Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.
If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:
Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.
Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions  — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.
As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.
In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe
There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.
So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.
But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:
- Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an , “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
- The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
- People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
- Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
- Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”
He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.
In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.
The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.
At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. 
The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? 
Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.
For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:
The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.
The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.
Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. 
The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.
Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.
Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.
- The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
- In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
- Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
- Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
- The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.
Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.
Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. 
The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.
If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.
An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.
 Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.
Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.
 By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.
In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.
In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.
 Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.
 A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.
 Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?
 So if you buy the argument in , Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.
 He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.