A Writer Argues For An 'Islam Without Extremes'
: What would you say to Americans who can look at news headlines almost any day, and conclude that there's evidence there that Islam is a fundamentally violent, fundamentally oppressive, hopelessly corrupt religion.
M: Well, I would say that would be a mistaken interpretation of Islam. There are obviously violent, intolerant Muslims out there. But whether they really represent Islam or not is a big question. And my answer is no, they don't represent - at least - the whole Muslim world.
: One thing that it's hard for Americans to get around, of course, is that 9/11 was committed in the name of Islam.
M: And I think the biggest problem is that Islam was articulated, interpreted in the medieval world by medieval scholars. And that interpretation froze at the time. And today, many Muslims, instead of just reading their scripture anew, they sometimes just blindly stick to some of those old traditions and interpretations. But this can change. And in my book, I've tried to show how it can change.
: Well, let me ask about a news event that comes to mind as you talk about this. In Pakistan, there is a blasphemy law which essentially says that if anyone insults Islam or is perceived to have insulted Islam, it's usually the death penalty. And as I'm sure you know very well, when a Pakistani provincial governor merely said that he did not think this was such a great law, he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. And some people in Pakistan actually celebrated the assassin. Those people thought they were being good Muslims. Were they not being?
M: They were probably being good Muslims in the way they understand Islam, but that's not the way I understand Islam. I think those blasphemy laws should be abandoned in Pakistan and elsewhere. There's only one verse in the Quran which, really, directly addresses this issue. It says if God's verses are being mocked, just do not sit with those people. So it means that Muslims can just boycott any rhetoric which is aggressive, which they find hurtful, but they don't have to silence those people with violence.
: Let me ask you about another example that is commonly cited: the notion that under Islam, if a woman claims to be raped, all she has to do to prove rape is come up with four eyewitnesses of the rape - which is, obviously, impossible in almost any case; and that if she fails to do that, it's actually her fault and she, herself, can be punished or even killed. Is that Islamic?
M: Well, actually in Islam, there's the idea of four witnesses, but that was actually brought in to protect women from libels of adultery. In the 24th chapter of the Quran, it says if you accuse woman for adultery, you should show four witnesses. Otherwise, nobody will listen to you. That was basically a protection against over-jealous husbands.
: OK, how does a passage of the Quran that, in your interpretation, is almost about women's rights been perverted into something that makes it impossible for women to file a complaint without being killed?
M: In Turkey, there's an effort to cleanse the Islamic tradition, including some of the sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad - from misogeny to, you know, get rid of some of the bad traditions and also, to put some things in context if they weren't in context.
: But if you did a literal, word-by-word interpretation of the Quran, you'd have a problem.
M: But actually, if you look at the Old Testament, you will find much harsher rulings than the Quran. But Christians and Jews over time - the majority of them - have come to decide well, these are our sacred books and we respect them, but we also understand they are speaking about history sometimes.
: Let me present you with another argument that is made against Islam as a religion. It is pointed out that in Christianity, from the very beginning, there is a principle of separation of church and state - you have Jesus Christ saying, render unto Caesar what is his - and that in Islam, you simply have a different history. You begin with the Prophet Muhammad, who effectively was both the king and the pope; he was the leader of everything. The government and the religion were intertwined. Is that a serious problem if you want to think about a more pluralistic society now?
M: I don't think that is a problem. It's the practice of the prophet. But I think the key point there is that yes, Prophet Muhammad was a prophet and a head of state, but he died. And the moment he died, that special authority from God ended. And the caliphs who represent Prophet Mohammed were actually - were not claiming to be representing God. They were actually easily questioned by the people if they did something wrong. I think the idea that you can separate religion from the state makes more sense to the Muslim societies.
INSEEP: Is it too late, in some parts of the world, to be trying to make a liberal reinterpretation, going back through the centuries like this?
M: It's never late. I mean, Islam is a 14-century-old religion, and it's as ever evolving, and it's changing. And the fact that we have just been in the most darkest age of Islam should not mean that actually, there is no room for change. There is room for change. I mean, just look at the events in the Arab world. When the Arab Spring began, many people in the West feared that the masses who rallied against secular regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali in Tunis would yearn for, you know, theocracies.
: Many people are still afraid that that's where it might be headed.
M: Well, they can be afraid of that. And I give them the right to do so - I mean, I respect their views, but that has not happened. And I don't think it's going to happen because even the Islamic movements in those countries are saying well, we want a democracy. The Westerners are rightful to be concerned about Islam, but they should not fall into the mistake of essentialism, which is just looking at the bad examples of the Muslim world and thinking, this is the only thing that Islam is, and this is the only thing that Islam can be. I'm a Muslim and I'm a liberal, and I don't see any contradiction between these two positions.
: Mustafa Akyol is the author of "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty." Thanks very much.
M: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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