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Mustafa Akyol: Faith versus tradition in Islam

March 3, 2011

Journalist Mustafa Akyol talks about the way that some local cultural practices (such as wearing a headscarf) have become linked, in the popular mind, to the articles of faith of Islam. Has the world's general idea of the Islamic faith focused too much on tradition, and not enough on core beliefs?

Mustafa Akyol - Journalist
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Turkey's oldest English-language daily, Hurriyet Daily News. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
A few weeks ago,
00:15
I had a chance to go to Saudi Arabia.
00:17
And the first thing I wanted to do as a Muslim
00:20
was go to Mecca and visit the Kaaba,
00:23
the holiest shrine of Islam.
00:25
And I did that; I put on my ritualistic dress;
00:27
I went to the holy mosque;
00:29
I did my prayers;
00:31
I observed all the rituals.
00:33
And meanwhile,
00:35
besides all the spirituality,
00:37
there was one mundane detail in the Kaaba
00:39
that was pretty interesting for me.
00:41
There was no separation of sexes.
00:43
In other words, men and women
00:45
were worshiping all together.
00:47
They were together while doing the tawaf,
00:49
the circular walk around the Kaaba.
00:51
They were together while praying.
00:54
And if you wonder why this is interesting at all,
00:56
you have to see the rest of Saudi Arabia
00:59
because it's a country
01:02
which is strictly divided between the sexes.
01:04
In other words,
01:07
as men, you are not simply supposed to be
01:09
in the same physical space with women.
01:11
And I noticed this in a very funny way.
01:13
I left the Kaaba
01:15
to eat something in downtown Mecca.
01:17
I headed to the nearest Burger King restaurant.
01:19
And I went there --
01:21
I noticed that there was a male section,
01:23
which was carefully separated from the female section.
01:25
And I had to pay, order and eat at the male section.
01:28
"It's funny," I said to myself,
01:31
"You can mingle with the opposite sex at the holy Kaaba,
01:33
but not at the Burger King."
01:36
Quite ironic.
01:38
Ironic, and it's also, I think, quite telling.
01:40
Because the Kaaba and the rituals around it
01:43
are relics from the earliest phase of Islam,
01:46
that of prophet Muhammad.
01:49
And if there was a big emphasis at the time
01:51
to separate men from women,
01:53
the rituals around the Kaaba could have been designed accordingly.
01:55
But apparently that was not an issue at the time.
01:58
So the rituals came that way.
02:00
This is also, I think, confirmed
02:02
by the fact that the seclusion of women
02:04
in creating a divided society
02:06
is something that you also do not find in the Koran,
02:08
the very core of Islam --
02:11
the divine core of Islam
02:13
that all Muslims, and equally myself, believe.
02:15
And I think it's not an accident
02:18
that you don't find this idea
02:20
in the very origin of Islam.
02:22
Because many scholars
02:24
who study the history of Islamic thought --
02:26
Muslim scholars or Westerners --
02:28
think that actually the practice
02:30
of dividing men and women physically
02:32
came as a later development in Islam,
02:34
as Muslims adopted
02:37
some preexisting cultures and traditions of the Middle East.
02:39
Seclusion of women was actually
02:42
a Byzantine and Persian practice,
02:44
and Muslims adopted that
02:46
and made that a part of their religion.
02:49
And actually this is just one example
02:51
of a much larger phenomenon.
02:53
What we call today Islamic Law, and especially Islamic culture --
02:55
and there are many Islamic cultures actually;
02:58
the one in Saudi Arabia is much different
03:00
from where I come from in Istanbul or Turkey.
03:02
But still,
03:05
if you're going to speak about a Muslim culture,
03:07
this has a core, the divine message,
03:09
which began the religion,
03:11
but then many traditions, perceptions,
03:13
many practices were added on top of it.
03:15
And these were traditions of the Middle East -- medieval traditions.
03:18
And there are two important messages, or two lessons,
03:22
to take from that reality.
03:25
First of all, Muslims --
03:28
pious, conservative, believing Muslims who want to be loyal to their religion --
03:30
should not cling onto everything in their culture,
03:33
thinking that that's divinely mandated.
03:36
Maybe some things are bad traditions
03:38
and they need to be changed.
03:40
On the other hand, the Westerners
03:42
who look at Islamic culture
03:44
and see some troubling aspects
03:46
should not readily conclude that this is what Islam ordains.
03:48
Maybe it's a Middle Eastern culture
03:51
that became confused with Islam.
03:53
There is a practice called female circumcision.
03:55
It's something terrible, horrible.
03:58
It is basically an operation
04:01
to deprive women of sexual pleasure.
04:03
And Westerners, Europeans or Americans,
04:06
who didn't know about this before
04:08
faced this practice
04:11
within some of the Muslim communities
04:13
who migrated from North Africa.
04:15
And they've thought, "Oh, what a horrible religion that is
04:17
which ordains something like that."
04:20
But actually when you look at female circumcision,
04:22
you see that it has nothing to do with Islam,
04:24
it's just a North African practice,
04:26
which predates Islam.
04:28
It was there for thousands of years.
04:30
And quite tellingly, some Muslims do practice that.
04:32
The Muslims in North Africa, not in other places.
04:35
But also the non-Muslim communities of North Africa --
04:38
the Animists, even some Christians
04:41
and even a Jewish tribe in North Africa
04:43
is known to practice female circumcision.
04:45
So what might look like a problem
04:48
within Islamic faith
04:51
might turn out to be a tradition
04:53
that Muslims have subscribed to.
04:55
The same thing can be said for honor killings,
04:57
which is a recurrent theme in the Western media --
04:59
and which is, of course, a horrible tradition.
05:02
And we see truly in some Muslim communities that tradition.
05:05
But in the non-Muslim communities of the Middle East,
05:08
such as some Christian communities, Eastern communities,
05:11
you see the same practice.
05:13
We had a tragic case of an honor killing
05:15
within Turkey's Armenian community
05:17
just a few months ago.
05:19
Now these are things about general culture,
05:21
but I'm also very much interested in political culture
05:23
and whether liberty and democracy is appreciated,
05:26
or whether there's an authoritarian political culture
05:29
in which the state is supposed to impose things on the citizens.
05:32
And it is no secret
05:35
that many Islamic movements in the Middle East
05:37
tend to be authoritarian,
05:39
and some of the so-called "Islamic regimes"
05:41
such as Saudi Arabia, Iran
05:44
and the worst case was the Taliban in Afghanistan --
05:46
they are pretty authoritarian. No doubt about that.
05:49
For example, in Saudi Arabia
05:51
there is a phenomenon called the religious police.
05:53
And the religious police imposes
05:56
the supposed Islamic way of life
05:58
on every citizen, by force --
06:00
like women are forced to cover their heads --
06:02
wear the hijab, the Islamic head cover.
06:04
Now that is pretty authoritarian,
06:07
and that's something I'm very much critical of.
06:09
But when I realized
06:12
that the non-Muslim,
06:15
or the non-Islamic-minded actors in the same geography,
06:17
sometimes behaved similarly,
06:20
I realized that the problem maybe
06:22
lies in the political culture of the whole region, not just Islam.
06:24
Let me give you an example: in Turkey where I come from,
06:27
which is a very hyper-secular republic,
06:30
until very recently
06:32
we used to have what I call secularism police,
06:34
which would guard the universities
06:37
against veiled students.
06:40
In other words, they would force students
06:42
to uncover their heads,
06:45
and I think forcing people to uncover their head
06:47
is as tyrannical as forcing them to cover it.
06:49
It should be the citizen's decision.
06:52
But when I saw that, I said,
06:54
"Maybe the problem
06:56
is just an authoritarian culture in the region,
06:58
and some Muslims have been influenced by that.
07:00
But the secular-minded people can be influenced by that.
07:02
Maybe it's a problem of the political culture,
07:05
and we have to think about
07:07
how to change that political culture."
07:09
Now these are some of the questions
07:11
I had in mind a few years ago
07:13
when I sat down to write a book.
07:15
I said, "Well I will make a research
07:17
about how Islam actually came to be what it is today,
07:19
and what roads were taken
07:24
and what roads could have been taken."
07:26
The name of the book is "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty."
07:28
And as the subtitle suggests,
07:33
I looked at Islamic tradition and the history of Islamic thought
07:35
from the perspective of individual liberty,
07:38
and I tried to find what are the strengths
07:40
with regard to individual liberty.
07:42
And there are strengths in Islamic tradition.
07:44
Islam actually, as a monotheistic religion,
07:46
which defined man as a responsible agent by itself,
07:49
created the idea of the individual in the Middle East
07:53
and saved it from the communitarianism, the collectivism
07:55
of the tribe.
07:58
You can derive many ideas from that.
08:00
But besides that, I also saw problems within Islamic tradition.
08:02
But one thing was curious:
08:05
most of those problems turn out to be problems that emerged later,
08:07
not from the very divine core of Islam, the Koran,
08:10
but from, again, traditions and mentalities,
08:13
or the interpretations of the Koran
08:16
that Muslims made in the Middle Ages.
08:18
The Koran, for example,
08:20
doesn't condone stoning.
08:22
There is no punishment on apostasy.
08:24
There is no punishment on personal things like drinking.
08:26
These things which make Islamic Law,
08:29
the troubling aspects of Islamic Law,
08:33
were later developed into later interpretations of Islam.
08:36
Which means that Muslims can, today,
08:39
look at those things and say,
08:41
"Well, the core of our religion
08:43
is here to stay with us.
08:45
It's our faith, and we will be loyal to it.
08:47
But we can change how it was interpreted,
08:49
because it was interpreted according to the time and milieu in the Middle Ages.
08:51
Now we are living in a different world
08:54
with different values and different political systems."
08:56
That interpretation is quite possible and feasible.
08:58
Now if I were the only person thinking that way,
09:02
we would be in trouble.
09:05
But that's not the case at all.
09:08
Actually, from the 19th century on,
09:10
there's a whole revisionist, reformist --
09:13
whatever you call it --
09:16
tradition,
09:18
a trend in Islamic thinking.
09:20
And these were intellectuals or statesmen
09:22
of the 19th century, and later, 20th century,
09:24
which looked at Europe basically
09:27
and saw that Europe has many things to admire,
09:29
like science and technology.
09:31
But not just that; also democracy, parliament,
09:33
the idea of representation,
09:35
the idea of equal citizenship.
09:37
These Muslim thinkers and intellectuals and statesmen
09:39
of the 19th century looked at Europe, saw these things.
09:42
They said, "Why don't we have these things?"
09:45
And they looked back at Islamic tradition,
09:47
they saw that there are problematic aspects,
09:49
but they're not the core of the religion, so maybe they can be re-understood,
09:52
and the Koran can be reread
09:55
in the modern world.
09:57
That trend
09:59
is generally called Islamic modernism,
10:01
and it was advanced by intellectuals and statesmen,
10:04
not just as an intellectual idea though,
10:07
but also as a political program.
10:09
And that's why actually in the 19th century
10:11
the Ottoman Empire, which then covered the whole Middle East,
10:13
made very important reforms --
10:16
reforms like giving Christians and Jews
10:19
an equal citizenship status,
10:21
accepting a constitution,
10:23
accepting a representative parliament,
10:25
advancing the idea of freedom of religion.
10:27
And that's why the Ottoman Empire in its last decades
10:30
turned into a proto-democracy,
10:33
a constitutional monarchy,
10:35
and freedom was a very important political value at the time.
10:37
Similarly, in the Arab world,
10:40
there was what the great Arab historian Albert Hourani
10:42
defines as the Liberal Age.
10:45
He has a book, "Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,"
10:47
and the Liberal Age, he defines
10:49
as 19th century and early 20th century.
10:51
Quite notably, this was the dominant trend
10:54
in the early 20th century
10:57
among Islamic thinkers and statesmen and theologians.
10:59
But there is a very curious pattern
11:03
in the rest of the 20th century,
11:05
because we see a sharp decline
11:07
in this Islamic modernist line.
11:09
And in place of that,
11:11
what happens is that Islamism grows
11:13
as an ideology which is authoritarian,
11:16
which is quite strident,
11:19
which is quite anti-Western,
11:21
and which wants to shape society
11:23
based on a utopian vision.
11:25
So Islamism is the problematic idea
11:27
that really created a lot of problems
11:30
in the 20th century Islamic world.
11:32
And even the very extreme forms of Islamism
11:35
led to terrorism in the name of Islam --
11:38
which is actually a practice that I think is against Islam,
11:41
but some, obviously, extremists did not think that way.
11:44
But there is a curious question:
11:47
If Islamic modernism was so popular
11:49
in the 19th and early 20th centuries,
11:52
why did Islamism become so popular
11:54
in the rest of the 20th century?
11:56
And this is a question, I think,
11:58
which needs to be discussed carefully.
12:00
And in my book, I went into that question as well.
12:02
And actually you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that.
12:04
You just look at the political history of the 20th century,
12:08
and you see things have changed a lot.
12:10
The context has changed.
12:12
In the 19th century,
12:14
when Muslims were looking at Europe as an example,
12:16
they were independent; they were more self-confident.
12:18
In the early 20th century, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire,
12:21
the whole Middle East was colonized.
12:24
And when you have colonization what do you have?
12:27
You have anti-colonization.
12:29
So Europe is not just an example now to emulate;
12:31
it's an enemy to fight and to resist.
12:34
So there's a very sharp decline
12:37
in liberal ideas in the Muslim world,
12:39
and what you see is more of a defensive,
12:41
rigid, reactionary strain,
12:44
which led to Arab socialism, Arab nationalism
12:47
and ultimately to the Islamist ideology.
12:49
And when the colonial period ended,
12:52
what you had in place of that
12:55
was, generally, secular dictators,
12:57
which say they're a country,
12:59
but did not bring democracy to the country,
13:01
and established their own dictatorship.
13:03
And I think the West, at least some powers in the West,
13:05
particularly the United States,
13:08
made the mistake of supporting those secular dictators,
13:10
thinking that they were more helpful for their interests.
13:13
But the fact that those dictators
13:16
suppressed democracy in their country
13:18
and suppressed Islamic groups in their country
13:20
actually made the Islamists much more strident.
13:22
So in the 20th century,
13:24
you had this vicious cycle in the Arab world
13:26
where you have a dictatorship suppressing its own people
13:28
including the Islamic-pious,
13:31
and they're reacting in reactionary ways.
13:33
There was one country, though,
13:36
which was able to escape or stay away
13:38
from that vicious cycle.
13:41
And that's the country where I come from; that's Turkey.
13:43
Turkey has never been colonized,
13:46
so it remained as an independent nation after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
13:48
That's one thing to remember.
13:51
They did not share the same anti-colonial hype
13:53
that you can find in some other countries in the region.
13:56
Secondly, and most importantly,
13:59
Turkey became a democracy
14:01
earlier than any of the countries we are talking about.
14:03
In 1950, Turkey had the first free and fair elections,
14:05
which ended the more autocratic secular regime,
14:07
which was the beginning of Turkey.
14:10
And the pious Muslims in Turkey
14:12
saw that they can change the political system by voting.
14:14
And they realize that democracy is something that is compatible with Islam,
14:18
compatible with their values,
14:21
and they've been supportive of democracy.
14:23
That's an experience
14:25
that not every other Muslim nation in the Middle East had
14:27
until very recently.
14:29
Secondly, in the past two decades,
14:31
thanks to globalization, thanks to the market economy,
14:33
thanks to the rise of a middle-class,
14:36
we in Turkey see
14:38
what I define as a rebirth of Islamic modernism.
14:40
Now there's the more urban middle-class pious Muslims
14:44
who, again, look at their tradition
14:47
and see that there are some problems in the tradition,
14:49
and they understand that they need to be changed and questioned and reformed.
14:52
And they look at Europe,
14:55
and they see an example, again, to follow.
14:57
They see an example, at least, to take some inspiration from.
15:00
That's why the E.U. process,
15:02
Turkey's effort to join the E.U.,
15:04
has been supported inside Turkey
15:06
by the Islamic-pious,
15:08
while some secular nations were against that.
15:10
Well that process has been a little bit blurred
15:13
by the fact that not all Europeans are that welcoming --
15:15
but that's another discussion.
15:17
But the pro-E.U. sentiment in Turkey in the past decade
15:20
has become almost an Islamic cause
15:23
and supported by the Islamic liberals
15:25
and the secular liberals as well, of course.
15:27
And thanks to that,
15:30
Turkey has been able to reasonably create a success story
15:32
in which Islam and the most pious understandings of Islam
15:35
have become part of the democratic game,
15:40
and even contributes to the democratic and economic
15:42
advance of the country.
15:44
And this has been an inspiring example right now
15:46
for some of the Islamic movements
15:49
or some of the countries in the Arab world.
15:51
You must have all seen the Arab Spring,
15:54
which began in Tunis and in Egypt.
15:56
And Arab masses
15:59
just revolted against their dictators.
16:01
They were asking for democracy; they were asking for freedom.
16:03
And they did not turn out to be the Islamist boogyman
16:06
that the dictators were always using
16:09
to justify their regime.
16:11
They said that "we want freedom; we want democracy.
16:14
We are Muslim believers,
16:17
but we want to be living as free people in free societies."
16:19
Of course, this is a long road.
16:22
Democracy is not an overnight achievement;
16:24
it's a process.
16:26
But this is a promising era
16:28
in the Muslim world.
16:30
And I believe that the Islamic modernism
16:32
which began in the 19th century,
16:34
but which had a setback in the 20th century
16:36
because of the political troubles of the Muslim world,
16:38
is having a rebirth.
16:40
And I think the getaway message from that
16:42
would be that Islam,
16:45
despite some of the skeptics in the West,
16:47
has the potential in itself
16:50
to create its own way to democracy, create its own way to liberalism,
16:52
create its own way to freedom.
16:55
They just should be allowed to work for that.
16:57
Thanks so much.
16:59
(Applause)
17:01

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Mustafa Akyol - Journalist
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Turkey's oldest English-language daily, Hurriyet Daily News.

Why you should listen
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish political commentator and author based in Istanbul. He thinks and writes on issues relating to Islam and modernity, and dissects Turkish politics as a columnist for the English-language Hurriyet Daily News and the website Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East. He also writes a monthly opinion piece for The International New York Times.

Akyol's book, Islam Without Extremes, was published in July 2011 and calls for "an interpretation of Islam that synthesizes liberal ideas and respect for the Islamic tradition."
The original video is available on TED.com
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