tothesource: Mustafa, fill us in a little on your background.
Mustafa Akyol: I am a journalist, with Islam and politics as my main focus. There are both intellectual and spiritual reasons for this. I am a Muslim believer and so I am trying to observe Islamic practices to the best of my ability. I have also been studying Islamic literature from the early 90’s, and have been in touch with various Islamic circles in Turkey.
tts: What is your take on the current situation in the Islamic world?
Mustafa: The current situation of the Islamic world—which is not pleasing either to Muslims or non-Muslims—is a source of concern. I am trying to help my co-religionists follow the spiritual core of Islam, while questioning some of the outdated or bigoted interpretations of it. That means rejecting the radical anti-Western ideology that some Muslims use to bolster their version of Islam.
tts: What type of Muslim are you?
Mustafa: I am coming from a Sunni background, but I don’t see myself as a strict follower of the founders of Sunni schools who lived in the 8th or 9th century and interpreted Islam according to that milieu. When asked, I sometimes say that I am a “freelance Muslim”!
tts: Is that unusual?
Mustafa: Not at all. Most Westerners think that Islam is divided between Sunnis and Shiites, but actually there was a much greater diversity in the past. A third school was the Mutazili school, whose followers were also known as “rationalists” because they emphasized the importance of human reason in understanding the Koran. I find myself close to some positions taken by the Mutazili’s. But later on, mainstream Islam was dominated by the “traditionalists” who were more skeptical of reason and argued for an unquestioned following of the tradition of Prophet Muhammad. This means, for example, wearing exactly the same clothes that the prophet did. But a rationalist Muslim could say, “Well, the Prophet just conformed to the life-style of his day. We don’t need to imitate that today. We just need to get moral lessons from his life.”
tts: I can see from your website [www.thewhitepath.com] that you are passionately concerned with establishing better Christian-Islam relations. Tell us about that.
Mustafa: I think the current antagonism between some Christians and some Muslims today is very much against the spirit of Islam. Indeed, Islam started as a Christian-friendly religion. The earliest Muslims, the companions of Prophet Muhammad, were persecuted by pagan Arabs, and a group among them fled to the Christian Kingdom in Ethiopia to find a safe haven, which they did. Throughout their consequent struggle with the pagans, Muslims considered Christianity as a sister faith. When pagan Persians defeated the Christian Byzantines, pagan Arabs mocked the Muslims. But the Koran, in a chapter entitled “The Romans,” then said to Muslims that the Byzantines would win again soon, and that it would be a joyful day for Muslims.
In another verse, the Koran says, “Nearest among men in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant (5/82).” The Koran also praises Jesus Christ, Mary and the Apostles, speaks about the Virgin Birth, and even calls Jesus “The Word of God.”
tts: But, of course, there are differences.
Mustafa: Of course. Islam rejects the Christian doctrine of Trinity, which is probably the most important theological fault line between Islam and Christianity. But there are so many commonalities. That’s why Islam banned idolatry but tolerated Christianity—and Judaism as well. Therefore Christian communities have survived in the Islamic lands to this date. Of course there were many wars between Christian and Muslim states, but these were mainly political conflicts. The Islamic civilization never aimed to wipe Christianity out. That’s why I think the current tensions between the West and the Muslim world do not imply a fundamental clash between Christianity and Islam. There are other reasons causing the conflict.
tts: As you know, Dinesh D’Souza has recently written a rather provocative book, The Enemy at Home. His argument is that secularism and the cultural left are “the primary reasons for Islamic anti-Americanism as wells as the anti-Americanism of other traditional cultures around the world.” What do you think of his argument? Has he succeeded—as he hoped—to see the world “through Muslim eyes”?
Mustafa: I think Mr. D’Souza has grasped an important aspect of the matter. In a piece of mine entitled “Show Us More of the Other America,” (The American Enterprise Magazine, December 2004), I proposed a similar argument and said that what most Muslims hate is the materialism of the West, not the Christianity of the West.
Today, the West is repugnant to many traditional Muslims because it looks like a civilization that has abandoned God and is trying to seduce the Muslims to do the same thing. I also noted in the article that Muslims who are exposed to the religiosity of the West, like that found in America, like and even admire it. For example, when “The Little House on the Prairie” was aired in Turkey in the early 80’s, all conservative Muslim families that I know were its greatest fans. Nowadays similar families are worried that their children will be corrupted by America’s pop culture.
Having said that, let me add that I think the hatred towards America has something to do with American foreign policy, too. It is no secret that the Iraq War has created a big wave of anti-Americanism. People see the horrible deaths in Baghdad or Fallujah and accuse the Bush Administration for starting all that. It is again no secret that Israel’s ongoing occupation is abhorred in the Arab Middle East and America is seen as its patron. That anti-Israeli stance has something to do with the anti-Semitic, fanatic ideology out there, but there is also the fact that Israel’s occupation has brought the Palestinian people a life of plight and intimidation. I think America would gain more sympathy in the Middle East by acting as an honest broker between the Israelis and Arabs.
In short I think there are both cultural and political reasons for anti-Americanism. Mr. D’Souza’s argument emphasizes the cultural ones, which are mostly overlooked in mainstream Western media.
tts: And 9/11?
Mustafa: I think that D’Souza’s attempt to explore the root causes of 9/11, and the hatred against America in general, is not only just justified, but absolutely necessary. Understanding the motivations of a terrorist doesn’t mean finding an excuse for him; it just helps you develop long-term solutions to the problem.
Some instant “Islam experts” in the U.S. thought they had indeed found the root cause of terrorism: Islam itself! They thought that 9/11, Al Qaeda, and all other manifestations of Islamic terrorism were simply the natural outcomes of Islam, which they see as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. But as Mr. D’Souza well argues, a simple fact is enough to see the absurdity of that argument. Islam has been around for fourteen centuries, but Islamic terrorism is a matter of the last few decades. It is quite a recent phenomenon and the main reason is the perception among Muslims that “Islam is under attack” — both culturally and politically. When this is combined with the bigoted interpretations of Islam and with the sense of intimidation that is felt by the suppressed Muslims of the Middle East or the alienated ones in Europe, you get a recipe for violence.
tts: What do you think are the most important bridges that need to be built now between our two cultures?
Mustafa: Muslim and Christian believers share many common values and have common objections to secular modernity. Realizing that fact would help build important bridges between the two faiths. The first time I came to America, in 1998, I came upon a prayer group of Christians who were praising God and singing hymns. That was a moving experience for me, because I used to think that Westerners were not godly people! In Turkey, where I live, a Westernized person means someone who is thoroughly secular and even who looks down upon believers as ignoramuses. The “other West,” which I have found quite akin to myself as a believer, is a more likely to appeal to Muslims.
But of course mutual respect is needed, first of all. In this regard, I think both sides need self-criticism. I am urging my co-religionists to be more respectful to Westerners, but I think a similar effort is needed in the West in regard to Islam too. It is a pity that a few Christian leaders have uttered some offensive remarks about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the recent years. Such words echo in the Muslim world quite strongly and support the perception that “Islam is under attack,” the main motto of the radicals.
For a similar reason, Westerners won’t build any bridges to the Islamic world by supporting and promoting ex-Muslims who bash Islam and argue for aggressive secularization—such as the self-declared “infidel,” the atheist Ayan Hirsi Ali. For a devout Muslim, such people are simply the voice of the devil. The Islamic world needs to reform itself not by abandoning its faith, but by re-interpreting it and detaching it from political hatreds.