Opening Speech of the Mont Pelerin Society Istanbul Special Meeting, Atilla Yayla

Opening Speech of the Mont Pelerin Society Istanbul Special Meeting, Atilla Yayla

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you to the Mont Pelerin Society Special Meeting in Istanbul on behalf of the organizing committee and Turkey’s liberals. 

My first MPS meeting was the general meeting in 1992 in Vancouver, Canada, where I met some great heroes of international freedom cause. I am pleased to confess that it was a turning point in my intellectual  life and academic career. Before my attendance to the Vancouver meeting, I and my dear colleague Mustafa Erdoğan had decided to start up an intellectual movement to promote private property, free market economy, individual freedom, rule of law, and limited and constitutional government in Turkey. The information and impressions I had, and the contacts I established in the meeting, provided a strong motivation for us to go ahead as fast as possible with our plan. Thus, three months after the MPS 1992 general meeting the Association for Liberal Thinking came into existence. It was first of its kind in the Islamic world. I am pleased to see that it is now being followed by similar institutes in many Muslim lands.

Since the 1992 general meeting it has been my dream to have an MPS gathering in Turkey. This dream is now coming true. For which I would like to express my gratitude to the MPS board and to my friends in organizing committee. Two names specially deserve to be mentioned here: Mrs. Linda Whetstone and Mrs. Özlem Yılmaz. Thank you Linda, Thank you Özlem. If it were not for your efforts, this gathering could not happen. I am hoping that in the future we can hold a general meeting of the Society in Istanbul.

MPS İstanbul Special Meeting’s title is ‘’Nation, State, and Liberty’’. In the coming three days, in formal sessions, coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and in our excursion, we will be listening to important and inspiring presentations and exchanging ideas with each other. The time we live in is named as nation–state–age. We are born into nation states. We are socialized and educated in nation states. Nation state follows us from the cradle to the grave. There seems exist no way to escape from it. In brief, the nation state has impacts in every moment and every aspect of human life. How is society and our individual freedom effected by this fact? This is the main theme of the meeting. 

However, by leaving this important topic to the sessions, I would like to briefly touch upon another subject which is as important as the relation between freedom and nation state. I am encouraged to do so because this meeting is taking place in a country where the majority of the population is Muslim. The issue is Islam’s compatibilty with individual freedom, liberal democracy and free market economy. As we all know the economic and political outlook in Muslims countries is very disappointing. Almost all Muslim countries are economically underdeveloped. There are some rich nations, but they cannot be counted among industrialized countries since their wealth results from not a stable and strong production base but from a single commodity-oil. Total GDP of Islamic countries all together is less than that of France. The number of books translated each year into four main languages spoken in Muslim countries is smaller than that of the books translated into Spanish. In none of Islamic countries, including Turkey, we see a well functioning, consolidated democratic system. The recent revolts in North Africa or so called Arab spring raised our hopes that in some Arabic countries liberal democratic systems could be founded. However, one needs to be cautious about what might happen next in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. As great philosopher Lord Acton pointed out in the 19th century, in the end of the day, “what matters is not what you are against but what you are for’’.

Why is this so? Is there anything wrong with Islam, and Muslims? There are two extremist positions taken by some commentators on this issue. The first one is the position of the Islamists and the second one is the position of some Westerners. These two groups appear as if they are in clash with each other, but in practice they unite in the aim to keep Muslim lands away from individual freedom, free market economy, and liberal democracy. The Islamist say that Islam is not compatible with Western values like individual freedom and  rule of law, and with Western institutes like free market economy and liberal democracy. The Westerners who are infected with Islamophobia rush to join them and claim that these values and institutions are uniquely Western. They are product of Western culture and they can not exist or survive in any other culture.

I think both approaches are mistaken. First of all, backwardness has not been the fate of Muslim lands throughout Islam’s history. As Professor Hans Koechler documents in detail, between 8th and 12th centuries the Islamic world was much more advanced than Europe in economy, trade, medicine, and science. Second, one can detect many elements in Islamic belief and culture that support so called Western values. Islam is something, being Muslim is another thing. Islam is one; but Muslims are many. Therefore the ways to interpret and live Islam are many. Among these ways one can find both freedom friendly versions and versions that reject basic human values and civilized institutions. Indeed, Islam is the only religion founded by a merchant. It recognizes private property. It promotes free trade and loyalty to contracts more than any other religion. According to Dean Ahmed, the way by which law is made in Islamic thought resembles in many ways to the Hayekian account of how legal rules which comply with the standards of rule of law should be made. Professor Timur Kuran rightly points out that economic backwardness of Islamic countries is not due to Islam in itself but rather due to economically detrimental legal–reasoning of some Muslim scholars. David Forte, a professor of law, convincingly explains that death penalty to apostasy in Islamic history resulted not from Kur’an, and other basic sources of Islam but from history, tribal traditions, and misquided legal reasoning. Guy Sorman makes it clear in his articles that both poverty and political oppression were born out of authoritarian political traditions in the Middle East, and of Western colonialism, not out of Islam as a belief system.

Islamophobic Westerners are also making strange and harmful interpretations. Their belief that civilized values and rule of law is a unique product of the West is mistaken. Which West is it? Humanity went through most despotic forms of political repression in the form of fascism and Marxist socialism in the 20th century. Both were Western cultural products. Should we embrace fascism and socialism, as they were born in the West? We can not be in a position to accept everything Western without questioning. I believe, what liberals have to defend is not the West as a whole, but a certain political, legal, and economic tradition in the West: Liberalism. We reject fascism and socialism for the same reason for which we reject Islamism. We also reject eugenic and inquisition though they were created and applied in Europe by Christians. Therefore, it is a great mistake to call civilized values as uniquely Western values. They are liberal values and in every culture the elements that support or undermine them live side by side.

Let me turn to religions. Does the fact that there is no well established, consolidated democracy in the Islamic world prove that Islam is not compatible with liberal democracy? I think we do unfair to Islam if we stick to this idea. Religions might be subject to different interpretations and they have the capacity to transform their stance over sensitive issues in time. That some interpretations of Islam are alien to liberal democratic values does not necessarily mean that Islam is inherently incompatible with liberal democratic values and institutions. The transformation in Catholic social and political teaching can give us an idea how religious interpretations can change in the course of history. Catholic social and political teaching rejected the doctrine of human rights, especially religious freedom, and liberal democracy until mid 1960s. This was probably one of the reasons why a stable democracy could not be founded in many Catholic countries up to early 1980s. Vatican’s attitude towards religious freedom before 1930s was not very promoting. It stubbornly rejected religious freedom by saying that ‘’human beings do not have the right to err‘’. As explained in a very good article by Daniel Philpott, through the efforts of two great Catholic thinkers, Jacques Mariton and Courtney Murray, in 1940s and 1950s, the official position of Vatican in religious freedom and human rights changed. Four years after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. And after long debates the Pope wrote his encyclical letter of 1963, Pacem in Terris, in which for the first time the Church endorsed human rights. The most radical departure happened in 1965, with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical: Dignitatis Humanae. Profoundly influenced by Murray, the Pope declared religious freedom as an individual right. Only after this transformation the local Catholic establishments started playing a positive role in democratization. In Spain, for example, the Catholic church became the biggest democratizer.

We usually think of Protestantism as more conducive to human rights and democracy. This might be true for certain segments of Protestan population, but it was not so in the past for some other protestant groups. The first Christian communist totalitarian system was established by a group of Protestant priests in Munster in 1530s. Murray Rothbard explains the event in his wonderful article ‘’Marx: Communist As a Religious Eschatologist‘’. Under the leadership of a young popular minister, Bernt Rothmann, and a Dutch baker, Jon Matthys, a horde of Anabaptists seized North Eastern German town Munster to set up a communist theocracy. They first wanted to execute Catholics and Lutherans. Then they did the next best thing: They drove them out. They forced remaining Lutherans and Catholics rebaptize, all those refusing being put to death. In Münster Jon Matthys launched a totalitarian communist social revolution. The confiscation of private property was the first step. All valuables were placed in central depots and a redistribution system in which everybody would take according to their needs was established. And the decision about what was need was given a group of ‘’deacons‘’ appointed by Matthys. ‘’Food was also confiscated from private homes and rationed according to the will of government deacons. Also, to accommodate the host of immigrants, all private homes were effectively communized, with everyone permitted to quarter themselves everywhere; it was now illegal to close, let alone lock, one’s doors. Compulsory communal dining-halls were established, where people ate together to the readings from the old Testament‘’. Matthys and his men abolished private ownership of money and ended the trade. The population in the end became completely dependent on handouts or rations from the governing-power elite. Matthys applied brute violence and prefigured state terror of Red Khemer Regime in Cambodia in the 20th century. 

I would like to conclude by this: The values classical liberals defend are not Western or Christian values but universal human values. They derive from the nature of human life and from the nature of political power. In every culture and religion it is expected there might be elements which support them and elements which undermine them. As human beings living most of our lives in certain locals and cultural environments our duty is not categorically to reject this or that culture by labeling them uncivilized, but to try to discover and strengthen in each culture those elements that are compatible with liberal values and institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I firmly believe that the Istanbul meeting will help us a lot to make progress in the way to better understanding and evaluating this fact. I thank you all very much for accepting our invitation and coming to the beautiful historic city of Istanbul. I have no doubt that your presence and contributions will make MPS Istanbul special meeting very successful and always memorable. 


İstanbul, 30 Eylül 2011


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