Vern Barnet's
Interview with 
Mustafa Akyol
   from which the Oct 24 Kansas City Star column is drawn

Mr Akyol's Kansas City lecture: 
     Oct 26 Friday 6pm
     UMKC Student Union, Theater, 1st Floor
     5100 Cherry, Kansas City, MO 64110
Sponsored by UMKC Diversity Access and Equity, the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, Raindrop Turkish House, and Fountain Magazine, cosponsored by KC Festival of Faiths.

See also the 17-minute TEDx video
"Mustafa Akyol: Faith versus tradition in Islam"

Wikipedia page

Akyol blog  with a link to information about his book


      Q1. Christianity today in its capitalistic expression is very different from the early church. Three examples,  property was held in common, early Christians were pacifist, and women had significant leadership. Has the Islam of Muhammad and the Qur’an also been inflected by subsequent cultural interpretations? What might be some examples?

You are right to point out to the trajectory of Christianity, which has taken various forms in its two-thousand long history. Islam, too, has many cultural layers on its original message. There is no stoning or ban on fine arts in the Qur'an, for example, and Prophet Muhammad was much more supportive of women than the patriarchal culture we see in many Muslim societies. Hence one of my efforts is to distinguish the divine core of Islam and the cultural baggage around it. 

       Q2. Most Americans easily forget what Muslims, especially in the Middle East, regard as assaults on their integrity. The United States and the West overthrew the democratically elected civilian leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953 and instead installed the ruthless Shah, overthrown in the Revolution in 1979 and the US embassy occupied with US hostages detained for 444 days. We supported the Taliban against the Soviets in the 1980s, and now we fight against them. We supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran; some offer evidence that we gave him chemical weapons. Then we attacked Iraq twice and created an unstable state in which Iraq is now largely influenced by Iran. For decades, largely because of oil, we have been supporters of  the corrupt and despotic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in which an extreme interpretation of Islam flourishes. Until last year, we supported the undemocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak. Despite international and US condemnation of Israeli settlements, which continue to expand into Palestinian territories, the largely Muslim population  there remain under occupation.
         Have I erred in making this list? What other major historical factors do Americans usually forget when they sometimes puzzle why some Muslims are demonstrably not happy with the US?

You are very right to point out to some tragic mistakes of the United States in the Middle East, which have been a major factor behind anti-Americanism. None of that, of course, can justify the killing of innocent American citizens, as it happened in 9/11. But we should indeed see why many Muslims in the Middle East are not great fans of the US. There is often some fanatic ideology behind that anti-Americanism (such as communism or radical Islamism) as well, but some real troubles the US created in this part of the world also count. To see that, just contrast the Middle East with the Balkans: the Muslims in the Balkans  (such as Bosnians and Albanians) often like the US, for American power helped them against Serbian aggression. So, what the US does in the world really matters.

       Q3. In a democratic and pluralistic society, how, and to what extent, should religious sentiment and religious institutions influence public policy on issues such as same-sex marriage, the teaching of evolution and intelligent design, contraception and abortion, and the distribution of wealth? What should be the place of the various versions of Sharia in American life?

In a democtatic and pluralist society, religious views should neither be pushed out from the public square, nor they should dominate it. If one believes that abortion is murder out of religious faith, for example, then that person should have the right to campaign against abortion democratically, by trying to persuade other members of society. 
As for the sharia, it can mean many different things, from the horrible version of the Taliban, to the mild version we used to have in the Ottoman Empire. Shariah is even personal. For example, when I fast in Ramadan, I follow the sharia, which, like the Halakha of Orthodox Jews, is a whole life code. But, of course, I don't have the right to impose this on other people, by forcing them to fast with me. The problem with the sharia, in other words, begins when you impose it on people who don't want it. But just like Orthodox Jews who live in closed communities (or the Amish, to give an other example), I believe that conservative Muslims should be able to form communities that honor the sharia, as long as it is all voluntary and basic human rights are protected. 

       Q4. The mosque in Joplin, MO., was burned to the ground Aug. 6. Religious minorities are frequently misunderstood and sometimes harmed. What drives religious prejudice and what are the key things that can be done to minimize it? (This question is especially vexing to those who are concerned about a highly prejudicial and inflammatory speech made by Kamal Saleem, who describes himself as a former Muslim terrorist who has converted to Christianity, last Nov. 17 at the Independence Mayors Prayer Breakfast. A fact sheet outlining his distortions and other efforts with the mayor and the Human Relations Commission were simply dismissed, as well as the uproar that ensued.)

These days, anti-Islamic propaganda sells well in the West. Hence there are some people who jump into this market, by saying how horrible Islam is. The truth is that there are some Muslims who indeed do terrible things (such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, or political violence), but there are many other Muslims who deplore these things. And what I do is to offer a theological analysis of these problems, look at their origins, and show why and how we Muslims need some reform in our tradition. 

       Q5. Christians in some Muslim countries seem under threat. How did the historic protection Muslims gave Christians become reversed?

Yes, unfortunately. In fact, until the 20th century, Islamic lands have been more hospitable to religious pluralism than Europe. That is why many Jews fled from Europe to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. In the 20th century, however, things dramatically changed due to a few factors. First, modern nationalism targeted Christian minorities out of ethnic, not religious reasons. (Ottoman Armenians, who lived peacefully with Muslims for a millennium, were exiled and partly destroyed only by secular Turkish nationalists) Secondly, Wahhabism, the most intolerant strain in Islam, became gradually influential in the Arab World and even beyond. Third, political hatred against the West sometimes turned into the persecution of local Christians, in a way similar to Pearl Harbor leading to the persecution of Japanese Americans. 

       Q6. One of our strong NATO allies is Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country which has, until recent incidents, managed to be very friendly with Israel. What, in brief, has distinguished Islam in Turkey that has made Turkey democratic while other Middle East nations have only now begun to show a desire for self-rule?

Turkey is still open to have good relations with Israel; it is just the Gaza Flotilla incident and Israel's refusal to apologize for it that blocks the way. If Turkey has a secret, though, it is that its modernization and democratization began much earlier, in early 19th century. Ottomans accepted a liberal constitution in 1876 and opened a democratic parliament, one of third of which were non-Muslims. (This is still unthinkable in Saudi Arabia.) In my book, I show all such exceptional aspects of Turkish Islam, and also argue that we do not owe its moderatism to Turkey's aggressive secularism, as it is often claimed.

       Q7. To what extent is Islam necessarily a political program, a legal system, an arrangement about families, a code of moral practice, a routine of worship, and a personal interior religious or mystical experience?

This is the million dollar question! And Muslims have different answers to it. To be honest, Islam certainly has a more political nature than Christianity; it is evident in the history Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic community. However, people like me argue that some aspects of Prophet Muhammad are not "religious" but "historical." The fact that he headed a state, for example, does not mean that Islam must have a state; it was just the circumstances that the Prophet happened to be in. Or his dress code was not divinely mandated; he just followed the Arab fashion of the day. The Wahhabis, however, would disagree and think that Muslims have to follow that fashion for ever. 

       Q8. If there are other points you would like to make as a preview to your remarks here in Kansas City, what would they be?

I would try to show that Muslims, Christians and Jews are actually not that different from each other, in terms of the questions they face regarding their faith and the world. My aim is to draw not a rosy but a realistic picture of Islam, and help the audience to see some nuances that they might not have noticed before. I hope they will find it interesting!