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A Murder and A World Without Islam

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Something terrible happened in Istanbul last Saturday. A newly married couple was shot dead in a car, only 10 days after their wedding. The police arrested the bride's older brother as the suspect. The man confessed the crime and said that he had to kill his sister and her husband for her treason to the community – for this was a Christian-Muslim marriage the bride's family strongly opposed. If you haven't heard more about this story, you might easily assume that the lethal communalism in this shocking violence must have something to do with Islam. It is Muslims, after all, who have become notorious in the West for such honor killings. So, you might easily assume that the murdered bride, Soney Vural, 26, was a Muslim woman, and that her Muslim brother killed her for marrying a Christian infidel. Muslim or Eastern? But, lo and behold: the reality is the exact opposite. The Christian side in this tragedy is the bride and her family: They are members of the Turkish Armenian community. The Muslim side is that of the bridegroom, Zekeriya Vural, 29, and his family, which apparently had no problem with their son's interfaith marriage. “A difference of religions should not be a problem,” indeed, said Cemil Vural, the Zekeriya's Muslim uncle, explicitly. "We struggled so much for peace.” I am sure the same belief exists within the Armenian Turkish community as well, along with a deep sorrow for the tragic fate of Soney and Zekeriya. I share that sorrow. But I also have thoughts on this appalling incident – thoughts that relate to the popular discussions on Islam, the West, and liberty. It is no secret that many Westernizers have been disturbed lately by some of the illiberal attitudes they see among Muslim some communities: A male-dominating culture that grants very little freedom to women; a rigid communalism that sees the outside world as corrupt and bans any form of “apostasy;” and a self-righteous attitude that sees all sorts of criticism as attacks that should be countered. Such cultural traits that some Muslims display – let alone violence and terrorism committed in the name of Islam – have led some Westernizers to suspect whether there is an inherent problem in Islam as religion. Some even believe that the world would be much better if the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, and the whole Islamic civilization had never existed. In his recent book, A World without Islam, former CIA analyst and historian Graham Fuller takes on this argument very well. Despite all the superficial rhetoric on the supposed dichotomies between “Western values” and the “Muslim world,” Fuller shows that the real dichotomy is actually between the West and the East. For example, the East’s reactions to the West’s dominance, real or perceived, are the real source of what is dubbed as “Islamic terrorism.” Even if the Middle East was not Muslim at all, hence Fuller argues, “Palestine would still burn; Iran would still be intensely nationalistic; [and] we would still see Palestinians resist Jews.” The ways of the fathers Although Fuller focuses mainly on the political attitudes in the Muslim world, and shows that their Eastern origins predate Islam and go back to ancient empires such Byzantium, he touches upon cultural traits as well – which might look Muslim, but are actually simply Eastern. “The culture of the Orthodox Church,” he notes, “differs sharply from the Western post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and the primacy of the individual.” Eastern Christians, Fuller adds, often show a tendency “to perceive religion as a key vehicle for the protection and preservation of their own communities and culture.” Hence comes the intolerance toward inter-faith marriage among these Christians – something that has become quite normal among their Western, especially American, co-religionists. A World without Islam, I believe, is a must-read for any intelligent discussion on “Islam and the West.” It is also a good food for thought for both liberal Westerners and conservative Muslims. The former should understand that some of the things they see within Muslim societies and do not find terribly pleasant might not be the products of Islam as religion. Some are in fact the products of their own civilization, such as the doomed heritage of the West’s colonial adventures. Other troubles in the Muslim world – troubles from a liberal perspective – stem from traditions of the Middle East that both predate Islam and extend to non-Muslim Easterners as well – such as the rigid communalism that just killed a would-be-happy Turkish-Armenian couple. Conservative Muslims, on the other hand, should beware of being trapped in the illiberal traditions of the East in the course of their more noble effort to stay loyal to their faith. In fact, breaking those illiberal traditions was one of the early impulses of Islam. The Quran criticized the Arabs who said, “We follow what we found our fathers upon,” and asked them: “What if their fathers had no sense at all?” (2:170) Today, there still are many traditions that come from “fathers had no sense at all.” Challenging them is the only way to save our religions from bigotry – and to protect innocent lives.
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