Reality Check

A recent trip to Turkey reveals some surprises about Islam and politics

Current events in a country bridging Europe and Asia are offering an important object lesson about the Muslim world: it is not monolithic, and there are significant forces for religious pluralism and democracy within it.

The country is Turkey, at one and the same time a candidate for the European Union (EU) and the source of much of the water in the Middle East; larger in population than any EU country, and with the second largest military in NATO after the United States.

From May 7-15 I had the opportunity to travel with an interfaith group of 16 people from the fields of government, education, health care, religion, journalism and the arts to several cities within Turkey on visits to schools, mosques, cultural institutions, hospitals and families.

Prior to our departure, Turkey was in the news daily. The priminister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Development and Justice Party (AK) which holds a majority in Parliament, had put forth his right hand man, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, as candidate for President, the country’s most influential post.

Political Islam

The military, a centerpiece for the secularist establishment in Turkey, issued a thinly veiled threat of a coup d’état if the AK Party should end up controlling the three principal organs of government: prime minister, president and parliament.

Why the alarm bells? Because the AK has roots in what is known in Turkey as “political Islam,” and because Gül’s wife wears a head scarf. The very thought of their president’s wife traditionally clad raises the specter for many Turks of creeping Islamic fundamentalism.

Gül was forced to suspend his bid, but the political turmoil exposed a deep paranoia in the populace, at least 90% of whose population of 75 million are Muslim, but endowed with a secular legacy since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk.

At the time of our visit to the Aegean port city of Izmir, a terrorist bomb was exploded in the marketplace and hundreds of thousands of Turks demonstrated on the seafront, fearful that the government is conspiring to impose religious values on society. Turkish flags, evoking a secular republic, hung from balconies and windows, buses and boats. They came from far and wide, motivated by the fear that Turkey would be dragged back to an earlier era when Islam ran the state.

Turkish Face of Islam

Does the West know this Turkish face of Islam?

When asked if they were wearing a head scarf because they wanted to live in an Islamic state, some young women replied, “Absolutely not.” They did not want to be prohibited from attending college, driving a car, or for that matter, leaving the house. They only wanted to be free to practice their religion. They expressed fear of a totalitarian, rigid interpretation of an Islam with a tribal mentality, harsh punishments, and lack of civic freedoms.

“When asked if they were wearing a head scarf because they wanted to live in an Islamic state, some young women replied, “Absolutely not.” They did not want to be prohibited from attending college, driving a car, or for that matter, leaving the house. They only wanted to be free to practice their religion.”

Such is the power of fear that they, along with most of the protestors interviewed in the media, seemed to overlook the fact that, since coming into power in 2002, the AK party has introduced radical political reforms in the field of human rights, democratization and the rule of law; advocated globalization; strengthened its market economy by attracting $25 billion in direct foreign investment in the past year alone; put Turkey on its way to becoming a member of the European Union some day, and brought political stability previously lacking for a decade.

Do North Americans identify these kinds of actions with Islamist ruling parties?

Religious Freedom

Journalists we spoke to observed that the AK party leader and Prime Minister Erdogan has asserted many times that the party was not “religiously-centered” but “conservative and democratic.” And erst-while presidential candidate Gül emphasized that “our demand is religious freedom, not an Islamic state.”

The AK is not the only organization sounding such notes in Turkey today. Another is the Gülen movement, identified as the largest civil movement in the country. Named after Fethullah Gülen, a 66 year-old Islamic scholar, thinker, writer and poet, it is a faith-inspired collectivity with loose boundaries involving anywhere from 250,000 up to 4 million people world-wide in a broad range of organizations encompassing 300 schools in over 50 countries, a Journalism and Writer’s Foundation, and a growing newspaper published in both Turkish and English editions (Zaman Today).

The schools target top-echelon students with a curriculum designed to promote learning in a broad sense. The Journalists and Writers’ Foundation also works as a think-tank called the Abant Platform. The first of its kind in recent Turkish history, it brings together intellectuals of all stripes to work the connections between Islam, reason, science, and modernity.

When asked in one of our dialogue sessions where he located the source of law in Turkey, Abdullhamid Bilici, vice editor-in-chief of Zaman Today, responded: “The source of law for us in the Republic of Turkey since its founding in 1923 is not Sharia [Islamic] law, but western, European, democratic law. Our society is built on a model closer to that of France than to middle eastern islamic countries.”

Tolerance, Dialogue and Cooperation

For Gülen, tolerance and genuine interfaith dialogue and cooperation are at the core of what it means to be a Muslim today. He himself has become a symbol of interfaith dialogue in Turkey, meeting with Pope John Paul II, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and the chief Rabbi of Israel.

In speaking of religion, Gülen invokes the image of “a symphony of God’s blessings and mercy.” What characterizes a symphony, of course, is the diversity of notes and instruments brought together in a collaborative unity. Musical harmony, he observes, does not result from everyone playing the same notes, nor is a symphony the product of everyone playing the same instrument.

In an era where Islam is equated in the minds of many with violence and barbarism, the notes being sounded by the voices of moderate Turkish Muslims are indeed music to Western ears and an important reality check on our perception of global Islam.