This year’s conference was hosted by Association for Liberal Thinking based in Turkey in cooperation with Minaret of Freedom Institute. The conference attracted around 100 participants, intellectual entrepreneurs, academics, writers, researchers, think tank activists, businessmen, students from over 17 countries such as Morocco, Pakistan, Malaysia, Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt, Bosnia, and from other European countries. The event took place at the Legacy Ottoman Hotel and started with the keynote speech of InfoL’s Founding Board member MEP Mr. Syed Kamall at the opening dinner on March 16. Mr Kamall expressed his appreciation of INfoL flourishing every other year. Next day, on March 17, the sessions were opened by the remarks of Mrs. Özlem Çağlar Yılmaz, the general coordinator of ALT and Mrs. Linda Whetstone, the Chairman of Network for Free Societies, who are both INfoL Board Members. Mrs. Yilmaz stated that ALT has promoted ideas of free society for 22 years in Turkey without any reservations on religious, ethnic or sociological differences with strong belief on the universality of those ideas; accordingly ALT would be pleased to cooperate with INfoL to share its experiences and work with other intellectual entrepreneurs around the world. Mrs. Whetstone emphasized the exciting mission of INfoL as exploring the ideas of free society in the Muslim world and extended our thanks to the kind and generous donors of this event New Direction Foundation for European Reform, AT & T Foundation and Dutch Network for Muslim Charity Organizations SMHO.
The first session on “Reason and Tradition in the Muslim World” was chaired by Dr. Mohammad Abul Ahrar Ramizpoor, the president of Afghanistan Economic and Legal Studies Organization. Dr. Mustafa Acar, professor of economics and rector at Aksaray University discussed the destructive consequences of the conflict between rationalist and traditionist schools. Acar recommended the revival of rationalist school to look at the philosophical roots in the historical experience. Dr. Raza Ullah of Alternate Solutions Institute in Pakistan gave historical examples on how institutions of Islamic “orthodoxy” emerged especially via education and analyzed the impact on Muslim societies.
In the next session on “Individual, State and Islam” chaired by Thomas Cumhur Gur, senior political advisor of Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation, first speaker Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hasan Yucel Basdemir at Divinity Faculty of YBU assessed the reasons of not dealing with one particular political system and not having any singular political literature within Islam. Therefore Basdemir criticized the weight of discussions on the role of religion in politics and raison d’etat has been dominant in political philosophy. Basdemir proposed the question that Muslims shall instead decide whether they want to live in an open society in which all the people are equal to each other before the law or an Islamic society/state which is based on someone’s interpretations. Second speaker Mr. Dzenan Smajic from Center for Advance Studies in Bosnia discussed how to define “Islamic state” or “Islamic community” and argued that state is rather an institution to protect the individual’s life, property and freedom. Smajic pointed the matter of Adam eating the apple of the forbidden tree as the boundary for property rights along with examples from early Islamic history, lives of sahabas and Quran verses. Smajic argued Islamic state referring to a monarchic state providing military, police and courts as in the Prophet’s time where as there are welfare states in contemporary Muslim countries. Dr. Bilal Sambur, professor of religious psychology in Turkey described Islam as an individualist religion when it is based on ictihad (individual path to develop a free opinion regarding Quran, Hadith and personal experiences of scholars) However he claimed that it becomes an institutional religion when it is based on traditions.
Third session focused on the “Situation of women in Muslim countries” chaired by political scientistSheyma Akin of Aksaray University. Speaker Dr. Hidayet Tuksal of Capital Women’s Platform argued that patriarchal practices and approaches towards women in Muslim countries are referred to religion’s origins. Lack of individual freedom in the societies directly affects the women and men take this for granted to enjoy their privileges with a made-up legitimacy deriving from Islam. Ms. Amira El Kady an anchorwoman at Nile News of Egypt talked about the situation of women in society depriving from opportunities for education, work due to the tribal culture and emphasized the importance of institutions to protect liberties with an approach of gender equality. Final speaker Ms. Souad Adnaneof Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies in Morocco, stressed not only women but also children face serious problems threatening their lives in authoritarian regimes, in other words among the political clashes women and children as the most disadvantaged groups suffer most. Ms. Adnane gave examples of bad practices which have no base at all with religion but due to lack of legal institutions.
The final session of the first day on Capitalism and Secularism was chaired by Wan Saiful Wan Jan of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. First speaker Volkan Ertit claimed that when capitalist economic system is experienced in even different parts of the world, religious culture plays relatively less role among human interactions and in the society. Ertit defined that this situation underlines the secularization of the society where private property and voluntary exchange are determinant, accordingly wealth is created independent from authorities. Next speaker Dr. Imad ad dean Ahmad of Minaret of Freedom Institute contributed with his criticism on the association of captialism with imperialism. Dr. Ahmad told that the establishment of crony capitalism and the role of corporatism in some of the dictatorships established by imperialist powers in the Muslim World created this perception, giving historical examples on the development of mercantilism. Dr. Ahmad reminded that liberals also oppose imperialism as an enemy of free markets and those who oppose should promote free markets to fight with imperialism.
First day ended along with questions, comments and lively discussions of participants with speakers.
Second day of the conference started with the title “Poverty, Welfare, Social Justice and Public Goods in Muslim Societies” chaired by Dr. Nouh al Harmouzi from Ibn Toufail University and founder of Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies. Economist and economic historian Benedikt Koehler offerred that he found out the roots of the capitalism in early Islamic history. He defined what waqf is in the Muslim experince with a donor, a person managing the asset, and beneficiary as an abstract legal concept involving property and as a seminal development and innovation. Followingly he defined zakat as voluntary obligation and considered waqf as the outcome of zakat and sadaka. Later on Koehler argued that Mohammad created civil society and free markets not the state. Second speaker Edo Omercevic from Center for Advnacement of Free Enterprise of Bosnia talked about a case study he conducted in Bosnia on the treatment of poverty by Muslims. Omercevic claims that Muslims ask for government intervention more than non Muslims in the Bosnian society however among Muslims, practising, religious Muslims favor private sector more and asks for government control less. Mr. Omercevic uses his detailed findings as a motivation that practising Muslims would be allies to promote limited government. Final speaker in this session was the senior fellow of Liberty Fund, historian Dr. Peter Mentzel. Dr. Mentzel took out the documentary of debates in the late Ottoman era on free trade and protectionism among the politicians. Cavid Bey, Minister of Finance in 1911 was arguing that Ottoman Empire should stick to free trade policy and encourage foreign investment where as Kozmidi Efendi was criticizing laissez faire policies of the Young Turks impoverishing the Empire and made the growth of Ottoman industry impossible. However the Ottoman already turned for a national planned economy by 1914 and the result in 1918 were bankruptcy and the disintegration of the Empire, as Dr. Mentzel concluded.
The sixth session accommodated a lively debate on “Politics, Reform and Uprising in the MuslimWorld” chaired by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ahmet Uysal from Marmara University Middle East Center and coordinator of Network of Turk- Arab Social Scientists. Dr. Murat Aktas, asst prof of political science at Mus University analyzed the motivations of Arap Uprisings and the problem of establishing democracy. Dr. Aktas mentioned that the Middle East has been the center of oppressive autocratic or non-democratic regimes and conflicts and wars since the First World War. Dr. Aktas proposed the coherence of incumbent elite and its control over military power, strong change in US policies towards the region, real democratic changes in the region’s three political pillars, mainly Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt as crucial factors for true democratic transformation. Mrs. Zineb Benella who is a researcher at the Arab center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies in Morocco contributed with her speech on Challenges to Liberal Reform in the Arab Spring. Mrs. Benella assessed the needs with regards to the requirements of liberal democracy in the region and recommended strengthening civil society to fight with big governments. Prof. Dr. Bekir Berat Ozipek at Istanbul Commerce University analyzed the mentalities in the Middle East. Ozipek pointed that secular nationalists in the region are also collectivists and acting hand in hand with the bureaucratic elites. He adds that the Baathist perspective resembles the Orientalist approach with each other. On the contrary to the popular perceptions Muslim democrats in the region are promoting a plural, democratic, open society compared to the Baathist, Kamalist and orientalist elites in the region.
During Lunch participants of the conference heard the columnist Mustafa Akyol who is the author of the Book titled Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. Akyol said the reasons why he promotes a liberal Islam; first he believes that Islam is a religion promoting liberal values and institutions and he is a liberal secondly he believes that it is crucial that Muslim countries can survive for an open society through promoting liberal Islam.
In the afternoon Ali Salman of Policy Research Institute of Market Economy in Pakistan chaired the session titled “Free Market Economy and Liberal Democracy in the Muslim World”. Dr. Hicham El Mousaoui from Sultan Slimane University assessed the reasons of the weakness of market economy in the Muslim world and pointed the lack of trust. In this regard, Al Moussaoui criticized rentier economy in the region. He discussed how to transform personalized trust into institutional trust so as to consolidate free market economy in his presentation. Mr. Dalibor Rohac who is a political analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity of Cato Institute made a speech to understand the economics of political Islam. Rohac argued that the reason of Islamic political movements being popular is that they have been successful in understanding the needs of their constituency and therefore they have provided welfare to the citizens in local and national levels. Finally Dr. Akram Aswad from University of Duhok in Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq delivered a paper making an analytical relation between liberal democracy and economic development in the Islamic world. Dr. Aswad noted that low levels of economic development are the results of despotic regimes and political instability. Dr. Aswad also invited the need of considering the education factor in these countries.
In the final session which was open for free discussion, Dr. Atilla Yayla, President of Istanbul Network for Liberty and cofounder of ALT made a summary on the problems in the region. He pointed that it is important that religious groups should not be excluded from civil society and competitive politics. In the region secular dictatorships are also serious threats towards liberty. He favored liberal democracy to bring stability so as to resolve social discontentment through the change of governments. He also underlined that a political culture demanding liberal values such as individualism, human rights, limited government is weak and not common. Secondly some of the Muslim elites categorically reject so called “Western values” on the other hand seculars and elites with Western life styles do not favor pluralist values and keep a mission to engineer others and the society.
During this session, participants with ideas to exchange raised their voice to share opportunities and to cooperate.
All over the conference, sessions, breaks and after dinners provided great opportunities of philosophical discussions and networking. The conference provided a further insight on what kind of areas further studies and intellectual investment are required as well as inspired new areas of cooperation with various institutions.