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Mustafa Akyol: The Great Pretender as Reformer
by Hugh Fitzgerald
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist and lecturer on Islam who presents himself as both a loyal Believer and as a determined Reformer, one whose understanding of the true Islam, if only it were to find favor among 1.5 billion Muslims, would allow the Faithful to slough off the unpleasant aspects of Islam, in Akyol’s view tangential to the faith, and bring about the conditions that would allow for genuine coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.
His latest piece in the New York Times, on September 28, is posted below, with a running commentary:
A Proposal for Islam
I am writing this column from an airplane, on my way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to my new home, Wellesley, Mass. I’m in a comfortable seat, and I’m looking forward to getting back to my family. About 12 hours ago, though, I was miserable, locked in a holding cell by Malaysia’s “religious police.”
The story began a few months ago, when the Islamic Renaissance Front, a reformist, progressive Muslim organization in Malaysia, invited me to give a series of lectures on Islam, reason and freedom. The group had hosted me three times before in the past five years for similar events and also published the Malay version of my book “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” I was glad for the chance to visit Malaysia again.
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 22. The next day I gave my first lecture on the suppression of rational theology by dogmatists in early Islam, making the point that this “intellectual suicide” still haunts Muslim civilization.”
The second talk was on a more controversial topic: apostasy from Islam. I argued that Muslims must uphold freedom of conscience, in line with the Quranic dictum “No compulsion in religion.” I said that apostasy should not be punished by death, as it is in Saudi Arabia, or with “rehabilitation,” as it is in Malaysia. The practice of Islam must be on the basis of freedom, not coercion, and governments shouldn’t police religion or morality.
The punishment of apostasy by death is not some whim of the Wahhabis. It is sanctioned both by many verses in the Qur’an and many stories in the Hadith. Here is Qur’an 4:89: “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they). But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.” Other verses that support death for apostasy include 2:217, 9:73-74, 88:21, 5:54, 9:66. In the Hadith, there are many statements by Muhammad that call for killing apostates, as Sahih Bukhari (52:260): “The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.'” And we find in the Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik (36.18.15): “The Messenger of Allah said, ‘If someone changes his religion – then strike off his head.’ This does not admit of ambiguity. It cannot be interpreted away. Is Mustafa Akyol prepared to declare these verses and stories no longer valid, and if so, on what basis?
The most renowned Muslim cleric in the world, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has insisted that apostasy by Muslims deserves the death penalty and, furthermore, has claimed that had there not been such punishment, Islam itself would never have survived, which is quite an admission. Is Mustafa Akyol prepared to claim that Yusuf al-Qaradawi has an insufficient knowledge of Islam?
Mustafa Akyol uses the story of his own treatment in Malaysia, where his lectures to a group of would-be Muslim reformers ran afoul of the authorities, those censorious Malays of the Religious Police (JAWI), who are depicted by Akyol as mimicking the beyond-the-pale Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. But what he said about the need to observe 2:256 — the Qur’anic verse that insists “there is no compulsion in religion” and has always been held to have been “abrogated” by later verses — beggars belief: he claims that Muslims should start applying it, as they never have before. Easy to say, but how does he intend to convince 1.5 billion Muslims that, all of a sudden, they are to do away with the interpretative doctrine of “naskh” or abrogation, that has been observed by Qur’anic commentators since the earliest days of Islam, and to accept as written 2:256, forbidding “compulsion in religion”? Will the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject abrogation because Mustafa Akyol thinks they should? How, exactly, will they manage to ignore all the Qur’anic verses and Hadith stories about the punishment of apostates and instead quietly accept that 2:256, instead of being abrogated (as it was during 1400 years of Islamic history), must now be observed by Muslims? Note that Akyol maintains that the reason for observing this verse is not to end the mistreatment of Infidels in Muslim-dominated societies, but to end the punishment for Muslims who are apostates. Akyol insists that will make Islam stronger, which is apparently his goal, a goal that well-informed Infidels will not share. It is for the sake of Islam itself, Akyol maintains, that “freedom of religion” must be observed. How many Muslims will be convinced by Akyol that their embrace of the principle of “no compulsion in religion” will strengthen Islam, and how many are firmly convinced that without compulsion there may be mass defections from the army of Islam? Who is more likely to be listened to by Muslim Believers: Mustafa Akyol or Yusuf al-Qaradawi?
Mustafya Akyol is whistling in the dark, with a handful of other would-be reformers, who are unable to reach large audiences in Muslim lands but flog their wares in the West, where their significance is greatly exaggerated, as they offer the hope, devoutly clung to by Western non-Muslims, that the transformation of Islam offers a way out of our current morass. These “reformers” nibble at the edges of Islam but leave its core — the inculcated hatred of Infidels — untouched, because they realize they can’t really do anything about it. In all of his many articles, Mustafa Akyol has never quoted those passages in the Qur’an and Hadith that reveal how devout Muslims are commanded to treat Infidels. Perhaps he’ll be getting around to it eventually; meanwhile, the years pass, more Muslim terrorist attacks take place in Europe and North America, more Muslim migrants keep arriving throughout the West, there’s lots of hopeful talk in the West about reformation in Islam by Akyol and others, but nothing much seems to happen to change the deeply-held and disturbing views that 1.5 billion people have about the other six million people sharing the planet.
Akyol is very fond of himself, it’s clear from his this and other articles. He manages to pack into his very short “A Proposal For Islam” 35 “I’s,” 18 “my’s,” and 10 “me’s” — I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. Yes, I did bother to count. Self-effacement is not in his line. Nor is self-doubt, nor realism about the possibilities of reforming Islam. A little modesty about what can be done to change the reception of what is in the Qur’an might stand him in good stead.
Back to Akyol, and his Malaysian “ordeal”:
It turns out all you have to do is speak of the police and they will appear.
At the end of my talk, a group of serious-looking men came into the lecture hall and showed me badges indicating that they were “religion enforcement officers.”
“We heard that you just gave an unauthorized talk on religion,” one of the men said. “And we got complaints about it.” They took me to another room, photographed me and asked questions about my speech.
When they were done with their questioning, they handed me a piece of paper with Malay writing on it and told me that I shouldn’t speak again without proper authorization. They also warned me away from my next planned talk, which was going to be about my most recent book, “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”
“We heard that you will speak about commonalities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity,” one officer said. “We don’t like that kind of stuff.” Then they left.
After all this, I consulted with my hosts, and we decided to cancel the final lecture. I assumed that was the end of the matter and went shopping for gifts for my wife and children.
Later in the day, I went to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to begin the 30-hour trip back to Massachusetts. When I gave my passport to the border police, I realized that my experience with offending Malaysia’s Islamic sensibilities wasn’t over.
“You need to wait, sir,” said the woman who checked my passport. She called some police officers, who called other police officers, who took me to a room where my arrest order was read to me. Apparently the religious police, known as JAWI, wanted to interrogate me again for my “unauthorized” talk on religious freedom and had issued that arrest order to make sure I didn’t leave the country.
I was taken from the airport to a police station, then to another station. Finally, I was taken to the JAWI headquarters, where I was locked up.
To be fair, nobody was rude to me, let alone cruel. Still, I was distressed: I had been arrested in an alien country whose laws and language I did not understand. I had no idea what would happen to me — and, most painfully, when I would see my wife, Riada, our 2-year-old son, Levent, and our 2-month-old baby, Efe.
In the morning, I was taken to a Shariah court, which is used in Malaysia to adjudicate religious issues, where I was interrogated for two hours. At the end, to my surprise, I was let go. Soon I learned that this was greatly facilitated by the diplomatic efforts of my country, Turkey — and especially the contact made by a former Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, with Malaysian royalty.
Abdullah Gul has for years been Erdogan’s collaborator in de-kemalizing Turkey.
This incident showed me once again that there is a major problem in Islam today: a passion to impose religion, rather than merely proposing it, a mind-set that most Christians left behind at the time of the Inquisition.
To describe the Muslim “passion to impose religion” as “a major problem in Islam today” is to imply that it has not always been part of Islam. Where in the Muslim lands, and when, does Akyol think Muslims did not have a “passion to impose [their] religion” whether by violence or by other means, such as relieving non-Muslims who converted of the onerous burden of the dhimmi status?
Luckily, there are antidotes within Islam to this problem. One of them is the Quranic verse that the JAWI officers repeatedly chided me for daring to recite: “No compulsion in religion.”
In fact, mainstream Muslim tradition, reflecting its illiberal context, never fully appreciated the freedom implied by this verse — and other ones with similar messages. “The ‘no compulsion’ verse was a problem to the earliest exegetes,” as Patricia Crone, a scholar of Islamic history, has noted. “And they reacted by interpreting it restrictively.” The verse was declared “abrogated,” or its scope was radically limited.
This is still evident in a parenthetical that is too frequently inserted into translations of the verse. “There shall be no compulsion in religion (in becoming a Muslim).” I’d known that Saudi translations added those extra words at the end. Now I have learned that the Malaysian authorities do, too. They append the extra phrase because while they agree with the Quran that no one should be forced to become a Muslim, they think that Muslims should be compelled to practice the religion — in the way that the authorities define. They also believe that if Muslims decide to abandon their religion, they must be punished for “apostasy.”
See the quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith in the paragraphs above, where “compulsion in religion” for both non-Muslims and Muslims who want to leave Islam can be found in a dozen places. Akyol claims that according to the Qur’an, “no one should be forced to become a Muslim,” but let it be repeated, does not the imposition of the dhimmi status, with its many sometimes crippling disabilities, compel some dhimmis to convert to Islam? Aren’t they then being “forced to become Muslims”? Or are we to pretend to believe that if violence is not involved, there can be no “compulsion”? Would not the Jizyah by itself be compulsion enough to make many poor Unbelievers convert to Islam?
One of the officers at my Malaysian Shariah court trial proudly told me that all of this was being done to “protect religion.” But I have an important message for her (which I didn’t share at the time): By policing religion, the authorities are not really protecting it. They are only enfeebling their societies, raising hypocrites and causing many people to lose their faith in or respect for Islam.
I came to understand that while I was being held in the JAWI headquarters, listening to a loud Quranic recitation coming from the next room. I heard the Quran and for the first time in my life it sounded like the voice of an oppressor. But I did not give in to that impression. “I hear you and I trust in you, God,” I said as I prayed, “despite these bigots who act in your name.”
Akyol claims that, when he was being held by the religious police, he “heard the Quran and for the first time in my life it sounded like the voice of an oppressor.”
Can this possibly be true? Could Mustafa Akyol have hear such verses as those just below and never before did it occur to him what they meant? Was it only now, after that little contretemps in Kuala Lumpur, that “for the first time in [Akyol’s] life..it sounded like the voice of an oppressor”?
How many thousands of times had he heard, or read, such verses as these?
9:29: “Fight against those who do not obey Allah and do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and do not forbid what has been forbidden by Allah and His messenger even if they are of the People of the Book until they pay the Jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”
9:5: “When the sacred months have passed, then kill the Mushrikin wherever you find them. Capture them. Besiege them. Lie in wait for them in each and every ambush but if they repent, and perform the prayers, and give zakat then leave their way free.”
2:191: “Kill them wherever you find them and drive them out from where they drove you out. Persecution is worse than slaughter.”
47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks.”
8:12: “When your Lord revealed to the angels, ‘Truly I am with you. So, keep firm those who have believed. I will strike terror into the hearts of those who have disbelieved. So, strike them at the necks and cut off their fingers.’”
98:6: Unbelievers are “the most vile of creatures.”
It is impossible to believe that Mustafa Akyol is unfamiliar with these Qur’anic verses, or with the more than 100 others in the same blood-curdling vein. So how can he possibly tell us with a straight face that it was only then, after being briefly held by the police (not much of an ordeal by Muslim standards, though he makes much of it for his own purposes of self-aggrandizement) in Malaysia, that he heard the Qur’an, for the first time, as “the voice of the oppressor”? As he cannot be unaware of the verses I’ve quoted above, a small but representative sample of the Qur’an’s violence and hate, he must be regarded as a practitioner of taqiyya, an apologist for Islam not quite as innocuous as he appears, and indeed, some might say, a greater danger precisely because he presents himself as a reformer. Years ago, Akyol was peddling another way to deal with Islam, which was to insist that Muslims rely on the Qur’an alone and jettison entirely the hadith, which Akyol seemed to think was the source of all the problems in Islam. This he described, borrowing language from the Christian Reformation, as reliance on “sola scriptura.”
There were two things wrong with this proposal. First, Akyol refused to recognize that the Qur’an by itself was so full of anti-Infidel sentiment that ignoring the Hadith would not rid Islam of its violence and inculcated hate. Second, he never did explain how it was that 1.5 billion Muslims could be convinced to ignore the hadith. It was enough for Mustafa Akyol that he had provided the “solution” of “sola scriptura”; let others work out the details. He likes to make sweeping proposals, but leaves the indispensable details to others. Akyol’s a Big Idea Man, a well-pleased pleaser always TED-talking through his hat, which makes sense because he’s all hat and no cattle. Of course, it is precisely those “details” that cannot possibly be worked out — getting rid of the hadith, or ending “abrogation” so as to give force to the phrase, at 2:256, that “there is no compulsion in religion.” And that is why Islam will, unless it suffers a series of catastrophic defeats that completely demoralize the Believers, remain as it has immutably been, to our great unhappiness, for 1400 years, the sworn enemy of all of us, just for being us, the Unbelievers.
First published in Jihad Watch.