Editor’s note: Ahmed Akkari is a Danish teacher of Lebanese origin who became known for his involvement in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006. Shortly after the Danish newspaper published its Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005, Ahmed embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group that led protests against the cartoons. In August 2013, Akkari publicly reversed course and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons. He is now the most vocal Muslim thinker against radicalism in Denmark.
In a recent interview with a Danish newspaper, Salman Rushdie came across as less pessimistic about the outlook for the world, saying Islamism is hated and losing ground and that it will not be a big factor in Muslim societies in future.
The interview was published just a week after my book “Mod til at tvivle” (The Courage to Doubt) came out. It charts my transition from politically active Islamism to humanism. When asked for my opinion on Rushdie’s optimistic view, I disagreed with a soft “no”.
Salman Rushdie is correct about the current situation – Islamic political movements have lost some ground and appeal. But the Islamists are just changing tactics and have certainly not become free-thinkers!
It is unfortunately also the case that Islamism is not entirely hated in countries where it has gained social ground. It actually still has a huge powerbase. Social media bursts with sites for discussing Islamic political topics. For example, the Saudi Islamist preachers Salman al-Ouda and Aidh al-Qarni have very high numbers of Facebook followers. Meanwhile the television-programs of preachers Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his follower Ali al-Qaradaghi retain vast appeal. The Islamization movement has even gained supporters among wealthy people and can speak on behalf of many voters, as seen in various elections.
In fact, I fully disagree with Rushdie about the future. Right now, it does seem that conflict with the West is decreasing, especially after the destruction of ISIS, but the most groundbreaking movement in the Muslim world, the Muslim Brotherhood, is still full of life in its social and economic activities. Their work includes building schools, institutions, and political parties. They have roots and political influence in several countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.
Meanwhile the Islamic Shiite stronghold in Iran and parts of Iraq has influence which reaches as far as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Rushdie seems to take this influence lightly.
And yet, as my personal reflection process story shows, there is hope.
Reading Islamic teachings, I quickly learned to surrender my doubts and accept the truth in the Qur’an and the sira. Then I became an active missionary, leading the protests during the cartoon-controversy in 2005. But after years of personal struggle and gaining the courage to doubt, I finally understood the cynical drive for power hiding behind the robes of the muftis and the crude desire for gains masked by the pure words in clerics’ mouths.
Finally embracing doubt, I travelled from committed Islamism driven by the ideas and thoughts of the Islamic movements to an open-minded and realistic belief in the power of open societies, as described by Karl Popper. I found the way to enlightenment, not as some kind of opposite to belief but as a supporter of critical thinking in the face of fanatical leaders and preachers.
The way forward is therefore, in line with my own path of change, to strengthen authentic doubts about Islamism or political Islam.
To use the words of former Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moller in his review of the book in May 2018 (my translation):
“It is the existential “travel to formation” that makes the book more than just a showdown with his Islamic past(…) It gives encouragement to look inwards and outwards to everyone, not only young people caught up in Islamism.
The dilemma in the West is not about the ability to fight Islamic movements. Instead it is about work on how Muslims can show resistance without creating domestic or international troubles.
The biggest project will be about creating enough personal enlightenment in Muslim cultural and religious segments in order to prevent authoritarian and theocratic messages taking root far and wide.
This is why “The Courage to Doubt” shows others the way to break free from totalitarian thoughts, encouraging them to reflect and understand the mechanisms of power in human societies and not be taken in by seemingly lofty ideals and beautiful slogans. Totalitarian thinking, no matter how refined, leads to conflict and repression by its very nature.
To respond to Salman Rushdie’s optimism about the future, and to round up my comment, I think that it will be hard to make easterners believe in the power of transformation as long as Western societies show no conviction about its value. The world has to see that it is possible to be inspired by the torch of doubt and enlightenment.
My personal story certainly takes the bull by the horns, as it forms a bridge of connection and reconciliation. I was changed by the tolerance and values of freedom deeply rooted in the humanistic ideas of the West, not by force or repression. As Per Stig says in the conclusion of his review of my journey: “The bridge stands. Akkari went over it, and so pointed it out for everyone.”