LOPEZ: “Unless expressed as hostility to Islam, what offends conservative Muslims is really not the West’s Christianness. Rather, it is the lack of it.” Do you ever wonder if you’re being overly optimistic?
AKYOL: I see myself as mildly optimistic on some issues, but here I think I am just a neutral observer. I am living in a Muslim society, and the most common anti-Western comment I hear from the Islamic pious is the modern West’s materialism, godlessness, or its moral decay such as the disintegration of family. In that sense, the moral-minded pious Muslims seem to share some of the cultural concerns of the conservatives in America.LOPEZ
: Why do you believe — along with Michael Novak — that we will see a much freer and more democratic Muslim Middle East by the year 2020? How can that come about?
AKYOL: First, I believe that Islamism, and its violent offshoot, jihadism, had their peak, and are now on the decline in the Middle East. (Perhaps not in Pakistan, which is a curious case, where Islamism and Muslim nationalism have merged into a radical synthesis.) Moreover, the Arab Spring has taken the democratic genie out of the bottle. The prospects for democracy in Egypt are especially crucial, for this is a very definitive country for the Arabs. And then there is the New Turkey, which will keep on inspiring moderation among the Islamists, and even convince them to become legitimate actors in the international system.
LOPEZ: Groups such as CAIR here don’t help Muslims. And they don’t help others who want to be open and supportive of truly freedom-loving Muslims. How can those who love freedom better work together?
AKYOL: Well, I don’t feel informed enough to agree or disagree with you on CAIR. But I know that it is getting a bit hard to be a Muslim in the West these days, for you always feel under the spotlight. Perhaps some irritated responses from Western Muslims against criticisms of their religion and community result partly from that psychology. But the same Muslims should keep in mind that they will do a much better job in defending and representing Islam if they use honest, modest, and courteous language.
LOPEZ: Would you encourage full transparency in the building of mosques? Would you be supportive of communities asking questions — such as, who is funding this? — before permits are issued? A board member who supports Hamas, for example, would understandably be an issue.
AKYOL: I would care more about the content of the preaching in a mosque, than about its financial resources. As for supporting Hamas, well, I condemn the terrorist actions of that organization, but I see that it is also a political party with hospitals and charities. (Had they been more strategic about it, they might have made the IRA/Sinn Fein division that the Irish nationalists did.) So, any support for terrorist acts is of course intolerable, but holding someone responsible for donating to, say, a Hamas-related hospital or kindergarten, and opposing a mosque for simply getting money from that same donor, might be too much.
In Turkey, we have similar questions regarding the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group. My take is to condemn the violent acts of the PKK, but also to understand that it has a political wing and many social networks, which I don’t oppose. I actually think that tolerating the peaceful side of a quasi-militant movement might be a better strategy for its moderation, rather than blocking it by all means.
LOPEZ: What’s your main goal in the book and your main audience?
AKYOL: My main goal is to show that an Islamically justified liberalism is possible, and to advocate it in a convincing and inspiring fashion. (I use liberalism in the classical sense; not the secular-lefty sense that it surprisingly acquired in the U.S.) My target audience is both Muslims who are concerned about the state of their faith, and Westerners who are trying to make a sense of what Islam is and how it can change.