Politics & Policy

Liberating Islam

A concerned Muslim tries to do his part.

‘Without freedom, there is no chance for genuine religiosity,” Mustafa Akyol insists. A Turkish journalist, Akyol is trying to make a case for a more classically liberal Islam.

He doesn’t mean a diluted Islam. He sees his argument for liberty in the Koran itself.

Almost ten years after the Islamist extremist attack on the United States, Akyol is optimistic that Islam can find that voice — that the voices of extremism can be overpowered by democratic leaders.

A practicing Muslim, he is the author of a new book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. He talks about the case, as he sees it, with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

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.

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.

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.

LOPEZ: What was your lesson from seeing your father in jail for writing? It might have made some young boys look for a different career.

AKYOL: I think it showed the eight-year-old me that there are tyrants in the world, and they can hurt your beloved ones for no reason. It also taught me, as I figured later, that secularism is no guarantee for freedom or democracy. (It was the all-secular Turkish military, after all, which imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Turks and tortured many of them.)

Here is another point: In the past decade, Americans have repeatedly heard the stories of ex-Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, explaining how they, in their childhood, were oppressed by some ruthless cleric in a radical madrassa. My story reminds them that Muslim kids can be oppressed by some ruthless officer in a secular garrison as well. When people see both of these stories, perhaps, they might feel that the problem with tyranny is not a direct problem with Islam.

LOPEZ: Does it worry you that there is as much court action by the Turkish government against journalists as there is?

AKYOL: Yes, it does worry me. But I was more worried in the ’90s, when death squads, on the orders of Turkey’s overbearing generals, were assassinating journalists. What I mean is that press freedom has always been attacked in Turkey, and things are actually better now than they were before. This should not minimize today’s problems, but it should put them in context. The basic trouble is that we have illiberal laws about “insulting state officials” or “spreading terrorist propaganda,” and courts are often aggressive in executing them.

Moreover, the recent impression that whoever criticizes the AKP goes into jail is simply not true. A few journalists are in custody (wrongly in my view) for allegedly taking part in coup schemes, whereas most others are accused for pro-PKK propaganda, or membership in Marxist-Leninist terror groups.

LOPEZ: The murder last year of Catholic bishop Luigi Padovese doesn’t suggest everything is as peachy for Christians in Turkey as you paint it, does it?

AKYOL: No, it is not peachy at all. Not just Bishop Padovese, but also Fr. Andrea Santoro and three Protestant missionaries were brutally killed in Turkey in the past decade. But please note that these murders were committed by ultra-nationalists, not Islamists. (In Turkey, the Islamist movement has been largely peaceful, whereas violence has been a hallmark of Kurdish separatists, Turkish fascists, and the Communists.) It might be worthwhile to note that some of the people suspected of arranging the killing of the three missionaries in eastern Turkey were also the same people who are on trial for conspiring a military coup against the AKP.

LOPEZ: You write, “An effective way for Westerners to render Islamism and jihadism ineffective would be to convince the world’s Muslims that Islam as a religion is not under attack. An additional reassuring message would be that Muslims are also not targets of enmity, insult, or discrimination in the West — and that their mosques, minarets, and veils are not banned.” In a perfect world, there will be no enmity or insult, but we live here. So if we’re not extra nice to Muslims a bomb will explode — figuratively or literally?

AKYOL: Well, if you ask me, “Mustafa, what can we do to help calm down extremism among your co-religionists,” I will give you the suggestion that you just quoted. But this does not mean that those Muslims would be justified to attack you, no matter how unkind you might sound to them. That’s why, in my book, I say that in an ideal world, everybody would respect each others’ sacred values, but the world is not ideal, and Muslims will face offensive words or cartoons, yet they should still be calm and peaceful, as the Koran tells them.

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.

LOPEZ: What do you consider your most important point?

AKYOL: Without freedom, there is no chance for genuine religiosity. If the “religious police” are forcing you to frequent the mosque, then they are depriving you of the chance to visit the same mosque out of your own genuine will to worship God. You should be a Muslim not because of the dictates of the state or the community, in other words, but because of the dictates of your own heart and mind. And if you decide not to be a Muslim, or to be a Muslim who sins, it is only God who can hold you responsible — and He will do that only in the afterlife.

LOPEZ: What would you say to the reader who has disagreed with you on some things we’ve discussed here?

AKYOL: Well, first of all, I would respect all of her (or his) disagreements and suspicions. But I would also urge the same reader to take a look at my book. I think it is fairly reasonable, and it really is not a boring read!


— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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