Religion, Democracy, and the New Turkey
Mustafa Akyol Akyol is a Turkish columnist for the English-language Hürriyet Daily News. He’s also author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty.
July 12, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: As dictatorships end in the Arab world, people there are looking for inspiration, and they’re looking to Turkey — a democracy with a population that is 98 percent Muslim. Turkey grows more fascinating and important by the day. It has a growing economy, it straddles Europe and Asia, and it has Greece, Iran, and Syria on its borders. The shapers of the “New Turkey,” as it’s sometimes called, are drawing on ideals they find in Turkey’s past as the center of the Ottoman Empire.
That lasted 600 years, into the 20th century, and had large Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim populations. But when it collapsed after World War I, Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, created the Turkish nation-state along staunchly secular lines. I recently visited Istanbul and met with Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political commentator, who also calls himself a freelance Muslim. He offers a deeper understanding of this “New Turkey” and its intersection of democracy and religious devotion.
MUSTAFA AKYOL: We have come to a basic live-and-let-live consensus, although culture wars are going on with some issues. But I think it’s in Turkey many people accept, the majority accept that, if people want to wear a headscarf, let them wear it. If they want to wear a miniskirt, let them wear it, and that’s what Turkey’s about.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is what you see here. You see everything all together.
MR. AKYOL: You see that, for sure. And actually, by that example, Turkey is now meaningful for the Arabs. There are many Arab tourists coming to Turkey and they see huge mosques with a lot of attendance and they see huge bars with a lot of attendance. And that’s what Turkey is, and maybe they want to be like this country now.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this On Being from APM, American Public Media.
Mustafa Akyol writes for several English- and Turkish-language journals and also publishes in the West. He was born in 1972. This was a period of instability, which ended in a military coup — the third since the beginnings of Turkish democracy in the mid-20th century. Mustafa Akyol’s personal story is a kind of prism on some of the change Turkey has undergone in recent decades. His grandfather was a devout Muslim. And while he was growing up, his journalist father supported the secular vision of Atatürk. Mustafa Akyol himself is a sometimes supporter, sometime critic, of the current devoutly Muslim prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan.
I spoke with Mustafa Akyol in his light-filled apartment in the Fulya neighborhood of Istanbul, surrounded by minimalist furniture, a pinging iPad, and a poster of Rocky Balboa.
MS. TIPPETT: I do want to start with the fact that what we now call the Middle East was, you know, once part of the Ottoman Empire, and here we are, this place that was the center of it.
MR. AKYOL: The more I think about that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, I mean, that that still matters. And maybe it matters in a new way now.
MR. AKYOL: For sure. What we call the Middle East today was the Ottoman Empire until the 20th century. And as a Turk, I’m not saying this only with a sense of pride or nationalist ethos, I’m saying this also as a historical basis for reform, democracy, and change in this region. One thing that is little noticed about the Ottoman Empire, in this part of the world or in the West, is that the Ottoman Empire had a very long and interesting and phenomenal period of modernization.
I mean, when the Empire collapsed, it was not this medieval monarchy where the sultans rule. It had become a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, an elected parliament. It had Jewish and Christian members in the parliament. Laws were introduced, which gave more rights for women. Jews and Christians of the Empire had become equal citizens, which is still not the case in some countries in the Middle East. And the Ottoman elite, the statesmen of the Empire and the intellectuals, had discussed these issues.
For example, the synthesis between Islam and democracy, which is now being debated again in the first, you know, decade of the 21st century, it was discussed by Ottoman scholars. And it was Ottoman intellectual Namik Kemal who said, Well, democracy actually corresponds to the Islamic idea of consultation and the Western principle of freedom, liberty, these actually come from the roots of our village and the idea of individual rights.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, you must have talked a lot about how there’s a great emphasis placed on individual responsibility, which is compatible with the democratic ideal.
MR. AKYOL: Definitely. Definitely. I think if you don’t have a strong base of political liberalism, your democracy will be also troubled. Because right now in the Middle East there’s democratization; but I also see the difference between a liberal democracy and an illiberal democracy where, you know, individual liberties are not secured. And even Turkey is still struggling with those nuances. And I’m sure those problems are there in Tunisia and Egypt, especially right now these days.
But the Ottoman effort of modernization in the late 19th century, called the Tanzimat, the reorganization period, in which the Islamic caliphate, the most authoritative Islamic institution on earth, really tried to incorporate some of the systems and ideas that we call Western. And these are liberal Western ideas. Because from the West we also had some bad ideas coming to this part of the world, like fascism or the idea of a single-party state, which still dominates Syria, for example. So not everything that came from the West is great. But I think liberal democracy is the better side of the Western modernity, in my point of view, and the Ottomans tried to incorporate that in the late 19th and early 20th century, and I think the struggle there is very valuable because it shows that democracy has some local roots in this part of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: So that’s an important piece of this history that you draw on now.
MR. AKYOL: Well, sort of. But I also focus on Ottoman reformers of the 19th century and show how they addressed tough questions like apostasy, you know. Because apostasy, which is like changing your religion from another religion, which should be, of course, free, is banned in classical Islamic law. But if you go back to the origins of it, you see that it was banned out of a political consideration: It was seen as changing your side in battle.
But ultimately, the Ottomans realized this and they, you know, set apostasy free. So it became possible in the late Ottoman Empire to become a Christian if you’re a Muslim. Or there were even open atheists in the Ottoman Empire who were advancing philosophies of some atheist European thinkers, and Ottoman Islamic scholars did not behead them or did not stone them; they wrote books criticizing their philosophy and advancing the Islamic philosophy.
So I think that sort of open debate and discussion is what we really need in the Middle East. The people who think that it is never unheard of in this part of the world are wrong. There are liberal trends in the Middle East and there are, of course, very authoritarian and tyrannical trends too, and they have struggled throughout the centuries.
MS. TIPPETT: So modern Turkey, what we even think of as modern Turkey, was born after World War I. And that was referred to as the secular revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. You would have grown up in that world. You had been born into that world. I am curious about this because Atatürk clearly, I mean just having been here a couple of days, is still such an important figure.
MR. AKYOL: Oh, cult of personality, totally.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, how did you think of Atatürk and the Turkish identity, which at that point was secular, growing up here?
MR. AKYOL: Great question. First of all, I should say I think secularism is a bit overrated. Because secularism in the sense of cleansing religion from the public square, especially in the French way, is not a guarantee for either democracy or liberalism. I mean, we have had many secular tyrants in this part of the world. Even if you actually compare, for example, the late Ottoman Empire to republican Turkey, you can find that Christians of the late Ottoman Empire were more free than the Christians of republican Turkey, which was a secular republic. Because with secularism came also nationalism, which was a much less tolerant force than the classical Islamic ideas of, you know, different faiths and the People of the Book, as Islamic tradition calls Christians and Jews. For example, I mean, I believe, in principle, in a secular state. I think it’s a good idea to have a state which is not defined by religion. But if that state is defined by some other philosophy than religion, such as Marxism-Leninism, as we saw throughout the Cold War, or fascism, then that’s, that can be an even worse example. So …
MS. TIPPETT: Was there religion in your family? Your grandfather, I read, was …
MR. AKYOL: My grandparents were very pious Muslims. And I think from them I got my first crash course into Islam, as I would call it. I learned the basics of my religion from my grandfather. And actually, there’s even a story that, one day in my grandfather’s library, I found the book which had very inspiring quotes from the Qur’an about creation and human beings and life. But also a quote, not from the Qur’an but from an old Islamic book, which said, “If your children do not start to pray at the age of 10, then beat them up.” I read that at the age of nine. And actually that was probably the beginning of my struggle with the authoritarian elements within Islamic law and tradition. And how can we reform them and how can we face them as believers of Islam.
My parents were, like, reasonably religious too in a common Turkish sense. But I think one thing I learned from my parents, especially my father, is a stance against tyranny. Because my father, like almost every politician and intellectual in the 1980s, were imprisoned by the military junta in 1980 — for nothing. The military junta arrested some 600,000 people, and many people were tortured, and I at the age of eight saw my father behind the barbed-wired corridor in this military barracks, which looked like a Soviet gulag.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re in Istanbul, seeking a sense of the emerging Turkish model of religion and democracy. I’m with journalist Mustafa Akyol. Tayyip Erdogan, an openly devout Muslim, was elected prime minister of Turkey in 2002. Many Western commentators and many Turks reacted to his election with alarm and continue to fear encroaching Islamism. But for now, modern Turkey seems to exist in a functional, even creative, tension — between the secular culture championed by Atatürk, who is still revered, and a new religious openness ushered in by Erdogan, the first leader in Turkish history to win three straight elections. Turkey was once a place where devout Muslim women were known to wear wigs over their headscarves because Atatürk and his successors banned all religious expression in public. Today, controversially for some, the prime minister’s wife wears a headscarf.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve made the point that secularism as it was embodied in the Turkish government was — you said was secularist. And it was modeled on the French idea of freedom from religion, and not the American idea of separation of church and state, a secular state in which religions are free.
MR. AKYOL: Totally. I think that one of the biggest tragedies of the Muslim world in the 20th century in the Islamic Middle East is that it never experienced a liberal republic like it is the United States. The so-called modern secular republics in this part of the world were always one-party states, like the Kemalist system in Turkey, or the Nassers and the Mubaraks of Egypt or the Ben Ali of Tunisia. And so the alternative quickly became the Islamic radicals which resisted these secular authoritarian regimes. So the Middle East was haunted between these secular authoritarians versus Islamic authoritarians. And the middle ground, a political system of pluralism and call it liberal democracy, was hardly experienced.
Now I’m happy to see that with the Arab Spring, it’s for the first time that we see, not the sudden emergence of a liberal democracy, for sure, but the first twilights of a would-be liberal era in the Muslim world. In Turkey, if you’re lucky for one thing, we’re not lucky because we had a secular one-party state, Arabs had that too. We are lucky because we had our first free and fair elections in 1950. And since then, Turkey is a functioning democracy with a lot of flaws, with military coups, but still liberal laws and freedom of speech. But we had more chance to experiment with a multiparty democratic system. Egyptians are trying it just for six months right now.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s in its infancy.
MR. AKYOL: It’s a new thing for them.
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that you became more religious, or are you more religious than your parents, or more sympathetic towards Islam as a …
MR. AKYOL: I am more theologically inspired than my parents. But my social life can be sometimes even more liberal than my parents. They never dated, like, people. I mean, they married at the age of 22. I’ve lived in a more global world, traveled more, and have more international friends, and so on.
MS. TIPPETT: How did that happen to you? How did you start to become, I like that, “theologically inspired”?
MR. AKYOL: Well, because I think my parents lived at a time when your identity was very well defined by your family and your upbringing and your culture and your surroundings. Whereas I lived at a time when who we are, what is the right thing in life, what are the purposes of life, became more, became questions that need, you know, more re-thinking. And in my final years in high school, I met with religious people, like a religious movement in Nurs tradition in Turkey. The people who read the books of Said Nursi, an Islamic scholar who died in 1960. And I was inspired by their teaching. And since then I became very, you know, personally religious.
But over time, I also decided that I’m not following any particular school of thought or any particular community. That’s why I ultimately define myself as a freelance Muslim. But I think my convictions, my faith, my loyalty to the foundations of my faith remains, and I hope it will remain forever.
MS. TIPPETT: I sometimes make this analogy, which is very imperfect, but I think it’s still useful to talk about. I mean, you’ve been in the United States a lot. Again, all things being relative and circumstances are very different, but the U.S. also had a secular period in the latter half of the 20th century where elites became very secular and the academy became secular, and there was an illusion of government being secular and workplaces being secular. But the truth is that people remained religious. And, you know, you’ve seen that bubble up again to the surface — in some ways that are difficult and in some ways that I think are just, you know, it’s just become more apparent. And I wonder, I mean, do you think that’s true in Turkey as well? It was a secularist regime and culture officially, but people were still Muslim and now, I mean, you might be a good example of what it looks like when that’s just open again for people to discover.
MR. AKYOL: There are certainly similarities between American and Turkish societies in this sense, when you look at the number of people who believe in God, who pray every day, it’s actually very similar, Turkish and American societies. Peter Berger, the great U.S. sociologist, once said, “The U.S. is a country of Indians ruled by elitist Swedes” — Indians being the religious people, and Swedes are the secular. I, in return, said, “Turkey is a country of Indians ruled by a group of North Koreans.” Right. Well, I wish we had Swedes, I mean, at least they were liberal. But North Koreans, they have their own cult of personality and they’re very authoritarian and so on. So that was the Turkish scene until very recently.
So, a bit like the, you know, rise of the Christian right, the Moral Majority under Reagan, and the Heartland of American, you know, and defying the elites, the Blue America, or, you know, San Francisco or New York. That sort of feeling is a bit similar to the rise of the Islamic, you know, muscle, or the Islamic energy in Turkey.
It would have been very bad if this Islamic revival was like in Iran, you know, the dictator being overthrown by another dictator who established now his own dictatorship, you know. The Shah had banned the headscarves; Khomeini came and said, Now everybody will the wear the headscarves because this is his rule. Thank God, in Turkey it didn’t happen that way. Thanks to our democratic experience, the Islamic camp gradually incorporated into the system and, although they remain too conservative from the secular point of view.
I mean, Erdogan has just launched a new culture war on abortion, for example. But these are the things that we see in countries like the United States. I mean, nobody says we should stone women in Turkey; the question is whether abortion should be free or not, which is, well, you can have your positions on this, but it’s not an unheard of debate in a free, open society.
MS. TIPPETT: No, it’s not.
MR. AKYOL: And I also find the U.S. a very important example, as a Muslim from this part of the world, because one thing in the Middle East which blocks an evolution to modernity is the idea that if you become modern, you will be a godless, totally secular society. I mean, I have a very conservative Muslim friend, he went to Amsterdam for a few days, and he said, he came back and he said, “We don’t want to be like those people.” I mean, “I respected those people, but the fact that they’re very secular comes to the believers in this part of the world as something they don’t want to, you know, aspire for.”
Whereas I think in the United States, here is the example of a very devout, pious society in many ways, a very conservative, like, believing society, but it’s very modern and very open. And it embraces freedom. And, of course, it has its own debates and struggles on the meaning of all those things. So I’ve always believed that the United States can be a better source of inspiration of modernity for this part of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, so much of the, what people would talk about when they talked about Turkey in the last 10 years, was, you know, was, will they join the EU? Will they not join the EU? And here we are at this moment, being in the EU is no longer necessarily an enviable thing. The world around Turkey, I mean, Turkey is in this incredible place on the map. Everything is shifting, right? Who knows what will happen, certainly in the near term, in Egypt or Tunisia, but it’s on the move. And Turkey is right in the middle of all of this transformation and I do think, you know, Europe is in transformation too. So, what an interesting time to be Turkish and to be thinking about the things you think about.
MR. AKYOL: It is. Actually, I’m more proud of Turkey than I have ever been. I’m not proud of everything in Turkey these days. We have still a lot of problems when it comes to freedom of speech. We still have not solved the problems of the minorities, let alone the majority. So we, our democracy, is still very flawed. I’m not one of those people who says, We’ve have had a miracle and everything became perfect in this country, no.
MS. TIPPETT: But there has been a real evolution.
MR. AKYOL: There have been important reforms. And the fact that these reforms were partly spearheaded by people of an Islamic commitment is, I think, a good example. It’s a good message. And we are now at a critical juncture, whether Erdogan will — he just today, for example, announced that there will be Kurdish classes in Turkish schools, which is a great reform. But two days ago, he was doing something which is totally unacceptable from the liberal point of view. So he has these two sides. I don’t know which side will win ultimately. So we have our issues.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s too bad. You know, American politicians are completely consistent in all things. Sorry. (laughter)
MR. AKYOL: We’ll see. We will see where Turkey heads. But I think in the 21st century, Turkey has woken up. I think Turkey is right now becoming more at peace with its history, identity, the Ottoman background. This doesn’t mean we’ll establish an empire, as some people think, or this doesn’t mean that Turkey is turning its face from the West to the East totally. But Turkey is just opening up, and trying to establish the links that it once had with everybody in this part of the world. And it’s, the Muslim identity in Turkey which had been suppressed is now more proud, more visible, more maybe dominant. But if we can manage to frame this change within democracy and by protecting the rights of the secular citizens and the non-Muslims, this will be a great accomplishment. Because we cannot live in a world where there’s a big divide between East and West. We cannot live in a world where you have a choose between the free world or — you need countries that will be gray and black at the same time.
MS. TIPPETT: Different models.
MR. AKYOL: Yeah. And so you need democracies with their own cultural tone to it. If Turkey will be an example of Islamic democracy, it will not happen when it’s run by a bunch of generals who suppress the pious. Turkey will become an example of Islamic democracy when its really pious people embrace democratic values and help advance them. And I think we have made some progress on that.
MS. TIPPETT: Erdogan, I wrote down here, you know, sounds like an American politician: “When I’m at home I’m a Muslim, when I’m in the office I work for democracy.”
MR. AKYOL: Yeah. The thing is, Erdogan wants to be this leader who democratized Turkey and who makes Turkey a world power, who has boosted the Turkish economy, and he’s accomplished some of these already. But how well he understands democracy is a good question. And I think his temptation to power sometimes overshadows his commitment to democracy. But it shifts and moves. One day, you wake up and you hear a very liberal Erdogan; two days later, you wake up and see a very angry Erdogan who doesn’t sound like a democratic leader at all. So we will see what happens in the …
MS. TIPPETT: I also think you’re making is that the evolution and the maturation of Turkish democracy is the bigger question than Erdogan.
MR. AKYOL: It is. It is also a question of how can we decentralize power, bring a system of checks and balances. And how do we get rid of this political culture which always sees everything in a zero-sum game? I mean, in Turkey there’s a saying, “If you give your hand, you will lose your arm.” Well, my argument is that, “If you don’t give you’re hand, you can never have a handshake.” So if you don’t make concessions on some issues, you will never come to a consensus and agreement. So we still don’t have a basic social contract — with regards to Kurds, with regard to the divisions between the secularists and the Islamists. I think on the secularism issue, we have come to a basic live-and-let-live consensus, although cultural wars are going on with some issues. But I think in Turkey many people accept, the majority accepts, that if people want to wear a headscarf, let them wear it; if they want to wear a miniskirt, let them wear it. And that’s what’s Turkey’s about.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is what you see here. You see everything altogether.
MR. AKYOL: You see that, for sure. And actually, by that example, Turkey is now meaningful for the Arabs. There are many Arab tourists coming to Turkey, and they see huge mosques with a lot of attendance, and they see huge bars with a lot of attendance. And that’s what Turkey is, and maybe they want to be like this country now.
MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Mustafa Akyol in his apartment in Istanbul.
Watch a video of our entire, unedited conversation. That’s at onbeing.org. Mustafa Akyol, of course, is just one voice, one approach to the complex reality of this nation and region. We’ll be presenting other different conversations I had in Istanbul, including a Sufi teacher, a woman who is one of the most prominent spiritual leaders in today’s Turkey.
And my producers and I were in Istanbul at the invitation of the patriarch of 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, His All Holiness Bartholomew. More in the coming months on air and online at onbeing.org.
Coming up, Islamic Calvinists. Mustafa Akyol explains how the Prophet Muhammad is inspiring a generation of Turkish entrepreneurs. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m in Istanbul with the journalist and political commentator Mustafa Akyol. We’re exploring his perspective. It’s one introduction to the unfolding model of religion and democracy in this country that’s at the center of a region in transformation. Istanbul was once Constantinople, the center of the Ottoman Empire, which flourished when Greek and Roman civilizations failed. Voices of the “New Turkey” like Mustafa Akyol are increasingly drawing on this history as they form a vision of an economically robust, liberal constitutional democracy. And the region is taking note. In one recent poll, 63 percent of Egyptians cited Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, as the world leader they most admired. The king of Saudi Arabia received 5 percent of that vote, and so did President Barack Obama.
MS. TIPPETT: I attended a year ago, 2011, the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, which Brookings and — Were you there this year?
MR. AKYOL: I was there two weeks ago.
MS. TIPPETT: This was right after, I mean, this was March 2011, April 2011. Everything was fresh, the Arab Spring. And it was very striking to watch one after the other, you know, Egyptians, Tunisians, stand up and talk about Turkey as the model they were looking at. And I felt like the Turkish participants, even themselves, were just beginning to take this in. How does this new, almost responsibility that’s been handed to Turkey, how are you taking it in, and how might it play into what’s happening?
MR. AKYOL: I think among Turkey’s conservatives there is a belief in what I call “Turkey’s Manifest Destiny.” In the sense that they believe that Turkey has a historic mission on earth, Turks as a people. The idea that Turks were the standard bearers of Islamic civilization for centuries. And this is not just about leading, though, it’s also making the Islamic civilization meet democracy as well. Because democracy is ultimately, I mean, I argue that democratic ideals have some Islamic counterparts. But ultimately, democracy is a creation of the modern West. So the Ottomans also incorporated, began to incorporate, democracy; and Turkey, if there’s anything that is special about Turkey, we had a longer experience with that.
So now, if Turkey can become a country which firmly roots itself in the Islamic civilization with better ties with the Arabs — and you see that, you know, Turkish think tanks are opening bureaus in Cairo right now, that’s great. But also they keep on being a part of the Western alliance, being part of the international system, build dialogue between the tough actors in the Middle East, such as Iran, and the United States, for example.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and also being literally a bridge to Europe as well.
MR. AKYOL: Yeah, exactly. So, if Turkey can walk this, you know, mutual, like, path, it will be a more and more inspiring figure. But this is also — I mean, whether we’ll be able to do this or not, we’ll see. I mean, Turkey still lacks a lot of intellectual background. I mean, very few people in Turkey speak Arabic, because we’ve been cut off from the Arab world. I mean, we don’t speak Arabic, Arabs don’t speak Turkish. These are very different languages.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. AKYOL: The Ottoman language was written by the Arabic scripts and it had a lot of Arabic words, but it was Turkish grammar. Modern Turkey changed the alphabet. It even purged Arabic and Persian words in Turkey to cleanse the language.
MS. TIPPETT: I didn’t know that.
MR. AKYOL: We had this thing called the Language Revolution, which is I think catastrophic. The Turkish vocabulary shrank and the Turkish Language Institution, a construct of the new regime, created new dictionaries by artificial words.
MS. TIPPETT: This was the Atatürk regime.
MR. AKYOL: Yeah, that was the Atatürk regime. So the idea was to de-Arabize and de-Persianize Turkish culture. Now that looked like progress from some point of view, but I think it was also impoverishment in terms of literature and even thinking, because, I mean, we lost many nuances. And of course, the whole society became illiterate overnight when you changed the whole alphabet. And today a Turk on the street cannot read what his grandfather wrote. So there are, like, some cultural still barriers between Turkey and the Arab world. But the thing is, the new Turkish elite is willing to overcome these challenges.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, in a sense it’s an interesting, if you look at it in a great big, with a great big view, it’s also a moment for Turkey to reconnect with some of its own best legacy, right?
MR. AKYOL: Sure. Definitely. Definitely. And in Turkey actually there are a few narratives. So if you’re a Kemalist, your golden age is the Age of Atatürk and you think everything was perfect there and all your mission is to keep it living. And if you are a conservative, your golden age is the Ottoman Empire and you connect yourself with the Empire all the time. This doesn’t mean that you have to run an empire again, you have to occupy countries and establish an empire again. But you look to the world from the eyes of an Ottoman.
So what happens in Bosnia becomes very important for you because Bosnia is our Euro-Muslim Ottoman brothers. I mean, there are more Bosnian prime ministers in Ottoman history than, you know, the ones who were ethnically Turkish, or Arabs in Palestine, or Baghdad. When Baghdad, we speak of Baghdad, it’s the Ottoman, it was the Ottoman governor until, you know, the early 20th century. So that way of looking to the world is more actually open-minded in some sense, because also the secularist vision was very nationalist and isolationist.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Yes. I mean, there are some, I was looking at some polls, I mean, first of all, Erdogan received this rapturish welcome in Egypt in 2011. I was looking at some polls that were done in Egypt by an American think tank. Egyptians were saying, you know, if there could one super power, 41 percent wanted it to be Turkey; Saudi Arabia got 25 percent; the U.S. got 5 percent. Very admiring of Erdogan as a leader. And much more admiring of Turkey than, for example, Saudi Arabia, in terms of the model of the role Islam should play in society and in politics. But I wonder, you know, I was kind of interested, you’ve written about the Islamic Calvinists in 1980s Turkey, where you were part of the renewal of this place. I mean, I just want to ask you: What, if Turkey is presenting a model for emerging democracies with Islamic populations, what are some of the components of that?
MR. AKYOL: First of all, probably I should say, I think there are three models right now in the Middle East. One is Iran, and that’s the model of the people who want to fight and establish theocracies and resist Israel in the sense of, you know, destroying Israel. The other one is the Saudi Arabian model, which is politically moderate, like, willing to have a two-state solution and so on, but religious-wise very authoritarian, like you have religious police. So, I mean, Saudi Arabia is the model of the Salafis, for example. And then there’s Turkey. Now, as a new model, I mean, Turkey was irrelevant 10 years ago because it was a secularist country which didn’t even look to the Middle East which was run by a general, a cadre of generals, who banned the headscarf. Who would Turkey as an example?
But the new Turkey is an example. It’s an example for those people who want to be loyal to their tradition, their religious values, and so on, but also who want to be a part of the modern world. So Turkey is the model right now, for example, the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, which says, Well, we are Islamic people, we come from Islamic backgrounds, but we will not establish an Islamic regime; we will, you know, work with secularists and focus on economic development and reform and modernization and so on and so forth. So in that sense I think the Turkish model, how well the Arabs understand this, is a good question, because there’s a cultural disconnect.
And secondly, I should also say that the Turkish model cannot be imported. I mean, every country has its own history, background. I mean, it would be naive to say that everybody should copy Turkey. But just as an idea that, well, you can be like the Turks in the sense that you can be still visibly and seriously Muslim; but you can focus on economic development, you can be even a part of NATO, but this doesn’t mean that you’re betraying your values. You can stand for Palestine, but you don’t have to oppose Israel’s existence. I mean, as much as, you know, the Turkish government is pro-Palestinian, they’re not anti-Israel. I mean, they have criticized Israel strongly, maybe too strongly, on some issues. But ultimately they want a two-state solution.
So, combining all those things, I think, makes Turkey a source of inspiration for the Arab reformists who in the post-Arab Spring world want to have political movements that are respectful to religion but that are also modern and realistic.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, in the Istanbul home of Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol. We are seeking a sense of the distinctive emerging Turkish approach to religion and democracy.
MS. TIPPETT: I really like this idea of Islamic Calvinists. Again, there is an echo for me of early American democracy, where all of the organizations of civil society for a long time were Christian: the Rotary Clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, which is now just the YMCA but it was, right, it was the Young Men’s Christian Association. And then gradually over generations, there was a secularization of this.
MR. AKYOL: Islamic Calvinist is a term coined by a European think tank, the European Civil Initiative, which studied conservative businessmen in Turkey, and especially the heartland of Turkey, the “Midwest” of Turkey, if you will.
MS. TIPPETT: Conservative meaning what? Religiously conservative? Politically?
MR. AKYOL: The religiously conservative businessmen who opened very successful companies. They create, like, refrigerators or TV, or they may produce blue jeans, and sell to Africa and the Middle East and, you know, the four corners of the world. These very successful economically entrepreneurial, hard-working businessmen.
So, especially cities like Konya and Kayseri, which are at the very core of Turkey and are religiously very conservative cities, they found that the businessmen here say, Prophet Muhammad was a merchant. So when they look at Prophet Muhammad they don’t see a warrior, but they see a businessman. And they say that, like Prophet Muhammad, we are opening up companies and, you know, making money. And using that money for also social purposes, like opening up soup kitchens, funding charities, or, you know, like giving scholarships to poor students. Thanks to that initiative in Turkey right now, Turkey has a very large charity sector. And some of that has been politically, you know, recognized by the Gaza Flotilla. But that’s just one example of that.
Turkish NGOs, Turkish charities, open up wells in Africa or bring medicine to African nations. They open up schools, they helped to tsunami victims, and that is financed mostly by this religiously conservative part of the population who believe that helping your neighbor is a Godly duty. And that part of the populace is also the voting block for the AKP of Tayyip Erdogan. Because they see in Erdogan a leader who, you know, reflects their values and who helps their business at the same time. Because the AKP is also a very business-driven party and therefore policy is also very much linked with Turkey’s financial trade interests.
So in that sense, that social transformation is also very important and these Islamic Calvinists are also approaching to their religious tradition, sometimes in a more liberal way than their forefathers. And that also shows how religious attitudes are changing in Turkey, mostly to the positive. Of course, it is a long process and we still have close-minded people.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and as I say, I mean, it was a long process in the U.S. as well.
MR. AKYOL: Exactly. Exactly. So just like in the United States where almost every big university was opened by churches, but they gradually became more secular and mainstream institutions, I expect the Turkish civil society to create more dynamic institutions, and I see that the very process makes them look at the world from a more globalist and pragmatic perspective.
MS. TIPPETT: Obviously, over the last 10 years I’ve talked to a lot of people about Islam. Just from where you sit, and even across your lifetime, I mean, you actually were not raised that religious, you, as you said, are theologically inspired now. I mean, how do you think about, what is happening in this moment inside this tradition?
MR. AKYOL: Well, first let me say that Americans hear about Islam unfortunately by looking at or hearing about the most unpleasant elements of the Islamic civilization. And this is happening the other way around in this part of the world. I mean, in 2010 the most frequently quoted pastor in America in the Turkish press was this gentleman in Florida who wanted to burn the Qur’an. He did not represent mainstream Christian attitudes but he was on the news all the time. So there are some very radical Islamic scholars or, you know, imams, who are disrespectful to other faiths, and they make the news, although they don’t represent the mainstream Muslim position.
Having said that, I should acknowledge that, well, the Islamic world needs a lot of change. We need change on issues of religious freedom. The Islamic world was once a beacon of religious freedom when compared to Catholic Medieval Europe. But now it is not. We need reform on women’s rights, we need reform on minority rights, we need a more open mind in many issues. But this change will not come when Islamic countries are being occupied by foreign powers, or they will not come when there are secularist dictators which put people in prison for being pious Muslims. Actually those traumas have blocked the way for reform in this part of the Middle East.
What we need is change within. What we need is a dynamics of change that will be loyal to Islam but will be also more pragmatic and rational and open-minded about the world. And that depends on economic change, that depends on raising a middle class, and that depends also on intellectuals and artists and thinkers and community leaders who will be, again, loyal to their faith, but who will also ask for change, will ask for openness — for the sake of the faith, not at the expense of the faith. In the U.S. sometimes, some people become famous. I mean, you see sometimes ex-Muslims who say, Islam is a very bad religion and I left it, and, they are people and I respect their stories, although I don’t agree with them. I mean, and some Westerners think, Oh, these are the Muslim reformers. I mean, it’s not possible. If there will be a Muslim reformer, that Muslim reformer should respect Islam first.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Moderate Islam will not need, will be faithful.
MR. AKYOL: You cannot expect people who defame Islam to be leading any change in the Islamic world. Sometimes actually they block change because it makes people more defensive.
MS. TIPPETT: Another fascinating thing about Turkey is, as you say, I mean, you’ve written that Turkish identity is synonymous with Muslim-ness. But here we are also in what was, and still is, the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 300 million Christians worldwide. We’re going to see Bartholomew, the Patriarch, later in the week. So Turkey is also an experiment in Muslim-Christian encounter.
MR. AKYOL: Certainly the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew is actually an asset for Turkey. I respect him as a religious leader, a Christian leader. I think he is very wise and he’s, I think, very constructive when it comes to religious dialogue and international issues. I have great respect for the institution. Unfortunately, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been demonized by some Turks in the 20th century — and not out of Islam most of the time, but out of nationalism.
Turkey’s political tensions with Greece, which were mostly focused on Cyprus, became a reason in Turkey to persecute or demonize the Greeks within Turkey. Although they were Turkish citizens, many people here perceived them as the fifth column of the neighboring Greece. And the fact that Turkish Muslims in Greece did not have full religious freedom became a reason to not give full religious freedom to our Greek citizens, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
So this was a vicious cycle that really traumatized Turkish Christians, partly Jews, in the 20th century. But actually in the new 21st century, we are moving away from that doomed legacy and AKP still has a lot of reasons to be criticized for on freedom of speech. One thing that the Erdogan government did was to get rid of some of these limitations on Turkish Christians and Jews.
MS. TIPPETT: I think Patriarch Bartholomew has said that he feels more openness within an Islamic government than he did with the secular government.
MR. AKYOL: Exactly. Exactly. Because, while Turkey’s secularists did not like religion and religion included Christianity as well. So sometimes you see religious people standing together in the face of an authoritarian secularist regime, and that was the case in Turkey. There have been important Muslim religious leaders in Turkey who have defended the patriarchates or Turkish Jewish community against nationalists who demonize these groups, these minority groups. And I’m happy to see more and more of that. Of course, there are still steps to be taken. The Halki Seminary, the …
MS. TIPPETT: The seminary still has not been opened.
MR. AKYOL: … important teaching institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it should be opened. Why it is not still opened, I don’t know. But the problems are coming from Turkey’s educational laws. No private education is allowed in Turkey, everything has to be under state tutelage, including Islamic education, and so on. So there are problems coming from there. But Erdogan should do this reform as soon as possible. And show to the world that “New Turkey,” which is more democratic and more Muslim than the past, is also more free. There are some reasons to say, Yes, that’s the case. There are some still problems which, you know, make that answer not perfect. But I hope, my hope is that the Erdogan government will keep on reforming and those reforms will include reforms that will further help the Christians of Turkey.
MS. TIPPETT: So there’s a lot of fear among secular Turks. The world has changed for them in a very challenging way. And I wonder how you respond to that fear, you know. What is the voice for secular Turks now in this emerging Turkish political …
MR. AKYOL: Well, secularist Turks may be — there are differences between secularist Turks and …
MS. TIPPETT: Secular and secularists, OK.
MR. AKYOL: There can be secular liberals who think differently from a secularist.
MS. TIPPETT: And there can be secular Muslims as well. OK.
MR. AKYOL: Yeah, yeah, certainly. Well, secularist Turks, they need to understand that, well, if they want political power, they should win elections. I mean, until now they held political power through the military or the judiciary, which protected their ideology in the face of elected governments. That’s why they got lazy. They have no vision for the future of Turkey. They don’t know how to govern an economy. Turkey’s main opposition which represents the secularists’ main trend in society, they are still very weak when compared to the party of Tayyip Erdogan in terms of their economic vision, in terms of their understanding of the world, in terms of their understanding of foreign policy. So they need to learn how to win votes, as the Islamists have done before.
MS. TIPPETT: We talked about this incredible place of Turkey on the map. It means that Turkey is at the center and can and certainly is poised to be a kind of leader. I also could imagine that you could say this is an impossible place to be on the map.
MR. AKYOL: Well, Turkey is certainly in a tough neighborhood. Our longest border is with Syria, which is not the most pleasant country. The other one is Iran. And there is, well, the Caucasus, Armenia, and, well, we have a closed border with Armenia, unfortunately, and there is Azerbaijan and Georgia, it goes on. And so these are all countries with deep political problems. Well, the European side used to look nicer. Greece was OK until recently. But now Greece is collapsing, so we have issues there. So Turkey is indeed in a very tough neighborhood.
But being in a tough neighborhood might be a disadvantage, or it can be an advantage, if you’re a country that can influence your neighbors for good. The Arab Spring will of course change the structure of the political situation in the Middle East. I’m not saying this in a way which is disapproving of the Arab Spring, not at all. But the relations between Syria and Turkey became very tense because Turkey stood, rightly, in my view, with the opposition against the regime, the tyrannical regime of Bashar Assad. But ultimately I think Turkey can turn this dangerous neighborhood into an asset for itself and even help its neighbors. For example, one thing Turkey desperately tries to do is to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis between Iran and the West. We tried, we tried a few times; it didn’t fully work yet. But the talks in Iran …
MS. TIPPETT: I think Turkey can become that …
MR. AKYOL: Yeah. The talks in Istanbul between Iran and the West were the most fruitful one, and it is Tayyip Erdogan who can have a great meeting with Barack Obama and then the next day go to talk to the Ayatollah Khomeini and communicate between these two leaders while having their trust, both of them. So that’s a rare country. So maybe being on the border of Iran can have an advantage in that sense. We will see. For a long time Turkey feared anybody that’s beyond its borders. When I was in school we learned that Turkey is a country surrounded by seas from three sides and by enemies from four sides. That was the motto I learned in school, and it was the ’80s. And Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, he said that Turkey is not a country like that anymore. So Turkey is becoming more global-minded. And I welcome that change.
MS. TIPPETT: Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish columnist for the English-language Hürriyet Daily News. He is the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. You can watch my entire conversation with Mustafa Akyol at his home in Istanbul at onbeing.org. And there you can also sign up for our newsletter. It’s a weekly email with my thoughts on each week’s show as well as links to what’s happening on our website and in the world. Just click on the Newsletter tab at onbeing.org. And Like us on our Facebook page. That’s facebook.com/onbeing. Find us on Twitter, our handle: @beingtweets.
On Being, on air and online, is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefni Bell, and Susan Leem. Dave McGuire is our senior producer. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams on family get-togethers where no one agrees on anything; and the importance of beauty as a strategy for survival.