Friday, November 09, 2007

Mustafa Akyol and the New Islam (part 1)

Mustafa Akyol is an up-and-coming young Turkish writer. A regular contributor to the Turkish Daily News, his articles often find their way into English language journals as well, such as "Turkey's Veiled Democracy" in the current issue of The American Interest. His blog, The White Path is often of interest.

I found his three most recent blogs to be of particular interest. On October 29th, he wrote on God, Gold and Islam. Attending a conference in London, Akyol found himself surrounded by monuments attesting to the might and glory of the British Empire. He muses on the cause of such a phenomenon--and by Anglo-Saxon extension, American progress, as well. What interests Akyol, as a Turk, was the role religion played in the expansion of Anglo-American progress. He cites Walter Russell Mead, Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville as sources who, to varying degrees, attribute the advance of the British and American empires to their religiosity. Mead, in fact, notes that 19th-century Britain and the US today were "significantly more religious than most,” arguing that "religion acted as a driving force in the progress of Britain and the United States."

Well, let's not get too carried away, here. Religiosity is hard to quantify, at best. Is Mead saying that Anglo-American Protestantism far outpaced the Catholicism of the Hispanic countries? Or the Orthodox devotion on the Russian steppes? I would not make such a claim. And while the vaunted Protestant work ethic certainly played a key role in what is seen as "progress," other factors were equally important. Britain was an island culture which had the luxury to develop in a unique way, generally free from the threat of invasion (after, of course, those pesky Vikings). America was similarly protected. The role of English common law and the rise of British constitutionalism are equally important and cannot be overestimated. Also, the cynical paleocon might note that the very progress the Protestant work ethic engendered served to ultimately undermine these very same religous underpinnings.

But what interests Akyol, of course, is the application of this scenario to Islam in general, and Turkey in particular. He notes that modernization occurs if the religion is "dynamic" and not "static." He admits that many would argue that Islam does not lend itself to being "dynamic." You can number me among those skeptics. Akyol counters with a reference to medieval Islam's golden age, and the fact that "there are many fine Islamic thinkers who theorize modernist interpretations of Islam." Well, this "golden age" is overblown, as they all are. And I have yet to see any "modernist interpretations of Islam" really taking hold. Akyol rightly references Turkey's "G├╝len Movement,” and its emphasis on "peace and and interfaith dialogue... [and] pro-business and entrepreneurial spirit. Akyol does have a point. They are certainly pro-businesss and entrepreneurial. I am still waiting on evidence of the interfaith dialogue, though.

The problem, I think, with Mr. Akyol's theory is that it was not religion in the abstract, or just any religion that helped power the British and American ascendency. Rather, it was a specific religion, the Protestant slant on Christianity. I'm not at all sure that this translates to the older forms of Christianity, much less other religions, and in particular, Islam. But if Akyol is on to something, it will be proved out in Turkey first. As he concludes: "Alas, if the Islamic world will be able to breed a “dynamic” interpretation of its faith, then Turkey, it seems, will be one of its main architects. So, keep watching."


Anonymous said...

Aykol and other would-be reformers have a major, and very understandable, credibility group with the mass of the ummah (the Muslim community). A dynamic Islam, that is, one which would challenge extant practices and narratives agreed upon by scholarly traditions, is always seen as a deviation from the supposedly pristine and perfect society and practices established by Muhammad. It is a rebellion against Eden, a corruption.
As for Turkey's critical role: I wouldn't expect a Turk to say anything else. Just as I've heard Iranis speak of Iran's critical role, Malays about Malaysia's central role, and Pakistanis about Pakistan's 'crucial contribution to the progress of Islam".
Michaelk Baldenburg

John said...

Michaelk, I am largely in agreement with you. I remain very skeptical of Islam's ability to reform itself to any meaningful degree--there's always a backlash. But if--and this is very big if--there is a chance of an evolving, moderating Islam, I do believe it will have to happen in Turkey.

Anonymous said...

If the Qur'an and Hadith compilations, and the commentaries thereon were not what they were, then perhaps moderates could generate a momentum of consensus utilising the resources of the state: media coverage, financial support for scholarships and conferences, and the establishment of educational institutions.
Since Turkey has a functioning state, perhaps Turkey would indeed be the place to look for such reform. And then there might be historic reasons, such as Othmani influence in the Balkans (which, on the other hand means one must consider how the Arabs would welcome "Turkish Islam").

But, isn't this something which has been tried before in Turkey, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Tunisia, in Morocco, in Russia and elsewhere. The usual response to reformers who want to contextualise, say, the wording of verses on apostasy are that 1. The Qur'anic verses are clear and 2, the earlier scholars associated with the main legal schools already considered the contexts when interpreting the Qur'an and hadith compilations, and so deviant interpretations are simply false. 3. The academic and moral qualities of those who want to re-interpret the received Islamic tradition are problematic.

In short, we truly can forget a vision of a reformed Islam. The young 'upstarts' will appear, receive generous funding from various western institutions, perhaps secure government positions back home, but hold very little credibility over both the educated elite and the ignorant masses. At least, that is what I have observed.

John said...


I couldn't agree more. For better or worse, Islam is a certain thing. Akyol and other reformers are trying to make it into something it has never been--and more importantly, probably never can be.

I really don't believe there is such a thing as "moderate Islam." The fact that there is a chance for a moderating Islam in Turkey is not because Turks are "moderate" Muslims, it is because they are largely unobservant.

Still, I think it is a good thing whenever any Muslim questions Islam and its traditions, for the faith will not stand close scrutiny. For that reason, Akyol and others should be encouraged. I'm just not sanquine about their chances of changing anything.