🎧 The Case For a Liberal Islam
Is it possible to be both a faithful Muslim and a philosophical liberal? Mustafa Akyol argues that the answer is a resounding yes. In his latest book, Reopening Muslim Minds - A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, Akyol uncovers a long liberal tradition within Islam—one that, he says, Muslims around the world need to recover.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Mustafa Akyol discuss the history of liberalism in Islam, how authoritarian populists use religion for political influence, and why we should be hopeful about Islam’s future.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Before we get into the question of Islam, let me pose a question to you that critics of liberalism often press against liberalism, which is that liberals just don't understand the importance of religion in general. Liberals like to talk as though we're all choosing our style of life, and that really underestimates the depth of conviction that many people have—the importance that faith plays in their lives and the importance that other ties play in structuring how they think about the world. And liberalism, supposedly, according to people like Alasdair MacIntyre, gets that sort of stuff wrong. And that's why liberalism is hostile to religion. What is your response to that set of charges?
Mustafa Akyol: There might be, and I think there are, liberals who don't understand the power and importance of religion in any society. I just hope I'm not one of those. I'm not saying that liberalism is good because religion doesn't matter. But precisely because religion is very profound and important, it should still be based on freedom, and not on coercion. Of course, we are born into religious communities. I'm a Muslim, alhamdulillah—as we say, “thank God.” I'm happy with my faith; I was born into a Muslim society and I grew up in a Muslim community. There are deep connections between identity, religion, and there's a profound sense of belief. But precisely because of that, I think coercion and religion shouldn't come together. When they come together, it actually creates counter-productive results. One thing I emphasize is that the coercive system we have in the Muslim-majority world today, in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, doesn't make individuals pious—it makes them hypocritical.
Mounk: I think the recognition of how important religion is to people entails the obligation to let them make autonomous determinations in that world. Precisely because we recognize how important these questions of religion and conscience are, we need a state that ensures that they have a freedom to do what they want: to go to religious services they choose, to be faithful or not to be faithful, to lead a religious or secular life. I think there are many liberals who formulate this the wrong way, but I think on the right account, the importance of religion is an argument for liberalism, not against liberalism.
Akyol: Exactly. I'm not arguing for secularization of Muslim societies in a forceful way. People can be pious in the liberal order. People can be fully pious and women can wear the niqab and that should not be banned. But some women might not wear that, and they can wear a miniskirt and that should be tolerated and respected as well. I believe in a free society, where piety is genuine, and not based on coercion and hypocrisy. I also understand that there is community and there is individualism and every society has a balance between those. It is fair to say that individualism flourished in the West, more so in the past few centuries. But it is coming [to spread] everywhere, because there are social dynamics [tending] towards that. People now log onto the internet, and they read whatever they read, and they are educated and they know the world, [so] they will inevitably become more individualistic. This is not just a Western thing. To say that, [is to say] Western ideas do not matter for the rest of the world. Well, then you can say democracy doesn't matter for the rest of the world. Chinese regimes love that argument, [as do] other autocratic regimes in different parts of the world. Whereas I believe some of the values that flourished in the West in the past few centuries are universal. Take the abolition of slavery: it came from Britain and it was a good idea. It took a long time to persuade some Americans, as we saw in the new American South, but should we say that the abolition of slavery is a Western ideal that doesn't matter for other civilizations? No, it was a good universalistic ideal. And I'm glad that, ultimately, despite a lot of resistance, the abolition of slavery was accomplished in Islamic civilization as well.
Mounk: Let's get to the specific case for a liberal Islam. There are two very different sets of skeptics who have different values and different goals, but sometimes make similar arguments. One of those is that the hardliners within Islam say that a liberal Islam would not be true to religion; it would somehow impoverish or be treasonous towards religion. And then, there are sort of Islamophobes who are not themselves Muslim—who say that there's something about Islam which makes it incompatible with tolerance, peace, and a more liberal interpretation. Why should we think that Islam can be liberal [despite this pushback]?
Akyol: You point out an important fact: that illiberal Muslims and Islamophobes agree on the argument that, “this is Islam, it will never be compatible with individual freedoms.” Islamophobes make this case to demonize Islam, whereas illiberal Muslims make this case to demonize liberalism. And I actually disagree with both sides. If you look at the lived experience of Muslim-majority societies today, you will see that actually, there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are happy to be living in liberal orders, or who aspire to that. It's not that there is a big chunk of the 1.6 billion Muslims who are against liberalism. It's actually already a spectrum. In Turkey, my country, which has huge political problems these days, many of the practicing Muslims do not want a Sharia state. They happen to be fasting during Ramadan by their own choice and go to the mosque on Fridays, but they don't want the state to impose a religious practice on them. Are they committed doctrinaire liberals? No, but some of the ideas, some of the principles of liberalism, are already accepted by a big number of Muslims around the world. Even in countries like Pakistan, certainly Saudi Arabia or Iran or even Malaysia, there are certainly powerful orthodoxies—[that you should] kill people for apostasy or blasphemy, or keep on doing religious policing—but there's a growing resistance against that. Not just by secular liberals, who are welcome, but also by what I call Islamic liberals. I'm especially emphasizing that tradition in Islam.
Mounk: Let's get to the practical part of the argument, which is to say: How likely is it that something like a “liberal renaissance” of Islam is going to happen within our lifetimes? What are the reasons to be optimistic about that? And what would have to happen for that to come about?
Akyol: [There is] one thing that gives me hope for the future of Islamic civilization. And that is, we are probably in the darkest era of the Islamic civilization. It is not an accident that liberalism emerged in Europe after the darkest era of Christianity, which was the 17th century, [in the wake of] the Protestant Reformation. All the killings between Protestants and Catholics and all the violence, all the people burned at the stake for being heretics, beheaded by Christians, ultimately gave many Christians a search for something better than that. All the overkill of the post-Reformation turmoil brought the recognition that there should be a way out of this. But John Locke and [Thomas] Paine said, “no, your right doctrine is the other man's heresy, and you're a heresy to him. Let's have a neutral government, a civil magistrate which only protects the rights of the people but does not impose the doctrine.” I believe that in Islam today—after what we have seen at the hands of ISIS, at the hands of Al-Qaeda, after what we're seeing with blasphemy laws in Pakistan, every month somebody is being killed or jailed, supposedly for blasphemy against a prophet—there is a growing number of Muslims in the world who are saying: “Enough is enough; we are Muslims, but we want to be out of this. We want to live in peace. We want to live in toleration.” And I think the very fact that we've had a really bad time in the past few decades in Islamic civilization is the basis on which we can build a better future.
Mounk: How do you think public opinion might start to move towards a more liberal interpretation of Islam in those societies? How might people not only reject terrorism, but also start to embrace more tolerant views on how to treat apostates or how to treat people who don't live up to the moral strictures of a religion?
Akyol: Western public opinion, understandably, is very focused on the terrorists. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and these terrible groups. They're a big problem for the world. They're a big problem for Muslims, too, because they attack other Muslims as well. ISIS bombs Istanbul and says, “this is an apostate regime.” It is a problem for all of us. From a human rights perspective, there is a much bigger scene of illiberal religiosity [and] illiberal interpretations of Islam. [...] I'm saying that, “hey, listen, these extremists are a warning sign that there are bigger issues that we have to deal with.” Because if you have a religious teaching that says apostates actually should be killed, can be killed, executed—no matter how mildly you do this—you will have a problem and the extremists are a warning sign that this is really becoming a very, very big problem. [...] I think the extremists have brought a recognition that a deep questioning of certain things in mainstream Islamic jurisprudence is overdue. I'm trying to show in my book how that reckoning can be done without Muslims abandoning their faith, but understanding that that faith unfolded in history—in a political, cultural, social context, which is not with us anymore. A lot of people are losing the faith precisely because it is illiberal.
Mounk: What should non-Muslim liberals do in all of this? What would you say to philosophical liberals who are struggling with this question, who want to stand up for liberal values everywhere in the world, but who are also mindful of the real pitfalls in that area?
Akyol: To Western liberals, I will say, “please keep the West liberal.” Because, there are currents now in Western society, from the extreme right or the extreme left, as we've seen in the US, too, that are trying to undermine the liberal order. There is rising nativism, and there is another left alternative to that which is trying to curb free speech, or freedom of religion, or the democratic system and the legitimacy of elections. It is important to keep the bar high. In terms of religious freedom, in particular, in France and French-speaking countries, what I see there is a tendency to curb the expression of Islam in the public space. France is a country that has banned headscarves in high schools and public offices for a long time. Now, there's talk coming from the far right in France, Marine Le Pen, about banning headscarves on the street. Hopefully, that's not going to happen. But when pious Muslims, innocent people, law-abiding citizens cannot practice their faith freely in Western societies, what happens? “Whataboutism” happens. Look at the Islamist literature, even the internet, look at the social media, all they will tell you is this: “this freedom thing is a lie, they don't want us, they will never accept us, they want freedom for their wine, but not for our headscarf.” They are giving Islamists an argument saying, “Muslims will never be tolerated and liberalism is biased. Liberalism is towards a secular life, but not religious life.” That's why I emphasize upholding religious freedom in the West so much. [...] Colonialism was the dark aspect of Western history in the past few centuries, but there's a brighter aspect to [Western history]—which is equal citizenship, which is liberal democracy, which is human rights, which is freedom of religion and speech. This is why Muslim refugees are trying to flee from their countries today. They're not fleeing to Saudi Arabia. They're not fleeing to Iran. They want to flee to Sweden, or Germany, or Western societies, because there is something good there. We should criticize colonialism and that colonialism should be honestly acknowledged. There should be an apology about it. However, this shouldn't create a postcolonial narrative of, “well, every society has their own standards and there's nothing to say.”
Mounk: Turkey has now been ruled by Recep Erdoğan for almost a couple of decades. It seems to be turning away from a liberal interpretation of a state and from a democratic conception of a state. Tell us what the impact of Recep Erdoğan has been on your country and how that relates to the religious movement from which he stems.
Akyol: Turkey is a sad story for me, and the trajectory of Turkey is probably the biggest disappointment I've had in life so far. In the early years of the Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Erdoğan, I was very supportive and sympathetic about it. Because here was a party with Islamist roots, which reinvented itself and wanted to make Turkey join the European Union and realize some of the liberal reforms that the EU was always promoting, but which were never realized: like more rights for Kurds, minorities, and even some feminist reforms in the early 2000s.
Mounk: Part of this was against the background of a secular regime in Turkey, which was not altogether liberal either, which actually had some laws on the books that were quite similar to the ones you mentioned in France of women wearing a headscarf.
Akyol: Sure, and thanks for reminding me of that. I should say secularism doesn't necessarily always equal liberalism. There can be an illiberal, secular political experience as well, which is what happened in Turkey, which is what happened in Iran under the shah before the Iranian Revolution. And actually, that's a part of the tragedy: the Islamic world has never experienced liberalism. We did experience some secular autocratic states, but it was not liberalism, it was not limited government.
Mounk: This observation, I have to say, I hadn't thought about before. There really aren't examples of liberal Muslim states, but there are examples of predominantly Muslim countries that were ruled by illiberal secular leaders. That's very interesting.
Akyol: There are some pockets of hope. But generally, we've seen Islamism, we've seen Arab socialism, we've seen Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism. We've seen communism, but there has never been a fully liberal democratic experience in the Muslim world. Turkey before Erdoğan doesn't look too bad compared to what it has become. It was a secular Turkey, but yes, not very liberal. Its secularism was very rigid. [...] Ultimately, it turned out that for Erdoğan this was all a Machiavellian tactic: to secure himself and then to consolidate power. And the more he stood in power, especially after the first decade after 2011/2012, he turned authoritarian. And Turkey today has become worse than the secular era. When you look at freedom of speech, it is a disaster. You say a few things critical of the government on Twitter, and the police show up at your door in a few hours. Sixty thousand people have been prosecuted for insulting the president. And Turkey has had traumas like a military coup attempt, which was real, which was not a joke. And yes, there is a Kurdish separatist terrorist movement that has been threatening, but the way the government handles terrorism is such a sweeping brush that it has led to a horrific abuse of human rights and suffocation of freedom. People ask me, “so did Turkey become Saudi Arabia?” No, it became a kind of Russia with a strong heavy dose of Islamic narrative built around it. Yes, there is some Islam and Islamism at play. But there is a heavy dose of nationalism and cult of personality.
Mounk: Let me ask you a question about how you see Erdoğan, because I tend to think of him in the framework of what I work on, which is authoritarian populism. There's obvious similarities to a figure like Donald Trump or to national figures like Viktor Orbán or Narendra Modi in India, and that helps to explain why he has been so inimical to democracy: the claim that he alone truly represents the people, which then leads to the delegitimization of alternative centers of power. There is also a different way of viewing Erdoğan, which is as a political Islamist. That puts him in a slightly different context and it might give us a different lesson about what it is about his political tradition that pushed him, despite his early pretences at democratizing the country, in an authoritarian direction. Which of these two is the more helpful frame? Or do we need both in order to understand Turkey?
Akyol: We need both. You can't say, “is Erdoğan an Islamist, or not?” Yes he is to some extent, in a Turkish sense. First of all, who is an Islamist? If you look into Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood: Islamists want to Islamize society through the states. They want Sharia to be the basis of legislation. Now, does Erdoğan clearly want that and has Turkey come to that level? No. In Turkey, there's no Islamic law still. Turkey is still a secular country. And will that happen in the next two years? Will Erdoğan say all women should be covered? I don't think that's going to happen. Because, ultimately, he relies on popular support. Half of society votes for him—in that half of society, maybe 10% are dogmatic Islamists, the remaining 30% want to believe in a strong leader, a strong Turkey, religious values, and religious rights. He is an Islamist in the sense that he uses Islam in his political language to justify his rule. [...] It is populism on steroids with a heavy dose of Islam and nationalism combined. And there is a sense of revenge against the secularists that oppressed us for a century. That's why I'm calling on Turkish secularists to realize that I'm with them right now in the political scene. But [they] also brought this onto [themselves] a little bit. Take [this as] a lesson and go in a more liberal direction.
Mounk: What should give young liberal Muslims hope for the future of the religion? What would the story look like in retrospect, that gets us to the liberal Islam you hope for?
Akyol: I don't see reasons to say, “this is Islam and it will never change.” The history of Islamic civilization shows there's lots of change. I think the very fact that we've seen really terrible episodes, which led a lot of Muslims to rethink these issues, shows that there is hope for change for a better future of Islamic civilization. Let's say to the Arab world: there is a discussion about how to go forward as Muslims. And if you put good ideas into play, you can make a difference.
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