Interview with Turkish Political Commentator Mustafa Akyol
Posted Mar 19, 2013

Interview with Turkish Political Commentator Mustafa Akyol

by Ayten Turan

(EC)–Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish political commentator and author based in Istanbul, Turkey. In Turkish, “Akyol” literally means “the white path.” Akyol was born in 1972 in Ankara, where he also completed his primary education.  His secondary education was completed at the Istanbul Nisantasi British High School, and undergraduate and graduate work at the Bosphorus University.  His master thesis was on the Kurdish question.

Since 2002, Akyol has been a regular commentator in the Turkish media. He is currently a regular columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s foremost English-language daily. In addition to the English daily, he writes a regular column for the Turkish-language daily Star.  He has appeared regularly on Turkish TV; and, served as a speaker or panelist on many platforms, including various universities and think-tanks in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. His talk “Faith Versus Tradition in Islam,” at TED has been widely acclaimed.

Over the years, Akyol’s articles have  appeared in numerous publications such as Foreign AffairsThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalInternational Herald TribuneNewsweekThe American InterestFirst ThingsThe Weekly StandardThe Washington TimesThe American Enterprise Magazine , Huffington PostNational Review OnlineThe ForwardTech Central StationBitter Lemons and IslamOnline.

How do you, Mustafa Akyol, define your identity?  What has influenced or shaped your identity?

I am a liberal Muslim, which means politically liberal and Muslim in faith. Thus, there are two main factors that shape my identity. The first one is being Muslim. I have been a religious person since I was a little kid; this is my primal identity. My grandfather had a tremendous influence on my life when I was young.  In addition to participating in religious groups like Nurcular,  I read and studied many sources and the Qu’ran.  Religion has always attracted me.

The other factor that shaped who I am today is my political identity.  In 1990s, I believed a political model could be formed based on Islam.  However, as the time passed, I realized this was not possible. There are other political models in the world that exist.  After some trials, I came to believe that the best model is a liberal democracy. I believe in and defend liberal democracy and a free market economy. I do not think it is contrary to my religious views. Actually, I believe it is in sync with my religion, which is what I have sought to explain via my books and essays.

Liberalism is not all about my life-style. I think that people’s ways of practicing their religion and their political views have to be in accord with each other all the time. For instance, I do not believe that being religious implies having a dress code. Consequently, I do not believe Islam has a dress code either. Some people ask me if the liberal people fast less compared to other Muslims. This is irrelevant because religion is within our soul; it is not about how you live. A Liberal Muslim should advocate that people have freedom of belief. Being a traditional Muslim does not pull you away from believing in democracy and liberalism. What really matters is to respect people who do not identify themselves as Muslim.  It is about what people feel within themselves about religion.

Could you tell us about your books and their contents?

My first book was “Reconsidering the Kurdish Problem”, which was published in 2006. It was concerned with answering the questions about the mistakes made and what should be done in the future. That book was originally my master thesis and it analyzed the mistakes of both the Turkish and Kurdish sides. Many open-minded Turks and most Kurdish people, except the PKK supporters, supported the book.

I was interviewed by Enver Sezgin after this book, which was published in a book, titled “Kurdish Problem In The Dawn of Solution”. I also have published a book called “Informal Recent History,” which is a compilation of my newspaper essays.  “The Benefits of Blending Religion with Earthly Business” was a criticism of Turkish secularism. Another is called “The White Turks, The Black Turks and The Mountain Kurds,” which critiqued Kemalism, conservationism and the Kurdish mind. Thus, I have five books published, and my most significant is my last on called “Islam Without Extremes”. It was published in the US, but I believe it will globally have more meaning because of its subject.

You have lectured quite a bit in a variety of platforms and venues outside of Turkey.  Why do you think you were given this opportunity? What makes you different?

I am a columnist and write in English. Since 2004, I have been writing for different magazines in the USA. This exposure, especially when writing about Islam, has piqued the interest of people and led to conference invitations.  It is the sequence of the happenings: People get interested, they invite me, new people listen to me speaking, and they invite me to other places and so on. It all develops a network.

There are two different but parallel contents in my speeches: I am expected to declare my views relevant to Turkish politics and I am expected to talk about Islam. Turkey’s becoming more effective and significant in the world of Islam coincided with those two subjects. I have 8-9 lectures planned in US; I’ll be at   Barnes & Noble in  Redlands, CA on October 5, in Peace Catalyst, Seattle First Free Methodist Church, on October 6; Discovery Institute, Seattle on October 7; Anatolian Cultures Festival, Costa Mesa, CA on October 8&9; Cato Institute, Washington DC on October 13 and  Heritage Foundation, Washington DC on October 17.

Some of these lectures are about my books and others about the recent political happenings in Turkey. Then, I will head out to London to speak at the National Liberty Club. I will be going to Saudi Arabia and Israel afterward.

There are many reviews published in recognized media outlets outside of Turkey  regarding your last book , titled “Islam Without Extremes”. Why do you think there has been such attention?

The west has interest in Islam, both in a good and a bad way. Islam has become a main part of the agenda after September 11. There is politics of Islam, an Islam world, and fear of Islam. There is a big crowd who are not phobic, but curious about the religion. There is anxiety, which is caused by the authoritarian, repressing administrations and terror in the Islam world. There is criticism of the West within the West.

I am trying to tell relevant things to people and debate against Islamophobia by bringing my experiences from Turkey, since I am an author in that country. For the last 10 years or so, there has been a big debate in the US.  I believe I contribute to this on-going debate through my publications, but as an author from Turkey.

What are your messages conveyed in your writings on Islamophobia and for which audience?

What I say to the West is that there are problems in the Islamic world, but not all of them are caused by Islam. There are dictatorships in many Islamic countries, but this is not a product of Islam; it is the result of the structures relevant to the location. There is violence against women, but this is the problem of macho men and male-domination. These problems are not caused by Islam; violence against women exists in the West as well. It exists in the Christian communities of both west and east. These problems are caused by local culture. I am explaining to the west that they are partially responsible in the creation of radical Islam. These are definitely consequences of the unlimited support to Israel ,and to the dictatorships against as well as the rough politics  towards the East. At the same time, I accept that Islamic thought needs reform. I especially  try to transmit that message to the Muslim world. What I say is “I, as a Muslim, am very loyal to my word and this is a very precious thing that will last eternally”.

Could you interpret the term “ijtihad” ?

Before we get to ijtihad, I’d like to state that the first few centuries of Islam is a period when significant debates were ongoing.  It is an orthodox tradition that has settled afterwards. I reviewed some of those debates in my book, especially the ones relevant to the concept of freedom. There is a debate between People of Reasoning and People of Tradition. People of Reasoning believe in the Qu’ran and the mind.  They are led by Imam Azam Abu Hanifa. The other group, People of Tradition, disbelieve and distrust the mind and believe it is misleading people. They desire to limit human rights by looking to or finding reference in the ‘hadith’. They emphasize the importance of hadith in Islam. The hadith began to be collected two hundred years after the death of Muhammed.

First of all, it is very suspicious that the hadith found are trustworthy. Secondly, even if it is discovered that the prophet actually was doing something in a specific way, it should not be forgotten that it is very historical. For instance, one hadith states that “The Prophet ate seven dates every morning”. The question is should this activity be taken as an Islamic norm, just because the prophet was doing this; or should we say that he was doing whatever everybody was doing? The simplest example of this is the clothing. For instance, the shape of the beard based on sunnah-based reasoning, the clothes, use of “misvak” etc. I do respect people who choose to live that way.

Has local interpretations formed after the Prophet? Are there any arbitrary enforcements?

First , there are prohibitions that are out of the scope of verdict of the Qur’an; and, second, there is tendency of interpreting the verdict of the Qur’an in the way people want.  It is inevitable for people to interpret it differently from each other. Let’s say I am a liberal person and I have an interpretation, and someone else is authoritarian. There is apart in the Qur’an that says, “Command the good, ban the evil”. Authoritarians say “Yes, that is what we do, we ban the evil, we command the good”. But that quotation does not necessarily mean imposing is the way to achieve this end. There is another part saying, “There is no forcing in the religion”, but they ignore it and somehow see the other.

Many Muslims agreed that democracy is appropriate for Islam in the modern age, but no one had stated that in the 18th century.  This is because democracy was not a part of the agenda. Inevitably, we all live up to the values of the time we live in and we interpret the religion with that perspective. What I want to emphasize is that the writers whom have written the books we sanctify, were interpreting the religion with their own time’s perspective.  It’s impossible for Imam Hanbal, Şhafi and Malik, whom have lived in 9th-10th century, to develop a perspective for democracy. They tried to expand the political perspective of Islam, bringing up terms like the School Of War and School Of Islam. Anywhere not governed by Muslims is seen as a battlefield. One would not be able to go to Byzantine and live freely as a Muslim at that time, but today Muslims can go to US, UK etc and live freely as a Muslim because of the law within a democracy has developed this ability. As we see, it is inevitable for Islam to comprehend Islam once again. I respect the old understandings, but if we try to carry on with them we will make mistakes.

The Qur’an focuses on the individual and does not emphasize the collective very much. What is the place of congregations in Islam?

The Qur’an, like I stated in my book, focuses on the individual. The individual has responsibilities to Allah. It also appeals to the crowd of believers, but we should note that this crowd is led by the Prophet.  There is just one reality and no such reality afterwards. There are some properties given to the crowd of believers, but there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today and it is impossible to carry on with this definition of the “crowd of believers”.

The Qur’an says obey the Prophet.  He is not alive at the moment and nobody was authorized after his death. The understanding of “congregation” has risen after the Qur’an.  For example, it says every individual is going to account for himself, but in the post-Qur’an period  the idea of intercession has been empowered. Of course Muslim people are allowed to form congregations among themselves; it is acceptable to gather around an idea, form an understanding of service, publish a newspaper or establish a charity organisation. But to believe in a congregation, saying it’s the only right way to practice Islam,  saying everybody outside of the congregation is deviant or believing, it is necessary to engage in a congregation, is wrong. I might feel like  one congregation close to myself, I might learn something from it and after a while change my mind and leave it. This cannot be a religious responsibility. Religious responsibility is to Allah; it cannot be an individual. I believe the conception of congregation in Islamic world should loosen up a lot more.

When we examine the sectarian differences, we see variance among application. The first thing to come to mind is “Either the Prophet was doing all or he wasn’t doing any of this.”. What do you think about that?

This is pretty much impossible to know, as hadith books were written almost 200 years after the Prophet’s death. The authors of these books argue that they picked the precise happenings, but the understanding of the authors is subjective. We do respect their work, but Muslims, just like they suspect Bible considering it may not be accurate seventy years after Jesus’s death, should have a critical approach towards these texts, which have many conflicts within. I am not implying the hadith has no importance at all, but they are historical resources and may  or may  not be accurate. The Qu’ran is different; it has a sacred position.

Islamic Reformists in 19th century started their work by criticizing the hadiths. Shariah is based 95% on hadiths, especially the rules debated in the modern world such as the death penalty for abandoning Islam, repressing women and treating them like second class human beings, or on physical punishments.  They do not exist in the Qur’an. There are some punishments, but in my opinion there is none for sins.  This is what I am explaining in my book. There is punishment for crime but not for individual sins. The Qur’an says “do not drink wine,” but no punishment exists for engaging in this behavior.  Thus, in my book, I am talking about the freedom of sinning. The Ulema decided that some behavior must be punished at the time, but we need to focus on the now and understanding in today’s world.

You are talking about the freedom of sinning, can you explain that a little?

In fact, it is a notion that even the President of Religious Works has used, so I mentioned it in my book. When I say freedom of sinning, people tend to think sinning is a good thing! What I am asking to the community is, shall religious Muslims physically stop other people from sinning? I mean, shall I tell a gambler not to gamble, or shall I think it’s his choice, and not get involved? Shall I say “Muslim brother, you shall not do this…” ?Do I have any responsibility for enforcement? Shall there be prohibitions? There are some enforcements and punishments in Islam, but these are not based on the Qur’an, which means they are post-Qur’an and need to be questioned. These prohibitions lead us to hypocrisy.

People who practice all the religious responsibilities, who are prohibited from certain things, begin to conduct their religion by government and societal pressure. They get away from doing it for the consent of Allah. These prohibitions raise questions such as “Do people go to the mosque  for the consent of Allah or because they are frightened of the police?” Saudi Arabia is the simplest example to this: People are taken to the mosques by police during prayer time. You cannot run verses of the Qur’an by government pressure.

You say the ideal regime  for Muslims is secular regime. How should we interpret that? How do you define secularism?

Yes, I said that but I don’t mean the usual, traditional, Kemalist secularism. I distinguished this in my book by defining two concepts–one being the “secular state” and the other being a “secularist state”. Secularist interferes with your religious service by trying to make you less religious. It does not lock the mosques but does not like the Qur’an courses.  It tells you not to send your kids to those courses before a certain age. This is wrong, and I am against this.  This is traditional secularism in Turkey.  Liberal secularism is a good thing.  The fact that government is not defined by a religion permits individuals and  congregations to develop their own religious views. From this aspect, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s defending secularism in the Arabic world was very good.  I liked it.

You talk of a third way in “Islam Without Extremes”. What is the third way?

Third way is about the name of the book. Two opposite groups came across each other in 20th century.  The first was secular dictated. Even though they don’t define themselves as secular, Hüsnü Mübarek was a secular character. As in İran, the new secular and Islamic authorities clashed. Like the national view in Kemalism, this also has an authoritarian vision.  However, the advantage in Turkish version is that the National View stayed among a small branch of a thought.  Democratic Islamic thought formed and found its address in the central right, evolving toward an Islamic democracy.  On the contrary, the Islamists that Mubarek repressed became more radical.  This led to terror entering the picture.  The compromising way, therefore, is a third way that lay between authoritarian secularism and authoritarian Islam.  Beyond the Islamic understanding, the third way is at peace with both democracy and Islamic values. I believe Turkey is the best example of that.

There are 3 parts in the book: “freedom of states”, “freedom of sinning” and “freedom in religion”. In the first chapter, I state that secularism is an acceptable and appropriate  regime for Islam.  In the second chapter, I argue that no religion should be imposed.  In the third, I explain that people should have the right to abandon and live their lives outside of Islam.  All three of these are already widely accepted in Turkey. A secular state that is not pressuring and liberal secularism, which is what AK Party is defending.  “People can sin if they want , we live with our own religion. Or people could be Christians or atheists but they must be safe and free in this community”.  These are all argued and accepted in the Ottoman State as well. Ottoman intellectuals, such as Namık Kemal and Prens Sabahattin are of this view too. They want liberalism, but they think there are Islamic grounds to it. That tradition becomes forgotten in time and a strict Kemalism takes over. Islamists become poorer in ideas, their language gets more radical but they cannot hold on. Fortunately , the democratic main position which defended epistles of Nur prevailed. Is Turkey perfect? No. Turkey’s situation should not be exaggerated but it is in a very good place in comparison to other countries.

Can you share your observations about other Islamic countries?

I have been in the Arab countries in the last 10 years, but I cannot say I know their internal structures very well. I read the debates about political Islam and secularism in Arab world and we developed our relationship with Arab intellectuals only  via interactions. Therefore, I cannot say my book draws a very detailed picture of the Islamic world. Some people say they oppose the Islamic Movement of Egypt. That is not me; I read, I follow from the media what they think, what  are the debates about democracy in the Arab world, how do they see Turkey and etc.

How do you think they see Turkey?

There is a lot of attention directed at Turkey in the Arab world. More modernist and reformist of the Islamic movements in the Arab countries take AK Party as a model. I do not say all the Islamists do this, but there is a reformist and a traditional group among the Muslim brothers and sisters in Egypt. The group that reacted to Erdoğan’s secularism lecture is the traditional group. Some of those traditional groups actually broke and founded more liberal parties such as WASAT.  The change in that direction in countries like Egypt, Tunisia or Libya cannot happen in one day.  Just like in Turkey, it will happen step-by-step; they have a tendency to change. There are people who admire Erdoğan and want to be like him among the members of PAS, which is the Islamic Party of Malasyia. There is another group calling themselves Erbakan-followers. Turkey is the best example in converting Islamism into democracy. As one part of that movement follows Tukey with interest, another group tries to avoid thinking that Turkey is too liberal for them. Even in Turkey, there is a Muslim crowd thinking AK Party is a little too deviant, arguing that it made Turkey too capitalist, too democratic and modern.

 “Law” is a very important factor for a liberal view.  Does it coincide with Islam or your expression “liberal Muslim”?

There are parts in my book which I debated about the general, universal definition of Law. Is law something government makes or does it exist prior to the government, which the latter must follow?  Positive law is something government makes, and natural law exists without the government; government has to obey it. It is not true to believe whatever the government does is right. There are certain rights and wrongs, which are universal and government obeys them. Liberalism naturally defends law. For instance, Hitler made laws and killed Jewish people; this cannot be justified just because it was law created by government. This is why we have universal human rights and governments are expected to obey them. This is what the liberalism of the West defends and the definition that coincides with this in Islam is Shariah. Shariah is a law above the government. For instance, the government cannon just come and take over my wealth because, by Shariah, that belongs to me and the government has to obey that law. The main idea of the Shariah is that law is something Allah created, grounded in the Qur’an and details of which were left to be discovered by humans. Fairness is a concept beyond government and state.

Kemalists in Turkey argue that law serves the state, but in fact state serves the law. Shariah is way beyond the government because it takes power from Allah, a divine source. When a sultan has been cruel to the public in the Ottoman Empire, the people yell “We want Shariah!”. This means “ We want justice!”. Once upon a time, a Muslim Emir levies a very high tax on Hindus in India. The head of Islamic structure at the time says “You can’t. It is against the Shariah.” Yavuz Sultan Selim tries to convert the Christians to Islam by force and the religious leader says, “They have the right to stay Christian by the Shariah. “Şeyhülislam, Sheikh ul-Islam,” is like the constitutional court at the time, so the sultan cannot do whatever he wants.

The question we need to consider then is what is Shariah. Is it a group of laws formed in 7th and 8th centuries or  is it the meaning and goal of it? There are two different understandings; one says it is just what the word says and the other argues it is the meaning behind the words. Imam Shafi, who lived in the 14th century, has a theory called the Intentions of Shariah.  He says in that theory that Shariah has five main goals: to protect the life, to protect the religion, to protect the ownership, to protect the will and to protect the mind. These are the main factors that form a state of law. Are these goals universal? Yes. The ways of conducting those could change from time to time. In the old times, it was impossible to build a prison.  If you employed a guardian, it would be torture for the guardian.  That is why there were physical punishments in the first times of Islam;  it is the same all around the world. The prison was founded in the time of Hz. Ömer. The physical punishments changed by interpretation and stoning someone to death does not even really exist in Islam. There has only been two stoning  cases in the Ottoman Empire. The verdict of Shariah can and should change; the physical punishments of the time can be replaced by imprisoning.

What are the similarities and differences between Europe’s and US’s perspectives towards Islam?

Europe and the US are both pretty consistent internally, but if we compare them with each other, being religious is less accepted in Europe. It is weird for them to see a woman wearing a head scarf and praying because Europe is much more secular. Americans respect religion more than Europeans. I like the US because of their respect for belief. The US is polarized toward Israel, while the European countries are more neutral. If you ask about the middle east and politics and closeness to Israel, the US is bad.  However, in the aspect of respect for religion, the US is far better. For instance, the prohibition of the Burka was not considered in US but it is banned in France. To place the UK near the US (both because of respect for religion and not being so close to Israel) would probably be a good synthesis of two continents.

You mentioned Israel, do you mind sharing your thoughts about Mavi Marmara incident?

I do sympathize with the Mavi Marmara mission and I classify the seige on Gaza as illegitimate.  I support the Gazza mission. There were Europeans, Irish and others on the boat as well. The Turkish government has my full support; Israel must apologize and pay a compensation. The only debatable point is how should  the activists on the boat have resisted when the Israeli soldiers came on board? The activists could have resisted passively like the others, thus resulting in no casualties. I curse Israel for shooting Furkan Doğan in the head with five bullets an killing nine activists. To prevent any further casualties, I believe the activists should have stopped instead of going on with  their  active resistance. I do believe that the activists had the right do defend their boat, but I am not debating their rights here. I am questioning what could be done to prevent casualties. Was it rightful of Hamas to throw a rocket to Israel? Well I think so, but I prefer not doing it;  they should try solving their problem via cultural, diplomatic and political means.

What is your message to the world?

I advise Muslims to look at the religion with the perspective of today’s world. Values of Islam are universal but their interpretation is historical.  There are many historical interpretations which do not fit in today’s understanding, such as “kill people who abandon religion” etc. You cannot move forward with a logic that accepts this kind of statements. As free Muslims, I believe we should be loyal to our values and represent them as well as we can. You cannot explain the goodness of Islam with another method. The values should be interpreted again, in the free world, with respect to order of law and public. This is the message I am trying to transmit with my last book “Islam Without Extremes”.


*Ayten Turan is EC’s Middle East Correspondent based in Turkey.  Source:  Encompassing Crescent