Global Politics

Making the Case for Muslim Liberty

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Mustafa Akyol (Photo: thewhitepath.com)

Meeting Mustafa Akyol on a Friday night during Ramadan in the Asmalimescit quarter of Istanbul, you probably couldnt tell it was the holy month for Muslims worldwide.

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In fact it is a lot emptier than usual tonight but not because of the holiday. Shortly before Ramadan, witnesses say, municipal police brutally grabbed tables and chairs off the street while customers were still eating and drinking at them. The controversy is only the latest in Turkey's perennial conflict between its Islamic faith and its secular government. Akyol says the restaurant owners accuse the city of forcing Islamic morality on the public.

"Some people say 'well, they weren't paying the rents and people couldnt walk on the streets, because there were too many chairs and there was a pragmatic reason to do that,'" Akyol says. "Others say 'Oh, this is an Islamic minded municipality, so they're trying to minimize the space where you can drink alcohol.'"

Akyol is a writer and columnist from an urban, educated secular background. He considers himself a believer in keeping with Turkey's moderate Islamic tradition.

"I dont see that much of a Sharia-minded conspiracy," Akyol says. "I think it's more pragmatic." After finding a quiet corner to sit in, Akyol makes the argument for his book "Islam without extemes: a muslim case for liberty."

"When 9/11 happened, many people in west looked at the Arab world and Muslim world, and said oh, there are hardly any democracies, so Islam might must be producing non-democratic regimes," Akyol says. "There's a catch in this argument. Many of the dicators in Islamic world are secular, not Islamic. like the dictators in Tunis, the regime was banning the headscarf on the street, it was very secular-minded."

A lot of the Muslim extremists developed their tactics because of political oppression from secular dictators, Akyol says. To blame Islam for the Middle East's political problems is like blaming Christianity for the attack by Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik, who killed innocent civilians to achieve his political goal.

"Of course this doesn't make Christianity responsible at all," Akyol says. "But I think it should be seen, he acted in the name of the western identity. He was a terrorist who in his own way was protecting the west from Islam. With Al-Qaeda you have a similiar picture, you have people who think they are protecting the Muslim identity against the west."

The sad irony of that act in Norway, Akyol says, is that there's currently a worldwide movement toward Islamic liberalism. And it's being led by Turkey, since the Islamic AK party won power 8 years ago playing by the rules of the democratic game.

Akyol says: "Turkey emerged as a very successful Muslim nation, succesful in terms of economy, diplomacy, prestige in the world. Also, it emerged as this country in which Islam and democracy really go together."

Turkey is now an example of a successful country by any standards, he says. It's a rising regional power with one of the world's fastest growing economies.
"And that's why Turkey is becoming more interesting for the average Muslim in Tunis, in Cairo, in Bosnia, everywhere," Akyol says.

But Turkey is also inspiring for religious reasons, he says. Islamic parties from Egypt and Tunisia are studying the governing AKP to understand how an Islamic party governs a secular state. "And I think in Turkey there's a silent Islamic reformation going on," Akyol says. Akyol doesn't expect a Muslim Martin Luther to post a thesis on the door of a mosque, but rather a growing bottom up demand for Muslim liberalism from society.

Experts aren't convinced that there is a worldwide Islamic reformation. And if there was, whether it would come from Turkey. Gareth Jenkins is an analyst and author of the book Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? He says it's unlikely that Turkish religious initiatives would find much traction outside the country.

"Turkey traditionally has not created any great Islamic theologians," Jenkins says. "I think, the real change in terms of Islamic theology will come from Arab world or from Southern Asia."

But even without theological influence, Jenkins says that Turkey can enjoy respect across the Muslim world by being both pious and modern. Jenkins says: "If Turkey is to serve a role for the Islam world it won't be in terms of re-interpreting Islam as a religion. It will be more in terms of how they live Islam in the modern world, and I think that's quite an important difference."

Back in Asmalimescit, Akyol says Turkey's growing middle class will be leading the changes. Ten years after 9/11, a globalized Turkish and world economy may help increase the spread of moderate Islam.

"I think, in a decade from now, we will have an even more modernized Turkish society, and a middle class which is very modern and religious as the same time," Akyol says. "We are seeing the signs of that now. We are in Ramadan and there are advertisements of mini golf before the fast-breaking on Ramadan nights. So that's the middle class culture thats coming up in Turkey."

The Muslim yuppy might well serve God by fasting during the day at Ramadan and then enjoy a jazz performance at night. "So now that person is a person you can convince easier when you make the case for Islamic liberalism," Akyol says. "I think, this trend will continue as Turkey continues its economic success and its integration with the world in general."

At the same time, the tensions between Islam and secuarlism in Turkey don't appear to be going away anytime soon. Among the bar-owners in Asmalimescit, rumor has it the tables will be back in the streets after Ramadan.