Mustafa Akyol - Reforms in Islamic World ala Luther or ala Locke

Pathways to Reform in the Islamic World

NEW YORK: “Liberal democracy has emerged from the era of Reformation  and Enlightenment. These movements also nurtured other  ideas like tolerance, diversity, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality before law, rule of law, free markets, right to private property, enterprise and so on so forth” said Mustafa Akyol at Istanbul Network for Liberty’s webinar on Saturday, 27th January 2018.

According to Mustafa Akyol, famed author of “Islam beyond Extremism: A Muslim Case for Liberty”, contemporary Muslim state is not as advanced and powerful as it was in the past couple of centuries ago. These weaknesses prompted colonization and war which resulted in the broken states we have now. Hardly any country in the Muslim world can boast a free society, with an exception of Tunisia, in terms of public, political and civil liberty.

One favoured answer in the Muslim world to the question of Muslim states being in a bad shape is the presence of a “dark force” which conspire against them as it makes them feel better and that it blames the “others” (the West, the Jews, the liberals). The proliferation of this conspiracy theory in the Muslim world has a lot to do with this effort to explain the bad state of affair.

Akyol agrees that the Muslim world has suffered a lot due to external forces such as colonisation but stresses that blaming others does not solve anything but deepens the conflict. This attitude stops us from looking into the internal roots of problems such as the economy, science, politics and cultural tolerance.

One of the main reasons why Akyol argues that we should be looking more towards John Locke or Adam Smith (classical liberalism) for intellectual inspiration perspective as compared to Martin Luther is that the Muslim state does not have a centralized Catholic church that acts as a monopoly which needs to be broken. What the Muslim world needs is a free and tolerant world, which is an equivalent to the Enlightenment. John Locke’s view on liberalism sprouted from the freedom of conscience and religious toleration which is what the Muslim world today needs.

To him, reform does not mean cutting of a part Quran but re-reading, going through more religious source and reinterpreting it to a modern era context. His take is to focus on reforms in the religious narrative which he acknowledges, is a difficult goal to achieve.

The webinar was attended by several individuals from different countries. Linda Whetstone from United Kingdom asked how does these changes of ideas being accepted come about as there is no central authority to spread it. Akyol replied that although there is no central authority there are religious authorities in every predominantly Muslim countries. These authorities are not going to define everybody but they can define a certain base if they come forward wanting to change the mainstream dynamic. However, the question is will they do so and will they have the authority to do so as it depends on the state itself to encourage a more liberal leaning thought. He recognized that there is very little progress currently but the best thing to do is to encourage the spread of these ideas.

Whetstone too asked on economic reform which Akyol recognises as an important issue as well but an easier and safer liberalism topic or argument compared to religion and politics. In the Muslim world, there is very little economic freedom as they are very powerful political states. In Egypt for example, the army and the state controls a big chunk of the economy which leads to huge amount of corruption and economic interfertility. Opening up the economy is one of the best long-term paths to nurture a more liberal culture and society whereby a state is less powerful and its people are more open and does engage with others.

Iyad El-Baghdadi from Norway mentioned that there are people arguing on two sides concerning reform. One side are in the opinion that political reform should come first as it is not possible to do intellectual reform where regimes or society have no political rights and do not give freedom of speech to even speak on reform. On the other hand, others argue that social reform and religious reform has to come first. To this, Akyol answered that there are no simple answer nor simple rules as it depends on the context of a country.

Mohamad Machine-Chian of Iran asked on the role of Non-Muslims that live in the Ummah (community) as in his opinion, are important but often ignored, citing Iran as an example. According to Akyol, there are incidents of Non-Muslims living in the Ummah years ago but it was only from the 20th century when things got bitter gradually. Non-Muslims in the Muslim land are tolerated but are not equal. In this modern era with the idea of citizenship and equality of law, there comes a demand that all should be equal but this equality is not culturally accepted by all Muslims and even not legally accepted in some Muslim States such as Indonesia and Iraq whereby Non-Muslims could not hold important roles in politics. Akyol emphasized that there needs to be a cultural understanding and recognition that people should not be discriminated or prosecuted for their believes.

It is argued by some that Non-Muslim living in Muslim land should show respect to the majority and do not unveil practices that might go against or disrupt the majority such as public drinking. To this, Akyol responded that if it is a good principle, the minority should then honour the majority sensibility but this is not always the case as seen in France. Should the Muslim females take off their headscarf because it offense the French majority? Should the Muslim not request for halal food? Akyol highlighted that if Muslims fight for the Muslim minority, they too should do the same for the Non-Muslim minority. “Think about Muslim as both majority and minority. If we do not accept that, how do we justify it?” asked Akyol.

“Tunisia is a good example [of a state that achieved its freedom] because it has been able to show that consensus work” said Akyol. Turkey on the other hand is in a toxic state of mind and would not be going back into a liberal reformist state anytime soon but hopefully will in the end. Akyol ended the webinar stating that he hopes to see more reform happening in the Muslim world.

Istanbul Network for Liberty held its first webinar of their Islam and Liberty Webinar Series 2018 with acclaimed journalist and author, Mustafa Akyol, as the guest speaker. Istanbul Network CEO Ali Salman moderated the webinar. Mustafa Akyol spoke on “Reforms in Islamic World: ala Luther or ala Locke” whereby he differentiated the different reformation pathways needed in the Muslim World. The webinar was joined by participants from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Norway and Germany.

*To watch the full webinar, please visit our YouTube channel here.

Reported by: Isabel Loke