LOPEZ: Honor killings and female-genital mutilation: Even if in your reading the Koran doesn’t prescribe them, does it matter when this seems to be a growing or widespread — or at least not uncommon — problem among Muslims?
AKYOL: When you show believers that what they consider God’s commandment is just the tradition of men, you have a better chance of convincing them to abandon the terrible elements in those traditions. (Jesus, too, criticized the Pharisees for holding fast to “the tradition of men,” while leaving “the commandment of God.”) Horrors such as honor killings and female-genital mutilation are such terrible traditions, which come from patriarchal taboos, not Islam. (Female-genital mutilation has no place in the Koran. As for honor, the Koran also considers adultery a grave sin, but finds the male and the female equally guilty, and yet I have never seen a boy or a man falling victim to an “honor killing.”)
LOPEZ: Is this book a call for a Muslim reformation?
AKYOL: Well, if that is a reformation with a capital R, as in Christianity, no. For, as I have said, we don’t have a central religious authority in Islam that we can reform. But I certainly argue for renewing our understanding of Islam, rather than preserving it as it was interpreted 1,000 years ago. The medieval division of the world into “House of War” and “House of Islam,” for example, is totally irrelevant today, for many Muslims feel much safer in lands that are ruled by non-Muslims.
LOPEZ: Does the Egyptian on the street rioting this spring really have democracy in mind? Much of the media coverage here suggested as much, which stuck me as both naïve and unrealistic.
AKYOL: Well, how refined people’s conceptions of democracy are can always be questioned. But, ultimately, the masses of the Arab Spring were peacefully rebelling against corrupt dictators to have a more responsible and rewarding political system. They asked for not alternative dictators, or a theocratic oligarchy, but free and fair elections in the shortest time possible. I would not shy away from calling that demand “democratic.”
LOPEZ: Should Muslims and non-Muslims be able to work together on the issue of religious freedom? We are facing some serious threats to individual conscience rights of religious people here in the U.S. Could there be a real coalition?
AKYOL: Of course. Actually, many pious Muslims will be positively surprised to learn that there are Westerners who really care about religion and want to cooperate for the rights of all religious believers. For historical and geographic reasons, most Muslims know the West only from Europe, which is, as you know, thoroughly secular. That is, in fact, one of the reasons that many pious Muslims reject any reform in their tradition. Once a prominent Islamic intellectual in Turkey told me, “We don’t want to begin with concessions, in order to end up like those godless people in Amsterdam.” He probably would find more common ground with people from America’s Bible Belt.
LOPEZ: You have an @AkyolinEnglish Twitter handle. After reading you in English, would I be surprised by what you say in Turkish? That has been a problem — something MEMRI and others have called many Muslim leaders on. Yasser Arafat was an infamous example.
AKYOL: Oh, I have two Twitter accounts just to make life easier for those who follow me. (If you were to follow my Turkish account, @AkyolMustafa, you would get lots of gibberish, at least from your non-Turkish perspective.) But, no, I am not doing the doublespeak thing. I actually press more in my Turkish writings against anti-Western biases, and more against anti-Islamic biases when I write in English. I guess I like to confront my audiences a bit, rather than telling them what they want to hear.