Islam without extremes – a Turkish point of view

Book: Islam Without Extremes
Author: Mustafa Akyol
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 352
Price: $25.95

Matthew Kaminski

Modern Turkey dazzles the eye and addles the mind. With growth in double digits and shiny new buildings everywhere, the old “sick man of Europe” looks more like a Eurasian China-though with minarets, an aggressive media and free elections. The man who oversaw this rebirth, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began his political career from within Turkey’s Islamist movement. He won a third term in June 2011 in a landslide, campaigning with an iPad in one hand and prayer beads in the other. In recent years he has sidelined the powerful Turkish military and sought to loosen decades-old restrictions on traditional Muslim dress. Some of his opponents are in jail on treason charges. Critics call him a dictator and an Islamist. His supporters credit him with the country’s economic miracle and its new openness to democratic principles.

So which is it? To find an answer, a good place to start is Mustafa Akyol’s “Islam Without Extremes.” A columnist for English-language papers in Turkey, Mr. Akyol offers a delightfully original take on Turkey and on the prospects for liberal democracy in the broader Islamic Middle East. Throughout the 20th century, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries were offered a choice between secular and religious authoritarianism. What the Muslim world needs, he says, is a “synthesis of Islam and liberalism.” Today’s Turkey comes closest to that ideal.

Mr. Akyol, a pious Muslim and a classical liberal, begins his case by proposing a serious rereading of the Quran. “The idea of freedom-in the theological, political, or economic sense-was not unknown in classical Islamdom, as some have claimed,” Mr. Akyol writes. He notes that the Quran, compiled in the seventh century, broke with the traditions of its time and place-by mandating protections for property, appealing to the judgment of reason and promoting the idea of a rule of law (as opposed to rule by the whim of despots).

Taking inspiration from the separation of church and state in the American constitution, Mr. Akyol suggests that a liberal democracy can be built on Muslim soil as long as neither Islamists nor secular strongmen are allowed to mix religion with politics.

Mr. Akyol offers a historical narrative that shows how, within Islam, an idea of freedom was lost over time. Islam was once the world’s “supercivilization,” a leader in science and the arts as well as a great military and economic power. Arguments over what brought it low have raged for centuries. Mr. Akyol blames the triumph of “the culture of the desert” in the Middle Ages. In the language of our day, the Muslim world lost its competitive edge.

In its early phases, Mr. Akyol says, Islam was a religion “driven by merchants and their rational, vibrant and cosmopolitan mindset.” But ultimately “the more powerful classes of the Orient-the landlords, the soldiers and the peasants-became dominant, and a less rational and more static mindset began to shape the religion. The more trade declined, the more the Muslim mind stagnated.” Applying this historical lesson today, Mr. Akyol claims that “socioeconomic progress in Muslim societies” may change Islam itself-leading to progress in “religious attitudes, ideas, and even doctrines.”

In any culture, an open society and a free economy are the foundation stones of liberalism. In the Muslim world, Turkey’s experience is most instructive. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the founder of the modern republic, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) took inspiration for his republican secularism-to the liberals’ regret-from France’s rigid laïcité, which put religion under the aegis of the state. His centralized government and statist economic ideas came from Bismarck’s Germany. Atatürk was the last century’s least bloody and probably most successful social engineer. After his death, Kemalism remained locked in place for decades. Turkey was beset by coups and economic crises. By the 1980s it had reached a point of stagnation, if not crisis.

The hero of Mr. Akyol’s story is Turgut Özal, who dominated Turkish politics for a decade until his untimely death in 1993. Unashamed of his faith, he was the first modern Turkish leader to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. He had lived in the West and had worked in business, and he understood free markets. Özal gave Turkey the “gift of capitalism,” in Mr. Akyol’s words. As the economy opened to the world, so did Turkish society and politics. A new entrepreneurial class emerged in the country’s conservative heartland to challenge the secular establishment in Istanbul and Ankara.

In the 1990s, as an old and corrupt political guard ruined the economy, Mr. Erdogan emerged as a fresh talent. His popularity as mayor of Istanbul was tied largely to his ability to deliver city services.

As prime minister, Mr. Erdogan has built on the Özal legacy. Early on he won over conservative business owners as well as many secular Turks. Though the leaders of the country’s military, loyal to the Kemalist creed, made their dislike of Mr. Erdogan clear, most voters ignored them-not because they harbored a secret desire for Shariah law but because a young, dynamic society was eager to see a durable democracy take hold.

The hurdle before Turkey today isn’t the temptation of political Islam but the repressive legacy in the country’s political culture and institutions, including the judiciary and security services. Past supporters of Mr. Erdogan, like Mr. Akyol, criticize the prime minister’s increasingly authoritarian actions and pronouncements. But even if Mr. Erdogan wanted to grab Turkey by the throat and turn it into Iran-lite, the country has probably become too pluralistic, vibrant and messy for him (or anyone else) to succeed. Turkey’s experience may be hard to replicate in the Arab world… Yet Turkey offers a useful corrective to the fatalistic view that liberal democracy and Islam are destined to be enemies (The Wall Street Journal)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2014 on page no. 21

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