nonliberal conceptions can facilitate a reconsideration of the
relationship between liberalism and tolerance.
modern Islamic thought, tolerance, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, decolonizing
political theory, nonliberal tolerance
1King’s College London, London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Humeira Iqtidar, King’s College London, 8.11 Bush House North East, London, WC2B 4BG,
956590PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720956590Political TheoryIqtidar
458 Political Theory 49(3)
Writing in 1993, Stephen Kautz made the strong claim that “[t]olerance is a
liberal virtue: it is among the most honourable of the respectable habits of
liberal citizens.”1 A decade later, Chandran Kukathas took this association
further by arguing that the “value which is fundamental to liberalism is
toleration. A society or community is a liberal one if, or to the extent that,
it is tolerant.”2 Kukathas is an immensely persuasive advocate for a vision
of tolerance that is in large part peaceful coexistence through indifference
to difference. I use the term tolerance here to signal arrangements for peace-
ful coexistence in a plural society. There is, of course, some variation in
how tolerance is conceptualized by liberal theorists.3 I take these debates to
be indicative of concerns regarding its precise role in a liberal polity and
generative of further questions. We can, however, readily see that an
increasingly close association of tolerance with liberalism has become the
common sense of post–World War II Anglo-American political theory and,
importantly, popular political discourse. Many have seen the liberal ideal of
freedom as tied in fundamental ways to tolerance.4 Indeed, liberals “are
frequently defined as people who value liberty, and the toleration necessary
for the promotion of liberty.”5
This association is even stronger in mass political imagination. In popular
discourse, the two words are used almost interchangeably such that to be
liberal is to be tolerant, and to be tolerant is to be liberal. In other words, there
is an appropriation of diverse forms of life as liberal if tolerant in practical
implications. This is true of a sundry range of ideas and practices from inclu-
sive Sufi praxes in contemporary South Asia6 to sexual mores in Africa.7
However, the colonization of tolerance by liberalism, its arrogation through
the claim that what is tolerant is ultimately liberal, needs interrogation
because accepting without challenging the claims of liberal theory blinds us
to the depth of nonliberal conceptions of tolerance that may provide viable
alternatives. My aim here is modest. Through a detailed look at a nonliberal
conception of tolerance articulated by the influential contemporary Islamic
thinker Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, I pry apart the close relationship between
liberalism and tolerance, allowing critical consideration of the specificity and
limitations of liberal tolerance, and display the contours of a nonliberal, but
not antiliberal, conception of tolerance.
In the contemporary political context, there is a heightened enthusiasm for
locating liberal impulses within Islam, given the increasing association of
intolerance and extremism with it. Hailed in an American newspaper as “a bit
of a rock star—adored, hated, popular, and notorious all at once,”8 Ghamidi
(1951–) has been hard to label. He has been called a “critical traditionalist”9

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