KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is it a dangerous thing to write a book such as Islam without Extremes — with a chapter in it called “Freedom from Islam”?
MUSTAFA AKYOL: If I were living in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, probably yes. But I don’t think that I am putting myself in danger in Turkey. (If I am wrong about that, well, we will all see.) Even here in Turkey, though, I know that the title “Freedom from Islam” might sound provocative to some ears, but I also expect many of the same ears to accept what it implies: that neither apostasy from Islam nor blasphemy against it should justify a violent response.
LOPEZ: You ask, “Could authoritarian Muslims be just authoritarians who happen to be Muslim?” But isn’t it a huge obstacle that they have as much Islamic material to work with?
AKYOL: Sure, there is a lot of material in the classical Sharia that Muslim authoritarians of today can refer to — as they do. But I am showing that those materials were also products of authoritarians who happened to be Muslim a millennium ago. One of my basic arguments is that most authoritarian elements within the Sharia come from post-Koranic (i.e., “man-made”) parts of Islam. I also show that the more liberal strains within this “man-made” tradition were suppressed by the more rigid camp, which we face in the modern world, in its purest form, as Wahhabism.
LOPEZ: You’re not an Islamic scholar. Why should a Muslim believe your interpretations and insights? Why should an infidel or anyone?
AKYOL: Well, I am not an Islamic scholar, I don’t claim to be one, and I don’t need to be one. For I am not issuing fatwas (religious opinions) here. Much of what I do is to show how Islamic thought evolved over time and how things could have been different. As for my argumentative chapters — “Freedom from the State,” “Freedom to Sin,” and “Freedom from Islam” — most of the ideas I express there are already advanced by various theologians, such as the modernist “Ankara school” in Turkey. What I did was to take those ideas from dry academic papers and make them more accessible — and, I hope, convincing for a broader audience.
LOPEZ: Doesn’t that hit an overwhelming obstacle though? There is no authoritative reading. There is no one leader who can be a voice of reason.
AKYOL: You are right, and no one can do anything about it. Islam, especially Sunni Islam, has never had any pope or anything like a church hierarchy. In that sense, it is more “Protestant” than “Catholic.” In other words, any charismatic imam who claims to get the scripture right can create his own following. That’s why the only way forward is convincing more and more individual Muslims of the more tolerant and flexible interpretations of Islam. That’s why, as a concerned Muslim, I tried to do my part.