Mustafa Akyol joins us this week to talk about Islam. Is there a Muslim case for liberty? How has Islam traditionally treated the principles of political liberalism?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Akyol’s book is Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2013).
He also mentions this op-ed he wrote in the Feb. 13th, 2017 edition of the New York Times, “What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims.”
Listeners may also be interested in this episode of Free Thoughts on libertarianism and Christianity.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Adam Bates: I’m Adam Bates.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Mustafa Akyol. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes, A Muslim Case For Liberty. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Mustafa Akyol: Thanks so much, Aaron. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Powell: We’ll start with, for our audience that doesn’t know much about it, what is Islam? What are the basics of it? The [00:00:30] thumbnail sketch, I suppose, if such a thing can be given?
Mustafa Akyol: Sure. Islam is the world’s second largest religion in a very demographic definition, but theologically speaking Islam is, I think, yet another episode in this long saga of Abrahamic monotheism. With Abraham began the religion that we know as Judaism today, [00:01:00] and sometime like in the 1st Century, according to our current calculations, with Jesus and Paul it had a branch that became Christianity. Islam is the third big episode in that tradition, because Islam itself ties its doctrine and its origin to Abraham. The God of Abraham, that’s the God of Mohammad.
We should just [00:01:30] recall that before Islam, Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula, was mainly pagan, polytheistic place, and Islam, therefore, was an affirmation, a proclamation of monotheism against a polytheistic pagan society. The basic motto of Islam reads, “There is no god, but The God.” That’s basically saying that all these pagan gods or war god, agriculture, [00:02:00] love god, they don’t exist. There’s only one God that is the creator of heavens and earth, and that’s Abraham’s God.
I should, though, add that when you compare Islam to other sister religions, Westerners typically tend to compare Islam to Christianity, the main religion within the West. Like, “Oh, Mohammad is like Jesus and Koran is like the New Testament.” Not [00:02:30] exactly. I think Islam should be compared to Judaism, because I think those two faiths are closer to each other in the sense that Mohammad is a figure exactly like Moses, like a human being who receives revelation, and maybe Moses plus Joshua, because there’s like a military leadership as well. The Koran is a book like the Old Testament, the first five books of the Old Testament a little bit, in terms of speaking about … It doesn’t speak about Mohammad himself. It speaks about [00:03:00] God, creation, heavens, afterlife. There’s more emphasis on afterlife for sure in Islam than Judaism. That’s one difference, but both religions, both Judaism and Islam, have a notion of divine law, which is Halakah in Judaism and Sharia in Islam.
Whether all aspects of the law are eternally valid and still has to be implemented today is a big question, and Muslims are divided into different groups. [00:03:30] Some think that all aspects of Islamic law, which is Sharia, has to be implemented today, including the penal code. If you do that, you end up like being Saudi Arabia in a moderate version, and even their harsher versions, or Iran. But other Muslims think that, “Well, that’s historical. That’s a part of our religious tradition, but today what I need to do as a Muslim is just to be a pious, observant individual, like doing my prayers and [00:04:00] fasting and Ramadan, certain rituals and having certain faith doctrines.
So there’s a spectrum, of course, among Muslims about what it exactly means, but I can say it is a religion that is not that different from Judaism or Christianity from its beginnings and perspective. Of course, it had a different history. I think a lot of the tensions that appeared between Muslims and Christians and Muslims and Jews … The tensions between Muslims and Jews are very [00:04:30] new. That’s a 20th Century phenomenon, but between Muslims and Christians, that was a matter of geopolitics as well. The Ottoman Empire fight the Austria Hungarians. It was not a battle over Koran or the gospels, it was a war of empires. There’s been a lot of geopolitical tension between Muslims and non-Muslims over the Mediterranean in Europe, but if you leave that aside, if you look at the theology, the doctrines, we should see those commonalities between Islam [00:05:00] and the older monotheisms.
Aaron Powell: Looking at the state of the Islamic world today, it doesn’t appear from outside that political liberalism goes hand in hand with Islam, but you make the claim that historically, from the Koran and the early Islamic teachings look much more liberal or supportive of liberalism than what we [00:05:30] often see now. How did we get from there to here? Did the kind of illiberalism, was that a fairly early arriving feature? Is it a fairly recent feature? What’s that story?
Mustafa Akyol: First of all, I should say that in the past two centuries we are going through what I call, and what other scholars have called, the crisis of Islam. We’re probably living in the darkest era of the whole Islamic civilization today. [00:06:00] Why is that? It’s a huge question, but this is not an era of Islam that many Muslims are proud of. That’s one thing I should say.
Secondly, of course, political liberalism is a modern idea. You can’t just find liberalism in the modern sense way back in any probably pre-modern society, but one thing I emphasize in my book is that there are certain routes and examples of freedom you find in classical [00:06:30] Islam, relatively speaking according to that time and age, that is forgotten later. That Islamic world moved away from the freedom and tolerance and diversity you have in the very beginning, and it’s gradually stagnated and turned into a more rigid doctrine.
One thing, early Islam had a lot of different theological and jurisprudential schools, in some of which I find really [00:07:00] important rational ideas and some even liberal ideas. Liberal in the sense that those schools accepted that people should not be punished for being heretics or blasphemous, and religion should not be imposed in course. There are schools who actually got that in the very beginning, early centuries of Islam. However, gradually an orthodoxy formed, and that orthodoxy, both in Sunni and Shia world, was in certain [00:07:30] ways authoritarian. Like you should protect the community. You should impose certain practices. If someone blasphemes against God, you should punish that person, execute that person. A jurisprudence developed, and it was about protecting the community and protecting its unity and against diversity, and using the powers of the state to sustain the religiosity of society became an established norm.
Yet, since the 19th Century, [00:08:00] there have been a series of Islamic reformers, intellectuals, that we call the Islamic liberals or the Islamic modernists. These people first looked at Europe. They didn’t know about US much at the time. It was too far. But they looked at Europe and realized there are a lot of things to admire there, like scientific progress, a justice system, rule of law. There are many things. Then they looked at the Islamic world and they realized how backward [00:08:30] many Muslim societies were, and they said … Well, this was actually a recognition for everybody in the 19th Century. The West is so advanced and we are not. Actually, every ideology in the Islamic world begins with this observation. Some people said … We call them the secularists. They said, “Well, we are backward because religion is a problem, so let’s get rid of religion.” So they established autocratic secular [00:09:00] systems. That’s not my cup of tea, because that’s authoritarian in the first place, as well.
The Islamic modernists said, “Well, obviously there’s a problem here in our civilization right now, but maybe because we got rid of the founding, more enlightened values of Islam,” because there was a time that Islam was advanced. There was a time that the world’s biggest libraries was not in Paris or London, but in Baghdad and Cordoba. [00:09:30] There was a time Muslims were the place where scientific discoveries were made. There was a time the Muslim world were freer than the West. That’s why Jews were persecuted in Spain and they came to the Ottoman Empire to be saved from religious persecution. They wanted to revive that lost openness and rationality of Islam. That’s why they began to question these things. That tradition is still there, and I still believe in that tradition [00:10:00] and its potential to revitalize the Islamic faith with, of course, some modification over time. We’re in the 21st Century.
Why Islam is in this shape, it’s a big question, and there are, I think, different answers given to it, but there are few Muslims who think we are fine. Many Muslims are thinking there’s a problem with the shape of the Islamic world today. People like me want to find a solution in rediscovering some fundamental [00:10:30] values which will allow us a more liberal formula today. There are some people who think we are in a big crisis because we are not religious enough. We have to make everybody more religious. We have to impose it by the state, so that’s the kind of authoritarian response. But every almost ideological current in the Islamic world today begins with the recognition that there’s something wrong.
Adam Bates: You mentioned earlier about these schools of thought, that there were liberal elements even in the very early centuries of Islam. But for listeners [00:11:00] who may not know that much about the structure of Islam, could you … My understanding is Islam’s a very decentralized religion.
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah.
Adam Bates: There’s not a central authority. Could you discuss that a little bit and the pros and cons, I guess, of having such a decentralized faith?
Mustafa Akyol: Sure. Again, to make an analogy, Islam is a bit more like Protestants and Catholicism when it comes to that issue of centralization versus decentralization. There is no central authority. People will say, well, there’s a caliphate. There was a caliphate, but even when the caliphate [00:11:30] existed, the caliphate was not a religious authority. The caliphate was the political authority, the political leadership of Muslims.
Since the beginning, Islam didn’t have an institution like the church in the Catholic sense, which would have this authoritative like dictums on the right doctrine. You just had different schools of thought, and people were drawn to this or that school of thought. There were tensions sometimes between [00:12:00] them. There was also coexistence as well. That spectrum, of course, includes disturbing schools of thought, and also more inspiring ones. I’m interested in the more inspiring ones, obviously.
For example, one school of thought in early Islam that I find fascinating is the group called Murjia in Arabic. Murjia in Arabic means the postponers. Why were they called [00:12:30] the postponers? Because these were Muslim theologians who emerged in the middle of a big dispute in the Muslim world between the supporters of Ali the fourth caliph and Mu’awiyah the fifth caliph. There was a big time of civil war and conflict, and there were fanatics who were really excommunicating fellow Muslims and killing them. They said, “Wait a minute. We cannot decide who is a good Muslim and who is a bad one, and who is a heretic. Only God [00:13:00] has the authority to judge people, and God will judge people in afterlife. So on earth let’s postpone this issue of who is right and wrong and just leave it to God to be sorted out when we die, in afterlife.” That’s why they were called postponers, Murjia.
I think that was a brilliant base for a theological approach to pluralism and freedom. It’s not an accident, for example, [00:13:30] last year ISIS, in one of its monthly magazines, devoted 16 pages to condemn the heresy of Murjia. They said this is the most dangerous heresy in the whole Muslim world. Why? Because it tells you to postpone your judgment to afterlife. It deprives you from the authority to kill people in the name of God, because you say God should sort it out. I can’t do it. It’s calling for humility, and ISIS is totally disturbed by this [00:14:00] idea. So that’s one, for example, route of a proto liberal, if you will, theology I find in medieval Islam.
There was also another school of thought called Mu’tazilah, which has been also noticed by a lot of Western scholars. I think they’re important in terms of rationality in Islam. They emphasize that Muslims believe in scripture, the Koran, it’s from God, but they said reason is a faculty given by God, so through reason, too, we can find [00:14:30] truth. That’s how, for example, they benefited from reading Aristotle. Aristotle is obviously not an Islamic scholar, so a traditional conservative would say, “We shouldn’t read that. That’s un-Islamic,” but they said he has reason, so Aristotle is a rationale thinker, and he established certain truths with reason, so they could read Aristotle and synthesize it with Islamic thought. I think they are also important in terms of emphasizing freewill [00:15:00] versus predestination. These are kind of important theological roots if you want to build a liberal argument today.
Therefore, I’m not going to say the Islamic world was liberal in the modern sense in the beginning, but there are certain teachings in classical Islam that have been forgotten a little bit, but I think we can revive today to build an argument for liberalism for Muslims today.
Aaron Powell: Along those lines there’s a couple of things you mentioned that again may seem striking [00:15:30] from our perspective today, which is you say first that the Koran introduced into Arab society the concept that individuals have inalienable rights, and that also it recognized rights for women. How did those show up in it?
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah, that’s a point made by Islamic feminists. We have people like that, Islamic feminists. Here’s the problem, today the Muslim world is not a great place for [00:16:00] equality and emancipation for a woman and, again, I’m speaking in a very generalizing sense, because the life of a Muslim woman in Bosnia and Afghanistan are incredibly different. One is very Western and modern. The other is very traditional and unequal, so the Muslim world is diverse. We have serious problems when it comes to women’s rights in countries that claim to impose Islamic law, have Islamic jurisprudence, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is [00:16:30] actually better than Saudi Arabia on that issue, but there are issues there.
However, in the very beginning, when Islam appeared in 7th Century Arabia as a new religion, one of its teaching was that women have rights, too, and for that society that was something new. Women have property rights. With Islam women gained the right to own property, which was new, because women were themselves property before Islam. Women [00:17:00] gained the right to reject a marriage. For example, when a marriage took place, there wasn’t money given to the fathers. Islam said give it to the woman herself as an economic guarantee for herself. There have been certain improvements in women’s rights. It wasn’t full equality, but it was a major improvement.
We have Islamic feminists in the Muslim world today. Most of the time our female pious women [00:17:30] who say Islam in the beginning was a religion that liberated women, but however over time it lost that early impetus. Since it was only males who interpreted the Koran for centuries, they interpreted it in a sense that emphasizes male domination over women. So we have to re-read it today. I think that’s an important way to move forward in the Islamic world today, because feminism that is fed only by non-Western sources of inspiration [00:18:00] will have contributions, but it will have some roadblocks, but feminism that is also inspired by the values within the religion I think will have more impact. We see that in different Muslim societies.
Aaron Powell: You mentioned, it came up so I have to ask, because I’m sure our listeners are curious, and I don’t know for sure, but what is the difference between the two, the Shiite and the Sunni sects?
Mustafa Akyol: Oh, okay.
Aaron Powell: Is one of them generally more [00:18:30] amenable to the liberal or proto liberal arguments than the other?
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah. It depends. I think it is hard to say Sunnis or Shiites are more open to this and that. I think within both traditions you have a spectrum. You have liberal leaning Shiites. You have very conservative and maybe radical, sometimes violent Shiite groups, and you can say the same things amongst Sunnis as well. [00:19:00] The big difference is the way they actually frame … They began with a political dispute, let’s put it that way. In early Islam the disputes were political, because there was political power attempts, whereas in Christianity there was no political power until Rome became Christian, so it was all doctrine. The nature of Christ was the big issue.
In Islam, the nature of the Koran was an issue, too, I’ll give that, but big disputes began with political conflicts. [00:19:30] The Shiites basically said after the prophet Mohammad, the legitimate authority of leadership among Muslims belongs to the bloodline of the prophet, his household. So, his nephew Ali, and then it goes on like that, and Ali’s descendants. They think leadership is a matter of hereditary system. Whereas the Sunnis said, “No, whoever is pious can be the [00:20:00] leader of the community.” Which meant that Shiites always believed in this lineage, so they always had a living imam. They call it imam. Imam is an important concept in Shiites among Muslims. They always had some living authority to which they could subscribe to, and today it’s the ayatollahs. Probably Americans know the word ayatollah from Ayatollah Khomeini, but he was not the only one. Which means the Shiite tradition is a bit more open to theocracy, like you [00:20:30] have one living big person that you have to follow. But also it is a bit more easily updatable, reformable, because there’s always a living authority who can make a new decision on something.
Whereas the Sunni tradition is following basically the text of major scholars who lived in the 9th, 10th Centuries, so it is less open to theocracy, but it is also a bit frozen. There is less jurisprudential renewal within the Sunni tradition. [00:21:00] Besides that, actually … There’s no dispute over the text of the Koran, but this has been the basic issue, who has legitimate authority after the prophet Mohammad. But these also developed in certain different sources, like which [inaudible 00:21:14] accepts the words of prophet Mohammad? Shiites have different sources, Sunnis have different sources.
Alternatively, I will say today, the conflict let’s say in Iraq and Syria between Sunnis and Shiites is a conflict [00:21:30] less about theology but more about power, because these identities have also turned into almost ethnic identities. When you say, “I’m Shia,” you say, “I belong to this group.” That group has a demand or a grievance or something in that country. It is a bit like, in that sense … The current conflict is a bit like northern Ireland conflict, where you had Protestants and Catholics fighting for northern Ireland. It was less directly theological. It was more about these two groups claiming to [00:22:00] dominate the same country, which is northern Ireland, and you have that dichotomy in Iraq or Syria now.
Aaron Powell: So the terms about Islam that we as Westerners hear in the news or whatever, so we’ve got the Sunnis and Shiites, but then the other one … Adam is from Oklahoma, and they’ve passed legislation about this one is Sharia law.
Mustafa Akyol: Okay.
Aaron Powell: What is Sharia law, and what role does it play in the political systems and this [00:22:30] tension between theocracies and more liberal states?
Mustafa Akyol: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Very good question. Actually, the term Sharia law is redundant. Sharia by itself means divine law. It actually means the path to the water source. But, okay, Sharia technically means divine law, and you never actually implement Sharia. You actually implement fiqh, which is jurisprudence, so which is the [00:23:00] actual implementation of the ideal of Sharia. But these are technicalities. Here’s the thing, Islam has a body of laws, that’s right, and a part of that is about personal practice. Like Sharia tells me that I should not eat pork, and when I do not eat pork liberal democracies are not threatened, right? It’s my personal choice. If I do my Friday prayers, that is a part of Sharia, and my Ramadan fast, it’s my personal observance. Or [00:23:30] like should Muslim women cover their hair? Traditional interpretations of Sharia will say yes, so that’s a part of her observance. Some modernists would say, no, that’s not necessary. It just means modest dress. So there’s a different tradition, like an interpretation there as well.
Some part of Sharia is about how to be a Muslim as a person, and there’s no problem with that, but also, partly because Islam always had a state the governing of that state was a question, [00:24:00] so Sharia gradually included issues about public life, about legal system, about the penal code, and ultimately even governance, like what’s the ideal state. So if you go back to some medieval scholars of the Sharia, like [inaudible 00:24:13], for example, he defines what the ideal state should be, and that’s what God wants. If you say that has to be the case today, then you will end up being a challenge to liberal democracy, because [00:24:30] that Sharia state envisions a social order in which people don’t have individual freedom to the fullest. Like apostates are given death penalty, like if you’re an apostate from Islam, if you’re a Muslim and you give up and become a Buddhist or Christian, you’re given death penalty. That’s a serious violation of religious freedom. Blasphemy is considered a crime punishable by death. There are aspects of Sharia that are certainly illiberal [00:25:00] authoritarian and they should raise concern for anybody who believes in these liberal values.
Are all Muslims countries in the world implementing this Sharia? No. Actually, there are five or six states in which Sharia laws are fully implemented. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, a few. In some Arab countries, in Egypt for example, it’s only within the matters of marriage and civil [00:25:30] law, it’s not penal code. Most Muslim nations don’t have Sharia being practiced. It would be a stretch to think it would come to Oklahoma. It should come to Egypt and Turkey and Tunisia and Morocco first before it goes all the way to Oklahoma.
Adam Bates: As the resident Oklahoman, who was in the State during that Sharia debate in 2010, yeah, in so far as there are Sharia courts. You mentioned the Jewish Hallakah [00:26:00] law earlier. There’ve been Jewish Hallakah courts in the US for decades.
Mustafa Akyol: For decades, yeah. In the UK, too, yeah.
Adam Bates: Right, and they handle arbitration. They handle civil disputes. If you contract with someone for an agreement or for a marriage, and you want any disputes that arise to be adjudicated according to the religious law by religious officials, we allow that. Freedom of religion allows you to contract that way. And, of course, any determinations of the arbitration court have to be entered by an [00:26:30] actual court, so you can’t contract for things like slavery or things of that nature. So, yeah, when Sharia as it’s practiced, Sharia courts as they’re practiced in the US is just voluntary arbitration agreements, but they have this reputation of if we allow Sharia law in Oklahoma, we’re going to be chopping the hands off of thieves and things of that and nature, but there seems to be this severe misunderstanding of what Sharia is and how these courts operate.
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah. There can [00:27:00] be people who wants to chop off hands in Oklahoma and somewhere else, but I think they would be very marginal, and I would be against them as Muslim myself, because I personally think the principles of Sharia, and that’s an interesting discussion. Medieval scholars also discuss the actual implementation of Sharia, the actual injunctions, and intentions behind them called Maqasid in Arabic. Those intentions they define as a protection of life, religion, lineage, property, [00:27:30] and intellect, so that’s pretty liberal when you look at the intention side.
Anyway, Sharia can be a threat to human freedom if it is implemented as a penal code, as a law of the land, and that happens in these countries, but to look at this and ask from every Muslim to condemn the Sharia would be wrong because many Muslims still respect the concept. It’s a God-given divine notion, [00:28:00] but they don’t think it is valid for every state and society. There are many Muslims in Turkey like that. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, and there are very conservative Muslims who wear the headscarf and who fast on Ramadan. They maybe make some 50 percent of Turk society, but when people are asked, “Do you want a Sharia state in Turkey?” The support for that drops to 10 percent, and that’s a Pew Research Center poll. In Bosnia, that drops to 0.2 [00:28:30] percent. In Egypt it’s higher. In Pakistan it’s higher, so every society is different.
We should be aware that the Sharia includes certain injunctions that are illiberal, and that’s why I spent a lot of time in my book going over those and revisiting them and reinterpreting them and questioning and criticizing them, but on the other hand to think that every Muslim is a walking Sharia agent trying to implement that, that would also be a big exaggeration.
Adam Bates: For our [00:29:00] listeners, Sharia doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to every Muslim, right? At least in an example that might make more sense to non-Muslims, just saying somebody is a Christian does not tell you their view on war. It doesn’t tell you their view on the criminal justice system. It doesn’t tell you their view on abortion, gay rights, all of these issues have people who are devout Christians on either side who would say that their devotion to their Christian faith compels them to these opposite results. [00:29:30] Is the same true of Sharia? That it’s not a monolith. It doesn’t mean the same thing to every person.
Mustafa Akyol: Absolutely. The people who would go and condemn the Sharia in the Islamic world would be what we call the secularist. They would want to see no religion in public space. Other Muslims, however, most of them would be appreciative of liberal values, and they would say, “Well, Sharia has some aspects that are historical. [00:30:00] We don’t think they should be implemented today, but it was written in classical books.” When you look at the history of the Islamic civilization, when you look at the late Ottoman Empire, for example, the Ottomans rendered the Sharia obsolete in many cases. They thought as times change, law should change. That’s a dictum the Ottomans had in the beginning of their great 19th Century codification of law called Mecelle.
Indeed, when you see women being stoned to death in the name [00:30:30] of Sharia, that’s a matter of concern and that should be a problem that we should stand up against, but also we should understand that indeed Muslims understand it in very different ways and probably the majority of Muslims in the world do not want to see that happen and they don’t want to see that happen especially in Western societies where Muslims are a minority because Sharia is a law that is meant to be for Muslims. You are subject to Sharia if you are a Muslim. In [00:31:00] the middle of Western Europe or America.
Adam Bates: Oklahoma.
Mustafa Akyol: Or Oklahoma, probably you will never have the urge to implement Sharia anyway. Probably all you want to be is a good Muslim without your rights being violated.
Aaron Powell: On this topic of what parts of Islamic teachings are the ones we can interpret or we can set aside or we can view as contextual to their time and place [00:31:30] versus the more core ones, you mentioned this story that becomes I think an important part of the argument for liberalism within Islam of Mohammad giving basically bad advice to what was it date farmers?
Mustafa Akyol: Okay, yeah.
Aaron Powell: And how that sets up this distinction between his ideas and the ideas that I guess came through him?
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah, sure. That’s an interesting point. That argument is an argument against [00:32:00] theocracy also as well. We have a few stories from the life of Mohammad, and one of them, for example, is the one you mentioned. Another one, which is my favorite actually, which is in my book as well, is that during a battle, just the night before the battle, the Army has to camp somewhere, and prophet Mohammad says, “We can camp here.” Then one of his disciples come and ask him, “Is this your idea or is this a revelation from God?” He says, “It’s not a revelation, it’s just my idea.” [00:32:30] When it is his idea the man says, “Okay, I have a different idea. Let’s do it this way,” and prophet Mohammad listens to him and follows his advice, and actually it’s a helpful advice. That’s what we learn from Islamic tradition.
This means that the early Muslim community made a distinction between divine commandments and human decisions, and prophet Mohammad was even questioned if a human decision. I use this as an argument against theocracy saying that prophet Mohammad who was receiving revelation from God was even questioned [00:33:00] in his human decisions, and after prophet Mohammad, according to Islam, there is nobody that receives a divine revelation, we just have the teachings there. So we are all equal Muslims who just have the teachings and we can go and read and learn, and there can be more learned people, but there is nobody to which we should obey without questioning. That was about that.
Basically, Islam is a religion in the sense, as I said, that lacks the institution like a church, so there’s no actual intermediary [00:33:30] between man and God. That can be an advantage and disadvantage, though. That means that also a radical violent cleric can come out and have his own crazy interpretation and can have a following. It happens, but it also means Islam is open to individualism. It is open to seeing religion as something between man and God, so therefore liberates the man from the yoke of the state or society and empowers him as an individual.
Aaron Powell: So when [00:34:00] we look at, again in the West because with Trump in power now there is a lot of … Islam is in the news often in fairly depressing ways. The image is that there’s something uniquely violent about this religion, that the terrorism that we see worldwide feels like it’s more often than not Islamic terrorism. So this isn’t quite the same [00:34:30] as questions of political liberalism. Then this gets spun into the Muslim band that Trump tried to enact. We have to keep these people out because they will bring violence along with their religion. Is that violence … Is there something in Islam that makes it say more susceptible to that kind of violent extremism or is that something that’s [00:35:00] coming in from outside for other causes?
Mustafa Akyol: If we went back to four centuries ago and looked at Christiandom in the 16th Century, maybe we would say is there something about Christianity that makes it violent? Actually, Voltaire said in one of his writings that, “No kingdom other than the kingdom of Christ has seen so much internal war and conflict.” That was the case of questions in the wake of and during the Protestant reformation, [00:35:30] Catholics and Protestants slaughtering each other. Well, Christianity took a lesson from that and moved forward and came to the liberal solution of pluralism and freedom. We have not been there yet, so that’s the problem we see in the Muslim world today. That’s one thing I would add. That’s why I’m calling it a crisis of Islam. It doesn’t define the whole nature of this 14th Century civilization. It’s a current crisis.
Plus, I would add this is mainly a Middle Eastern conflict. Middle Eastern and partly sub-continent, too, [00:36:00] and when you look at the Christian communities that happen to be there, you can see some acts of violence as well. When you look at the Lebanese civil war, for example, the warring parties were Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Lebanese Christian militia, and all sides were equally violent.
Sometimes the conflict that takes place within a reason because of factors other than religion, because of land disputes, because of war over resources [00:36:30] and ethnicity and all that makes the religion that happens to be there more militant. It’s not that religion is causing militancy there, but it is becoming a vehicle for that. When you look at, for example, Africa, there is an organization called Lord’s Resistance Army in the middle of Africa, and it’s a pretty violent Christian militia, like the Boko Haram in the same region. Of [00:37:00] course, the world’s majority of Christians would be horrified to see such kinds of violent people in the name of their faith, but that exists in Africa in a certain context, where people go over conflict and more over resources and so on and so forth. Therefore, I sometimes think we also sometimes over-religionize things that are also political in nature, or cultural or sociological in nature.
That’s also something I would add to the table. The Middle East is a very traumatized region for [00:37:30] a lot of reasons. Colonial heresy, dictatorial governments, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and wars and conflicts and so on and so forth. That sometimes radicalizes a religion rather than religion radicalizing the region.
Aaron Powell: So then would it be fair to look at it … One of the things that seems to be present in the areas where we see violent extremism of any kind, but this certainly seems to be present a lot in the Middle East and [00:38:00] the parts of say Europe where there is violent extremism is large groups of basically unemployed young men on the fringes of society. In those groups, unemployed young men on the fringes of society have kind of always been a problem. Wherever you have that, regardless of the ideology.
Adam Bates: Those men are a problem everywhere.
Aaron Powell: You end up-
Adam Bates: We should get them employed.
Aaron Powell: Yes. At one [00:38:30] point in history they might have turned to-
Adam Bates: Communism.
Aaron Powell: Communism and violent forms of communism or whatever.
Adam Bates: Violent anarchism.
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: So related to the violence comes into the faith, is there a sense, too, where Islam has become like if you are a disaffected young man who’s violent and you’re looking for something to latch onto, the thing now is these certain views of Islam, and so you’re attracted to that, and so you bring the violence [00:39:00] with you?
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. That’s a pattern that you can see. French expert on Islam, Olivier Roy, that’s why he said that we are not seeing radicle Islam. We are seeing the Islamization of radicalism. Like radicalism is there out of these social political dynamics, but it just takes an Islamic [inaudible 00:39:23] right now.
The Palestinian issue would be a great example. Look at the Palestinian territories today. Which are the violent [00:39:30] groups that Israel considers as terrorists. Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, these are all in Islamic groups. Go back 30 years ago, there were no Islamic groups in Palestine, but there were still armed groups that are fighting Israel called PLO, the popular front for the liberation of Palestine. Actually, one of their leaders was George Habash, a Palestinian Christian of Marxist ideology. There is a tension in Palestine, and that radicalizes [00:40:00] and that comes out in different ideological forms, and Islam is a good form. Religion is always a great way to mobilize people if there is anger and there’s some grievance.
I’m not saying this to say there’s no doctrinal issue in Islam. There is certainly, and I’m working on those, but I’m saying this to also understand that problems that are affecting religion are sometimes coming with sources that are there, and the solutions will be found [00:40:30] when employ those young men, give them a country. Sometimes if they feel occupied … And try to create middle-class societies where you have jobs, opportunities, and so on and so forth so the radical interpretations will not become that attractive.
Adam Bates: I’m assuming most of our audience is non-Muslim and Western, so what advice, if any, would you have to non-Muslims who are interested … You make the argument that there [00:41:00] is this Islamic case for liberalism, but there seems to be a pretty thin line, right? Between urging Muslims to reform in a liberal direction within their own faith, but at the same time to convince Western non-Muslims that Islam is not inherently authoritarian. How do you manage that tension between urging this liberal reformation in Islam and at the same time putting people at ease in the West [00:41:30] that Islam is not inherently incapable of doing this?
Mustafa Akyol: That’s a tough thing I’m trying to do for a long time, and I’ll say there are even some kind of false hopes that this disillusion me. Like Turkey, my country, I had much better hopes about it in terms of its liberal democratic credentials. Sadly, it didn’t work that way. But anyway, well, I try to do that by being honest. Yes, we have issues in Islam to sort out. Yes, we have issues with the Sharia. [00:42:00] If you want to be a pious Muslim compatible with our sources, we have to do some rethinking and revisiting, both in terms of jurisprudence and theology. I’m saying this to fellow Muslims. I’m saying this to Westerners as well. I’m just telling Westerners that but understand that the problems I’m describing is not the only thing about Islam. There are Muslims who are already trying to change these things. There are Muslims who have already found ways to cope with liberal [inaudible 00:42:29], even without they didn’t gone through [00:42:30] a theoretical reform. By nature people just adopt.
I’m trying to do that exactly. Speaking to Muslim communities and trying to push for change, and when I speak to Western society, I’m honest. We have problems, but also beware of those people who will show you only those problems and will tell you that’s all Islam’s about, and that’s wrong. That doesn’t help us, by [00:43:00] the way. Islamophobia doesn’t help Muslim reformists because the argument of the radical Islamist is that the West is our enemy. There’s no place for us in liberalism. We have to fight it. When the voice coming from the liberal world is hostility towards Islam, then they feel vindicated, whereas we need to keep that bridge working.
Adam Bates: I’ve always thought it was kind of interesting that these Islamophobic voices in the West and these Islamic authoritarian [00:43:30] voices, they promote the same version of Islam. Their perception of Islam is-
Mustafa Akyol: Yeah. They all agree that Islam is a violent, intolerant religion. The radicles are proud of that, the others are horrified about that, but they agree on the definition of Islam.
Adam Bates: Then the rest of us are in the middle.
Mustafa Akyol: In the middle we are horrified by this vicious cycle that’s going on.
Aaron Powell: Then looking forward, you’ve said that there’s this crisis in Islam right now that needs to resolve. How do you see it resolving [00:44:00] and are you optimistic about it resolving in a good way?
Mustafa Akyol: Well, this is a crisis that will go on. I think civilizations don’t change overnight. Sometimes people ask me, “You’ve been writing about this for a decade. Why hasn’t all the Muslim world become Norway?” Well, things take time. Christianity didn’t evolve overnight from its own medieval dark eras into a liberal society. [00:44:30] But this is a battle that’s fighting for and this is a battle that needs to be pursued. There are failed dreams and false hopes. There are some good examples, too. Look at Tunisia today. You will be inspired with the work that the Islamists in Tunisia have done in a moderate way, which is agreeing with the secular. There are some positive examples as well. I’m trying to bring in sources of inspiration.
Actually, I just had a piece in the New York Times a few days ago titled “What Jesus Can Teach Muslims Today,” because there [00:45:00] I argued that Muslims think that Jesus is a prophet, but what we learned from Jesus. One thing Jesus did, I think, in His time was to call people, His fellow Jews, to look at the meaning of law rather than just injunctions of it. That purpose and meaning of law, that moral teachings behind it, is something very important. So I said maybe we could take a lesson from that and look at our own dry legalism today in a way that discovers the intentions [00:45:30] behind it and takes a lesson. I’m sure that when I’m dying, hopefully many decades after from now, still there will be some disturbing things in the Muslim world, but I will hope to see some progress as well. Civilizations don’t change overnight.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.