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World Views: France's ''Supertax'', Syrian Refugees, Mustafa Akyol on Turkish Liberalism (Jan 04, 2013)

Late Tuesday night the U.S. Congress passed legislation to avert the automatic tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.

Comparative politics expert Rebecca Cruise said France's tax rate increase of 41 percent to 75 percent on those making over 1 million euros ($1.3 million) puts the U.S. fiscal cliff discussion into perspective.

"In Europe, their taxes [on the rich] are significantly higher than ours are here.  Ours are pretty average," Cruise said. "Canada is a little lower, Brazil is a little bit lower, but that is pretty consistent."

Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and leading Syria watcher at the University of Oklahoma Joshua Landis said since 1960, U.S. income inequality has jumped more than any major Western country.

"The upper one percent's share of income has gone up by 9 percent in the United States," Landis said. "And the top income tax rate has fallen, since 1960, by 45 percent in the United States. So the rich in the United States are paying less, and making more."

Earlier this week, France was shocked to learn that Academy Award-winning actor Gerard Depardieu received Russian citizenship after France’s prime minister called him “pathetic” over the country’s proposed 75 percent income tax for the superrich.

“I love the irony of Depardieu going to Russia, the home of socialism, to escape capitalist taxation," Landis said. "The top tax bracket in Russia is 14 percent. It's a flat rate."

The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday about 84,000 people fled the escalating civil war in Syria in December alone, bringing the total number of those displaced since the beginning of the 22-month-old conflict to around half a million.

It says Turkey hosts the largest group of registered Syrian refugees, totaling almost 150,000 as of Jan. 1.

“They’re going to want to go to Turkish schools, they’re going to want to get Turkish jobs, and then they’re going to want to be Turks,” Landis said. “And that’s what these countries are really frightened of.”

Some 130,000 people have fled to Lebanon, and another 120,000 to Jordan. Iraq hosts some 68,000 refugees.

Turkish journalist and political commentator Mustafa Akyol says his country’s once-friendly relations with Syria deteriorated when the revolution began. Before the Arab Spring, Turkey tried to have strong relations with each of its neighbors.

“That also made Turkey and Iran very opposite forces in the Middle East,” Akyol said. “And I’m happy to see that, honestly, because I don’t think the Iranian line is a helpful line in the Middle East.”

Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how liberal and conservative interpretations of Islam can co-exist in Turkey

The Inquisition found some justifications in the Bible, but now Christians look at the Bible and see different messages. And how you look at your Scripture is, of course, important. That's why it's not just about a Scripture, but also about the mind who reads that Scripture. Turkey is, in that sense, different from the Arab World because it has a history of modernization beginning in the late Ottoman Empire which continued in modern day-Turkey. I think Turkish Muslims grew more individualistic over time, thanks to the market economy, integration with the West. All those sorts of things. But theology is not unimportant.

On how Islam’s “religion without compulsion” applies to Turkish modernity

What I wanted to show is that Islamic piousts in Turkey, the pious conservative Muslims, they have been able to realize themselves and uphold their faith without the need of an authoritarian Islamic state. In other words, we don't have a morality police in Turkey, thank God, which tells people to go to the mosque when the prayer time comes, like they do in Saudi Arabia. But many Turkish Muslims go to the mosque because they really want to worship God. So faith out of free choice is very important, and Turkey shows that that is true, and that happens.

On Turkey’s evolving attitude towards Turkey

Once the revolution began in Syria, and the Syrian government responded with violence and slaughter of innocent people, the Turkish government condemned the Syrian regime. Now the Syrian regime is an enemy of Turkey. It's so obvious there's a great tension. Since the beginning of the conflict, refugees came into Turkey, and we have now more than 100,000 refugees in Turkey. The Turkish government certainly sides with the West - the United States, the EU - in terms of encouraging Syria to have a transition to Democracy, and of course criticizing and condemning the brutalities of the regime. That also made Turkey and Iran very opposite forces in the Middle East. And I'm happy to see that, honestly, because I don't think the Iranian line is a helpful line in the Middle East.

FULL INTERVIEW

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Mustafa Akyol, thank you so much for joining Joshua Landis and me here today on World Views. I thought we would start by talking about Turkey's position in the world. Obviously, Turkey sits in a very interesting geographic position - straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Middle East. This has been a benefit and a challenge throughout history. Perhaps we've been paying more attention to Turkey because of their bid to get into the European Union, though interest has waned slightly here as the EU is facing their own economic challenges. But I was wondering where is Turkey looking right now? Are they still looking towards the EU? Or are they looking to increase their role in the Middle East? For the casual observer, it seems like there's a change going on in Turkey.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: There is some change. Turkey has been trying to enter the EU for a long time, and we had a big acceleration of the process after 2004. But gradually, Turks realized that not all Europeans are that willing to have Turkey in the club. Particularly the French, and also Germans and some other European societies made it clear that Turkey is actually not that welcome. Whereas Britain and other European societies support it, so it's a mixed picture in Europe. So the Turkish government has started to realize that the EU dream is not very close. That's why Turkey's [turning its] attention towards its regional group, and I think Turkey is adapting to globalization. And globalization is not Western-centric. It's the whole world. So Turkey is economically looking around, looking for new markets. That's why Turkey expanded from Iraqi Kurdistan to Africa to different parts of the Middle East - to find markets. And the Turkish economy is booming. Turkey has been supportive of the Arab Spring out of a commitment to democracy, and also for hope for stability in the region as well. But you know the Arab Spring got stuck in Syria, and that's why Turkey is a little bit frustrated these days with what's happening in Syria. But I think we can safely say that Turkey is becoming a very important country in its region. First of all, geographic reasons. Its power, its economic influence - soft power. But also because of the fact that it looks, as a Muslim-majority country who has been able to establish a functioning democracy. Still some flaws, we can talk about that. But that is an important model, at least a source of inspiration for other would-be Muslim democrats in the region.

CRUISE: Yeah, because it is a secular country and I know a number of people have come out and said that Islam and democracy, for example, cannot go together. But here we have Turkey, an example that seems to be rather successful. Can other countries emulate that, or is Turkey the exception?

AKYOL: Turkey is exceptional in some aspects, but its lesson can be emulated, or at least some of its experiences can inspire other people in the region. Actually, in the Arab Spring today, when we look at Tunisia, for example. The Ennahda Party, which became the winner of the elections in Tunisia after the revolution. They say they want to be like Turkey, that Turkey is their example. The more moderate and liberal voices in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - not the conservatives, but the more liberal ones - say that Turkey is an example that they're interested in. So basically today, the more progressive, but Islamic, elements in the Middle East. And I think that's what you need. Because if there's to be democracy in the Middle East, it cannot be at the expense of religion. Like in the United States, it should be a democracy informed by some religious values, but of course not a theocracy. And today Turkey represents a balance, because you said Turkey is a secular country. Yes, but also we have the problem of an excessive and aggressive secularism in Turkey, imported from France, which expresses itself with measures like banning the headscarf. I think banning the headscarf is as tyrannical as imposing the headscarf. Now, Turkey is also softening its secularism a little bit, because excessive secularism in Turkey has been pushed down a little bit. The military doesn't impose policies on governments anymore. Now, that's why for the first time, Turkey can become a source of inspiration for the Muslims who want to reconcile their faith and modernity. Not to trample on their faith, but reconcile that with modernity.

JOSHUA LANDIS: [In] your most recent book - Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty - here you are, trying to take the measure of what liberal Islam is. What is the most fundamental aspect of liberal Islam in Turkey, in your opinion?

AKYOL: In my book, I emphasized the problem of freedom in our part of the world. Actually, that's sometimes a problem different than the problem with democracy. Democracy is a process, but liberalism is a political philosophy which upholds civil liberties and individual rights. And sometimes democratically, you can have an illiberal policy. You can vote that the minority rights will be limited, and a majority can pass that in the parliament. Actually that's why we're having attention right now in Egypt, for example, and Tunisia, between the proponents of liberalism and democracy. That's why liberal democracy is an important synthesis in the West. In Turkey, what I wanted to show is that Islamic piousts in Turkey, the pious conservative Muslims, they have been able to realize themselves and uphold their faith without the need of an authoritarian Islamic state. In other words, we don't have a morality police in Turkey, thank God, which tells people to go to the mosque when the prayer time comes, like they do in Saudi Arabia. But many Turkish Muslims go to the mosque because they really want to worship God. So faith out of free choice is very important, and Turkey shows that that is true, and that happens. Unfortunately, in Saudi Arabia or Iran, and the more autocratic, theocratic even, countries, there is a willingness to impose faith on people. To make people religious by government injunctions, and institutions. In my book, I criticize those authoritarian understandings of Islam, and show that Muslims do not need an authoritarian state to be loyal to their faith, and there are lessons from the Turkish experience for that.

LANDIS: What are the sources of liberalism in Turkey? In the West, particularly in America, we are brought up reading about the Founding Fathers. All of whom were deeply imbued in the French Enlightenment thought, English Enlightenment thought. Hume, Locke, so forth. Now, even though many Americans may not know those people and their philosophy, it has pervaded everything we learn. From our Constitution to what we're taught in schools. How does that liberal tradition infuse in Turkish culture?

AKYOL: Great question. The same liberal sources, of course, influence Turkish thinkers as well. There are Turkish liberals today who would talk to you about John Locke, or Hume for sure. But the question is how to make those ideas more accessible and acceptable by a broader society. Because if liberalism is only an imported idea, it doesn't take much ground, and that's the dichotomy that we have in that part of the world. But I think Turkey is lucky, because in the late Ottoman Empire, Islamic pious thinkers, like Namik Kemal, that I explain in my book, they looked at Western liberalism and they found parallels between those liberal ideas and some values within in Islam. Values such as faith cannot be imposed. In the Qur’an, there's a verse which says there is no compulsion in religion. Or, "The Truth is from your Lord, let anyone who wants to believe it, believe it. And anyone who wants to disbelieve it, disbelieve it."

LANDIS: But choosing those particular lines from the Qur’an is unusual. Of course, there are many liberal lines in the Qur’an. The Qur’an says Christians and Jews and Sabians should not have any fear of the afterlife. They can go to Heaven. But those are paralleled by other lines in the Qur’an that are much less liberal. Today, in much of the Islamic world, and certainly in much of the Arab-Islamic world, it's the less liberal lines that are raised up and taken out - particularly by this small segment of Salafists and jihadists that we hear about so much in the West. What is it about Turkish culture and Turkish history that has caused Muslims to go to this alternate reading? These other lines which are there in the Qur’an which are less prominent in much of the Middle East?

AKYOL: You're very right, actually. The same dichotomy exists in Christianity, too. The Inquisition found some justifications in the Bible, but now Christians look at the Bible and see different messages. And how you look at your Scripture is, of course, important. That's why it's not just about a Scripture, but also about the mind who reads that Scripture. Turkey is, in that sense, different from the Arab World because it has a history of modernization beginning in the late Ottoman Empire which continued in modern day-Turkey. I think Turkish Muslims grew more individualistic over time, thanks to the market economy, integration with the West. All those sorts of things. But theology is not unimportant. In my book, I go to the most authoritarian injunctions in Islamic law. The ban on apostasy, the ban on blasphemy. I look at their origins, and show how they can be reformed, and why they should be reformed. Most of the problems are actually not in the Qur’an, but in later traditions, later interpretations of the Qur’an created by medieval scholars in a particular context. So in Turkey we have a reformist theology as well, today supported by some Islamic theologians in Turkey, which makes sense to a lot of people. You don't have the exact same parallel in Saudi Arabia, for example, whose Islamic understanding is very rigid and very literalist. And that division existed there for a long time. I mean, the Wahhabi interpretation, which is the most strict and the most literalist in the Islamic tradition, grew as a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, because the Ottomans were becoming too modern, and bringing some reforms. So in my book, I try to show both theological differences in Islamic tradition, but also the context. Who reads the Scripture is of course very important. If you're a liberal-leaning person, you tend to see the more liberal versus.

CRUISE: Well, I think we would be remiss if we didn't bring up Syria, which you mentioned earlier. Though we're getting close on time, I wonder if you could give us a little bit of a conversation about what's going on there currently. The situation between Syria and Turkey, and what you think Turkey should do in the next couple of months?

AKYOL: Well honestly, Turkey is very frustrated, and the Turkish leadership doesn't have a great blueprint right now in terms of solving the Syrian crisis. Of course, Turkey before the Arab Spring had good relations with the Syrian regime, because Turkey was trying to have great relations with all neighbors. But once the revolution began in Syria, and the Syrian government responded with violence and slaughter of innocent people, the Turkish government condemned the Syrian regime. Now the Syrian regime is an enemy of Turkey. It's so obvious there's a great tension. Since the beginning of the conflict, refugees came into Turkey, and we have now more than 100,000 refugees in Turkey. The Turkish government certainly sides with the West - the United States, the EU - in terms of encouraging Syria to have a transition to Democracy, and of course criticizing and condemning the brutalities of the regime. That also made Turkey and Iran very opposite forces in the Middle East. And I'm happy to see that, honestly, because I don't think the Iranian line is a helpful line in the Middle East. But where will we go from here? Turkey doesn't have a magic wand, but I think the Turkish government would appreciate a bit more aggressive attitude toward the Syrian regime, and maybe a bolder support for the Syrian opposition.

CRUISE: Well, unfortunately we're out of time, but we want to thank you Mustafa for joining us on World Views.

AKYOL: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

CRUISE: Thank you.

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KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.



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