HOUSTON, April 20, 2012 — In his new book, Islam Without Extremes—A Muslim Case for Liberty, Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol attempts to lay the philosophical foundation for liberal democracy in Muslim society. His contention that the authoritarianism found in Muslim countries is not sanctioned by the Koran is sure to be a controversial one.
But Mr. Akyol is no stranger to controversy. He has condemned the violence committed against those deemed guilty of blasphemy and called for a ban on punishment for apostasy. He is currently on tour in the US promoting his book.
I caught up with Mr. Akyol in Houston, and we talked about Islamic teaching, reform and what has shaped his worldview.
Luke Montgomery (LM): You have been touring the States to promote your new book “Islam without Extremes.” How has it been received so far?
Mustafa Akyol (MA): So far, I think it has been received pretty well. I’m on this 20-day book tour which includes more than two dozen talks. I’ve been speaking to audiences that are sometimes academic or students; sometimes just people who are interested in the topic.
And I see a very open mind to listen and understand. I see that people are open to criticism, and you can convince them with your arguments and you can help them change their mind. And you can be convinced as well. So, I like the open attitude in the US.
LM: Can you briefly tell us what three or four works have had the greatest influence on your life?
MA: I would say the works of Said Nursi, a Turkish Islamic scholar, who focused on faith and morality and not politics as the core issues for Muslims in the 20th century in the modern world. I was positively influenced by various works by Christian theologians, including C.S. Lewis, which helped me to understand that Christians have faced similar problems in the modern world and actually sometimes find similar solutions.
Another writer who influenced me was a Turkish thinker named Erol Güngör, a Turkish social psychologist. Another one was Alija Izetbegovic, the late leader of Bosnia. His book Islam between East and West was very inspiring.
LM: Interesting that you mention C.S. Lewis. You make the point in your book and elsewhere that “religion” is in many cases shaped by local culture, politics and a “core” Scripture, your point being that much of what is practiced in Islam is not rooted in the Koran.
Luther rejected centuries of accumulated tradition and political dogma in favor of Sola Scriptura. Do you see yourself as the man nailing the 95 theses to the door of the mosque, the C.S. Lewis who could write Mere Islam?
MA: That’s a good question, but my answer is “No” because Martin Luther was a cleric, a religious authority. He had a new interpretation of religion itself, and he opposed the Catholic Church, which was the dominant institution for Christianity at the time. Now, we don’t have a centralized Catholic Church in the Muslim world, so the parallelism drawn between the Protestant Reformation and the change that Islam needs today is not very accurate because of this big difference.
But I do believe there is need for change in our culture. I’m not doing this as Luther did, as a theologian. If I were to draw a parallel between what I do and somebody in the Western tradition, it would probably be John Locke. I want to influence interpretation in the philosophical and political realm.
Locke had arguments with Christian roots but he did not claim to be a religious authority. He just built a liberal vision for society, liberal in the classical sense. This is what I hope to accomplish.
LM: Can Islam be changed politically without religious reform?
MA: No. There needs to be some religious reinterpretation for sure. In my book, in the chapter on apostasy for example, which is entitled “Freedom from Islam,” I show that we Muslims need to revise and reinterpret the ban on apostasy in classical Islam because it violates individual religious freedom.
But, I’m not saying this as a religious authority. I’m saying this from an academic perspective and by referring to Islamic sources who have actually made the same argument. I’m trying to make these arguments more accessible and more compelling, but I’m far from being a scholar who issues a fatwa. The only thing I do is look at the history of Islamic thought and try to show that there are liberal interpretations, and try to revive them.
LM: But, you do acknowledge that there needs to be a religious element to this reform.
LM: You’re just not that man.
MA: No, I’m not that man. I’m just one of the men pointing to the need for this and pointing to the tools in tradition and Islamic jurisprudence that can be used to achieve this purpose. For example, I think the ban on apostasy should be abandoned and I make a reasoned case for it.
LM: You have said that an Islamic Reformation is taking place in Turkey. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs has taken the unprecedented step of rejecting some of the most offensive hadiths. In your mind, what additional steps must be taken by the Turkish government to keep this reformation from being aborted?
MA: First of all, I should say that the “silent reformation” that I speak of taking place in Turkey is less of a government project and more of a change in society and a change in social attitudes. It is also based on the works of individual intellectual Muslims or theologians who have more modern or reformist views.
The only thing a government ministry did was to initiate this hadith project to put the sayings of the prophet Mohammed in context and also exclude some of those hadith from the new collection because they think those sayings are not authentic, that these were not really voiced by the prophet.
Of course, this is an important step for change. The project is ongoing and should be finished soon. It will be published in Turkish and Arabic.
This reform is driven by change in society. In other words, there are many people in Turkey who are critical of some of the elements in the Islamic tradition but who are loyal to the Islamic tradition. For example, we have Islamic feminists who say, “Our religion is one that has elevated and advanced women’s rights, but we have a problematic tradition that is actually a later addition to the faith.” This idea became so fashionable that religious authorities had to take care of the problematic elements of Islam.
This is important because if the authorities had just said, “We have to change those texts,” there would have been a negative reaction. But because this was initiated by social change, this project has not created as much criticism as it might have. We’ll see what it is when it comes out, but there was a need for it.
LM: The famous Turkish mystic Yunus Emre said, “No one can come between man and his Maker.” Rousseau, on the other hand, thought religion was essential to good government, a sort of social cement, if you will. Today, Islamic countries seem to push the idea of “state religion” very strongly while Christianity has largely rejected this idea completely. Is political Islam a danger?
MA: Well, if political Islam means the goal of creating an Islamic state, and that is generally what it means, then yes, it is a danger to democracy and freedom because ultimately it is an effort to create a state with a rigid official doctrine—just like states based on Marxism or based on any other ideology.
I also think the idea of an Islamic state is an illusion from an Islamic point of view because whoever says, “I am establishing an Islamic state” is actually establishing a state of his version of Islam.
For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran calls itself an Islamic Republic. Well, it is the Shiite Islamic tradition as understood by Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers.
I don’t understand Islam like they do, so why would I accept that state as an Islamic state?
In Islamic history, we have a tradition of pluralism. At times, pluralism was attacked and those were bad times for Islamic civilization, so I think we need to have more pluralism. In order to have that, you need neutral states without an official doctrine.
This doesn’t mean that people’s faith will not influence their political views. Our religious convictions will influence the way we look at social issues like family values, justice and so on.
I’m not advocating a strong separation between religion and politics, but I’m an advocate of the secular state in the sense that it is neutral towards different religious communities. In other words, the problem is not political Islam but authoritarian Islam.
This authoritarianism can be expressed politically, in the sense that it can establish a regime based on Islam and impose it onto others. Or authoritarianism can come out at the community level through peer pressure, by forcing people to be more pious or by not allowing conversion from Islam to another religion.
In short, I think Islam or any other religion will inevitably influence politics somehow, but this should not be through authoritarian mechanisms. My book is an attempt to challenge all of these authoritarian expressions of Islam and argue for a liberal expression.
LM: Many of the secular Turks I know are genuinely afraid that their country is moving from intolerant Turkish nationalism towards an intolerant Islamic nationalism. What do you say to them?
MA: There is certainly something that we can call Islamic nationalism and it has some following in Turkey. These are the Muslims for whom Islam is simply a matter of identity, and it defines non-Muslims as the ultimate “Other”. This is Islamic nationalism.
But there is also Islam as faith and that is the core, the authentic Islam. A person for whom Islam is faith can find parallels between Islam and other faith traditions and even with secular people because he is ultimately trying to reach out to them and share his values. Whereas a person for whom Islam is identity can view non-Muslims as “the other” or even as the enemy.
You can see this dichotomy in Turkey when it comes to the issue of Christian freedom and religious rights. Those for whom Islam is identity are prone to oppose the opening of a church for example. We saw this when Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party opposed the reopening of the Akdamar church, the Armenian church which has been closed for eighty years under the secular republic.
But, those who are inspired by Islam as faith actually refer to the Koranic guarantees on Christian and Jewish religious rights. They say churches are actually protected in Islamic law.
Yes, in Turkey, we have a problem with Islamic nationalism, but the new Turkey that is emerging is not defined solely by that. If that were the only thing we had, we’d be in trouble. Turkey’s Islamic conservatives are partly influenced by this ideology, but there is also a more Yunus Emre oriented, more Sufi oriented Islamic faith that is generally more tolerant and more open to different cultures.
LM: As a Muslim, you believe the Messiah was a conduit of God’s revelation. What verse from the New Testament is the best reflection of God’s heart?
MA: I think when Jesus Christ’s disciples asked him what was the most important commandment and he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” That is the most Islamic thing I have ever heard. That is the core of my faith as well.
There are many passages like that in the NT on godliness, devotion to God and being moral for God. I think these are very fundamental values for me as a Muslim too. That commandment from Jesus is very fundamental for me and very inspiring.
One of the New Testament books I found very inspiring the first time I read it was the letter of James, the brother of Jesus. The emphasis on morality and righteousness was very Islamic. I should also say that the Koran refers to Jesus Christ as the Word of God and that is a title the Koran does not use for anyone else. The meaning of this has been debated by Muslim scholars, but it is worth mentioning that Jesus has a very special place in Islam.
LM: The great Turkish mystic Mevlana developed a very tolerant theology. He also seemed to reject formulaic religion and even pillars of Islam, such as the pilgrimage. Was he an example of the tolerant Islam you advocate? How close are you to his views?
MA: Well, of course, I have great respect and sympathy for Mevlana although I would not describe myself formally as a Sufi.
There are three branches of thought in Islamic history. One is jurisprudence, which is essentially sharia law. Another is the rationalist Kalam branch, which we could call theology. This is reasoning about God, society and nature. The third is Sufism, which is about the personal experience of God through mysticism. All three are very important.
In my book, Islam without Extremes, I try to revive or rediscover some of the important ideas from the theology branch, and its rational approach. Some of the ideas developed by early Muslim theologians are very important and today they can help us build a democratic liberal culture in Muslim countries. Sufism is very important as well, but I think we need to balance Sufism, theology and jurisprudence. If you have just one of them, you might make mistakes.
The tragedy is that jurisprudence dominated mainstream Islamic thinking, especially in the Wahhabi tradition, and even renounced both theology and Sufism. What was left behind was just a dry set of laws that are blindly obeyed but their meaning has been lost.
LM: Last year, Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık wrote a book entitled You Touch, You Burn (Dokunan Yanar) targeting the Gülen movement. Before the book was even published, he was arrested and thrown in jail. What happened to moderate and tolerant Islam in this case?
MA: First, I have opposed the arrest of Ahmet Şık and similar journalists from the very beginning. I’m so glad that they are free now after being imprisoned for a year. This incident shows that the Turkish legal system is still very authoritarian and illiberal when it comes to freedom of speech.
But, I would not go as far as to say that this illiberal episode in the Turkish legal system is a product of Islam. I don’t think it has any direct connection with the Turkish understanding of Islam. It was not the Islamic law or any Islamic interpretation which led to the arrest of those journalists. It was Turkey’s illiberal anti-terrorism laws which define a terrorist organization very vaguely.
These journalists were accused of being in an organization with some radical generals who wanted to conduct a coup. Now, I think that accusation was overblown, but at the end of the day that was the reason they were arrested. Yes, they had criticized the Gülen movement, but I don’t think that was the reason they were arrested.
There are other journalists, very secular journalists who have denounced Fethullah Gülen and his movement, defined him as a CIA agent or a secret Christian, all sorts of things, but they have never been imprisoned.
LM: You are touring the States with a message that seems like it should be directed at Muslim societies. Some people might view this as propaganda and not a serious effort at reforming Islam. What do you say to that?
MA: Yes, certainly that message needs to go to Muslims first, and I’m trying to take it to Muslims as well. That is why my book will come out in Turkish in approximately one month. My agent is working on an Arabic edition as well.
But, my book is not just about advocating a liberal understanding of Islam. It is also trying to show Muslims and non-Muslims that the Islamic tradition is much more diverse and rich from a liberal point of view, so I think the message should go to Westerners as well because there has been a narrative in the West since 9/11—which is understandable because of all the radical reactions that 9/11 has led to, which is wrong — and in that narrative Islam is inherently authoritarian and inherently violent. I think this is a wrong narrative, so when I speak to Westerners I’m trying to show the diversity and all the different colors in Islam.
My intention is to fight some of the misunderstandings about Islam, but that message needs to go to Muslims as well of course.
LM: The West has admitted millions of Muslims, allowed them to build mosques, preach, proselytize and run schools. These same freedoms are routinely denied to foreigners of other faiths in Muslim countries and non-Muslim citizens receive second-class treatment. Why should the West continue this policy of openness when there is no reciprocation?
MA: I think the West should continue this policy of openness because the West should be true to its fundamental values, which are democracy, liberalism, and human rights. These are the values that the West cherishes, and people like me in our part of the world say, “Look at the West. Look at their example. These are the standards we should aim for.” So, I don’t want your model to become like the bad models we are trying to get rid of in the Muslim world.
For example, I felt very unhappy when Switzerland passed the law which banned the minarets because Europe was the standard that liberals in our part of the world pointed to, saying, “We should allow more churches in Turkey, or we should force Saudi Arabia to allow a single church, because, look, in Europe we have mosques.”
It is true that the rights of Christians are not protected in some countries in our part of the world. But, it is not the same everywhere. For example, Saudi Arabia does not allow a single church, whereas in most predominantly Muslim societies you do have churches. But, unfortunately, new churches are not welcome.
There is this attitude that I call Christophobia. Now, my argument is that this is an abomination to Islamic tradition. For classic Islam had a stronger emphasis on Christian rights — and those of Jews, for that matter. In my book I also remind people that the Ottoman Empire [eventually] made Jews and Christians equal citizens, going beyond classical notions of protected but unequal subjects.
LM: Would it be wrong for America to say to Saudi Arabia, “You’ve had the example of free and open societies and benefited from them for over 50 years. You’ve been censored for violations of human rights and religious freedom and your time’s up. We’re going to seize all Saudi mosques in the US and ban all Saudi non-profit organizations unless you liberalize your country.”
MA: That’s a good question. First of all, Saudi Arabia does not represent the Islamic mainstream. Secondly, if the West said that to Saudi Arabia, it would be only fair because if Saudi Arabia does not allow any churches on its soil, then Western countries could say they won’t allow Saudi mosques. However, although that would be fair, I would still urge Western countries to continue their tradition of religious pluralism, and therefore not take themselves down to the level of Saudi Arabia. I’d rather hope Saudi Arabia will be taken up to the level of free societies. I know it’s a challenge.
LM: The Arab Spring has received a lot of attention here in the West. Will this lead to more free and open societies or could it backfire and give us more nations like Iran?
MA: I don’t expect an Iran-like result from the Arab spring because ultimately the revolution in Iran and the Shiite jurists don’t have exact parallels in today’s Tunisia or Egypt.
One reason I think we had radical Islam in countries like Egypt is because mainstream Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were suppressed by the regime of Mubarak and his predecessors. The fact that they are not suppressed anymore, and are included in the system, and are even being faced with the responsibility of governing is, I think, a dynamic which will make them more moderate.
So, I’m not expecting an increase in militancy in Islam. I’m expecting a decrease in militancy, and I think we are already seeing that. However, the next big debate is not Islam and democracy but Islam and freedom.
For, a democratically legislated law can still be illiberal. The Egyptian parliament, for example, might pass a law saying apostasy is a crime and must be punished. This would be democratic but illiberal. In the West, democracy is often taken to be synonymous with freedom and used interchangeably, but I think this can be misleading. This is why I wanted to focus solely on the issue of liberty in my book and wanted to challenge authoritarian aspects of Islamic law and culture.
If Islamic parties come to power in Egypt and Tunisia and try to use democracy to impose their religious values, such as enforcing piety or having religious police, then those democracies will not be very inspiring. They will be democracies of some sort but they will be illiberal democracies.
LM: If you could vote as an American in the primary contests, who would you vote for?
MA: Oh, that’s a tough question. First, let me say something in general. At least in the last decade when I look at American politics I generally find myself agreeing with the Democrats on foreign policy issues and with conservatives on moral issues.
So, I have this dilemma. If you were to ask me about issues of family values, morality or abortion, I would tend to vote for a Republican, but if we speak of US foreign policy, the Middle East, how the US should handle war and foreign policy, my preference would be a Democratic candidate. And I must say I am sympathetic to President Obama in that sense, and I like what he has been doing. But, if I had to choose a Republican candidate, probably it would be Ron Paul.
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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