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Islam, America & Liberalism

The Center for Global Policy’s Director of Governance in Muslim-Majority States program, Dr. Kamran Bokhari, sat down with Mustafa Akyol of the Cato Institute to discusses his recent op-ed in The New York Times about the dynamic nature of Islam in Western society.

Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. A Turkish journalist and author, he is a regular contributing opinion writer for the New York Times since 2013 and has been a regular opinion columnist for Turkish publications such as Hurriyet Daily News, and for the Middle-East focused Al-Monitor.com. Akyol is the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty

The title of Akyol’s piece in the NYT, “The creeping liberalism in American Islam,” was a play on words based on the fear of “creeping sharia” among some Westerners. Akyol argues that while there are many bad things being done in the name of sharia worldwide, the United States’ small Muslim population is not going to establish sharia in the Midwest. Moreover, the Muslim community in America is a diverse one, and though some are conservative, many are pursuing Western and liberal ideas, including freedom, human rights, feminism, the questioning of religious doctrine, and more individualistic thought.

Akyol argues that the infusion of liberalism into Islam benefits the Muslim community and the larger society by allowing for new interpretations of the religion instead of trying to close Muslims off from modern ideas and other belief systems to maintain old narratives. What complicates the merging of Western liberalism and Islam is that the West came to the Muslim world as colonizers and as attacking forces, so there are some geopolitical complications.

His piece in the Times initiated a lot of discussions, Akyol says, though not everyone liked what he had to say. He said he has been accused of wanting to dilute and change some parts of Islamic tradition, such as the killing of apostates because he considers that an interpretation made by medieval scholars in a particular political context. He said that on the other side, he has been accused of being a “Trojan horse of Islam” by making the religion look harmless.

Just as Christianity emerged from periods of intolerance in previous centuries, Islam is experiencing an opening up to new ideas, Akyol says, arguing that the process shouldn’t be derailed by efforts to push people toward one version of Islam.