The 2019 Acton Lecture Series continued on April 25th in the Mark Murray Auditorium at the Acton Building, where we welcomed Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a regular lecturer at Acton University to share his thoughts on the prospects for liberty in the Islamic world. Akyol discusses some of the serious social and political challenges that many Islamic nations face, and shares some ideas on how human rights and the idea of individual liberty might be strengthened.
Update: Transcript added after the jump.
[00:00:00.270] – Kris Mauren
Good afternoon! My name is Kris Mauren. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Acton Lecture Series. In addition to those of you who are able to join us here in Grand Rapids, the Acton headquarters, we are joined around the world, I’m pleased to say, through Acton live streaming. So welcome to all of you who are joining us in that way today.
[00:00:25.070] – Kris Mauren
Our topic goes to the heart of the mission of the Acton Institute, which is the rapprochement between religion and liberty. Now, when Father Sirico and I began Acton Institute nearly 30 years ago, a considerable challenge for us was the integration at the time between Marxism and Christianity, certainly in the Catholic world and Latin America, that took the form of liberation theology.
[00:00:57.080] – Kris Mauren
And it wasn’t only becoming a dominant force in Catholic institutions, but, but also taking root in many Protestant faculties of theology as well. Now father and I knew we had a long and difficult intellectual battle ahead of us to bring about a challenge to this position that was holding sway between Christianity and Marxism. Some progress I think has been made, often we think two steps ahead and one step back. But to take on the challenge of a rapprochement between Islam and freedom takes considerably more courage. But it is a necessary and important intellectual effort, and then one that we fully support here at Acton.
[00:01:47.450] – Kris Mauren
And for more than a decade our speaker Mustafa Akyol has been actively and courageously leading this effort in a popular manner. As a professional journalist and public intellectual, he’s been writing books, giving lectures, and writing articles and publicly speaking around the globe. And speaking from a deep knowledge of both the history of the Muslim faith, but also a knowledge of it theologically. And he’s not at all naive about the challenge. Indeed he’s been in jail, and also had his books banned in Muslim countries for speaking about things such as religious tolerance and religious freedom.
[00:02:38.040] – Kris Mauren
But as one committed to both faith, freedom, reason, and religious toleration, he’s compelled to continue to speak out about these themes for the Muslim world to hear, and for Christians to understand and better appreciate, and to ultimately support. And we’re pleased to welcome Mustafa here to learn more about his good efforts, to understand better his case for the freedom for the case for freedom within Islam, and to support his mission within Islam. So please join me in welcoming a longtime friend of our work personal friend and collaborator in this rapprochement between religion and liberty, Mustafa Akyol.
[00:03:34.130] – Mustafa Akyol
Good afternoon and thank you. Thanks to Acton Institute for hosting me here again. I mean it’s been a decade that I come here every June and attend Acton University, which is really a great pleasure and honor for me to do. And now I’m happy that we can discuss today with all of you today, and thanks for joining us this afternoon.
[00:03:53.970] – Mustafa Akyol
I mean Kris said that I was jailed—well, there are people who go through more terrible things than what I went through, so I should say that I was jailed just for one night in Malaysia.
[00:04:04.110] – Mustafa Akyol
This was two years ago. And the reason was that I gave a lecture in which I defended religious freedom, and I ended the lecture with the emphasis that religion cannot be policed. Then five men walked in and they said, “We are the religion police.” So I had to spend that night with those gentlemen, and, you know, in a religion police cell. But luckily with some diplomacy I was let go. But you know people go through more terrible things than what I’ve gone through in other countries and around the world.
[00:04:39.750] – Mustafa Akyol
So there are people in the Muslim world who are trying to fight for these good ideas of freedom and dignity and equality. We should honor all of them. But thank you Kris for reminding that as well.
[00:04:52.540] – Mustafa Akyol
I want to begin actually by honoring the victims of, more than three hundred and fifty innocent souls who were killed in Sri Lanka last week, unfortunately by terrorists acting in the name of my religion. I’m sad to see that. They were, most of them were Christians worshipping in churches on Easter. I share the pain of their families and their beloved ones.
[00:05:20.590] – Mustafa Akyol
And I should admit that there are people who are acting in the name of Islam and who are doing these terrible things in the world today. I just should say that they are really, really marginal in the broader Muslim world. They are— that, there is a reason why they’re called extremists: they’re really extreme. And they, that’s why they sometimes attack fellow Muslims as well. They bomb mosques, and they target Muslim communities that don’t agree with their zealotry. They act in the name of Islam, they use Islamic concepts. So I’m not going to say they have nothing to do with Islam. But they represent a very fanatical strain in the Muslim world today.
[00:06:00.990] – Mustafa Akyol
They typically call themselves jihadists. You know that term jihad is out there. I should just emphasize that Islam does have a notion of jihad which means struggle, but it has meant traditionally military struggle in the name of God. So there is something there. But in traditional Islamic understanding, doctrine, Jihad never meant attacking innocent civilians. It was a war between armies. Muslims fought the crusader armies. It was battles.
[00:06:32.990] – Mustafa Akyol
Actually, there are injunctions in classical Islamic jurisprudential text saying that do not attack women and children. Prophet Mohammed has saying, fight in the name of God but do not attack women, children, monks, and do not tear down trees.
[00:06:48.590] – Mustafa Akyol
These, this fanatic strain started in 30, 40 years ago, saying that we have to attack civilians because we can’t defeat those big armies. So they adopted modern terrorism methods and they called this jihad. But overwhelming majority of mainstream scholars condemn this. So we should I think mention that.
[00:07:07.940] – Mustafa Akyol
So, groups like ISIS Al-Qaeda these are really extreme, although they’re very dangerous. But I’m of the opinion that even in mainstream Islam today, there are serious problems. Tot terrorism problems, but authoritarianism problems. And I will focus on that a little bit. That’s mostly my work, is about what is this problem? Well that is a lack of appreciation of full human dignity and liberty. If you go around the Muslim world today there are like, some— there are like forty seven Muslim majority countries. You will find a big lack of freedom in broad sense in most of them.
[00:07:52.490] – Mustafa Akyol
Sometimes that problem comes from not Islam, but from secular ideologies. One of the worst Muslim dictatorships is Turkmenistan. And you know the problem there is not Islam, but it’s communist heritage and the cult of personality that’s still continuing there with Stalinist roots. You have problems with nationalism, you have secular dictatorships as well. But there is a totalitarian understanding of Islam which is in practice in at least a dozen Muslim countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan. And the problem there is an understanding of Sharia Islamic law that doesn’t allow apostasy, and it executes people for apostasy, which is to changing your religion.
[00:08:34.340] – Mustafa Akyol
Of course, if you change your religion from Christianity to Islam, that is welcome. But if you change from Islam to another religion, or if you become an atheist person, if you declare that, that’s considered apostasy and that is criminalized. And there are blasphemy laws which could put innocent people in jail. That has happened in Pakistan recently to Asia Bebe, a Christian woman.
[00:08:56.780] – Mustafa Akyol
There are there are laws that consider non-Muslims as unequal and consider them in a lower status. There are laws that don’t accept gender equality and degrade women. So there is a problem today in mainstream interpretations of Islamic law, that is Sharia, which is out there. We have to accept that.
[00:09:17.780] – Mustafa Akyol
But why do we have this problem? Where does it exactly come from, and how can we go forward? I’ll try to say a few things about that. Let’s begin with Islam. I mean Islam itself. What kind of a religion is Islam? If you read the Koran, if you look at Prophet Muhammad’s life, you will see a very basic theme. Islam was a proclamation of monotheism in a pagan, polytheistic, atheistic Arabia in 7th century Arabia.
[00:09:50.960] – Mustafa Akyol
We Muslims believe Prophet Mohammed was just an ordinary man. He was not divine. He just received the divine message to proclaim monotheism to a pagan society.
[00:10:01.820] – Mustafa Akyol
Mecca was a place of a pantheon, people worshiped hundreds of gods, and Prophet Mohammed came and said there is no God but one God. And who was that one God? The Koran makes leaves no doubt about it. It’s the God of Abraham. So it’s the same God who had revealed the Torah before, who had sent Adam, and Moses, and Noah before, and Jesus as well. The Koran acknowledges Jesus highly as the Messiah, accepts the virgin birth, but, but doesn’t define Jesus as divine. So there’s a big difference there between Islam and Christianity. But highly respects Jesus and Mary as well.
[00:10:41.960] – Mustafa Akyol
So in the Islamic understanding, Prophet Mohammed was just yet another monotheistic Abrahamic prophet to Arabs—people who didn’t have the monotheistic tradition of Jews and Christians. And on this again, I think it’s fair to, when we’re criticizing Islam in a comparative perspective, always I think it’s fair to criticize it compared to Judaism rather than Christianity, because on most issues Islam followed the Judaic pattern.
[00:11:11.060] – Mustafa Akyol
Why do I say that? Well the Koran is a book like the Old Testament, at least the first five books in terms of its content. Prophet Mohammed is a figure like Moses. Actually Moses is the most significant person in the whole Koran. The most— his stories are all over the Koran. Maybe a combination of Moses and Joshua, because he led also wars to protect his community. A lot of Muslims think that they are defensive wars. Some of them have interpret them as aggressive wars, and therefore they justified conquest. But that’s a disputed issue in Islam. And most importantly, just like Judaism Islam emerged as a legal religion, which means there is a divine law, a very detailed law, that you have to observe, and that law defines your piety.
[00:12:02.170] – Mustafa Akyol
In Judaism it’s called halacha; in Islam called, it’s Shari’a. They’re very similar actually on many issues. dietary laws—Jews don’t eat pork, we don’t eat pork. Boys are circumcised. Same thing in Islam. Or other, and, and, the only difference though, the big difference is though, in Judaism, halacha was a law that ruled the land until the Romans came and destroyed Judea in first century. So after that, Jews have been a stateless minority for two thousand years. So the penal code of halacha didn’t get implemented after that. So there is no, there has not been any stoning in the name of Judaism for two thousand years. One of the last episodes you see in the Gospels, Jesus Christ and, says let lets, who is that, who doesn’t have the sin, cast the first stone. So it was there, obviously. But after that, Jews became minorities, and they started to learn as minorities, and they were persecuted as minorities for a great deal of history. And today, modern day Israel is more of a secular state, so you don’t have a halachic state there.
[00:13:16.130] – Mustafa Akyol
But in Islam the Shari’a became the law of the land of states, of empires, in an unbroken way. So therefore, these are both legal religions. But Islam, in Islam, the sharia also became the basis of a political system that we in the Middle Ages called the Islamic empire, and their legal system. And it had a caliphate which ruled Muslims. It had laws about how Muslims will live and worship. It had laws about non-Muslims and how they will be governed.
[00:13:51.030] – Mustafa Akyol
Now I should say that for its time, this Sharia based medieval system wasn’t bad. It was a time that most people converted each other forcibly. Whereas, for example in Islam according to the Sharia Jews and Christians were given the right to remain as Jews and Christians. And that was a big blessing at that time. That is actually why there had been there has been cases of Jewish exodus from Christian Europe to the Islamic lands to the Ottoman Empire in particular, because the Ottomans didn’t enforce Jews to convert, where, whereas they were, they were going through that experience in Spain for example in the 15th century.
[00:14:32.200] – Mustafa Akyol
The Shariah gave Muslim woman the right to own property, which was again not a very common thing in that era. So for its time it was not bad, and actually nobody criticized human rights violations in Islamic law five centuries ago.
[00:14:48.970] – Mustafa Akyol
however things dramatically changed in the world in the past three or four centuries. With thinkers like John Locke, ideas of freedom, ideas of equality before law, they came around and they were established. Christianity sometimes spearheaded these new ideas, sometimes made its peace with them. So in the modern world today, you come to a position of human rights declarations, all people are equal under the law. They have a right to change their religion, to be religious, or not to be religious. So there is a whole new set of ideas about human rights.
[00:15:24.370] – Mustafa Akyol
Now Islam is struggling to weather accept these ideas or not, because they conflict with what we have as the traditional Islamic system established under the Sharia.
[00:15:36.400] – Mustafa Akyol
And there are Muslims who think that everything is written in the medieval texts should be implemented as such, because their legalists. They think that, you know, what is written is there, without question should be implemented. And there are Muslims that are more flexible. And there is a whole spectrum out there about all this
[00:15:50.780] – Mustafa Akyol
I should remind that as a, if you’re speaking about history, the Ottoman Empire, which was based in Istanbul, my hometown, actually did some interesting reforms in the 19th century which can give us some hope for the future.
[00:16:07.930] – Mustafa Akyol
The Ottoman Empire was the seat of the caliphate, the leadership of Islam. So, and what we call today the Middle East was much, much of it was the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, the Ottomans realized that there are new ideas in the West: things like Constitution, you know, equal citizenship, freedom of religion, and should we accept these or not? They struggle with these things, and ultimately they did important reforms to accept these modern norms and institutions. The Ottoman Empire, for example, turned the ban on apostasy obsolete in the middle of the 19th century. They accepted a new penal code which didn’t have any corporal punishments, which didn’t have a punishment on apostasy. There was a punishment on blasphemy, but it was jail sentence for just three weeks to two months. and now, it was, it wasnt a huge deal; sorry, three weeks to two years at maximum. Again, today I am not advocating blasphemy laws, but it is better than being executed as they do in Pakistan today.
[00:17:10.870] – Mustafa Akyol
The Ottoman Empire declared Jews and Christians equal citizens of the empire and convened an Ottoman Parliament in 1876. Well, the Parliament was abolished two years later by Sultan Abdul Hamid, and he thought these ideas are nonsense and we don’t need this western thing called democracy. But then it came back. So it’s important that these reforms were taken by the Ottoman Empire under the Sunni caliphate.
[00:17:34.660] – Mustafa Akyol
And at that time, of course there were reactions. There were conservatives, reactionaries. The most fierce reaction came from people called Wahabbis. There was a small sect in the middle of Arabia and many people didn’t know, because they represented the most rigid literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. The Ottomans suppressed them a few times by sending them armies. And people thought that they would die out, because they’re so marginal and fanatic.
[00:18:03.040] – Mustafa Akyol
Well in the 20th century those people realize that they’re sitting on top of the world’s biggest oil reserves, and they became a powerful state. And actually, they started to use all that wealth to promote their interpretation of Islam which reaches to all corners of the Muslim world. That’s a new problem we had in the 20th century.
[00:18:19.660] – Mustafa Akyol
Plus in the 20th century, after the collapse of Ottoman Empire, colonialism came to the scene, european colonialism. That made many Muslims reactionary to western ideas; the West became an enemy to resist and fight, ideas of liberalism were trashed out, and more collectivist ideas came to the scene: Arab socialism, Arab nationalism, and ultimately Islamism as a reactionary force to bring back medieval interpretations of sharia as much as possible, and to impose them in Muslim society.
[00:18:50.570] – Mustafa Akyol
So these battles are going on in Muslim societies today. One, one way of dealing with this problem is to, well, render religious law irrelevant, to say “we have, we have secular law. Religious laws are out there, I mean, we don’t, we’re not implementing them anymore. That’s the case actually in many Muslim majority societies today. Turkey, there’s a secular law since the beginning of the Republic; the Muslim societies in Bosnia, Albania, they’re secular also. So nobody, not all Muslims are living under Sharia. Not all of them want it, you know.
[00:19:23.210] – Mustafa Akyol
However, once you have a religious law out there which says certain things, some people will have the passion to implement that. And they will try to do it with coming to power with democratic means, or sometimes authoritarian means, sometimes violent means, which gives us the whole picture of troubling conflicts today in the Muslim world. Therefore I believe in looking at them through religious law, and thinking how we can reinterpret it today and how we can make it compatible with the idea of human rights that we have today.
[00:19:59.170] – Mustafa Akyol
It’s an evolution of thought that has happened, and I think in other religious traditions as well. I think the Catholic Church, if I’m not wrong, you know, in the 1960s with Nostra Aetate, has taken certain steps forward towards like accepting religious freedom and so on so forth. My colleague and friend Daniel Philpott, who has a book on Islam and religious freedom just newly published, he, he shows that how doctrine evolve within Catholicism. The same thing can, can, can happen in Islam. of course in Islam, we don’t have a pope or a central authority who will say, this is the right doctrine. So it’s a much more chaotic and decentralized effort.
[00:20:35.170] – Mustafa Akyol
But yes, how can we go forward on these issues? Well, one thing is to say, to understand that the Sharia, many Muslims think when you say Sharia, it’s God given. But actually, Sharia is just an ideal. It’s, you implemented as jurisprudence—which is called fiqh in Islam—and that is mostly manmade. A little bit of it is rooted in the Koran.
[00:20:55.700] – Mustafa Akyol
But after the Koran there comes the sayings of Prophet Mohammed, which are disputed, because those sayings were collected after, a long time after he died, more than a century after he died. And then there are the interpretations of these by medieval scholars, who lived at a different time, and who had their own cultural backgrounds and so on so forth. So let’s just make, understand that the Sharia is mostly manmade and it is not fully divine.
[00:21:21.710] – Mustafa Akyol
Moreover, if you just go back to the Koran, actually there are strong bases for freedom. If, an important verse in the Koran that all the liberal minded Muslims love to quote is اَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ in Arabic, which means “there is no compulsion in religion.” I quoted that in Malaysia before they arrested me, and you know, that was one of the problems they had with me quoting that verse because they interpret it differently. Another verse in the Koran says, “the truth is from your Lord; let anyone who want to believe it, let anyone who want to disbelieve it.”
[00:21:57.550] – Mustafa Akyol
So there are verses is in the Koran like this. They were typically verses declared when Prophet Mohammed was the head of a minority in Mecca, when he was persecuted by the pagans. So Muslims were asking for religious freedom in Mecca. Prophet Mohammed then had to flee Medina. And in Medina, Madina was still threatened by Mecca. So there were wars between Mecca and Medina in the next phase of his career, and that’s where all the jihad discussions come from.
[00:22:29.620] – Mustafa Akyol
Now, you can understand these war saying that while he was a minority he defended he couldn’t survive there. They had to defend themselves, so that those wars were just contextual and a special case. However mainstream Islamic tradition understood it in a different way. They said those wars and the aggressive verses there about war override the ones about toleration and peace that were there in the beginning. They brought this theory called abrogation. They said the verses about fighting the unbelievers abrogate the verses about not, not, no compulsion in religion. But that is a human interpretation. That’s not in the Koran itself. So now that is something we have to challenge; we are challenging, and they’re challenging back. But that discussion is going on today among Muslims: is abrogation real or not. Some people who challenge abrogation pay this with their lives and in some, like in Sudan. And it’s, it’s a sensitive issue but this is one of the discussions.
[00:23:31.570] – Mustafa Akyol
The other discussion is the context of the Koran. The Koran doesn’t have many of the things that are in the Sharia today, and there are [unintelligible]. Like, the Koran has no apostasy ban. The Koran has no blasphemy laws. So the Muslims who say let’s go back to the Koran are actually solving a lot of the problems that we are discussing today.
[00:23:52.960] – Mustafa Akyol
But there are some things in the Koran that would not go, that would not be compatible with our modern sensibilities of human rights. Like what? Well, Corporal punishments. Probably you, you’re aware of corporal punishments because they happen, you know? People are flogged in Saudi Arabia, they’re beheaded. Actually, 37 people were beheaded in Saudi Arabia just a few days ago, with ridiculous charges, generally. They call, they’re creating turbulence in the land, which is basically being critical of the monarchy. And they get rid of people for that. There are stoning laws, not always implemented, but they’re out there. Actually, Brunei recently implemented a new penal code which has these corporal punishments.
[00:24:34.170] – Mustafa Akyol
For Muslims who defend these corporal punishments, the reasoning is clear: God said this, so we will implement it as it is exactly written. But there is a more contextual way of looking into what God commanded. And it is this: yes, the Koran says the hands of thieves should be amputated. Why? Well, one reason, one answer is that because there were no prisons in 7th century Arabia. Islam came to a society which didn’t have states and correctional facilities and guardians, and like, people were not imprisoned. I mean there were no prisons. You can’t have brick walls and wait outside and feed somebody inside there for the next 10 years. I mean, that you, would be more advantageous than the guy whose prison inside; he would have shade and, you know, food.
[00:25:26.310] – Mustafa Akyol
In that society, all punishments were Corporal; pre-Islamic Arabs also used corporal punishment. Most, actually, pre-modern societies used corporal punishment, because it was that easy, cheap thing to do. I mean there’s, to imprison somebody demands a lot of resources. You can just flog somebody and let them go. So that’s so, so the contextual way of looking at these injunctions is to say, well, God had an intention, which is punishing of a crime, which is theft, but that intention was put into context based, based on that context. And that, that intent was put into an injunction based on the context. So today we can take the idea; the idea is, crime should be punished, but we can do it in different ways.
[00:26:13.550] – Mustafa Akyol
And well the Ottomans already did these in the 19th century; they got rid of corporal punishment. So there are Muslims who are thinking in these terms, but there are Muslims who are thinking more legalistic and literalist terms.
[00:26:26.420] – Mustafa Akyol
Here—well, once you start getting into these discussions, you enter into trying to probe the intentions of God. And not all Muslims are theologically open to think about that, because there is an understand—there is a theological school in medieval Islam which said, we can’t understand the intentions of God. God, we have to just obey without asking how. Another approach said, Well, there are objective values of right and wrong, and God must have acted according to these objective values of right and wrong. So we can understand while God is commanding this, oh, is actually, he’s meaning to do this and that.
[00:27:12.930] – Mustafa Akyol
So there’s a more, there is a theological side of this debate as well. And that is the topic of my next book. Hopefully we’ll be able to speak about that here as well at some point. Behind jurisprudence there’s a theology too. And whether we believe God’s injunctions, orders has a rationale that we can rationally understand, or whether we have to obey them without asking how, that’s an also important rift here in Islam today.
[00:27:41.850] – Mustafa Akyol
Now, does economic liberty somehow relate to these issues? I think that’s an important topic to discuss. Because Acton has a lot of works on economic liberty, and I think it’s a very important aspect of liberty for sure. I will say economic liberty is going to help Muslims to discuss these issues, because it will soften political stances. But by itself, it’s not going to solve the problems of religious freedom, or freedom of conscience and other issues.
[00:28:19.460] – Mustafa Akyol
So therefore, I am very much in favor of spreading economic liberty, capitalism in the Muslim world. I have a slogan I borrowed from the left. I say, they say like, make love, not war; I say, make capitalism, not war. So, when Muslim societies do business, that helps; that softens the attitudes, opens up minds. But still there will be theological issues to discuss. So economic liberty is a part of this discussion, but it’s not going to solve the whole problem. There are theological issues to deal with as well.
[00:28:48.680] – Mustafa Akyol
Now finally, I have friends ask me typically, like OK, these are interesting issues that Muslims are dealing with. We as non-Muslims, what can we do? How we can solve your problems, right? Well I say, sorry, you can’t solve it, right? It’s like our own problem, so, it’s an intra-Islamic issue.
[00:29:09.410] – Mustafa Akyol
However non-Muslims, especially westerners, can help or not help these discussions in Islam. They can help, I think, in a few ways. And they can—OK, they can help or not help; let me explain it a little bit.
[00:29:28.700] – Mustafa Akyol
Throughout the past two centuries in Islam, there has been movements for reform, for progress, for toleration, and steps were taken, like late Ottoman Empire. There is a liberal age in Arab thought, as Albert Hourani wrote about in the late 19th century. This liberal trends generally came down or were marginalized when there were conflicts between Western powers and Muslim societies. Like after World War One, colonialism actually killed the constitutional liberal developments, and instead—because societies, when they feel threatened, they became, they become a bit more reactionary. That happens everywhere in the world.
[00:30:09.150] – Mustafa Akyol
So therefore, Westerners are not going to help the problems in Islam by occupying countries and launching wars, and so on so forth. that militancy doesn’t help; it actually has been one of the problems that added to it. What will help will be peaceful interactions: dialogue, conversation, student exchanges. What will help will be to establish a bridge between Islam and the West, Islam and Christianity. And that’s why I very much appreciate our effort here today; are, Acton bringing Muslim students around the world, scholars to Acton University. I really appreciate—those things are the things that we need.
[00:30:45.270] – Mustafa Akyol
Also I think Westerners can help by preserving a good example of liberty that we Muslims can refer to. Because whenever I, like, speak to Muslim audiences, and I say, listen, there’s something called free society and it’s really good; we should be like that. Well, I’m not going to point to North Korea as an example; I point to the U.S., or Canada, or U.K., or most of the Western societies.
[00:31:13.580] – Mustafa Akyol
The one answer I typically sometimes get, one objection is that, oh, is that the liberty that is banning the headscarves of our Muslim sisters. I’m saying, no, no, no. Not that one; that happens in France, not in U.S. You know, because, you know, French secularism is not very good when it comes to religious freedom. It is important to keep the Western idea of freedom real so that we can refer to it, saying that yes, this is good, this is good for Muslims as well. Muslims are flourishing in the West as well. You don’t need a theocracy. You don’t need an Islamic state. You need a free state under which you can be fully Muslim, and proud and safe and confident.
[00:31:51.040] – Mustafa Akyol
So we should preserve that good example, and that good example can be challenged by voices on the left, or secular progressives who don’t want to, who have a understanding of secularism that is really not tolerant to religion. It can be challenged by some voices on the far right who says we don’t want Muslims, let’s expel all Muslims and ban all mosques. Well if you do that, then I can’t say, let’s be like a U.S. You know? We should preserve freedom [unintelligible] in the West, so I think other Muslim societies and other societies in the world can look and get some ideas.
[00:32:25.990] – Mustafa Akyol
That’s why I very much appreciate the efforts of Acton to preserve liberty in the West, in America, and Western societies, and show it is compatible with religion. It is not in conflict with religion. That has made me really admire Acton the first time I came 10 years ago, and I’ve been keeping coming since then. And I still keep admiring it, and thank you for having me here. Thanks.
[00:32:59.750] – Patrick Oetting
We have time for Q and A. So if you have a question please raise your hand and Andrew or I will bring a microphone to you.
[00:33:13.890] – Audience Question
Thank you for your most excellent talk. I spent a year in Saudi Arabia, working along the people of Riyadh, back in the eighties. And I, my impression was that there, they were not so much open to just human conversation with people from the West. And I was just curious since it’s you know a very Islamic State there. How can we have discourse and productive conversation in areas like that. And my other question is What do you feel is the ultimate goal of the radical Islamists, ultimately? Thank you very much.
[00:34:10.830] – Mustafa Akyol
Thank you. Well, sorry to hear that about, I mean, Saudi Arabia. That is not the most ideal Muslim society to, you know, try to engage with. Unfortunately, it’s probably the most conservative. And of course in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people with charitable approaches. But, but it’s a very deeply conservative society. And I think one block could be, well, it could be just cultural, but religiously speaking, a very negative view of the infidels—people outside of our faith—is there in traditional, in some traditional understandings of Islam. There are other understandings of Islam that are more open. You know, we are all monotheist, all Abrahamic. There is that approach as well. But in particular, in the Wahhabi approach, actually they wouldn’t be very friendly to Shiites as well. So it’s just anybody outside of our sphere, our narrow sphere, is by definition some dark person within.
[00:35:09.340] – Mustafa Akyol
And unfortunately it’s there. But it’s something that we have to argue against. And there are grounds to argue against that in the Koran itself. There are verses in the Koran that emphasize the commonality between monotheists, Jews, and Christians. One verse in the Koran says, among all people you will find nearest to believers—believers being Muslims the Christians—because, because it says, they are not arrogant and they have learned—a tradition of learned scholars.
[00:35:40.290] – Mustafa Akyol
There was a lot of sympathy for Christianity in the beginning in Islam, because when Prophet Mohammed was persecuted, he sent his followers, some of them, to flee from persecution to Ethiopia, where there was a Christian king. And the Christian King welcomed them. and they lived safely in Ethiopia for a long time. They returned back towards the end of Prophet Muhammad’s career. So there are like there examples like that.
[00:36:04.470] – Mustafa Akyol
But other people are thinking, you know,anybody who was not like us is a bad person, so I should never talk to those persons. And so unfortunately, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Come to Istanbul; I promise better food, and—politics are a little poisonous, but still, I think people might be nicer.
[00:36:20.130] – Mustafa Akyol
And the other question was, sorry, this—the ultimate goal of radicals. Oh. They want to dominate the world. Like any utopian zealot, like the Khmer Rouge, or communist militants. I mean some of them—well, some of them in their mind are taking the revenge of attacks on Muslims, the revenge of something that happened hundred years ago, or the revenge of something happened in Pakistan. But you have nothing to do, but that person has nothing to do. But taking revenge of something that THEY did, and “they” being a whole civilization. And of course that’s zealotry.
[00:37:08.300] – Mustafa Akyol
We saw it in Christchurch when a white racist, white nationalist racist attack a mosque; killed more than 50 Muslim worshippers there. He was taking revenge of things like the Ottoman conquests of Serbia in 13th century, to people who are worshipping in a mosque in Christchurch, who had nothing to do with that. But for him it was them and he was taking revenge.
[00:37:33.290] – Mustafa Akyol
So there is a little bit of that, plus their ultimate utopia. ISIS in particular believes in some end of life apocalypse scenarios. They they believe that we are heading towards the end of times. The Antichrist will come. And while the Antichrist, defined in Muslim terms of course. And so they were on the good side and they, their, their prophecies about the big battle with the Romans—they took the Romans as NATO and Western armies. So they have these kind of very apocalyptic beliefs, that’s in ISIS case.
[00:38:09.140] – Mustafa Akyol
And al-Qaida for example, what they wanted to do, was a clash of civilizations. They wanted to provoke it. I mean this is written in al-Qaida texts. I mean, they said we will hit the head of the serpent, meaning U.S., and they will hit back, so Muslims will be awakened. They will be all awakened and become like al-Qaida in their mind. So they were provoking a U.S. backlash all Muslims. So that all Muslims become, you know, militants like them, and then we fight the ultimate battle. And the ultimate battle will be always won by us, because God is on our side. It just goes on like that.
[00:38:49.820] – Mustafa Akyol
So of course, again this an extreme view. A lot of Muslims were, actually hated al-Qaida, because they brought this on to us, right? And the same thing for ISIS. But yeah. You have a view like that in there. It’s apocalyptic, destructive, and a clash of civilizations.
[00:39:10.590] – Audience Question
Thank you for your talk. I was a surprised to learn not to awfully long ago there are communities in America that practice Sharia law. What are your thoughts about those who would advocate for such a thing, compatible, compatibility? Thank you.
[00:39:27.720] – Mustafa Akyol
Thank you sir. Well I don’t know any community in the US who advocates Sharia law as a law for the United States. Here’s this thing: Sharia is a complicated concept, and in a certain level, it is totally fine. Like, I observe the Sharia when I go to a morning restaurant. If there’s pork, I avoid the pork; I eat the cereal. So that’s my Sharia observance. Because to me, Sharia is my personal obedience to God. Because just like halacha in Judaism, Sharia is about what you eat, how do you pray? you turn towards Mecca. That is Sharia too.
[00:40:05.040] – Mustafa Akyol
But also Sharia is the family law. Also it is the penal code. But not everybody understands it in that way. A lot of Muslims agree that well, whatever your country in, you should observe its laws. But you should follow the Sharia in your communal life, in the way you marry, you divorce, in the way you lead your prayers, and so on, so forth. For example, there are Sharia courts in Britain, and they’re not stoning people or doing anything like that. That is about marriage and inheritance and divorce. It’s family law. Most Arab societies—in Egypt too. Sharia is there just as family law. And I have some problems with the patriarchal interpretations; there are, men gets more inheritance than woman, so we should, we—there are some issues there, but it is not something to be worried about the broad society.
[00:40:52.710] – Mustafa Akyol
Are there Muslims who want to bring Sharia to the whole United States? Probably some. In the UK, there was a group called “Shariah for U.K.” So they were saying, we will ban beer and everything, and they were going to abolish all the statues in Trafalgar Square, because that is idol worshipping. But this was like a few hundred people, and the overwhelming majority of British Muslims said that these are crazy troublemakers. So these are the people who would identify with ISIS and so on so forth. They don’t recognize any other law other than Sharia.
[00:41:25.680] – Mustafa Akyol
Whereas for many other Muslims while the law of the land is the law under which you can live. And they will not going to condemn Sharia, because for them it’s sacred, but they will not want to bring it. So I think we need more nuance on the discussion of this very term. And I understand: I mean, people in, in the Christian world, western world are, they see all these horrible things: stonings, killings. They don’t want that of course happening. That should not happen. That should not be allowed. But if Sharia just means people, like Orthodox Jews, have a way of life, and maybe an arbitration court on issues like marriage and inheritance, that itself should not be seen as a problem I guess. I hope this answers. Thank you.
[00:42:14.950] – Audience Question
You make a very convincing case for a moderate a more moderate view of Islam. I want you to speak to this question: after 9/11 and other similar, although less dramatic events, why was it so rare for moderate Muslims, particularly in the US, to even speak out against that radical portion of Islam? If, if moderate Islam is, is the norm and that’s the exception, why did so few moderate Islam leaders speak out against activities like 9/11?
[00:42:57.000] – Mustafa Akyol
Thank you sir. Well actually many Muslims spoke against and condemned it, but maybe they didn’t find a big voice in the media. I mean, every Muslim leader I know in the US condemned 9/11, and they said, this is not jihad. You know, this is murder of innocents. They could, they could have done more. And I would like to see more indeed. I agree with you on one part, that I would like to see more protests against all these groups. But here I think there are a few reasons behind why we don’t see it more.
[00:43:25.390] – Mustafa Akyol
First of all, a lot of Muslims refused to be associated with these people in the first place. They have, why are we being associated with these people? They have nothing to do with Islam in their mind. In their mind, islam is peaceful and jihad doesn’t mean killing innocent civilians. So these groups are beyond the pale. They even refuse to somehow be whole, be, you know, being held responsible for that.
[00:43:45.530] – Mustafa Akyol
Another approach which is common in the Middle East, which you might find bizarre but it is there, a lot of Muslims believe that these are CIA conspiracies or Mossad conspiracies or things like that. Because they can’t associate this with Islam. It’s something terrible; it’s put a stain on Islam. So Muslims couldn’t be doing this, so somebody else must be doing this. So they are doing this to create pretexts for wars and so. That’s a very commonly held belief in a lot of Muslim societies.
[00:44:14.530] – Mustafa Akyol
So that is wrong. That is a, I think, a misunderstanding of reality. They should understand that this is coming from within our ranks and we should oppose that. But at least it shows that they are not condone, I mean, they are not accepting it. They are not seeing it as something legitimate.
[00:44:33.640] – Mustafa Akyol
On the other hand, I think regarding terrorism there are a lot of condemnations. But I think I would like to see more condemnations or more reasoned answers to issues like apostasy laws or blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, for example, Asia Bibi was in jail for so many years, more than six years, based on a false accusation of blasphemy. And some, some Muslims spoke out; one of them was killed for being speaking out on this.
[00:45:02.530] – Mustafa Akyol
So some might be, some people might be also not speaking out because they don’t want to get into trouble. I mean, speaking out on these issues might bring you wrath from these groups. So that might be the other case. So to sum up I mean, I think a lot of Muslims do speak out, and if it’s not enough maybe these factors are out there. I also think that the Muslims who speak out really don’t, In this way, I mean against her, they are not sometimes that attractive to the media.
[00:45:32.130] – Mustafa Akyol
And when I was writing my book, Islam Without Extremes, in 2011, I was looking for a publisher. And one thing, in 2009, the publisher told me that, well, these moderate Islam books are not doing well. We need books like, “Islam is terrible” sort of books. They sell better. I mean because that shocks. And you know, and I know for example, sometimes radical people are making the news because they’re saying shocking things. And, and people see that. Other people are saying “this is wrong,” but you don’t make a headline with that. So there is just this dynamic of media which is putting into our face the most appalling things, but not the maybe nicer is seen. So that’s what I can say on that.
[00:46:16.070] – Audience Question
Thank you for that very thought provoking talk. My question is in regards to your last point—how can we help or not help. And in regards to, as Western influences has withdrawn from both Egypt in Iraq, we’ve seen Arab Spring and ISIS. How would you explain that in your context of…
[00:46:35.370] – Mustafa Akyol
Sorry I don’t understand?
[00:46:36.340] – Audience Question
As Western influences pulled out of Egypt, that led to the Arab Spring. Right? And then pulled out of…
[00:46:41.800] – Mustafa Akyol
Egypt or Iraq, You mean?
[00:46:42.790] – Audience Question
Egypt originally. OK. Gadhafi.
[00:46:45.870] – Mustafa Akyol
[00:46:48.090] – Audience Question
Libya. OK, I apologize. I apologize. And then to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. How does how does that explain a liberal move in this context.
[00:46:59.810] – Mustafa Akyol
Sure. Well, first of all, U.S. is not responsible for everything that’s happening in the Middle East. U.S. involvement can help or not help, and I’m not, I’m not advocating either a militant U.S. foreign policy for sure. I’m not advocating a totally hands off policy towards the whole world as well. I’ve seen U.S. military interventions have been helpful in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, where, for example, Serbian aggression against Muslims there were averted. But I can certainly say that occupying countries is generally not a good idea. Iraq, in Iraq, the occupation of Iraq, I mean, Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator. But once he collapsed—I was an Iraqi the other day; he said Now we have so many Saddam’s these we had one before. So these are rival tribal ascetic societies deep deep cleavages cleavages that are deepened by the conflict itself. And then you pull out the state has collapsed people run for power and then you have a chaos. I mean let’s not forget that U.S. occupied Iraq and the fruit was ISIS. I mean ISIS came out I just came out from Iraq first. Then it spilled into Syria.
[00:48:16.730] – Mustafa Akyol
So I think U.S. power in the world should try to first with diplomacy and soft power try to solve the problems in the world by making deals and using alliances. There might be cases of genocidal cases that you might militarily intervene to save a population. I do see the wisdom behind that. I mean in Libya, Libya was a—I mean, in Libya Khadafi was toppled and Libya devolved into a civil war. The thing is when you have a civil war situation there will be a lot of good guys fighting for freedom. And then, woah, ISIS will see an opportunity there and they will have a franchise there, which was what happened in Libya. So certainly a militaristic approach is not going to help.
[00:49:00.800] – Mustafa Akyol
But I think U.S. power should be there for encouraging moderation and diplomacy, and encouraging and criticizing its own allies for human rights violations as well, I think. One mistake of U.S. governments, I think, in, throughout the past half century has been to support dictators that are U.S., pro U.S. Those dictators tortured some people in their jails. Those people, and tortured people hate not just a dictator, but the U.S. as well. And that is the root of some of the militancy we have seen in the past couple of decades. I would say so, I mean, the U.S. should support the principles of freedom in the U.S., and in the world as well and that means sometimes criticizing that, even some allies.
[00:49:47.510] – Audience Question
So, in much of the case, Christianity, some of the things Jesus taught kind of supersedes some of the Jewish stoning and that sort of thing. In the Koran, does later supersede earlier as as a general rule or not so much?
[00:50:08.200] – Mustafa Akyol
Thank you. Well, I should say you had a great start in Christianity. You had a great start with a wise person like Jesus of Nazareth, who criticized religious bigotry, and literalism, and appeal for the heart and conscience, and, and who didn’t leave behind a state, but who left behind just a small faith community. And it was a faith community for three centuries. Then came Rome, and it became state religion, and problems began to emerge in Christianity, you know.
[00:50:37.640] – Mustafa Akyol
In Islam, that happened in the very beginning. I mean, Islam became mixed with the state in the second phase of Prophet Muhammad’s life, and with caliphs and empires; it went on like that.
[00:50:47.120] – Mustafa Akyol
So now our mission is to redefine Islam as not a state religion, but a civil religion. And it has already happened, you know, through history and different circumstances. But there are people who are resisting to keep it as a state, like a state imposed religion, and religion that comes with power. Whereas a religion that is outside of power, as I think the ideal.
[00:51:07.040] – Mustafa Akyol
In Islam, there is nothing like Old Testament and New Testament; there is just one Testament, the Koran. However, there are different cases in the Koran. I mean, there are, there is there is a word which says go and fight the unbelievers and kill them; it says that. But, when you read it, Oh! These are the unbelievers who actually persecuted Muslims in Mecca, and Muslims had to flee so they attacked again. So, there is a war like situation. So does that war verse, the worse about war, does that define a universal obligation to fight, or does it define a story that happened there? Like, I mean, when you read the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, if you read it, it’s pretty harsh. Does the Commandments there mean Jews and Christians should go out there, and, you know, implement those verses about killing the Amalek? No, it’s history. A lot of Muslims read it like that today. Others think, no it’s valid. Those people are here. We should fight. So that they could like that.
[00:52:06.220] – Mustafa Akyol
So it’s not a new Old Testament thing, but, in the same scripture which has different parts, which one you think is more definitive and more universal. And there is a tendency, there is a tendency to take the war like verses as more universal, but that happened because early Muslim empires wanted to expand, because that’s what expires—so that’s what empires want. So, so seeing that political elements in early Islam and detaching it from religion itself is one of the arguments that the liberal reformers are making today in Islam, including my humble self.
[00:52:40.840] – Audience Question
Hi, thank you. This has been very interesting. As a Christian, I do look at the Koran, because I want to learn more about other religions. but I’m wondering if the Taqiya is still current today. Because it’s, if people don’t know what Taqiya is, it permits Muslims to lie. And as a Christian, we’re supposed to love our brothers and sisters and not lie to them. It has different verses, such as, establishes that there are circumstances that can compel a Muslim to tell a lie. This verse tells Muslims not to take those outside the faith as friends, unless it is to guard themselves against danger. Meaning that there are times when a Muslim may appear friendly to non-Muslims, even though they should not feel friendly. So how do you feel about that?
[00:53:37.070] – Mustafa Akyol
Thank you for asking that topic as well, ma’am. Well Taqiya is not in the Koran as a concept. Taqiya is like being discreet about your fate, hiding your true beliefs and things.
[00:53:49.310] – Mustafa Akyol
It is mostly in the Shiite tradition, not in Sunni tradition. And there’s a good reason for that: Shiites were minorities. I mean, from the beginning, Shiites in Islam, heavy minorities they’ve been persecuted at times. So they, they, they told to themselves, don’t say your true opinion about Aisha or Omar, you know, the people that Sunnis like, but the Shia don’t like. So you have to be discreet about those things so the Sunnis may not persecute you. Now this doesn’t mean that a Muslim, every Muslim believes that they should lie all the time about their ideas and so on so forth.
[00:54:20.720] – Mustafa Akyol
People lie, I mean sometimes for strategic reasons, I think that happens in every tradition. But I don’t see a general encouragement for that in the whole Islamic tradition. That verse, there is no Taqiya in the Koran. But the verse you mentioned that, don’t take—Jews and Christians not, don’t take them as friends, is there. But the term friend—awliyaaa—used in the verse is actually like a alliance, a military alliance, and like trusting them in that sense. There is another verse which says, God commands you not to take friends only those who have fought you in the first place.
[00:55:00.510] – Mustafa Akyol
So there were—when the Quran is speaking of Christians and Jews, it’s not speaking of Christians and Jews in Grand Rapids or California. It’s speaking of Christians and Jews that happened to be in Mecca and Medina at the time. And there was a tribe for, Jewish tribes that made an alliance with Muslims, and they shifted alliance so there was a war on them. These are nasty issues. So I’m not saying that good things happen there. But it is those people in that particular circumstances. The mistake of the mainstream Islamic tradition has been to sometimes generalize those contextual verses to a broad vision. Like that whole idea of not not non-Muslims being unequal, being dhimmis…
[00:55:44.550] – Mustafa Akyol
That comes from a verse in the Koran. It says fight them until they accept to pay the jizya, which is a tax, an extra poll tax, and they accept the supremacy of Islam. Now, this was taken as a general, universal rule that Muslims will conquer places, they will allow Christians and Jews to live, but they will tolerate them but they will see them as inferior. There are now Muslim scholars saying that no, that the verse was about a particular group that Muslims fought at the time; it was like any war reparation deal.
[00:56:17.910] – Mustafa Akyol
I mean you fought us, you attacked us. I mean, you pay some war reparations and you accept our now supremacy over you. So how do we understand these things is a complicated issue, and one mistake I think is done by sometimes militant Muslims and sometimes critics of Islam, is to say, oh! You see there is a verse in the Koran which says “go and kill the believers.” Well, if I go to the Old Testament with the same approach, I’ll tell you I’ll find a lot of parts that are not sounding very nice. But they have, that had a context that had a history and, Christians can say of course, it’s the Old Testament; for Jews it’s the only testament. So how Jews understand today is I think very important.
[00:57:00.150] – Mustafa Akyol
Well, overwhelming majority of Jews do not understand it as, you know, commandments to go and kill, attack, or those things. Some of them did. There is, there, there is a radical strain in the Jewish settler movement in Israel. One of them Baruch Goldstein attacked a mosque and killed Muslim worshippers in 1994. He said, I’m fighting Amalek, the biblical enemy of Muslims. Other Jews, thank God, they said this is insane. These people are not Amalek. That was a historical episode. We have just more of those people in the Muslim world today, the people like Baruch Goldstein. But we’re trying to deal with them.
[00:57:33.090] – Mustafa Akyol
[00:57:34.760] – Patrick Oetting
That concludes today’s lecture. Thanks, Mustafa.
[00:57:37.610] – Mustafa Akyol