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Turkey's Akyol, An Apostle Of The Third Way

Turkish writer and religious thinker Mostafa Akyol
Turkish writer and religious thinker Mostafa Akyol
For many Westerners concerned with reaching a permanent accommodation with the east -- or specifically, the Middle East -- Mustafa Akyol is "the acceptable face of Islam."

It is a phrase that has to be accompanied by inverted commas -- and a health warning. Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world would rightly balk at the implied suggestion that their faith is stigmatized with the taint of unacceptability.

Yet with Akyol, a Turkish journalist and religious thinker who has been in the vanguard of attempts to reconcile Islam with modern (and frankly, Western) political values, it is tempting to seek refuge in its usage.

On the cusp of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, a quick appraisal of popular Western stereotypes of Islam might be in order. These include radical men in beards (think Osama bin Laden) exhorting followers to blow themselves up in the name of Allah, the systematic subjugation of women (as in stoning sentences for adultery, or the obligatory need to wear hijab, as in Iran) or death sentences on the statute books for blasphemy or apostasy (present-day realities in, respectively, Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the United States' closest Muslim allies).

Akyol stands as an antidote to that disquieting narrative, which is what makes him attractive. This urbane, clean-shaven natural-born communicator believes in both Islam and Western-style democracy.

Religiously devout but politically independent, he has been an articulate spokesman for the view that Turkey under the socially conservative leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- himself a former Islamist -- is emerging as a mature, secular state populated by a high proportion of piously observant Muslims. He has been helped in selling this message abroad by flawless English, acquired during an education at one of Istanbul's best-known American schools.

Now his moderating and modernizing views are getting even greater exposure, courtesy of his authorship of a new book, "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty."

It is perhaps not surprising that one of the book's main themes is that Islam is misunderstood by many in the West. More arresting, though, is the strong implication that this misapprehension has long extended to many of the faith's adherents, as illustrated, Akyol's argument runs, in the adoption of religious practices that make it so unappealing to outsiders.

The reason for this, he argues, is that many of what came to be accepted as the religion's norms (such as the death penalty for apostasy) have no actual roots in the Koran but were grafted on at later stages.

Thus "there might be no contradiction between the modern idea of religious freedom and the Quran," Akyol writes. "For the latter includes nothing that penalizes apostasy.... Quite the contrary, in fact. There are Quranic verses that seem to suggest that rejecting Islam is a matter of free choice."

Avoiding 'Tyranny'

The retention of the apostasy rule is "pointless," he goes on, and also damaging to Islam. "It leads to the persecution of innocent people as well as the portrayal of Islam as a tyrannical religion." This in a free world, Akyol argues, cannot be right.

"Religion should be something that comes from the dictates of your own conscience and not the society and let alone the state," Akyol argues. "And with this conviction, I looked at Islamic tradition when doing research for my book. I noticed that many authoritarian elements in the Islamic tradition, like imposing prayers, imposing piety, or banning apostasy, or banning particular sins, come not from the Koran, the very divine source of Islam, but from various interpretations of the Koran, or later traditions, that Muslims of the Middle Ages built up according to their own mindset in that time and milieu and I think now it's time to question these things because we live in a free world and it is unjust to Islam to depict it as an authoritarian, oppressive religion."

Yet if the historical fact happens to bear Akyol out, he is clear that his views on religious freedom (Christians are not condemned to death for converting to Islam, he points out) spring from a deeper well -- inner conviction. As is often the way of these things, the key lies in childhood experience.

"I had a grandfather who was very pious and he taught me a lot about religion when I was a little kid. He told me how to pray and recite the Koran," Akyol says. "In his library one day, I found a book which said, 'If your children do not start to pray at the age of 10, then beat them up!' That was shocking for me. I knew that my grandfather would never do something like that, but that injunction in this religious book really made me disturbed and from that particular moment, I had this question: What is the meaning of prayer if you do the prayer because of your fear from oppression? What is the value of going to a mosque if you go because the religious police send you to the mosque?"

The voice of reason rings loud and clear through all this. It is a tone Akyol has perfected in his public pronouncements as a columnist for the Istanbul English-language "Hurriyet Daily News," of which he is deputy editor.

Scrutinizing Secularism

But Akyol's columns have been just as striking for their denunciations of what he sees as an unreasonable and inflexible application of secularism by the Turkish state in its endeavor to stay loyal to the political model designed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic military commander who founded modern Turkey.

Secularism in Turkey, says Akyol, has historically been distorted and misapplied, leading the devout to feel alienated and un-free to pursue their beliefs. It is a fault he believes is now being corrected.

"Turkey used to be more secularist than secular and that gave a bad name to the idea of the secular state in the Muslim world," Akyol says. "Turkey's self-styled secularism did not come from the United States. It rather came from the Third French Republic, which was focusing on freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion and it had consequences in Turkey such as the banning of some practices as wearing the head scarf in the public square. That forced Muslims to choose between these die-hard secularists and their system and the Islamists who opposed them and promised an authoritarian Islamic state."

He goes on to suggest that "there's a third way, which is liberal democracy and a secular state which is respectful to religion and I think now Turkey is heading towards that."

In these later remarks, Akyol is paying a tacit compliment to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed Turkey since 2002. In confronting the armed forces -- the traditional guardians of Ataturk's secular legacy -- the AKP has gone further than previous government in fully civilianizing the Turkish political system.

Not Universal

Yet the notion that this means the country is headed for liberal democracy is highly contentious and Akyol's ideas are unconvincing to many.

Indeed, Murat Bilhan, head of international relations at Istanbul's Kultur University and a former Turkish diplomat, disagrees with Akyol's assertion that the dichotomy between personal and religious freedom is being resolved. Erdogan, he says, is guilty of using Islam as a political weapon.

"Individualism in Turkey is totally misunderstood. It's just being bogged down [in] an imposed value system of Islam," Bilhan says. "No one has a right to push and enforce Islam in Turkey, but they are doing it, to be very frank."

"Islamic values are not secular values," he argues. "Anyone should have the right to pray, to be attached to a religion, to a belief. [But] they should not impose any other social values versus individual values. If you say you are a Muslim, that's between God and you."

The latter sentiment is one Akyol could not disagree with. The fact that it is being voiced as a complaint perhaps shows how far his views are from universal acceptance in his native land.