Lecture explores religious freedom in Islam
Thomas Murphy | Wednesday, October 24, 2018
Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and a self-described “Islamic modernist,” gave a lecture titled “Religious Freedom in Islam” on Tuesday at the Eck Visitors Center, during which he promoted religious tolerance throughout the world.
Akyol began the lecture by retelling a recent incident between him and the Malaysian religious police following a lecture he gave on apostasy in the country. Following his lecture on religious freedom, Akyol said, he was placed in front of a Sharia court for reciting the Quran without a permit, and was only released because of connections between his father, the Turkish former president and the Malaysian monarchy.
The irony of this story provided a basis from which Akyol spoke on the need for more religious toleration in the Muslim world. Though many Westerners may feel that Islam is medieval and incongruent with toleration, Akyol said, there are many precedents for religious tolerance in its history.
“Islam has strong assets for religious freedom,” he said. “But also we have issues in Islam that we have to deal with and we have to reinterpret. … Muslims are proud to say at a time when in medieval Spain … the Catholics at the time were not very liberal … at that time in the Islamic world because it accepted the rights of Jews and Christians to remain as Jews and Christians — it was more liberal.”
Though this precedent exists, Akyol said the toleration was contingent on the religious minorities’ willingness to accept inferiority.
“This toleration — and toleration is the right word — was not based on equality,” he said. “Muslims made sure that they were the ruling, supreme nation. Jews and Christians are tolerated, but as inferior. And this has some clear expressions, one of them was that Jews and Christians were forced to pay an extra tax. … They could not serve in the military and in the state, so the state belonged to Muslims.”
Since this point in history, however, Akyol said the Islamic world has begun to fall behind the development of human rights.
“In the face of this modern development [of human rights] … there is a friction today still between modern definition of human rights and Islamic authorities and Islamic interpretations,” he said.
Akyol said change is happening, but such massive change does not occur overnight.
“Now, are there Muslims trying to deal with this issue and offer this reformation? Yes,” he said. “There are Muslim rulers, intellectuals, institutions, countries — this is a thing that’s been going on for more than a century. It began in the 19th century, it’s still going on, the battle is still going on. Let me tell you, it’s not that easy and fast to change a culture and civilization.”
Akyol offered a suggestion to begin encouraging this change.
“One way to bring human rights … is to minimize the role of Islamic law and bring secular laws that will establish equality,” he said. “And this has been tried, and it’s worked.”
Akyol pointed to the example of Turkey following World War I as an example of how secularization of laws can help modernize societies. Akyol also said the most permanent solution to advancing religious toleration is reinterpreting Sharia and the Quran altogether.
“Another approach is to reinterpret Sharia, and that’s what I’m interested in because once you push the religious convictions aside for secular institutions, they’re still there,” he said. “They will want to come back, and there will be a tension between them and the secular space.”
The best way to go about reinterpreting the Quran is through historicism, which focuses on divine intent in the context of the work’s initial production, Akyol said.
“God spoke not in a vacuum, he spoke in a context, in a society that had a culture,” he said. “Therefore, when you look at the Quran, you should look at the divine intent and you should bring it to today with the impact but not the social context.”
Whereas the West views many Middle Eastern countries as medieval, Akyol said, Middle Eastern countries view the West as exploitative and hypocritical. He said the best way for Western countries to promote secularization in Middle Eastern countries is to remain principled and set an example through their actions.
“If the West wants to help in advancing human rights … they can do one thing and that is to be principled,” he said. “Do not use these concepts for colonial design, do not use these concepts sometimes only to advance the rights of your own people, do not use these concepts to bash the regimes that are your enemies, but then, when the same [violations of human rights] are committed by the regimes that are your allies, don’t look the other way.”