Interview with Islamic reformer Mustafa Akyol
"Islam needs its own enlightenment"

Turkish author and journalist Mustafa Akyol is one of the foremost pioneers of an Islam reconciled with modernity. Musa Bagrac spoke with Akyol for about his new book "Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance" and the chances for Islamic reform

Mr Akyol, one of the core themes of your book is the question of "immoral religiosity". For many Muslims, moral behaviour is possible through religiosity alone. Someone who prays regularly is therefore also morally upright. In Turkey, the Islamists have been in government for about 20 years. Yet society seems to have lost its moral compass. How can this be explained?

Mustafa Akyol: It is indeed a common view among conservative Muslims today that the liberal West may be advanced in terms of science and technology, but "we" are much more virtuous, and we should do everything to preserve our morals. And since Muslims often equate morality with religious practices and sexual puritanism, it is hardly surprising that such attitudes are widespread.

Yet if we measure morality in terms of more universal values – such as honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, impartiality, or the lack of corruption and nepotism in a political system – our confidence begins to falter.

I know this well from Turkey, where “immoral piety” has become the much-discussed character of a new ruling elite. These are Islamic conservatives, who are pious in terms of religious practices – such as wearing headscarves or abstaining from alcohol – but their rule has become synonymous with deeply unethical examples of corruption, authoritarianism, arrogance, cruelty, deceit and all kinds of ugly Machiavellianism.

I refer to this Turkish tragedy in my book in the chapter, "How We Lost Morality". Equating morality with religious do's and don'ts, without an ethical philosophy based on principles, has created this problem – and not just in Turkey, but in many other Muslim societies as well. The way forward requires reconnecting religious law (Sharia) and universally accepted ethical values.

Cover of Mustafa Akyol's "Reopenng Muslim Minds. A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance" (published by St. Martins Essentials)
In his latest book, published in April 2021, Akyol examines the causes of the crisis of Islam in the modern world and describes possible paths to a new understanding of this religion. He shows how values usually associated with the Western Enlightenment - freedom, reason, tolerance and a quest for knowledge - are certainly present in Islam, but have all too often been forgotten in favour of a dogmatic view, often for political reasons

Is religion necessary for morality?

In the West, it can be seen that secular people have moral integrity. Doesn't this contradict the Muslim idea that religion is necessary for morality?

Akyol: The lived experience of humanity, especially today, shows there is no simple correlation between morality and religion. In other words, secular people behave ethically, too, sometimes even more so than those who claim to be religious.

Traditionalist Muslims sometimes deny this fact, but that is only because they subscribe to the "divine command theory of ethics".

According to this theological doctrine, human actions are "good" or "bad", not because of any inherent value in them that we can discern with our conscience, but only because God says so. For example, theft or murder are bad deeds, but only because God condemns them through revelation. Had God told us they were good deeds, however, then they would be good.

In my book, I argue that this theological doctrine – established by Ash'arism, the dominant theological school in Islam – is at the root of many problems in religious thinking among Muslims today. But I also show that there is alternative doctrine, which is no less Islamic: "objective ethics".

This means that theft or murder are objectively bad things, that is why God has condemned them. Even if we hadn't received divine revelation, we would still be able to understand that they are bad, however, thanks to our inherent conscience and our moral convictions.

Objective ethics imply that while religion calls us to be moral, morality is a universal human value that goes beyond any religion. Reviving this doctrine, I believe, is key to any meaningful religious reform in Islam.

The ugly realities of a pre-modern world   

According to traditionalist Islamic law, it is legitimate for a female child to be married to a much older man. That is a moral perversion; how can this Gordian knot be untied? 

Akyol: It is a good example. Of course, most Muslims would consider a "marriage" between a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old man abhorrent, but it is true that you can find some strict Islamic scholars who justify it. Why? Because in traditional Islamic law, puberty was seen as the legitimate marriageable age. My argument is that there is nothing "Islamic" about this, it was just the culture of the age – throughout the entire world. Similarly, traditional Islamic law justified slavery and concubinage, not because these were inventions of Islam, but they because were the ugly realities of a pre-modern world.

The key here is being able to sparate "the religious" from "the historical". It is also having a universal outlook, so one can realise the ethical value in the education of girls (instead of marrying them off at 12), the broader emancipation of women, or in the abolition of slavery. But this really requires re-thinking the meaning of Sharia in Islam, which is what I try to offer in my book.

In your book "Islam Without Extremes", published in 2013, you attested to Turkey's much more liberal, open and democratic path. Today, however, Turkey looks more like a 'Nightmare on Elm Street'. Is religion responsible for this?

Akyol: Turkey is a great disappointment – the biggest disappointment of my own life. Because I was among those who supported the early years of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), when Turkey accomplished some important legal reforms and also seemed destined to join the European Union. But then, once they consolidated power, I saw the same AKP take a U-turn towards corruption, authoritarianism, hate-mongering and sheer cruelty.

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