By Jacqueline Sánchez ’19
Freedom Project Senior Visiting Fellow Mustafa Akyol gave a lecture on September 7 entitled “Is Islam Compatible with Freedom?” While the lecture was met with general approval, students and faculty on campus took issue with the title of the lecture.
After Akyol concluded his talk, Adrianna Valle ’19 questioned why he had chosen to give his lecture a title that suggested that Islam as a religion might not allow practitioners to have freedom, instead of a title that made clear that he was focusing on different interpretations of the religion.
Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of History Brenna Greer furthered Valle’s question by telling Akyol that the title of his lecture felt misleading and was potentially harmful to students and attendees who were not aware of what his argument actually was.
“I understand the organizing question and that being followed up with the analysis, but floating [the title] in public without that careful analysis is a question that members of the community live under before they hear your talk, and in this climate, it certainly can be interpreted as ‘it’s incompatible.’ And . . . I would allot for the fact that many of the people here thought that’s what you were going to say, people who didn’t possibly look you up or look your book up, which I did . . . but I feel like the title was a bait and switch, because I feel like you could not put it into the climate that we have right now and not know how it might read and then to have particularly our students having to live under that title until we came to this talk,” Greer told Akyol.
Margaret Flynn-Sapia ’19, student co-director of the Freedom Project, defended Akyol’s decision to use the title. She believes that Akyol has a right to pose the question in public.
“Especially given that Mustafa is a practicing Muslim—who has faced considerable persecution for his religious beliefs—I think he has the right to question components of his religion in both public and private settings,” Flynn-Sapia stated.
Akyol defended the title of his lecture as well, commenting that, in his opinion, the question “is Islam compatible with freedom?” is a very relevant one around the world today, and one that is still being debated upon by Muslims.
“It is a question, not a judgement. Moreover, it is a very relevant question that Muslims are intensely debating for over a century. Does the idea of freedom—in the Western sense of individual freedom—fit with Islam? Some Muslims say yes, some say no. I say “yes,” but the ones who say ‘no’ are quite numerous and powerful,” he said.
Akyol explained that the purpose of his talk was to impart that Islam is compatible with freedom. In his lecture, he said that while there are authoritarian understandings of Islam, he knows that there are tolerant, pluralistic and free interpretations of the religion. He also wanted to convey his belief that, historically, liberal beliefs in Islam were “marginalized by despotic states” and that those states had a role in what he believes are negative mainstream Islamic doctrines today.
Shivani Dayal ’18 attended Akyol’s lecture and thought that it included a lot of useful background of the history of Islam and liberalism and the distinction between Islamic theology and Islamic law. However, Dayal also believes that the Freedom Project as a whole has a larger problem of not considering the impact that lecture titles have on the community.
“I think the Freedom Project has a history of choosing provocative titles in order to increase attendance or to create controversy for the sake of attention. While I agree that an open dialogue is important, I do not think the Freedom Project always facilitates this in the best way,” she stated.
In light of what Dayal views as the lack of facilitation on the part of the Freedom Project, she also thinks that the organization needs to think more carefully about the speakers they bring to campus in the future, especially in light of current debates over hate speech versus free speech. While she enjoyed Akyol’s lecture, she thinks that the Freedom Project needs to recognize the role that it plays in making students feel attacked.
“It’s a complicated subject to navigate—this line between hate speech and freedom of speech. I think the Freedom Project needs to be more aware of the way that the speakers it brings can really hurt students and make them feel ignored, misrepresented or attacked. It’s an unequal power dynamic and students are trying to do their best to fight back, but it can be exhausting,” Dayal said.
Akyol defended the Freedom Project’s choice to bring controversial speakers to campus and believes that college students need to be confronted with viewpoints with which they disagree.
“Hearing viewpoints that you disagree with is the beginning of intellectual maturation. Consider those views and check why you disagree with them. This will make you articulate your views better, and also maybe learn something from the other side,” he said.
Akyol is no stranger to speaking with people of differing viewpoints. He has spoken at such events as the Property and Freedom Society’s annual meeting, which he describes as libertarian or ‘anarcho-capitalist.’ The event has boasted speakers such as Richard Spencer, who led groups of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in protest in Charlottesville over the summer, and Peter Brimelow, the president of the VDARE Foundation, defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a nonprofit that warns against the polluting of America by non-whites, Catholics, and Spanish-speaking immigrants.”
Akyol stated that he doesn’t have a strong memory of who the Property and Freedom Society are and that he doesn’t associate himself with the message of the organization or its other speakers. Furthermore, Akyol said that he will engage with any group that’s willing to listen.
“Over the past two decades, I spoke at hundreds of events all across the world, and all across the ideological spectrum. I sat at the same table with Islamists who believe democracy is ‘heresy’ and that gays should be executed, or Islamophobes who think the Qur’an should be banned. I spoke to both hardcore Zionists who want to crush Palestine forever and hardcore anti-Zionists who want to see Israel get destroyed. As long as people want to hear my views, I believe in engaging with them. This does not mean I think like them,” he said.
Kaila Webb ’20, the other student co-director of the Freedom Project, thinks that Akyol’s participation in such events is a great tool for combating voices of hate across the world.
“Considering [Richard] Spencer is one of the most intolerant people I can think of, having Mustafa reach out to Spencer’s crowd means he’s trying to drag them away from their hate. If we want those who are prejudiced to stop, having the target of their prejudice speak to them seems like a great way to start convincing those individuals that hate isn’t the way. If we want Islamophobes to stop targeting Muslims, then perhaps having a devout Muslim explain his faith can help dispel their stereotypes,” Webb stated.
Akyol agrees that hate speech should not be willingly invited onto college campuses. Furthermore, he believes that students who find speakers offensive should protest the speaker but not silence them.
“I think people who openly preach racist hate and violence—such as a neo-Nazi or a Ku Klux Klan leader, for example should not be invited. But this is a moral suggestion, not a call for administrative censorship. I think most student bodies in American universities would have the moral sense for not doing that anyway. On the other hand, if some students find a particular speaker offensive, they should be free to use their right to protest that speaker—but not protest in the sense of trying to silence the speaker,” he said.