THIS is with reference to the book review ‘Enlightenment in a box’ (EOS, July 11). I appreciate the reviewer’s opinion that my book is “an engaging take on the intellectual heritage of Islam.” However, I found most of his criticism irrelevant and inaccurate. First, the reviewer seems to have misunderstood the arguments on several accounts. For example, contrary to what the reviewer seems to think, the book does not praise the complicated history of Western modernisation.

Instead, in the Introduction, I explicitly noted: “I am not speaking about a wholesale adoption of Western Enlightenment, which had some dark spots of its own … I am rather speaking about finding Enlightenment values — reason, freedom and tolerance — within the Islamic tradition itself.” (p. xxvi)

Similarly, I am not sympathetic to the “modernist elites” of the Muslim world, including my native Turkey. I have a long history of criticising “modernist authoritarianism” — including its Turkish version, Kemalism.

The book, too, has noted that “Westernists” of the Muslim world deserve criticism “for focussing on the superficial expressions of modernity, such as dress codes, and for being often authoritarian in their politics.” (p. 101)

Further, the reviewer misrepresents the arguments I have about the Islamic tradition. He writes, “Akyol seems to forget that the territories where Islam spread were autocracies for centuries.” Yet, alas, I did not forget but emphasised this very point. While criticising the “statisation of Islam”, I noted that it took place in a political context with precedents, such as “the Sasanian Empire of Persia, whose political culture seems to have influenced that of Islam.” (p. 176)

I do not really blame Imam al-Ghazali for the decline of “tolerant and pluralistic” attitudes in Islam. If anything, I blame the “avowedly anti-Murji’ite strain in Sunni Islam” exemplified by Wahhabism (p. 216.) On al-Ghazali, I offer a more nuanced view, different from those of his bashers or admirers that we have seen for at least a century.

Finally, the Cato Institute that I work at is not a “right-wing American think tank,” as defined by the reviewer. It is ‘libertarian’, implying classical liberalism.

Therein may lie the real gap between me and the reviewer. He lists “nationalism, republicanism, libertarianism, liberalism, fascism and communism” in one breath as similar ideologies. I would rather condemn fascism and communism, while advocating libertarianism-liberalism, for I believe they rest on values that I see both as humane and Islamic: universal human rights, freedom of religion and expression, and rule of law.

Mustafa Akyol
Washington DC

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021

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