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Democracy Talks: Mustafa Akyol, Author and Journalist

Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol discusses his home country's struggles with democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Interview with Mustafa Akyol April 28, 2020 //   17 minute read

Mustafa Akyol serves as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. The Turkish journalist has written widely about freedom of speech and religion, including authoring the book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

Akyol spoke with the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie about Turkey’s struggles with democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. He worries about Turkey moving away from a liberal democracy and a free market economy, but contends the West should not cut off ties with Turkey. He also discusses the challenges to religious freedom around the world, along with explaining why the United States should consistently promote freedom.

Let’s start with Turkey, your home country. You blogged recently that the United States must maintain its relationship with Turkey, but that we also must retain a serious concern on Turkey’s grim record on human rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law. Which of those three give you the greatest concern?

I first want to make a personal comment. Turkey is a big disappointment for me as a Turk. In the first decade of this century, it was this bright shining star in the Muslim world. We had a government led by a political party founded by conservative Muslims who seemed to believe in liberal democracy and a free market economy, and who accomplished important reforms. 

I was a supporter and a believer in that story. Unfortunately though, the scene gradually turned darker and darker. In the second decade of this century, we saw the collapse of democracy into authoritarianism. Once the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, established and consolidated itself, it started to steer away from the early agenda of reform and liberal democracy.

The party began to define democracy as nothing but mere ballots. Since they had a rough majority behind them and consolidated power, all the “European Union criteria” to which the AKP was aspiring in its earlier years gradually vanished. Once you win the ballots, in their mind, you could do anything, without any checks or balances. So Turkish democracy devolved into an “illiberal democracy.”

The party began to define democracy as nothing but mere ballots. Since they had a rough majority behind them and consolidated power, all the European Union criteria the AKP were speaking of gradually vanished. Once you win the ballots, that’s the game. The democracy devolved into an 'illiberal democracy.'

To now answer your question more directly, I am very concerned that freedom of the press has gradually vanished. To give you an example, at least 10 major newspapers in Turkey have changed hands over the past decade. Tax inspectors came to their doors of their owners and fined them extremely heavily, so these people had to sell their newspapers. The new buyers turned out to be -- what a big surprise -- good friends of President Erdoğan. They fired all the writers and editors who were critical of the government and replaced them with people who were singing the praises of the government.

As a result, today much of the Turkish media is under the government’s direct or indirect control. A few newspapers are still independent, but they are struggling. They have faced legal investigations. Some of their staff have been sent to jail based on incredible charges.

If you remind all this to the Turkish government, and criticize them for being authoritarian, they will say “No, ours is a great democracy, as we are winning elections.” But if 19 out of 20 news TV channels are singing your praises, and some of your critics or opponents are rotting in jail, and many are living under the fear that they may be targeted as well, that is not a very impressive “democracy.”

Despite all this, I favor keeping Turkey in the “Western Club” that would include membership in NATO and in the Council of Europe. The latter ties Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights, which is still a last hope for correcting some human rights abuses. Turkey will be probably even worse if these ties with the West are completely cut off. 

That is why another thing that concerns me is Turkey’s shifting geopolitical vision, which has gone hand in hand with its shift towards authoritarianism. In the past five years, President Erdoğan has felt very close to Russia and also cozied up with China. That is why, for example, he has never criticized China for the persecution of the Uyghurs, which is very strange. You would expect a Turkish president to speak out on this issue. [Editor’s Note: The Uyghurs are a persecuted Turkic, Muslim minority who live in China’s Xinjiang province. The Chinese Communist Party interned a million or more Uyghurs in reeducation camps because of their Islamic faith.] 

My ultimate hope is that this authoritarianism will go down in Turkish history as a bad era, but one that is followed by some recovery. But it will be hard for Turkey to recover, if this authoritarianism goes full swing. That’s why I advise western capitals to manage this problem rather than totally pushing Turkey to the other side.

What existing fundamentals may give rise to a liberal democracy after the current president is gone?

For one thing, the Erdoğan regime is not a full autocracy in that there are still meaningful elections. His support has been just enough to win elections, but he can’t guarantee victories. And support for his party declined in recent municipal elections in the two main cities – Istanbul and Ankara. Even in the eyes of his supporters, President Erdoğan’s legitimacy comes from the fact that he is winning elections. He may perhaps try but I don’t think he can sustain his rule after losing an election, which is a real possibility.

Second, President Erdoğan doesn’t have the oil and gas that give some other autocratic leaders an advantage. And the Turkish economy is still a market economy, and he has to deliver. Authoritarianism has economic costs that the public feels. Even some religious conservatives are now fed up with the authoritarianism and corruption of the system.

If Turkey is lucky, there might be a national consensus at some point that Turkey has seen enough authoritarianism — first tyranny of the secular minority, then tyranny of the religious majority — and the nation should establish a pluralist system based on consensus, checks-and-balances, and inalienable rights. As critical as I am of the current stage, I don’t want to lose hope that such a good stage someday may come.

Newspapers still play an important role in how Turks get their information, but the government has tried to clamp down on alternative sources of information. Has social media helped some Turks get around the government’s efforts to keep a lid on information?

TV news channels are still important in Turkey, and the ruling party makes sure to dominate them. The talking heads are carefully selected, or eliminated, by people who act as party commissars. In most pro-government channels, you even see “commentators” who are competing with each other to show their loyalty to the president and their fierceness against his enemies, real or perceived.

That is in part why, as you said, Turks who are fed up with pro-government propaganda are looking into alternative ways of getting information, so social media has become big. Turkey is sixth in the world in terms of Twitter usage. The fact social media has become a big phenomenon in Turkey is why the government is very eager in controlling social media. If you’re in a position to open a political website that is critical, and get a meaningful donation or even advertisement from a company, that company may get unnerving calls from Ankara.

The fact social media has become a big phenomenon in Turkey is why the government is very eager in controlling social media.

The government, through informal channels, also employs trolls to bully people in the media who have big Twitter followings. Similarly, the government is very eager in prosecuting “crime” on social media.

So what are those “crimes”? In Turkey, it is illegal to insult the president, the flag, the republic, or the nation.

Before Erdoğan, few people would be sued for insulting the presidents, who were typically non-partisan heads of state. Now, because Erdoğan is such a divisive president, and social media is out there, a lot of people criticize him. In return, Erdoğan has an army of lawyers and prosecutors who check social media. If you say something really harsh about him, in some cases the police may be at your door in a few hours. You will be prosecuted for insulting the president.

In 2017, more than 20,000 people were prosecuted with this charge. In 2018, the number went up to more than 26,000. Not all of these people go to jail, but hundreds of them do. If they have a job at a public institution, they may well lose it. Even private companies may let you go because they don’t want to look as being in opposition.

You’ve written about religious freedom around the world, particularly in terms of religious freedom in Islamic nations. What challenges exist today to religious freedom?

As a Muslim, I have indeed written about the Muslim world from an Islamic theological perspective. And I must admit that we certainly do have a religious freedom deficit in the Muslim world. But I also should add that is a complicated problem.

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Some challenges to religious freedom in the Muslim world come from nationalism, which is not directly Islamic. In Malaysia, for example, there is an official policy to keep the Malays, the dominant ethnic group, in the fold of Islam, because preserving religious identity is seen as crucial for preserving ethnic identity. Similarly, in Turkey, Greek or Armenian minorities have suffered due to nationalism, rather than Islam.

However, it is also true and sad that religious freedom is violated in the name of Islam. There are some serious limitations to religious freedom in traditional Sunni and Shia jurisprudence, which is the interpretation of the Sharia. One can say there is still some religious freedom in traditional Islam, because it grants the rights of Jews and Christians to worship and preserve their religion. But non-Muslims have less rights, and Muslims are banned from adopting religions. That is why in about a dozen Muslim-majority states in the world today, “apostasy” is considered a capital crime, which of course is a gross violation of religious freedom.

Therefore, I am among those who believe the traditional interpretations of the Sharia, the legal system of Islam, must be reformed because they don’t conform with modern norms. Plus, I don’t think those interpretations are coming from the core of the faith. They are historical interpretations of the faith that we can challenge and change.

You wrote a few years ago for The Catalyst, the Bush Institute’s journal, about younger Muslims authors writing about democracy and freedom. What do you see as the influence of writers like yourself?

In almost every Muslim majority society, from Morocco to Indonesia, there are forces towards reform, human rights, and liberalism, in the classical sense.

What I’m trying to do with my work is to empower those liberal forces by giving them intellectual ammunition, if you will. It is especially important to make a case for freedom that will not go against the religion, but as a new interpretation of the religion that may be more loyal to the core of the faith.

I read John Locke, who was a Christian criticizing Christians of his day who believed that the government should uphold one church against the others. He was making the argument from a Christian point of view. Such arguments need to be made today in the world of Islam. They will not help change the mind of all Muslims overnight, but they will play an important in a long-term battle. 

Of course, defending freedom in the Muslim world can put one in trouble, as I have personally experienced in Malaysia. It is a beautiful country I have visited some six times over the last 12 year to give lectures to public audiences. The liberal-minded Islamic Renaissance Front often hosted me. But the last time I went to Malaysia as their guest, in September 2017, the religious police arrested me because I was lecturing about religious freedom. They held me one night in a cell and then let me go. They told me not to come to Malaysia again. They started an investigation into me and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and also banned my book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

It shows our work is making some impact, but forces are against it. 

[T]he last time I went to Malaysia as their guest, in September 2017, the religious police arrested me because I was lecturing about religious freedom. They held me one night in a cell and then let me go. They told me not to come to Malaysia again.

How should nations who believe in the fundamentals of liberal democracy best respond to challenges in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law?

It is important that the most powerful country on Earth care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law and defend them. It has meaning if a superpower defends certain values. Defending those values creates a language of universal norms.

It is important that the most powerful country on Earth care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. It has meaning if a superpower defends certain values. Defending those values creates a language of universal norms.

It’s important for the United States itself as well. I understand any country will care about its interests first. But it is also in the interests of the United States if the world is not filled with fascists, communists, or religious totalitarians. That’s why the United States fought the Second World War and the Cold War — to uphold international law, open markets, and free societies.

So, I still believe that the United States should spearhead a global order — especially given the fact that other contenders to such a role, such as China, can only offer a less free world. Of course, how the U.S. should play that role is a good question.

Diplomacy, engagement, trade are the best tools, whereas military power should be prudently used, as it may sometimes be counterproductive and also raise the accusations of imperialism. But American support for democracy, freedom, and human rights is not about imperialism. These are universal values, which I think America not only believes in, but struggles with as well.