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Mustafa Akyol on Islam and Democracy: An Interview

Mustafa Akyol is a political commentator and author based in Istanbul, Turkey. Akyol, who is Turkish, writes extensively about Islam, the Middle East, democracy, and the West. His work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal. He will be in Oklahoma City this weekend, giving lectures at OU, OCU, and UCO, and promoting his book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. The University of Oklahoma event will be different, inasmuch as it's sponsored jointly by The Institute of Interfaith Dialog and OU's Center for Middle East Studies. Akyol will focus on the war in Syria at the OU event. I interviewed him for an advance for the Oklahoma City University event for the Oklahoma Gazette. The transcript of the interview, which was conducted via email, is below.


Who was the intended audience for your book?

First, it is open minded Muslims who would like to rethink some of the authoritarian tendencies in their tradition. Secondly, it is open minded non-Muslims, especially Westerners, who would like to see the nuances in the theology and history of Islam.

What is the overarching thesis?

In a nutshell, I am arguing for an interpretation of Islam that values freedom. This includes freedom of religion for other faiths, of freedom from authoritarian governments. I show that such a liberal approach always existed in the Islamic tradition, although the image of Islam has lately been shaped by the oppressive and even violent strains. I also show how oppressive measures in shariah, or Islamic law, can be reformed by Muslims without them abandoning their loyalty to the fundamentals of the faith.

What will the Oklahoma events focus on?

I am certainly not going to argue that all Muslims in the world are tolerant, peaceful, liberal people. Some of them clearly are not. But I will try to show that their illiberalism or militancy comes often not from religion, but political problems and cultural attitudes. I will also try to share some lessons from the Turkish experience of Islam, which is not noticed enough.

Will you be discussing themes from your book as well as othermaterial? If so, what material?

I will certainly share some themes in my book, but will also explain how they relate to some very recent events, such as the horrible terrorist attack in Libya against the late US Ambassador, or the complexities of the Arab Revolutions.

This seems to be very timely given the American film and the subsequent violence. Can you talk just a bit about the disconnect between the West and our understanding of blasphemy and blasphemy laws?

The main issue there is how to reconcile the Muslims' deep respect for their religion and the West's deep commitment to the freedom of speech. I argue that we Muslims can express loyalty to our faith peacefully in a free society where some people may unfortunately mock our faith. The Qur'an does not say "go and attack people if they make fun of Islam." It only says "do not join those people in their mockery." The latter only suggests a civilized expression of disapproval.

How are blasphemy laws consistent with freedom of speech or expression or religion? Is there a common ground?

In fact, there are blasphemy laws in some Western states, such as the UK, as well, but they are not implemented. This reminds us that blasphemy has been an issue in the Christian tradition as well. But modern day Christians have agreed that using violence to punish blasphemy or heresy (as the Inquisition did pretty rigorously for centuries!) is a wrong idea. I think a similar reconsideration is necessary for us Muslims as well, and I show how that can be possible.

Do you find terms like Islamist, Christianist, etc., helpful? Why or why not?

The term "Islamist" is helpful, for it helps distinguish the people who have turned Islam into a political ideology from traditional Muslims who see Islam mainly as faith, worship and morality. As I show in my book, Islamism is in fact a 20th century phenomenon, and is actually a synthesis of Islam with modern totalitarian ideologies like communism. I, however, believe that we Muslims should better synthesize Islam with democracy and freedom. And this is really not as impossible as many think these days.


The Cross in the Closet: A Review

By now, many of you have heard of Timothy Kurek, the former Liberty University student who decided to out himself to friends and family and church. Kurek is straight, by the way, but he wanted to spend a year "in the shoes" of LGBT folks after a friend was kicked out of her house for confessing to her parents that she was a lesbian. He enlisted the help of a couple friends, including a faux boyfriend, and an aunt. No one else knew his confession was a sham. Since the release of his book, The Cross in the Closet,he's been written up in The Guardian and featured on ABC News


Kurek's story is genuinely compelling, and readers (well, most, but more on that later) will tend to root for him. The Guardian talks about a book in the tradition of Black Like Me, and that's probably going too far unless they simply meant it's a memoir about living like "the other." There are some flaws in this book, and it seems some editing would have helped tremendously. 300+ pages simply weren't necessary to tell the story. There is so much anguished hand-wringing and theologizing that I found it difficult to endure in parts. As a reader, I wanted to hear about the interactions with his new world and the responses from the denizens of his old world more than I wanted to hear his ofttimes excruciating inner monlogue. To be fair, there are times that his interior conversation is excellent. For example...

There is a scene in the book where Kurek enters a gay dance club for the first time. He is set upon by a shirtless man with glittered torso who drags him on the dance floor and proceeds to dirty dance with him. Kurek is mortified to the point he shames the man. His inner monlogue at that point is outstanding.

Finally he looks down, and I take the brief moment to run from the club. I am overcome with regret, and as I walk to my car I resolve to change. If I am going to do this, to really do this, I cannot merely mask the judgment inside of me—I will have to leave it at the door. I will save the judgment for myself, and try from now on to meet these people on their turf, with an open mind and heart. --pg. 37

Here he gets to the issue quickly, without excess words. His insight about going beyond "masking judgment" is helpful to writer and reader alike. I wanted more of that sort of concise insight, not paragraphs of "how I let my judgment go and learned to love gay people."

He also makes use of an externalized metaphor, and this not being an episode of "Scrubs," I found it more annoying than helpful. He sees his internal Pharisee sitting next to him, and he engages the Pharisee in dialog or they exchange barbs, mockery, etc., throughout the book. I'd compare it to Dexter and his dad or brother, but those guys were dead. The problem isn't just the externalized metaphor; it's that he's already writing pages and pages of internal dialog about his struggle, and then he adds his conversations with the Pharisee, which are, well, internal dialogs, thereby extending the amount of anguished hand-wringing.

Last criticism. (I think.) Audience. I always wonder whom Christian authors are addressing. Ingrained in them is this notion that all books must be at least partly evangelistic, even novels, which, as we've all experienced, leads to shitty novels. Kurek writes as if he's addressing fellow Christians who don't fully understand the experience of the LGBT community vis-a-vis their interactions with fundangelicals. It's a noble cause, and I say that with no sarcasm. However, if Kurek wants his fellow Liberty-ites and his Nashville Baptists to hear what he's saying, suggesting "Your god is a dick," is probably going to lead to the closing of the book, (I did completely agree with the sentiment in the context, but I'm not a Christian.) if they even get past his first two uses of "bullshit." Profanity as indicator of hip, understanding Christianity is a bad idea if one wants to reach conservative Christians. (It's virtually the same impulse that leads Kurek and others to mention beers by name in their stories. Just say, "I drank a beer." If you mean to indicate a Portlandesque liberal, say, "I drank a microbrew." That will suffice. Hipsterisms are the death of good writing.) 

Those are the main criticisms, and a couple are just minor grievances. Overall, the story is compelling, the characters well-drawn, and the encounters richly narrated. I did think calling Westboro Baptist members Christians stretches the defintion far beyond the breaking point, but Kurek was attempting to eschew judgment and make a bigger tent, for which he should also be commended. The sections where he deals with his mother are genuinely moving, especially when he reads her journal and discovers what she's not saying aloud. Ultimately, Kurek maintains his commitment to evangelical Christianity, but he allows that LGBT deserve equal rights and are committed to God in ways fundangelicals refuse to understand. Many of us who already believed that (or believed it didn't matter because of our atheologies) welcome him to the light. I hope the book allows both LGBT folks insights into the interior working of theological deconstruction (something the character Will does very well in the book), as well as affords fundangelicals the opportunity to see the damage they've done to the LGBT community.

Disclosure Notice: I received a free, electronic copy of the book from Speakeasy in exchange for this review.

Brian McLaren on Christian Identity and Homosexuality

This is the transcript of an interview I did with Brian McLaren to advance his Oklahoma City appearance on October 12 at Mayflower UCC for the Oklahoma Gazette. We started off talking about his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Eventually, we got to the issue of people's response to his involvement in his son's same-sex blessing ceremony. As always, questions are in italics, and his answers are in regular type. If I make a comment or editorialize, I'll note it.

How did you come to write this book?

I've been thinking about writing is for a long time, probably since A New Kind of Christian. As I was writing it, I was aware that a new kind of Christian entails a new Christian identity, especially related to people of other faiths. In NKOC, I was trying to deal with Christian identity inside Christianity, but with the new book I look at the different problems that result as Christianity relates to other faiths.

We  (ed: by which he seems to mean American Christianity, but I suspect we could extend it to Anglican Communion, etc.) do two things well. We either have a strong Christian identity and a corresponding hostility to other faiths, or we have a weak Christian identity that is tolerant of other faiths. What we need to consider is a strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other faiths.

How is this different than the old ecumenical movement or the Lausanne Covenant?

I think the ecumenical movement has been very good in treating other faiths charitably. The Lausanne Covenant itself is charitable and not hostile toward other faiths. The ecumenical movement didn't always show a strong Christian identity, so I want to frame the discussion with the ideas of strong Christian identity and that charity toward other faiths.

For many people, the telos of evangelism is that the whole world must agree with us--and that's true of people who aren't Christian. There are pluralists who want everyone to be a pluralist. This isn't just about evangelism, though. This new Christian identity has to take into account this question: what does love for my neighbor look like if my neighbor doesn't want to convert?

How do you answer it?

We have actually had Christians mobilizing to prevent the building of mosques in the United States, like the group in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Do you think Muslims in those cities feel like they have loving Christian neighbors? A strong Christian identity means that we speak up with them and in their defense. 

We are facing monumental global crises — the environment, the divide between rich and poor, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of catastrophic war. Governments and religions cannot tackle these problems alone. I like what Rick Warren says about this. He said he's interested in interfaith dialogs as much as he's interested in interfaith projects.  If we can do that, it can open up a new chapter in Christian mission.

The book's release is timely given the recent film about the Prophet Muhammad. What do you say to those sorts of knuckleheads who believe provocation is the best way to address another faith?

People are going to be knuckleheads. In those instances, we have to speak up from an alternative religious position. The alternative to bad religion isn't no religion; it's good religion. When Christians say and do harmful, prejudicial and violent things, we must speak up. When they moblize against mosques, we must speak up with and in defense of our Muslim neighbors. In the dispute between Israel and Palestine, if either side engages in inhumane or unjust behavior, we must speak up. We must speak up to our own tradition, someteimes siding with other traditions against our own.

Do you think words like Islamist and Christianist are useful in these moments?

Andrew Sullivan uses the word Christianist to make a helpful distinction between a political ideology and Christian practice. It's a useful name, and there is a value in naming things. However, there are also unintended consequences.

I grew up in a fundamentalist setting. Fundamentalists of every kind almost never seee themselves as oppressors, only as victims. They see no harm in their words and names directed at homosexuals or Muslims. In fact, they believe they are speaking the truth. However, any perceived insult directed at them, a term like Christianist, for example, only serves to stir up more victimization on the part of fundamentalists. Recently, I was speaking at an event and I took the opportunity to describe certain people as Islamophobic. Only afterwards did I realize that the people who most needed to hear what I was saying took offense to the term.

You recently took some criticism for presiding over your son's same-sex blessing ceremony. How did you react to that?

As a parent, you always feel protective of your kids. You don't want them to be hurt. I felt that way about my son as the ceremony gained attention. These things make it apparent that issues related to hostility and identity also apply within the faith. I know Christianity Today had it on their blog, but I didn't read it or the comments. My wife did, though, and she was very upset. We did receive all sorts of texts and voicemails from people who supported our decision and who disagreed respectfully.

I keep hearing the war is won on the LGBT issue, and we're just fighting mop-up battles. Thoughts?

I think this issue will follow a similar path as racism and equality for women. That's good news and bad. There still are pockets of resistance on those two issues. We still have segregated worship in American churches. Women are prevented from being in ministry or being ordained, and they are in some places viewed as less equal. We will have the same pockets of resistance on the LGBT issue, too. The good news is that younger people view it as more normative. They see people for who they are. And I think in the U.S., even for those who are opposed, it's still a better environment than elsewhere.

I've spent a great deal of time in Africa and Asia over the past several years. Gay people's lives are still in danger in some of those countries. Globally ,we have a long way to go. The most conservative American Christian I can imagine wouldn't call for the death of a gay person for being gay.

It's been 11 years since NKOC. Anything you would change in that book looking back?

No. I don't think so. I was really lucky. I started writing that book when I was 40. I'd been through the issues in the book by then. At that age, writing left me with less regrets, so there was nothing really to change. I did open up areas that I didn't fully work through, but I've done that in subsequent books.

What's next?

I'm not certain on the next project. It will be some sort of catechesis. What would an introduction to the faith look like with this new Christian identity? What would it look like to re-introduce someone to the faith? That's what I'm thinking about. I'm not ready to write it yet.