Collect Arab art? Journalist Mustafa Akyol demystifies Islam – TED video


Constant media coverage of uprisings across West Asia and a focus on art from the region at Venice Biennale have encouraged many people to seek out a balanced understanding of Islamic culture. Journalist Mustafa Akyol’s March 2011 TED talk provides some insight.

In this TEDx Warwick Talks presentation, Akyol addresses issues relating to faith and tradition in Islamic culture. Based on his book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, Akyol discusses the current trend of fundementalism in Islam and why he believes that the future for the Muslim world is not as bleak as it may seem. Art Radar brings you the highlights from this talk below.

Click here to watch a video of Mustafa Akyol’s talk on the TED Talks website or watch it on Art Radar below.

Mustafa Akyol opens his presentation with an anecdote about a recent visit he made to Mecca. He recalls his experience visiting the Kaaba and noticed that during the prayer ritual at the holiest shrine of Islam, men and women were mixed in the crowd during the worship rituals. His visit to a Burger King in a neighbouring area was glaringly different; in the fast food restaurant, men and women were clearly segregated.

Akyol questions the difference in policies and how this sheds light on how interpretation of the Koran and Islamic law has played a part in the way Islam manifests today, and how this shapes the understanding of the religion not only by Westerners, but by Muslims themselves.

Before Islam: Faith versus tradition and the gender divide

Akyol’s experience in the Kaaba is a perfect example of how the very core of Islam, its most basic rituals and practices, do not involve what many deem as the very negative aspects of Islam today. “I think [that is] quite telling,” Akyol explains, “because the Kaaba and the rituals around it are relics from the earliest phase of Islam … and if there was a big emphasis at the time to separate men from women, the rituals around the Kaaba could have been designed accordingly.” It is clear from his story however, that this was not the case and that segregation of the sexes came at a later date.

Many scholars who study the history of Islamic thought … think that actually the practice of dividing men and women physically came as a later development in Islam, as Muslims adopted some preexisting cultures and traditions of the Middle East.

Honour killings and female circumcision, traditions practiced in some areas in North Africa and the Middle East, are highlighted by Akyol as abhorrent practices. But he notes that they are not exclusively Muslim ones; they are practiced in the area by other communities such as animists, Christians and Jews. Akyol uses this example to explain that there is a distinction between Islamic teaching and a regional or cultural behaviour, and it is this distinction that can allow Muslims to reform the way the religion is practiced without challenging its basic tenements or discarding its most important values.

Separating what is Islamic from what is a regional and cultural practice is what will lead reform, Akyol argues, and he explains that “pious conservative believing Muslims who want to be loyal to their religion should not cling onto everything in their culture, thinking that that’s divinely mandated.”

'The Black Arch', work by Shadia and Raja Alem, two Saudi women at the Saudi Arabian pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Image from

Political culture and anti-colonialism in the Middle East

Akyol then links this to the political culture in the region and seeks to explain why there is a tendency toward authoritarian regimes West Asia, the rise of which are often attributed to Islamic ways of thinking.

Saudi Arabia, which has a pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale and faced mixed criticism of it given the lack of freedom its two artists would have at home, is used as an example by Akyol as an ‘Islamic’ authoritarian regime. He also points out that just as Saudi Arabia had its “religious police,” a group tasked with ensuring that the public abide by Islamic law, including the wearing of a hijab, secular Turkey had the “secular police,” who had the job of ensuring that people remained uncovered in public.

The conclusion he reaches in this case is that it is the political culture of the region that is authoritarian, and that an oppressive government is not an inherent value of the Muslim faith. “What might look like a problem within Islamic faith,” Akyol explains, “might turn out to be a tradition that Muslims have subscribed to.”

Islamic liberalism

The recent movements in the Middle East, dubbed The Arab Spring, provide hope for a re-emergence of liberal movement in the region. Akyol explains that Islam originally defined man as “a responsible agent … [and] created the idea of the individual in the Middle East,” providing liberal thought and reform with a promising start.

His book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, focusses on tracing the roots of liberal movements in Islam to highlight his own optimism for the success of future movements. Akyol attributes Islamic modernism to liberal thinkers in the region that were looking towards Europe during the nineteenth century and, seeing ideals such as equal citizenship, democracy and representation, imagined a similar structure in the West Asia. Some of these reforms were carried out under the Ottoman Empire and, despite issues with governance, equality and constitutional reform did advance during that time.

Mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, early in 2011, were referred to by Akyol as a sign of movements for democracy. Image from

However, the decline in the popularity of modernist thought coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the twentieth century. Anti-colonisation and “a defensive, rigid, reactionary strain” of Islamism gained popularity in the face of European colonisation of the region. The secular dictatorships which followed this period did not aid the return to a more liberal movement in Islam either, as they suppressed Islamic groups in their respective countries, leading to ever more strident Islamist movements.

“Democracy is not an overnight achievement; it’s a process. But this is a promising era in the Muslim world. And I believe that the Islamic modernism, which began in the nineteenth century but which had a set-back in the twentieth century because of the political troubles of the Muslim world, is having a rebirth.”

About Mustafa Akyol

Born in 1972 in Ankara, Turkey, Akyol is a journalist and author who has published widely on issues in Turkey as well as those related to Islamic reform. He is the author of the book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and is currently the deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News.


Related Topics: videos, art in the West Asia, Islamic art

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