LOPEZ: You don’t appear to have a problem with Sharia courts in England. This isn’t a matter of religious intolerance but justice and practicality: How can a country with dual legal systems possibly work?
AKYOL: I look at that as I look at the Halakha of Orthodox Jews. The British “Sharia courts” actually evolved from the same arbitration courts that Orthodox Jews also have used for decades. And their scope is limited to issues such as settling financial and family disputes. If they violated any basic human right, such as ordering a corporal punishment, I would certainly oppose them. But there is no harm, I believe, in allowing conservative communities to settle some of their disputes according to their traditions, as far as they remain under the umbrella of the law of the land. This is not a dual legal system, which had its merits in the pre-modern times, but a sub-level system under a single national law.
LOPEZ: I did a double-take when I saw you compare modern-day Muslims to earlier Jews, for some very obvious reasons. I presume you were being intentionally controversial there?
AKYOL: Controversial and, I hope, thought-provoking. For I believe that many Westerners make the mistake of perceiving Islam as a totally alien faith, whose internal dynamics are unlike anything that they know. But, in fact, Islam has many parallels with Christianity and Judaism — and especially Judaism. By arguing that the Muslims of today are facing the same trauma that the Jews went through during the time of Christ, I wanted to help Americans have a better insight about a story that they always see from the outside.
LOPEZ: The issue of Israel is one that seems to be an irresolvable one in the Middle East. As a Muslim, do you believe there is a realistic peace plan?
AKYOL: Sure. It is commonly known as the two-state solution. And, on both sides, there are people who would settle with that solution, along with people who have more maximalist goals. On both sides, I support the minimalists.
Here, let me also add that I don’t see the Palestinian–Israeli conflict as a religious one: It is a land dispute between two nations. Yes, Jerusalem is sacred for Muslims, as it is to Jews and Christians, but, as a Muslim, I am not horrified to see it under the Israeli flag as long as the Dome of Rock is open to Muslim worship — as it is now. I value Palestinians’ claim to East Jerusalem as well, but out of a respect for their national aspirations, not any theological necessity.
LOPEZ: You’re a fan of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but he’s moved the country a little more Islamist than some would like, hasn’t he?
AKYOL: Well, I would not define myself as a “fan” of Erdoğan, though I value the political change that Turkey has gone through under his party, the AKP. I also see the AKP as the most important experiment of democracy within the Muslim cultural sphere. (The Turkey before AKP, which was kept hyper-secular by a bunch of sinister generals, did nothing but give a bad name among Muslims to the secular state.)
Meanwhile, though I disagree with Michael Rubin and his very pessimistic outlook on Turkey, I do see problems in Erdoğan’s style, such as his confrontational tone and intolerance of criticism. But these are issues with his personality, and problems with Turkish political leaders in general. (As I once said, “AKP is not too Islamic, it is too Turkish.”) Personally speaking, my ideal Turkish leader is President Abdullah Gül, whose worldview is similar to Erdoğan’s, but whose tone is much more conciliatory, modest, and nuanced.