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 "Gülen Movement,” and its emphasis on "peace and tolerance...education 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."