Seeds of Arab Spring sown in Islam’s past, author says

NEW YORK–Eight year-old Mustafa Akyol was looking at a book in his grandfather's library when he saw something that shocked him: a passage advising parents to beat impious children.

Now, Akyol is a journalist in Turkey, and he hopes the Arab Spring shows a different side of Islam: one where there is no conflict between Islam and political freedom.

His new book, "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty," which is being released in the United States on 18 July, aims to tell people that there is a long history of freedom in the Islamic world.

"The fact that so many Arab countries have been run by dictators fostered the myth that it's the only type of government that those countries can produce," Akyol told Reuters. "The current uprisings are showing that this is wrong."

With news of the Middle East dominated by suicide bombers, violence and despotic leaders, Akyol worries that it's easy to get the wrong idea about his religion.

In his book, he argues that Islam has a rich history of supporting freedom and tolerance. Harkening back to a time when Muslims were more open than European Christians, he highlights many examples of progressive thought from Islamic history.

Recounting a record of religious tolerance under Muslim rule, Akyol traces this tradition to the time of the Prophet. In 7th century Medina, for instance, Jews were allowed to openly practice their religion with the protection of their Muslim rulers.

People in Syria, Yemen and other countries who are campaigning for democracy today, can look to history for inspiration, Akyol said. He offers up the notion that the governmental ideas of one respected 10th century Muslim thinker, Al-Farabi, sound almost identical to modern democracy.

Akyol offers Turkey — his home country — as proof that democracy can thrive in the Muslim world.

The nation made a peaceful transition to multi-party democracy in the 1950s, and Akyol believes that Turkey can inspire Muslims around the world.

The author argues that the recipe for Turkey's success is a liberal economy tempered by Muslim values.

"The government here openly values Muslim tradition," he said. "Economic progress is also important. It was the engine of change in Turkey."

The Islamic religion may not have been the driving force behind the recent Arab uprisings, but many onlookers remain curious about the role it may play.

Akyol hopes that old-school ideas about Islam won't hold up in the face of democratic trends that are rapidly moving through the region.

"For a long time, democracy was flatly rejected by many Muslim intellectuals, but that is changing," he said. "Now there's more understanding that democracy can be consistent with Islamic values as well."

The publication of Akyol's Islamic endorsement of democracy is well-timed with the still unsettled government in Egypt, the war raging in Libya, fighting in Yemen and unrest in Syria. Western nations remain concerned that religious radicals could hijack the Arab Spring, but Akyol makes a case for a brand of Islam that is less menacing.

"With this book, I want to give ammunition to liberal Muslims around the world to argue for an Islam that supports individual freedom instead of totalitarianism," he said.

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