Posts in English

The Religious Way To The Open Society

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] NEW YORK – Peter Berger, one of the world’s leading authorities on sociology of religion, put in a nutshell what all secularists, and especially Turkey’s fuming ones, should get. “Modernization does not necessarily secularize societies,” the Boston University professor noted, “it rather pluralizes them.” I had the privilege of sitting next to him at the first session of the day-long symposium on “Religion and the Open Society” that the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held in New York the other day. The event, which gathered about a dozen experienced speakers with several dozens of equally erudite participants, addressed issues such as how religion relates to free inquiry, innovation and economic progress. The common wisdom was that religion was here to stay and that we should try to understand how it influences the world we live in. The Future of Freud’s Illusion Religion’s significance might be turning into common wisdom today, but it was not so a century ago. Most intellectuals of the early 20th century actually believed that religion was a pre-modern myth which would soon expire thanks to modernization. In his book “The Future of an Illusion,” Sigmund Freud, who defined religious belief as some sort of neurosis, predicted its impending doom. “All thinking men,” argued one of Freud’s contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway, “are atheists.” Today we know not just that quite many of the thinking men are actually theists, but also that quite many of the atheists have not been very helpful with their thinking. (Just remember the achievements of late celebrities such as Stalin or Mao, and their millions of followers, and their millions of victims.) We also know that modernization does not necessarily detach people from the divine. The rise of the autonomous individual does not mean that he or she will be devoid of faith. That is indeed one possible route, but there is also the very opposite one, which Dr. Berger had aptly defined as “de-secularization.” This diversity is what makes modern societies pluralistic. Since individuals, and the communities they form, go in all sorts of directions, they end up in creating a colorful heterogeneity. If the political order, and the culture, of the society cherish that reality, then this is an open society in which different ideas attitudes and lifestyles co-exist, compete and sometimes mingle with each other. The open society presents a powerful challenge to the two types of fundamentalisms that we have — the religious and the secular. Both of these bitterly opposing views actually share a common ground in monism: Bothclaim that their truth should be followed by all people, and that if those people don’t get that, they must be either stupid or evil. (I am sure you must be familiar with religious fundamentalism. If you would like to see the secular one, come to Turkey, I will show you.) Open society is defined by neither religion nor irreligion. “Open society must be secular and religious, dogmatic and free,” notes Walter Russel Mead, senior CFR fellow who, in his recent book, “God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World,” forcefully demonstrated a much overlooked fact: Religion not only has a right to exist in the open society, it also contributes to its making. Protestantism, in particular, has inspired entrepreneurialism and social change. (Mark C. Taylor explores the same topic in his fresh book, “After God,” with a special emphasis on Lutheranism, something he suggests that might be overshadowed by the Weberian stress on Calvinism.) The Theological Base One might wonder whether what worked with Protestantism, and which soon incorporated Catholicism as well, could work with Islam, too. Can Islam be compatible with, and contributory to, the open society? Or do the Islamist fundamentalists have a point when they claim that their totalitarian goals are simply what God wills? It is certain that a fresh reading of Islamic texts in the light of modern realities allow us to develop a Muslim vision for a democratic and pluralist order. First of all, there is the right to disbelieve. Unbelief and sin are things that God speaks about in the Koran; so they must be out there in the actual world. Passionate believers sometimes have a tendency to overlook this fact, and that’s why the very first passionate believer of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, was warned in the Koran. “If your Lord had willed, all the people on the earth would have had faith,” a verse reminded him, and rhetorically asked: “Do you think you can force people to be believers?” (10/99) Another Islamic theological basis for the open society would be the fact only God is omniscience and thus no mortal human being can claim to have monopoly over knowledge. Tradition shows that even Prophet Mohammed’s wisdom was questioned by his followers. “Is this your personal opinion, or a revelation from God,” was a question the prophet faced after some of his decisions. If no revelation was involved, then the issue would become a “secular” matter on which everybody had the right to offer views. The Turkish Experiment Such theological views in favor of a pluralist, democratic Islam are advanced by Muslim theologians and thinkers for quite sometime, but the more important question is whether Muslim societies are embracing them. In that regard, the Islamic revival and transformation in Turkey during the past two decades have been quite noteworthy. Despite all the setbacks and bumps on the road, Turkey’s Muslims have been able to develop a political vision which favors democracy and pluralism over the totalitarian vision of Islamism. It is no accident that the majority of Turkey’s Kurds, Armenians and even secular liberals (which are at odds with secular fundamentalists) voted for the Muslim democrat AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the elections of 2007. In today’s Turkey, some marginal elements left aside, Islam is a force which is in favor of, and not against, the open society. The only bad news is that Turkey’s secular fundamentalists, who have been watching all this in horror, have just decided to crush the Turkish experiment with Islam and democracy. Had Karl Popper lived, he probably would add them to his list of “enemies” of the open society. They would even top the list. Fascism is dead and communism is gone, and there are really not too many autocrats around besides the ones in Ankara.
All for Joomla All for Webmasters