Mustafa Akyol on the Basic Compatibility of Islam with Free Market Economy

A special treat for the attendees of Acton University, Mustafa Akyol delivered a lunch lecture addressing the principles of Islam that are basically compatible with free markets and free societies. While his comments were brief and limited by the restraints of a lunch hour, Akyol delivered a coherent and thoughtful argument based on historical examples that concluded with the radical statement (radical at least for many American Christians) that there is no inherent contradiction between Islam and freedom.

According to Akyol, there are three Muslim explanations for the real and perceived lagging of Islamic civilization behind the West. The secular fundamentalists (his term) argue that religion in every form is an impediment to progress and so the main reason Islamic nations are under-developed, close-minded, poor, and despotic in political governance is because the majority of the citizens cling to religion and are unable to open their minds to the truth of a god-less cosmos.

In direct contrast, and taking up most of the air time on national and international news outlets, stand the Islamic fundamentalists—those who argue that the abandonment of fundamental Islamic truths and practices has led to the decline of the Muslim societies. The solution offered by this group of Muslims is most familiar to us in the form of terrorism, but also is expressed in totalitarian governments where the state enforces strictly interpreted Islamic law.

The third group (and obviously Akyol’s preference given its place in his lecture as the third or alternative way), offers a thoughtful and nuanced explanation that draws on social, geographical, economic, and political factors to explain the ascendancy of the West and the decline of the Middle East.

Turning to history to underscore his contention that both the secular fundamentalists and the Islamic fundamentalists, Akyol mentioned a few paradigmatic examples the place of freedom in Islam. He pointed out that Mohammed was a trader before he was a prophet and that even the Qu’ran contains stipulations governing the practice of trade—that it should be freely engaged in and that only God and not the government, has the prerogative to set and fix prices. Later on, the Islamic empire saw the rise of universities and banking develop out of its own notions of freedom of ideas and the freedom of the market. Finally, the great Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun made the observation that the most prosperous and happy societies are those that had the lowest taxes on their people.

While much more needs to be said to move from these few examples of some sort of freedom in the context of Islam, they serve to at least pique the appetite for further study. Making any sort of abstract or ideological claim on the basis of historical example is always subject to numerous pitfalls as the historian must be careful in choosing paradigmatic examples, rather than choosing examples that fit his theory but may very well be aberrations or deviations from the norm. Christians should be acutely aware of this tendency as it is almost nauseating how often secular pundits misinterpret events of the Middle Ages in order to make a case for the radical shift that came when religion was marginalized during the Enlightenment era.

The historical analysis needs to be continued, but in the meantime I think it worthwhile to join Akyol in a cautious optimism that Islam may not be as diametrically opposed to freedom as bin Laden, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the jihadist movements would have us believe. And Turkey might be the best place to look for the development of a comfortable, even if not organic, relationship between free markets, capitalism, and Islam.