Saturday, May 12, 2007

In the last two decades, the violence perpetrated by the proponents of Islamism — an ideology distinct from Islam as a religion — has created serious doubts about the potential of Islam to live in harmony with others.

The doubts are well justified, but it would be wrong to extrapolate the current “crisis of Islamdom” to a general negative view about Islam as a religion. One should recall that Islamdom was probably the most advanced and enlightened part of the world 1,000 years ago. Perhaps, we are just living in a bad episode in its extremely diverse history.

Consider, for example, the issue of religious freedom. It is undeniable that the current Islamic world has a bad record in that regard: Christians are persecuted and Jews are vilified in many parts of the Islamic world. The crucial question is whether the current intolerant attitude is an integral component of Islam as a religion or a historical attitude retained from premodern times.

Many think intolerance is built into Islam, but actually the Koran decrees no sanction for apostasy and recognizes the rights of Christians and Jews to worship according to their own traditions. There are “verses of the sword,” to be sure, but it is possible to argue these verses refer only to those non-Muslims who have been belligerent toward Muslims in the first place. The Koran, in other words, makes a doctrine of just war and a live-and-let-live approach possible.

The more established interpretation, however, has not been so generous. The infusion of politics into religion since the early decades of Islam has skewed the tradition. Islamic jurists, the creators of Shariah, not only introduced non-Koranic concepts such as the ban on apostasy but also developed the “method of abrogation” to bypass the peaceful verses and uphold the verses of the sword. They also adopted several laws from Sassanid Persia, which included the specifications for the second-class status of conquered Jews and Christians as dhimmis.

In premodern times, this was not shocking, and many Jews found it preferable to the attitude of medieval Christendom. The emergence in the West of such ideas as equal citizenship and religious freedom, however, changed the balance, making the Islamic world look backward. But it did take measures to improve itself.

The Ottoman Turks, ruling much of the Islamic world, saw the need to reform the Shariah according to modern political concepts. In two substantive reform edicts, first in 1839 and then in 1856, the dhimmi status was abolished, and Jews and Christians gained equal citizenship rights. Religious freedom was also guaranteed. The Ottomans accepted a Constitution in 1876, and set up a parliament that included members from all faiths.

The crucial point is that the Ottoman Empire wasn’t abandoning Islam by reforming its laws, but it was modernizing from within the tradition. The Koranic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” was stressed by the Ottoman religious elite to justify the reforms.

But unfortunately the Ottoman Islamic modernization ended with the demise of the empire in the First World War. From its ruins, what we now call the Middle East arose — with a doomed legacy: All post-Ottoman states, except Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were colonized by European powers, a phenomenon that would soon breed anti-colonialism and anti-Westernism throughout the entire region. And the two exceptions went in totally opposite directions: The fanatic Wahhabi sect — which had been the bete noire of the Ottomans and their reforms — dominated Saudi Arabia, and Turkey became a secular republic.

The early Turkish Republic was influenced not only by the legacy of Ottoman reforms but more so by the French Enlightenment and its radically secularist worldview. Early Republican elites asserted that religion is an “obstacle to progress.” To deal with it, they incorporated laicite, the French notion of radical secularism, which allowed no role whatever for faith in public life. Therefore throughout the Republican period, Turkey’s observant Muslims felt themselves suppressed and humiliated.

That’s why, despite the customary rhetoric, Turkey actually never served as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modernity to other Muslim nations. It represented, instead, the abandonment and even suppression of the former for the sake of the latter. But that’s a bad message for the Islamic world: When a devout believer is forced to choose between God and modernity, he will opt and even fight for the former. The solution is not a strict separation but a synthesis between Islamic and modern values.

That should help us understand why the current tension in Turkey between the moderate Muslim government (led by Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AK Party) and the radical secular establishment is all too crucial. The government might have policies that deserve criticism, but its strong support for the European Union process, free markets, and liberal reforms is an invaluable experience showing the possibility of a Western-friendly and still genuinely Muslim popular movement.

This should not be sacrificed to the paranoid fears and the authoritarian ambitions of Turkey’s secular fundamentalists. The United States should vigorously support Turkey’s democracy, which is the only thing the county needs to further cultivate its “moderate Islam.” If Turkey keeps walking on that path, it may well be a light unto many other Muslim nations.


Deputy editor of the Istanbul-based Turkish Daily News. On the web at

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