In his new book "Islam Without Extremes," Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol expresses his belief that the path to a democratic Middle East lies not in anti-clerical secularism but in the essentially moderate nature of Islam.
Speaking before the Discovery Institute, a public policy think tank, on Friday, Akyol said that the "noble message" of the Quran is one that supports religious freedom.
"[There are] sources of liberalism, in a classical sense, in classical Islam," said Akyol.
Akyol, who writes in English and Turkish, is a columnist for two different Turkish newspapers who draws a sharp distinction between "pious Muslims" and "crazy radicals," comparing ultra-conservative Muslims to biblical Pharisees.
"[They have] more passion to impose who they are rather than a genuine religious connection...[They are] losing the meaning of religion to appear pious. The majority of Muslims in the world are just concerned with putting bread on the table," Akyol said.
According to Akyol, coercive measures do not create a genuinely pious society.
The extreme aspects of Islam, like the apostasy laws in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia that make renouncing Islam punishable by death, are not endemic to Islam or Muslim theology, but are the result of political manipulation. He gave the example of an early debate in Islam over free will, in which predestination was made a policy of the state to solidify state power. Much of what has become Islamic law is holdover from medieval scholars attributing words to Muhammad, often to serve contemporary ends.
"One reason why most Muslims respect Islamic law is that it has protected the rights of the individual from the tyranny of despots," said Mark Sheel, reporting for the Common Ground News Service in his article "New Book Breaks Down Muslim ‘Monolith.'"
"Throughout the 20th century, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries were offered a choice between secular and religious authoritarianism," said Mathew Kaminski, reporter for the Wall Street Journal in his article "Piety and Pluralism."
Akyol equates the repression of "Islamic autocrats" with "secular autocrats." The forceful imposition of secular changes, like those imposed in Iran under the notoriously violent Shah, "has made Muslims more reactionary," Akyol said.
So when faced between the two forms of authoritarianism mentioned by Kaminski, it is not so hard to see why Muslims might prefer religious authoritarianism.
"We have apostasy laws in Turkey, too. Not against renunciation of Islam, but against slander of the secularist first President of the Republic Atatürk. Atatürk merely brought new sacred objects," Akyol said.
For Akyol, a secular state, in the sense of one that tolerates all religions, is good, while secularism is not.
Despite the complexities of the issue, the young journalist is optimistic.
"The Arab Spring is taking us to a new phase where the democratically-minded can enter government...The trend [in the Muslim world] is not toward radicalism. Iran will be left as the only crazy country in the Middle East," Akyol said.
Akyol's vision for the Middle East is a blend of two forces he sees as naturally encouraging individual freedom, though they are often called antagonistic: liberal democracy and Islam.