Mustafa Akyol: A Muslim case for liberty


The debate about Islam and Liberalism has been going on for decades, if not longer. Just as the case is with any other political discourse, Muslims have also fallen into the habit of labelling themselves, which can lead to lazy categorisations instead of proper critical analysis and thought.

“Liberalism is not the fundamentals of a religion but a political idea of how a government should conduct itself,” says Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish writer and journalist. “If I am on an island by myself, I don’t need liberalism,” Akyol says, “but I need my faith – Islam.”

The self-described libertarian was in Penang earlier this year to deliver a lecture titled “Is liberty an Islamic value?”

While Akyol accepts that the debate tends to put liberalism at loggerheads with Islam, in particular with conservatives, he strongly disagrees that they are incompatible. Liberalism is not about the fundamental tenets of faith which Islam propagates. “It is more a political idea about how the government should rule society and how much it should intervene in people’s lives,” Akyol says. It is about upholding individual liberty and freedom, which he believes is not in contradiction to, but instead is part and parcel of, Islamic principles. “It does not teach us what is sin or what is not, what is moral or what is not.”

He points out that within Islam’s rich history, there are many instances where liberal views were promoted. Case in point is the story of Prophet Ibrahim as stated in Chapter 6 (al-An'am) verses 75-80 of the Quran on how initially in awe Prophet Ibrahim was of the power of the Sun. He assumed it must be God. The fact that, according to the Quran, Prophet Ibrahim went through stages before enlightenment can surely imply that Islam encourages Muslims to search for the truth, and that faith requires voluntary belief which can only be achieved if there are liberty and freedom. “Generally, those who are against liberalism in Islam agree on totalitarianism,” says Akyol. “But individualism is inevitably growing, even here in Malaysia. The more you oppress, the likelier you are of pushing people away from Islam.”

The author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, which was longlisted for the prestigious Lionel Gelber Prize in 2012, continues, “Liberalism may allow you to do whatever you want, but if you are a good Muslim, you will refrain from doing certain things. Liberalism does not punish you for drinking, but it is still a sin answerable to God. Of course there are punishable sins such as theft, but those are crimes.” Akyol opines that Islam is not about compulsion, punishment or dictating in order to believe, for piety comes from the individual. It needs to be in the heart of civil society and not be dictated by a government.

At prayer.

Is there an Islamic political system?

While both conservative and liberal Muslims agree that there is no compulsion to enter Islam, what happens after you do is where they differ in some key areas. Conservatives believe that once you are a Muslim, you are strictly governed by house rules. Islam is a way of life and therefore must influence every aspect of how Muslims conduct themselves. Naturally, this extends into the realm of politics and the legal system. But while Islam does have the Syariah, which in itself has multiple interpretations for each mazhab1 , Akyol believes that Islam does not propagate a specific political system. “Islam is man’s connection to God, his ibadah. His worshipping of god and religion brings about some social rules and norms as well, but it doesn’t define a political system,” Akyol says. “If Islam were to define a political system, what would it look like? Would it be a republic or a federation, a Unitarian or a nation state? Will there be elections or not?”

These questions are put forth by Akyol to be among the questions not specifically answered in Islam. If one looks at Islamic history post-Prophet Muhammad, the so-called Islamic political system came in all shapes and sizes. Akyol gives the example of the early system during the Khalifah AlRashidin (Rightly Guided Caliphs) era which was formed through an election, albeit a simplistic one. It is important to stress that the Prophet did not nominate an heir, nor did he specify how the Islamic world should be ruled after his death. After the reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the Muslim world became a monarchy, beginning with the Mu’awiyah dynasty.

Rachid Ghanouchi, leader of Tunisia's Islamist Enahda Party.

Today, we have multiple types of systems, from the autocratic Saudi monarchy to the newly-democratic Tunisia, and according to Akyol, the recent passing of the democratic Tunisian constitution was not only symbolic, but crucial. With the exception of some extreme conservatives and secularists who denounced it, the rest of Tunisia rejoiced at the new constitution which is deemed inclusive of all. It effectively makes Tunisia a civil state based on Islamic values.

What was also surprising was the willingness of the Islamist Enahda Party, headed by Rachid Ghanouchi, dubbed “leader of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood”, to be inclusive, ensuring that the new constitution represented everyone and not just Muslims/ Islamists.

“Rachid Ghanouchi said that Islam is a religion based on freedom. You cannot impose Islam on people,” observes Akyol.

It is understood that all Muslims agree on the need to protect the Maqasid, the foundational goals, or purpose, of Islam which consist of five important aspects: the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect and property. “Even a liberal Islamist believes that any political system should protect these values without infringing on civil liberty,” says Akyol. “But how can you enforce the Maqasid on society from the barrel of a gun? The best outcome one would get would be people projecting symbolic gestures of faith out of fear of punishment.”

"Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mixing nationalism and religion: a recipe for disaster

In Turkey, the people have become more publicly religious over recent years, not because they fear punishment, but because they genuinely want to practice their faith and are given the space to do so without fear of state intervention. “The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that people should have the right to choose whether or not to be religious, adding that he is a Muslim Prime Minister of a secular state,” states Akyol.

In the Malaysian context, a mixture of nationalism and religion may be at work, and in that sense Akyol believes that there are similarities between Turkey and Malaysia. Turkey is in fact facing the opposite problem of what Malaysia is going through. There, it is not the Islamists imposing more religious edicts to protect Islam, but the secularists who are demanding more constraints on religion in order to protect secularism, which is Turkey’s national identity. In protecting this secular identity, many laws have been passed to impose restrictions on religion, such as banning the Kurdish language and banning the Arabic call to prayer. The latter prohibition saw the Turkish azan being used until 1950 when the ban was lifted. The most notorious was the banning of religious headscarves in schools and the civil service, which resulted in many young female students going abroad to study in countries like the UK – even the current Prime Minister’s daughter had to study in the US as a result of this ban. All this was done in the name of strengthening and protecting modern and secular Turkish values.

In Malaysia, the need to protect their ethnic identity has led Malay Muslims to make Islam exclusively theirs at the expense of not only non-Muslims but other Muslims as well. “How many Malay Muslims have a unified view of Islam in Malaysia?” asks Akyol. “Even in the Muslim world, there is no unified view. For example, does every single Muslim want hudud to be implemented? Even if the answer is yes, it leads to even more complications,” he says. “Can it be a truly unified version of hudud, or do different groups have their own views of what hudud actually means? Some might prefer to follow the Syariah law as dictated by different mazhabs. And where does that leave non-Muslims? Are they not allowed to have a say on matters, however little or big, which might inevitably have some effect on them? Are they not citizens of the country too?

“Nationalism and religion are a dangerous mix that has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and history has shown that this can lead to devastating results,” Akyol states. Rather than demanding more government intervention in their faith, Malay Muslims should instead strengthen civil society. NGOs should be reaching out to and encouraging Muslims to further embrace Islam – not out of fear, but out of love. If Muslims want more Islamic influence in the public domain, NGOs can reach out and promote Islam, and establish charitable foundations, Islamic media, etc. Mosques should be made more accessible and should function as community centres instead of a place where the moral police forces you to perform your prayers and people pass judgement on your piety.

“Muslims themselves must take on the responsibility of what happens in their own community by participating in it democratically instead of using the government to impose obedience.”

Having grown up in Turkey, Akyol saw firsthand the effects of an autocratic and oppressive regime which attempted to dictate every aspect of life. Until 2002, the country was governed through populist economic policies combined with an anti-democratic, authoritarian and oppressive political system under a “military guardian regime”. Any public display of religion was curtailed, and dissent or criticism towards the ruling regime or the secular doctrine of Turkey was cracked down upon – not that different from what is happening in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the only key difference being that the latter two are religious Muslim governments. Turkey had grown comfortable using aggressive tactics to remove religion, and Islam in particular, from public life, thereby violating many fundamental human rights. It turns out that repression is not the exclusive domain of religious regimes.

The rise of progressive Islam

Since the Justice and Development Party (AK) rose to power in 2002, Turkey has seen immense, even dramatic changes. Its economy has successfully turned around, and renewed freedom of worship has allowed Islam to flourish. Attendance in mosques has also increased; the Turkish people are no longer afraid of associating themselves with Islam.

A look of defiance. A woman in Iran during a crackdown on "slack" dressing. Turkey, on the other hand, banned religious headscarves in schools and the civil service.

The AK Party began as a reformist faction of a minority Islamist movement. When it came into power, it was in bitter confrontation with the Turkish military elite, the self-appointed guardians of the establishment. The military’s involvement in national politics had all the subtlety of a bullet to the face – periodic coup d’états since the 1960s have made it clear that it would not tolerate any challenges to secular Turkey. The most recent example was the 1997 “postmodern coup”, where a military memorandum initiated the process that precipitated the resignation of the democratically-elected Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, of the Welfare Party and signalled the end of his coalition government.

It is easy to see why so many Islamic movements in the Muslim world admire and respect the AK Party. The party’s ascent to power was a classic David versus Goliath story brought to life and scale, renewing hopes and prospects for the future of political Islam. Ironically, the AK Party rejects the Islamist party label, and instead redefines its struggle for greater acceptance of religion in the public sphere as part of a wider struggle to make Turkey a more democratic nation. Not everyone is convinced; many in the Turkish military, for example, see the AK Party as a genuine threat to a secular Turkey.

Much to learn

Malaysian political parties and movements are following the AK Party closely. Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is said to be a close friend of Erdogan, and it was no surprise that in 2008 he sought refuge at the Turkish embassy in KL when rumours of his possible arrest spread. In PAS, we have seen the use of new terminology such as the “Young Turks” or the “Erdogan group” in reference to the emergence of so-called young progressives, a segment of the party which insists that the party emulates and learns from the AK Party’s experience if it is to develop and maintain its relevance with a young electorate.

Perhaps what is most important to note is Islam’s rise as a result of liberalism. “AK Party’s success came about by creating a synthesis between Muslim identity, Islamic values and a liberal political system. They did not oppose the secular state; they only opposed the definition of it,” says Akyol.

In Turkey, the increasing space for liberty and freedom was what was needed for Muslims to practice their faith. The AK Party, learning from history, realised that they had to change their game plan and negotiate with all sections of society. We should also learn from the Arab Spring experience. “In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was not as moderate or pragmatic as Enahda, and the Egyptian liberals were not liberals but anti-Islamist totalitarian fanatics. Islamists who come to power through democracy cannot begin to impose what they think Islam is on others,” opines Akyol.

The modern world has brought new challenges. Akyol states that the natural desire of Islamists to have space to practice their belief is normal; other societies of different faiths have the same desires too. Islamists should channel this energy through civil society endeavours rather than push for the State to become an imposing one. By having a vibrant Islamic civil society, love and respect will naturally strengthen the Ummah from below, which is the utopia that Islamists dream of.

1 Schools of thought in Islam.

Altaf Deviyati is a senior analyst with the Political and Social Analysis Unit at the Penang Institute, working in the area of social inclusion.

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