Book Review with Questions: Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty

Mustafa Akyol - Islam without Extremes - A Muslim Case for Liberty
Islam Without Extremes
Islam Without Extremes

Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, (In English), By Mustafa Akyol, W.W. Norton & Company, Ltd. New York & London, 2011

Mustafa Akyol, a graduate of Bogazici University (formerly Robert College), is a young Turkish writer and commentator who has written a very ambitious book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”, which seems to be the product of a very wide reading, evidenced with references to many writers, professors, Christian scholars, almost on every subject on Islam. However, one thing that strikes the reader is the absence of any references to Turkish writers, except a few, especially to Prof. Ilhan Arsel, who has written many books on Islam (1). The quotes that Mustafa Akyol uses to explain Islam and to defend certain aspects, such as Shariah, are from the likes of Hans Kung, Karen Armstrong, Fazlur Rahman, etc., but there is no reference to Ilhan Arsel’s book, “Seriat ve Kadin – Shariah and Women” or any book that explains Mustafa kemal Atatukr’s view on Islam.

The 350-page book opens with two maps of the Middle East, showing the “World Where Islam Began: Early Seventh Century Arabia,” and “the Ottoman Empire” through the centuries, followed by a 12-page glossary on Islamic names and terminologies. In the Introduction, Akyol tells the horrific story of his visit to the military’s barrack in Ankara in 1981, at the age of 8, to see his father, Taha Akyol, who were among the hundreds and thousands of people jailed by the Turkish military who had seized power. This alone must have had a tremendous psychological impact on the young boy which he seems to be carrying this as a bag in his professional life. Akyol writes about how he learned about Islam, not from his parents but from his grandfather, and from reading prayer books in his grandfather’s library. The quote on one of the book’s cover that he reads, from “hadiths (sayings), scared him, “If your children do not start praying at the age of ten, then beat them up.” This evidently led the young Akyol to search for the real meaning of Islam, hence the book. In fact, Akyol writes that at the age of seventeen, he read the entire Qur’an, in translation, adding “something few Muslims I know ever do.” However, nowhere in the book, Akyol comments on the difficulties in practising one’s own religion in a foreign language, Arabic.

In Part I of 3 parts, “The Beginnings”, Akyol writes about the emergence of Islam in the land of the Arabs at a time when they worshipped 300 different objects, deities or gods. Under “The Enlightenment of the Orient,” Akyol writes about the wars conducted under Prophet Mohammed, identifying them as humane and comparing this to the wanton killings practised by the Mongol invaders under Chengiz Han and the Crusaders carried on by the Popes

Part II covers the “Modern Era”, beginning with “the Ottoman Revival” and explaining “The Turkish March to Islamic Liberalization.” Here, Akyol writes that “The main trouble with the Kemalist Revolution was its excessive secularism, which alienated conservative Muslims and cut short Ottoman modernization program.” The chapters “A disillusion with a vengeance” and “”The Not-so_terribly helpful Turkish Model” (P 185-189), Akyol writes about the creation of the cult of “Turkishness” followed by the cult of “The Father of the Turks” and criticizes some of the developments during the Ataturk era, which he seems to do at every occasion, stating that these are Turkey’s own problems. For the Muslim World, Akyol writes that the message was “Islam and Modernity were incompatible”, and Muslims had to choose between them. Here Akyol also refers to the Ottoman style of modernization as not only respectful to but even justified by Islam. He writes about Sultan Abdulhamit as a peacemaker and reformer but does not mention the atrocities committed under his regime. I suppose at the time of Akyol’s writing the book, The Istanbul Muftu, Mustafa Cagirici, had not made his well known and true statement that “Islam’s view of women is shameful.” Of course, this is not all, which Akyol does not even mention.

Part III, “Signposts on the Liberal Road”, is about freedom from the state, freedom to sin and freedom from Islam. One of the questions that Mustafa Akyol asks in his book is: “Why did reason and freedom eventually flourish in Christendom while it declined in the lands of Islam, where in the early Muslim centuries there had been a brilliant civilization.”  Graham Fuller, the author of “A World Without Islam,” in the review of Akyol’s book, states that the book presents a case on the sources of liberalism and democracy that exist within the faith.”

This is not an easy book to read, with so many stories over the centuries and references to so many marginal movements and so-called Islamic scholars, but with many omissions which raises more questions than provides answers. There is very little about the impact of the so-called teachings of Fethullah Gulen and nothing about the view of Ataturk or Kemalism on Islam except in a negative way. In fact, during a panel presented by the newly established “Columbia Global Center in Istanbul”, Akyol referred to Turkey’s secularism as a joke (2) and made references to his book. The book does not really tell the reader what the present-day Islam is all about, the the head coverings, pilgrimage to Mecca, five times daily prayers, which he refers to only once when he learns that one of his university friends starts the practice, not because of his belief but as a protest to the US bombing of Bagdat, and does not mention whether he himself practices the daily prayers. A recent comment by Ilber Ortayli on Orhan Pamuk’s writings, I believe, also applies to the writings of Mustafa Akyol, interestingly both graduates of Bogazici University (3). His column in the English and the Turkish newspaper seems to give him an opportunity to criticize Ataturk, as he did in his 11 Nov 2007 commentary (4).

The book has been published in the US and England in English (there is no mention whether a Turkish version will be published) and sells for $25.95. One of the bonuses of making a presentation on Ataturk at the Public Library in Clinton, NJ, has been the community’s growing interest on things Turkish. Since the presentation and a month-long exhibition on Ataturk in May 2011, on the 130th anniversary of his birth, the library has acquired “Islam Without Extremes”. Another book the library has acquired is Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s book “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography”. I read both books which unfortunately reflect the growing anti-Ataturk movement in Turkey, a very sad situation. Both authors have taken liberties in making statements which ignore the accomplishments of a great leader who created the Republic of Turkey that we all enjoy. As noted in an earlier commentary on Ataturk, given below (HDN 8/21/2011), his contributions to humanity can not be denied and belittled. The commentary below also includes a brief summary of review of Sukru Hanioglu’s book by Mustafa Akyol, with praises (5).

Yuksel Oktay, 25 December 2011, Washington, NJ


(1)  Ilhan Arsel was a “Constitution Professor” at Istanbul University who had to leave his country after he wrore several books and many articles on Islam. He dies in New York City s couple of years ago.

(2) Comments by Mustafa Akyol during a Panel at the 1-3 November, 2011 Forum of Columbia Global Center in Istanbul

Mustafa Akyol made references to the situation in Turkey and stated that Turkey is not a model for the Arab countries, even referring to the secularism in Turkey as a ‘’joke’’, and the form of the government in 1925 as being nothing more than ‘’one party military dictatorship.’’ Robert Hornsby (of Columbia University) made an excellent speech, first commenting that he did not know much about the situation in the Middle East, even with several visits there, and stated that ‘’Turkish secularism is not a joke’’, prompting a ‘’Thank you’’ response from a member in the audience. Robert Hornsby also mentioned the lack of leaders in Egypt to govern the country, stating that the military was fully in charge now. A member of the audience, during the question and answer session, stated that Turkey has been successful in its transformation to a democratic society under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

(3) Prof.Dr. Ortaylı da süper bir tespitte bulunmuş.  Adana Seyhan’da düzenlenen bir konferansta konuşma yapan Prof. Dr.  İlber Ortaylı, Nobel ödüllü Orhan Pamuk için ilginç bir saptamada  bulundu. Ortaylı, bir dinleyicinin Pamuk’la ilgili sorusu üzerine şunları söyledi.    “Kaleme aldığı bir eserde şöyle bir ifade geçiyor. ‘İmam ikindi  namazı saatinde caminin balkonuna çıkarak ikindi ezanını okudu.’ Bu  toplumun gerçeklerini, inançlarını bilen her insan bilir ki, bir kere  namazın saati olmaz, vakti olur. Saat ayrı, vakit ayrı bir kavramdır.  Camilerde balkon yoktur, minarenin şerefesi vardır. Ezanı da  imam  okumaz müezzin okur, o da şerefeye çıkmaz içeriden okur.     Bu örnekle de sabittir ki kişiler kendi içinden çıktıkları toplumu    bilmeden bir şeyler yapmaya çalıştıklarında doğru şeyler yapmazlar,  yapamazlar. Birileri yaptırmıştır, sen yap, şöyle yap, şunu söyle ,  soykırım yalanını söyle  demiştir..” Bir cümlede 4 hata varsa tabii ki  Nobel ‘i alabilir…..

4) Response to Mustafa Akyol’s 11 November 2007 commentary in HDN.

Greatness of Atatürk

As a long time reader of the Turkish Daily News, almost from the first year of its publication in 1961, on and off and both abroad and during my visits to Turkey, I was shocked by Mustafa Akyol’s article, “The Gospel according to Atatürk,”(Nov. 11, 2007). The word ”Gospel” is used among the Americans as ”the teachings of Jesus” only, as far as I know. Those who know and respect history refer to Atatürk’s teachings as ”reforms” that created a new Republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

During a TV program a few days ago, Dr. Hüseyin Bağcı, responded to Professor Dr. Mehmet Altan’s never ending comments that Turkey is afraid of Armenia and her neighbors by simply stating that “Turkey is not afraid of any of her neighbors.” Someone should tell Akyol that he is dead wrong with his assessment that “In Turkey, the political system is much more open and free, but the cult of Atatürk constantly blocks its evolution into a full democracy.” This is far from the truth and Akyol should examine what is really blocking Turkey’s advancement, not only in the political field but also in the technological arena. No one is worshipping Atatürk, a phrase used loosely and with a purpose, including Akyol.

Those who live by his motto that “science and reason” is the path in life are simply demanding that his reforms be adhered to and followed, which are being ignored wholesale, constantly, as we are witnessing with the many actions being taken daily, including the way the Saudi King was received in Turkey just a few days ago. In order to bring Turkey back into the modern ages that Atatürk set forth as his aim, some of the unfinished reforms of Atatürk should be completed, such as worship in Turkish, liberation of women from wearing the turban which is not mandated by Islam, according to even the Director of Religious Affairs, and dialogue among all people in Turkey should be improved so that no one should be afraid of saying, “I am proud to be a Turk.”

Please find below a quote from a commentary on Atatürk written during a visit to “Atatürk house” in Thessalonica on Nov.10, 2007 where the 69th commemorative services took place under rain with over 500 participants from Turkey and Greece. Even the Greek newspaper understood the greatness of Atatürk and included the following statement on his death:

“Every country erects statues to those who have guided it to victory in was and prosperity in peace. But Turkey will have to drill mountains to find stone for its statue of Atatürk. For here was a man who arouse the admiration of friend and foe alike, a genius whose loss is felt not only by Turkey but by civilization and the entire world,” (Katimerini, Athens).

Yüksel Oktay, Washington, New Jersey  

(5) Atatürk and his contribution to humanity HDN | 8/21/2011 12:00:00 AM | YÜKSEL OKTAY

Time magazine in December 1999 picked Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century and included Mustafa Kemal Atatürk among the 15 most important leaders who paved the way to the 3rd Millennium.

Time magazine in December 1999 picked Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century and included Mustafa Kemal Atatürk among the 15 most important leaders who paved the way to the 3rd Millennium. Einstein was a great scientist, but his discovery of the atom led to the worst tragedy of the century, the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan, and also to the nuclear disasters, such as the ones in Russia and Japan, with no certain future. John McLaughlin, the host of ‘McLaughlin Group” declared that his award for “The Person of the Full Millennium” was for the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, praising him as ‘’Visionary who turned a Muslim nation into a Western parliamentary democracy and secular state” during his Jan. 1, 2000, end-of-the-millennium broadcast. Professor Arnold Ludwig picked Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the greatest leader of the 20th century following his 17-year study of over 300 leaders who shaped the world during the 100 years.

It must also be remembered that Greek Premier Venizelos nominated Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 and in 1978, UNESCO declared 1981 as “The Atatürk year”. Atatürk’s vision for his country and the world was the separation of state and religion and “Peace at Home, Peace Abroad”, a more meaningful contribution to humanity than Einstein’s inventions. Yet, today and in the second decade of the 21st Century, Atatürk’s vision is needed more globally.

The review of Mr. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s book “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” in his article “A quest for the historical Atatürk” (Daily News, Aug. 6-7, 2011) by Mr. Mustafa Akyol, is a big surprise where he finds faults with the times and principles of Atatürk, as he did back in 2007 in his article “The Gospel according to Atatürk” (Daily News, Oct. 11, 2007). His approach and general attitude is similar to many others, including Prof. Dr. Halil Berktay of Sabancı University (Taraf newspaper). They do not miss any opportunity to bring up negative aspects of Atatürk’s times, as Berktay did when he wrote “Mistakes of Atatürk,” which to me is more than an insult to the greatest leader of the 20th century alone and to the entire nation. One could easily ask, what is their problem and what do they want to accomplish with this sort of “negativism’’ on Atatürk, which is also in line with the anti-Turkish propaganda by the Armenian diaspora, especially in a newspaper read by foreigners worldwide.

Nothing and no one is perfect in this world, with the good and not so good, the pretty and not so pretty, and so on, either as an individual, leader, government or a nation. There may have been incidents during the early Republic that some people might not like that happened during the miraculous achievements that changed Turkey, but we owe the founding and continuing existence of the Republic of Turkey and everything to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We should all be thankful to him and commit ourselves to develop it further.

It is incomprehensible that 73 years after his death, people are still searching for the historical Atatürk, exemplified with Mustafa Akyol’s article and it is very strange that a book on Atatürk begins with an episode of a lonely shepherd’s observations of Atatürk’s silhouette on a hill some years ago, which Mr. Akyol has also picked as a starter in his article. Perhaps, both should have also mentioned another episode where another Turk saw Jesus Christ’s image on a tree trunk. Truthfully, I could neither follow Prof. Hanioğlu’s reasoning in his book nor the purpose of Mr. Akyol’s article, which ends with his quest for the ”second Turkish Republic.”

Probably the question to be asked is; What is this second Turkish Republic? Atatürk’s principles are a model for over 60 least developed and developing countries around the world, striving to reach where Turkey was in the 1920s. The hardest question is; “For whom these books, articles and ideas are meant to serve?”

Yuksel Oktay, PE