Interview: Mustafa Akyol

The writer and commentator talks about Islam, liberalism and what we should do with poppy burners

By Ian Dunt

"They were on the edge of the Muslim world. They were the first to face the west," Mustafa Akyol says of the Ottoman empire.

The Turkish commentator and essayist is promoting his new book, 'Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty', in which he outlines how a liberal democratic Islamic state would look. Much of its historical approach is based on the little-known experience of the Ottoman empire, but the book also reflects Turkish intellectuals' increasing confidence in their country's role as a bridge between Islam and the west.

It is a reassuring mission, when the debate over civilisation is increasingly dominated by extremists on both sides. Just a few weeks ago, the influence of that polarity became clear, when Theresa May banned Muslims Against Crusades, just days before Remembrance Sunday. The inevitable spectacle of the group burning poppies while the English Defence League (EDL) held a counter demonstration had clearly become too much for the government, which had already taken it upon itself to outlaw previous EDL marches.

"When I write in Turkey, I'm trying to say 'what you think is a system totally alien to Islam actually isn't'," Akyol tells me from his London hotel, just a few hours before he is due to fly back home. "Freedom is not alien to Islam. Liberal democracy is something we can live with and some of its values are compatible with our values. I'm showing Islam does not have a political system. It has political values and they can be articulated in democracies."

The idea of Islam as uniquely incompatible with liberal capitalist democracy is fundamental to the way the debate is framed in the UK. But scratch the surface of history and it is false. Faced with a changing world, the mid-19th century Ottomans introduced a constitution, opened a parliament, created political parties and gave Christians and Jews equal rights under the law and equal political representation.

"The Ottoman elite tried to justify these reforms by Islamic arguments," Akyol explains. "They found arguments in favour of democracy within Islamic tradition, for changing the legal structure within the Islamic framework. That's Islamic modernism. They said limited government, economic freedom and political freedom are compatible with Islam, but the west happened to get them first. That experience was forgotten. In the 20th century, the Middle East was shaped by colonialism and the anti-colonial attitude it sparked, such as Arab nationalism and socialism. I'm aspiring to the liberalism of those 19th century Muslims, to show they were onto something and that the whole reaction of the 20th century must be left behind."

The special insight of Akyol's approach is that his historical narrative explains the more draconian elements of modern Islamic societies, allowing us to separate the sacred from the political. The ban on apostasy – renunciation of religion – for instance, is not in the Quran. It was a rule which originated during a time of war, when to change religion was to change sides and therefore commit treason. Follow him down the road, and Akyol's critique allows him to show how unhelpful to Islamic culture many of these rules are.

"I have a whole chapter criticising the notion of religious police and how it betrays the Islamic ideal," he says. "It created hypocrites. If you force people to appear Muslim, you deprive them of the right to be pious Muslims because of their own convictions. The idea of coercion is contradictory to some Quranic verses. If you care for the religiosity of every individual it’s a problematic argument."

Akyol's approach even helps explain why the division between politics and religion is so difficult in Islam. For a start, Islam became a state religion very quickly – the Prophet Mohammed became head of the state of Medina in just 13 years. Christianity, for its part, didn't become a state religion until four centuries after Christ's death.

So why have we adopted such an unhealthy debate, where it feels as if Islamic and western societies view each other in uncomprehending and increasingly hostile ways? For Akyol, a historical analysis, albeit with a hint of ingenious conceptual tinkering, provides interesting parallels with the standard consequences of an empire's disintegration. Except the empire in question is one of thought rather than landmass.

"The Cold War was based on ideologies like Communism, which was cross-civilisational," Akyols argues. "You could be Cambodian or Afghan and you still be on the same side of the capitalist/communist divide. When Communism ended, the more primordial identities of these civilisations emerged." Just as Bosnians, Croats and Serbs emerged blinking from the collapse of Yugoslavia, religion and race started to articulate themselves more confidently from the debris of Communism.

What does this mean to Britain, where the debate – particularly in the tabloid press – can often seem deafening and unhealthy? "I'm actually positively surprised by all the tolerance and acceptance that Britain shows Islam. When I come to Britain it's quite likely the person who checks my passport is wearing a headscarf. In Turkey you cannot have a public job if you are wearing a veil. This is not a religious country, but people can wear what they want. I appreciate the pluralistic political model and the acceptance the system shows to Islamic practise. I don't know why Muslims would have a problem with the British political system. The anti-British attitude you find in some Islamic groups comes from an irrational need to establish Sharia everywhere, which is unacceptable even from an Islamic point of view. Sharia was only supposed to be for Muslims. If you want to apply it to British citizens you're saying something stupid."

I ask about the poppy burning ban and am surprised by how strongly Akyol condemns Muslims who believe Britain is "fundamentally wrong and illegitimate". His view is not so very far away from what you would expect on radio call-in shows blearing out the back of a cab. "They can denounce the policies of the government, but it is different to say this whole country is to be denounced. If you do that it's hypocritical to remain a citizen of the country and benefit from its public services. If you do that you should abandon your citizenship and go somewhere else. Most of them won't go back to their home countries, of course, because they are freer here. There's no chance of bashing the government in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. The freedom Britain gives to citizens should be appreciated."

It’s clear, however, that Akyol's sympathies are generally more liberal than his attack on Islamic fundamentalists would suggest. After criticising his own country's anti-terror laws, which hand down prison sentences for advocating support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), he makes it clear he "admires Britain's advocacy of freedom of speech".

And with that, he leaves for his plane back to Turkey, a country which, despite its anti-terror laws, provides the most significant and realistic example of what a liberal democratic Islamic state might look like. It's no surprise that such a country would create this type of thinker. We should hope his increased profile outside of it is a sign of its increased influence during uniquely unsettling times.

Islam without Extremes is available to buy now. Click here to go to Amazon.