EXCLUSIVE! Mustafa Akyol: Is Islam facing a crisis?

Mustafa Akyol, the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, exclusively spoke with GVS to explain the rise of Islamophobia in the West. He offers his insights to uphold the dignity of Islam, and the Prophet (P.B.H). Akyol also shares some themes of his forthcoming book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance with us. Read his complete interview here.

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blankMustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow on Islam and Modernity at the Cato Institute, USA, and the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, long-listed in 2012 for the Lionel Gelber Prize, explained to GVS Assistant Editor Farah Adeed how Islam is facing a crisis, challenges to democracy and freedom in the Muslim world.



GVS: I would like to start with your thoughts on the recent events that occurred in France, your Foreign Policy article in November, after the beheading of Samuel Paty and President Macron’s subsequent comments, you stated that “Macron is largely correct that Islam is facing a crisis,” what did you mean?

I meant that while I have strong criticisms to President Macron’s approach to the issue, it is not wrong that we Muslims are facing a crisis of religion. Many Muslim thinkers have already said that. Iraqi statesman Ali A. Allawi wrote a powerful book in 2010 titled, “The Crisis of Islamic Civilization.”

Of course, by saying “Islam is in crisis,” I would not mean that there is anything wrong with the divine core of Islam — the Qur’an and Sunna — in which I believe. But by “religion,” we also include human interpretations based on these sources, which gave us much of our fiqh, or jurisprudence. And yes, we must see that there is a crisis in some of these human interpretations. For example, we have fanatic groups around the Muslim world who act in the name of Islam, while persecuting or even killing innocent people. We even see Muslims who bomb the mosque of another sect while crying “Allahu Akbar.” There are also dictatorial regimes that use Islam for sustaining their power. All this, in my view, indicates that yes, our religion is facing a crisis.

We should also not forget that Christianity had a worse crisis back in the 16th and 17th centuries when Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other in the middle of Europe. But today, do you see Christians bombing each other’s churches? Or killing their “heretics?” No, because Christians, at least Western Christians, got out of that crisis by giving up coercion and violence in the name of their faith, and by accepting to be “tolerant” to differences. We Muslims also need to take a similar step, and I believe we can do that without giving up our commitment to our faith, as its divine core indeed has the seeds of freedom and tolerance.

GVS: Why does an otherwise ‘secular state’ blame what Prof. Mohammad H Fadel calls “unreformed Islam and a backward Muslim community” for a few individuals’ actions?

I myself am quite critical of France, which I explained in my Foreign Policy article. (Also here, for without subscription) I am critical because France does not respect freedom of religion as much as the freedom to speak against religion. The hijab bans in France, which are utterly unacceptable, are one example, as well as the double standards in freedom of speech.

On the other hand, I think our problem goes beyond “a few individuals’ actions.” Yes, terrorists who kill civilians in the West are extremists, and most Muslims condemn their violence. But there are also large circles that sympathize with them. (The terrorist who killed the French teacher in Paris was buried in his hometown in Chechenia as a “hero of Islam.”) Moreover, there are draconian blasphemy laws in various Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, which lead to the imprisonment of many people, often on false charges. Asia Bibi is a recent example that comes to my mind.

I know that Muslims who support these harsh responses to blasphemy, real or alleged, do this with the intention of upholding the dignity of Islam, and our Prophet (P.B.H). But they are rather portraying Islam as a violent religion whose believers cannot defend their faith with peace and dignity, which I believe what the Qur’an is telling us to do: It never tells us to kill or even silence non-Muslims who mock Islam. It just tells us not to “sit with them” (4:140), as I explained in this article of mine.

GVS: After these objectionable cartoons were publicly displayed in France, #boycottFranceproducts was the top Twitter trend in Pakistan. What in your opinion is an appropriate way to respond to Macron’s Islamophobic remarks?

I think anybody has the right to boycott any company or country. So, I would not have any objection towards the #boycottFranceproducts campaign.

But what is exactly being protested here? If it is that the French government merely allows offensive cartoons to be published, I would say this does not make sense, because Western liberal democracies don’t have censorship mechanisms, and we should not ask for it.

If the protest is against that the French government projected the offensive cartoons on official buildings, yes, there is a reason to protest that. Because governments should be neutral towards religions and should not engage in the mockery of any of them.

Yet still, I would like to remind Muslims in Pakistan that the French government would probably not engage in this endorsement if the repeated terrorist attacks against its citizens did not happen in the first place. In fact, all these recurrent cartoons or other denigrating expressions to our beloved Prophet are repeatedly coming up in the West, simply because some militant Muslims want to silence them by violence.

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Therefore, I think that the best way for us to uphold the dignity of our Prophet would be; first, giving an end to violence; then, correcting the misconceptions about him in the West, and elsewhere, by explaining, and exemplifying, his virtues more effectively. Instead of trying to silence those people who disrespect our Prophet, let’s try to change their ideas about our prophet, so they themselves will respect him.

GVS: Your writings suggest that one of the main reasons behind the rise of Islamism in the 20th century was the anti-colonial mindset in the Muslim world. How will President Macron’s ‘aggressive campaign against Islam’ impact the idea of democracy in the contemporary Muslim world?

Indeed, European colonialism has been very harmful for the Muslim world, both in its own exploitations and also its unintended consequences. The latter include the reactions that it triggered, such as nationalism, communism, or (political) Islamism, which are all authoritarian ideologies. French colonialism, in particular, especially in Algeria, has been horrifically brutal, arrogant, and intrusive. Many Muslims, quite normally, have that in mind when they listen to a French President, especially when he begins to lecture Muslims. So, any French President should first be humble about this past, which is not what I am seeing at Macron. Plus, his campaign against “Islamism” is too vague, and can easily lead to violations of civil liberties.

The better news is that France is a country with a robust civil society and a decent judiciary, which can curb the excesses of its government. But I do worry that the condensing and illiberal attitude of Macron and his government may prove counterproductive, by making French Muslims not more integrated, but less.

GVS: Your book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, was published almost a decade ago, do you still agree with one of its basic premises that it is not the state’s duty to “spread good and suppress ill.” Why not?

It depends on what we mean by “good and ill.” Of course, any state should spread law and order, and suppress murder or theft, which are requirements for a civilized life. But if the requirements of religion — such as praying, fasting, or wearing a hijab — is imposed by the state, these acts of ibadah (worship), which should be done only for the sake of God, turn into empty rituals done out of mere coercion. I have seen how this leads to hypocrisy, or contempt against religion, in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Therefore, I believe we Muslims should rather accept the true meaning of the Qur’anic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

Many Muslims also think that the state should uphold and advance Islam. But whose Islam? The Islam of the Barelvis, Deobandis, Wahhabis, the Shia, the Hanafis, or whom? The practical answer to this question is, “the Islam of whomever captures power in a given territory.” Of course, all these groups claim to represent true Islam, but there is no way to judge this objectively. The best solution is to keep the state as neutral and minimal as possible, so all different Islamic groups, and other religions and worldviews in society, can follow their persuasions without oppressing each other.

GVS: You’re from Turkey and while talking about the re-election of President Erdogan in 2018, you maintained that the supporters of the President did not see this election “as a competition between politicians” but “as an act of defiance against a century-old existential enemy”. What did you mean?

From the 1920s to the early 2000s, Turkey was politically dominated by the ideological followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding president, who was deeply influenced by the French secular tradition. For years, I have opposed and criticized these “Kemalists,” for their authoritarian policies such as banning the hijab in universities and public offices. President Erdogan represents a pro-Islamic political movement that was born as a reaction to the Kemalists, and finally overthrew their hegemony. While I initially supported his party, the AKP, for they promised to bring more freedom to all citizens, they soon began imitating the Kemalists in their authoritarianism, which is why I turned critical of the AKP as well.

I believe Turkey will find peace when it will be dominated neither by the secular Kemalists or the pro-Islamic “Erdoganists,” but rather becomes a tolerant nation that respects all political views, worldviews, and lifestyles.

GVS: When the Hagia Sophia was converted back into a functioning Mosque – many in the Muslim world were happy – but you wrote an article against doing that in the NYT – what was your reasoning?

If Hagia Sophia was built as a mosque, and unfairly turned into a museum by secularists, I would be only happy and supportive of its reconversion. But it was built by Christians, served as a cathedral for almost 1000 years, and then turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. So, both Muslims and Christians have a history there, and the building matters for both. That is why, since the early 2000s, I have advocated either sharing the building between Muslims and Christians (as it happened in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus in the first century of Islam) or keeping it as a museum.

That is also because I believe that converting the places of worship of Jews and Christians to mosques is questionable from an Islamic point of view. (There is no basis for it in the Qur’an or Sunnah, as I explained in my article, “Would the Prophet Muhammad Convert Hagia Sophia?”)

There is also a practical question: what this example will mean elsewhere in the world? If conquerors have the moral right to convert places of worship, then what will we say to those who convert our mosques into their temples? What will we say, for example, when Hindu supremacists in India turn the Babri Masjid into a Hindu temple?

Interestingly, President Erdogan himself pointed to this practical question in 2018, on TV, when he was asked about Hagia Sophia. “Those who want this [conversion to a mosque] do not know the world,” he said, adding: “We have mosques around the world; do those people think what may happen to these mosques”? So, he was against the conversion just two years ago, and for the right reason, I would say. I don’t know what changed his mind in 2020. But politicians can change quickly according to their political needs, whereas people like us should try to uphold principles.

GVS: It was very intriguing to have read about democratic conservatism and Islamic modernism in your work. What do you really mean when you say that “Islam has its own way to create democracy and liberalism”?

Thank you. What I meant was that liberal democracy (a political system where power comes from the people, and human rights are protected by law) is a good achievement of humanity — and we Muslims should embrace it as well. But we will do this by reconciling this system with our faith — and, in fact, even finding roots within our faith tradition. That is what the “Islamic liberals” of the late Ottoman Empire — such as Namık Kemal — did when they advocated democracy with reference to the Qur’anic notion of shura. I believe that human freedom that is the heart of liberal political philosophy can be extracted from the Qur’anic principle, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

GVS: On democratization in the Muslim world: Since Islam is not the “problem” so do you think challenges to democracy and liberalism are unique in every Muslim-majority state?

“Islam” is not “the problem.” But intolerant, oppressive, let alone violent interpretations of Islam are certainly a big problem in various parts of the umma. However, besides this, the contemporary Muslim world has many other problems, such as militant nationalism, tribalism, or secular authoritarianism. The Baath dictatorships in Iraq and Syria had little to do with Islam, and much more with Arab nationalism and socialism. Also, the tension between Turkey and Kurds over the past 100 years has nothing to do with Islam — it is rather a modern problem initiated by secular Turkish nationalism and exacerbated by secular Kurdish nationalism. So, yes, it is fair to say that there are unique problems in many Muslim-majority states. But there are also Islamic issues that are relevant for the whole umma.

GVS: Your new book Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance will get published in April 2021. What inspired you to write it? And what is the direction you point to – to get back to open minds.

Since my high school years — that is for three decades by now — I have been involved in Islamic activism, learning, and writing. In the past two decades, this brought me to see, and advocate, the need for more freedom, toleration and reasonableness in contemporary Muslim thought and culture. In the meantime, I have realized what are the obstacles to making progress on these crucial values and began thinking and researching deeper into their roots.

So, my forthcoming book is the most mature fruit of all this intellectual journey. I get into all the controversial issues of Islamic jurisprudence and also probe the theological layers that lie beneath. I also have chapters on medieval Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufayl, showing how their vision can help us today, as they helped Europe centuries ago to develop its own Enlightenment.

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Of course, it will be up to the readers to judge. I am just happy to have received very powerful endorsements from some prominent Muslim scholars. One of them, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, said, “This book should be mandatory reading for any serious student of Islam or the Muslim world.” I look forward to seeing how it will be received in Pakistan, whose blasphemy laws is one of the issues I discuss in the book.

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