A Conversation with Mustafa Akyol
on the Dark Fate of Freedom in Muslim Countries

Professor Akyol, your work and your books, from Islam without extremes (2001) to Reopening the Muslim Minds (2021), was devoted to showing how Islam is compatible with freedom and democracy, a very topical issue that is always open in our days. Because the fate of political Islam is very troubled and the facts show a very negative state of affairs throughout both the Middle East and North Africa. What lessons should we draw from Turkey, your country, or from Tunisia where now an autocracy has taken the place of the last Arab democracy?

It took European countries a few centuries to move away from absolutism and sectarian war and to become liberal democracies. On their path there were also nationalism and fascism and nazism. It is hard to evolve. It is hard to build a political system. It is hard to have a political evolution where you end up with a state that is governed by rule of law, that treats every citizen equally and grants them political and economic and civil liberties. This achievement certainly is not there in the Middle East today, anywhere. One dominant problem is that in most of these countries the state is somehow affiliated with a particular religious or ethnic group or an ideological group, and that group feels in power. But people who belong to certain other groups are feeling that they are second class citizens, and they are threatened by the state.

Could you make any examples?   

In Syria, the Alawites under Hafez al-Assad dominated the state. It was a one-party state, the opposition was crushed. That led to the Syrian revolution, which was, of course, brutally crushed by the regime in a terrible civil war. While in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab dictator who suppressed the Shiites and the Kurds. He was toppled. Then the Shiites became more dominant politically and the Sunnis reacted against. In all these cases, the state does not treat people equally.

As is the case of Kurds in Turkey…

Certainly, the Kurds have not ever felt as equal citizens with the Turks. Their language has been banned or limited, and their discrimination still continue. What is more, there is this kind of big cultural divide in society: the more secular Turks versus the more Islamic religiously conservative Turks. And the state is either in the hands of one side or in the hand of the other side. What happened in the past 20 years is that the state basically switched from being dominated by the old secular class, the Kemalists, to the Islamists led by Erdogan. That transition looked nice for a few years because there was a balance of power: nobody dominated everything, and the European Union reforms allowed some progress.

Now, in Turkey, if you are pro Erdogan, you are a first-class citizen, you love your country, you love your state, you can say whatever you want. You have freedom of speech because you will praise Erdogan, there is endless freedom of speech for that. But if you are in the opposition, you certainly feel that the state does not look at you as a citizen of equal rights, you do not have the same freedom of speech. If you want to get a job in public institutions, you certainly will be discriminated against. There is a language that defines you as the enemy within, and it is ruling the country.

We mentioned Tunisia. Over the past year and a half there has been a crackdown against dissent that culminated with the arrest of Ennahda’s opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi. Speaking of an Islam “without extremes,” we have seen how a form of political Islam, moderate, open to compromise and understanding with other political forces, has been “punished” by political events. Its leader Rached Gannouchi has been imprisoned almost as if the new authoritarian regime installed by Saied wanted paradoxically to show that moderate Islam does not pay and to give reason to extremist Islam. However, Ghannouchi represents the political Islam whilst the President Kais Saied is more secular. What about divisions here?

I think a similar division has acted upon in Tunisia, despite the fact that the Islamist party Ennahda actually has proven the best of all Islamists in the Middle East. I.e., by taking steps to ensure that it was not going to enforce the Sharia and Islamic law on the rest of society. And Rached Ghannouchi’s work was also important to have led to that. However, those divisions are so deep that, when combined with economic hardship (as is the case of Tunisia) people could easily get mobilized to support an autocratic leader who says, “These are the problem in the country, these are the enemies within and I will take care of them.”

All the countries we mentioned so far are Arab countries or countries with a majority Muslim population. Is this something about Islam?

Not just that, of course. I mean Kemalists were oppressive because they were not Islamists, but they were hardcore nationalists. There are a lot of oppressive or intolerant or illiberal forces regarding Islam and political Islam. I think it is fair to say that traditional understanding of Islam envisions a society where, first of all, Muslims are the ruling class and non-Muslims are maybe tolerated, but they do not have equal rights. Therefore, that does not go well with a democratic society. Second, it involves a state which will somehow enforce Islamic values. That includes banning blasphemy. That includes banning immorality in society, all of the things that are called religious policing. Islamic parties somehow want to realize this goal at different levels and even if they say we do not want to, a lot of people suspect that that is ultimately what they want. That also creates a big distrust in society.

I think there are different illiberal forces and the region is at struggle between these illiberal forces, out of sectarianism, out of nationalism, out of tribalism, out of sheer power. Moreover, the synthesis between Islam and liberal democracy has not been established yet. Arguments for it: there are intellectuals or scholars who aspire to that. In Catholicism with Second Vatican Council, much were settled. Such a clear historic step has not been taken, that is why parties that act in the name of Islam, even if sometimes they act pragmatically, raise anxieties on the secular side of these societies. And that leads to these endless culture wars.

Turkey and Tunisia are good examples of those. What happen in both countries? That in Turkey, the Islamists ultimately dominated, but they proved to be oppressive. And in Tunisia, the Islamists, led by Ennahda, now are the victims, while the other side proved to be oppressive. These countries should realize that the only times that they made progress are times when nobody dominated: Turkey has seen that in early years of AKP or under Turgut Özal in the 80s, when Turkey focused on economic development and more reforms and so on. But when one group dominates society, it leads to culture war and suffocation and unrest.

In fact, at the beginning of the 2000s, especially in 2008-09, the situation in Turkey was very promising in terms of democracy. You mentioned the reforms connected to the access to the European Union. At that time tough, the Kemalists were skeptical: in their opinion an Islamic party would not have been able to create a more democratic country.

Kemalists also thought that Erdogan will make Turkey another Iran or Saudi Arabia. Still, it is not much of a Sharia in Turkey; it is more like a Russia-style cult of personality, which in some sense actually imitates the Kemalists. Erdogan is defining himself as the second Ataturk fighting a war of liberation. He is establishing a very powerful presidency, modeled on Ataturk’s. In that sense, it is not just that they were liberals and the Islamists came and brought an illiberal solution. The whole system was not good anyway, Erdogan just created his own version of an already oppressive system. I think the secularists should also understand that this is an interactive game. I remember the AKP world very well. In 2007, they had proposed Abdullah Gül as the head of the presidency. His wife was wearing a headscarf; Kemalists went berserk about this and they launched the closure case, to close the AKP. At the time AKP said, “No more Mr. Nice guys with these people: we did everything, but they still do not allow one of us to become head of state” just for a headscarf. Therefore, they allied with the Gülenists to launch those Ergenekon and Sledgehammer operations. If the Kemalists were more reasonable saying that a headscarf is not a problem, but of course the state will not be Islamic, maybe AKP would not be this aggressive in its foreign policy, in its policy towards the secular camp.

Talking about political Islam, there’s also the example of Morocco. After the Arab Spring, the Justice and development party, same name of the Turkish AKP, gained over 40 percent of votes. With one election, they became part of the majority. Now they lost all those votes because, according to many observers, they spent a lot of time on cultural wars, the way women dress and nothing like an economic agenda. What lessons from this parable?

Islamists think that within Islam there is a perfect solution to every problem in the modern world. You have economic problems or cultural values issues, go to Islam and find a solution; or just little reinterpretation of Islam will solve everything. As a Muslim, I do not believe in this. I believe Islam gives us a theology, a spirituality, but what they call Islamic economy is just how the economy was there in the Middle Ages. There is nothing sacred about it. And the more they try to extract solutions from Islam to these modern problems, the more they fail. Actually, Erdogan failed in that, too, in Turkey.

Erdogan’s success largely depends on Turkey’s economic success. But that was made possible solely through the Western systems of free market and rule of law. Kemal Derviş built Turkish economy in 2000s based on European Western standards. Ali Babacan followed European Western criteria, in the first ten years Turkish economy did very well. Then Erdogan found time to implement his Islamic economy ideas, which came with his obsession with interest rates. And he pushed the Turkish bank (the central bank) to lower the interest rates of the Turkish lira, saying openly that it was a political economy built on Revelation. It dramatically failed and now Turkey has become much poorer: the lira lost its value ten times over the dollar in the past five years. I think that this, but also Morocco’s Justice and development party and even a little brief period of Mohamed Morsi, should be a lesson that it should force them to think that what they are promising.

What can we hope for now?

Certain countries in the Middle East will remain what they are. However, there are regimes that are traditional, they are not democratic, but a bit less oppressive; there are regimes that are truly brutal and oppressive on their people. Therefore, I would urge European countries to build pragmatic relations with Middle Eastern countries, Muslim majority countries, including Turkey. In their dialogue tough, they should not forsake the idea of human rights. Innocent people are being jailed and tortured in Egypt and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. They should not look the other way around. They should say, we also care about these things, our people do care about these things, our media too. Meaning, we would like to see reforms. Certain regimes can moderate themselves, can become softer in their approach. A gradual evolution towards a relatively freer Middle East would be in the interests of everyone.

On the role of the international community on this, the EU’s behavior is full of contradictions. For example, in March the European Parliament condemned Tunisia’s crackdown. More recently a delegation which included President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen and Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni went to Tunisia without saying one single word to comment the situation there. What sort of leverage do you think we have?

I have not followed really Italy’s approach to Tunisia that closely. But I see that tension between speaking out against human rights abuses and having a red carpet in ceremonies. As I said, relations between countries are inevitable and you have pragmatic issues to talk to. Again, it should not give the impression that human rights issues are totally unimportant and neglected.


Mustafa Akyol, Turkish scholar and writer, was once a columnist for Hürriyet and now is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute.  He has published six books in Turkish, including “Rethinking the Kurdish Question: What Went Wrong, What Next?” (2005). His 2011 book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” an argument for Islamic liberalism, was published in the W.W. Norton. The book was praised by The Financial Times as “a forthright and elegant Muslim defense of freedom.” Among his books also “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims” and “Reopening the Muslim Minds”.

Cover Photo: Council on Foreign Relations.


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