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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.