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God, Gold And Islam

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] LONDON — One of the things that strikes visitors to the British capital are the countless signs of its magnificence. The grandeur of the Big Ben or the Westminster Abbey, the elegance of The National Gallery or the Tate, along with all the handsome avenues and eye-catching monuments of central London seem to be testament to the majesty of the British Empire, which was, until just a half century ago, the world's preeminent superpower. For the British, this splendor must be a source of pride. For the foreigner, though, it raises an important question: What made the British so successful?When one recalls that the world's current superpower, the United States, owes a lot to its British origins, the question becomes even more significant. There is a very evident Anglo-Saxon success story and what made it possible seems to be a very exciting topic to think about. The Anglo-Saxon story American scholar Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, just recently published a book which addresses that issue and offers insightful answers. As the book's name, “God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World,” implies, Mead thinks that religion has a very important role in the creation of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy. “19th-century Britain and the United States today,” he notes, “are the countries that are in most respects the most thoroughly modernized by any definition”. Yet, he adds, they are also “significantly more religious than most.” According to Mead, that's not an accident. He actually argues that religion acted as a driving force in the progress of Britain and the United States. The idea that religiosity can motivate modernization was developed before by towering intellectual figures such as Max Weber or Alexis de Tocqueville. Weber explained how the Protestant work ethic fostered capitalist production, and Tocqueville showed how religion in America enhanced democracy. Mead posits a similar yet updated argument. After the British Reformation, he argues, “The English-speaking world… reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things.” And hence came the religious drive for “progress.” He defines this perception as “dynamic religion,” which, unlike “static religion,” regards social change as not the corruption but the evolution of divine order. Mead also emphasizes the pluralism of Anglo-Saxon societies, and contrasts them with other modern ones that believe in homogeneity. Elites in such countries have carried out bloody experiments to re-construct their societies according to “science and reason.” The French Revolutionaries and the communists, according to Mead, were good examples of such “reason nuts” and they all ended up in destroying the open society.Yet “human society must be torn between strongly felt ideals, because no one ideal can hold all the answers,” Mead asserts. “Open society must be secular and religious, dogmatic and free.” What about Islam? Well, good for the Anglo-Saxons to have realized all that. But what does all this mean for other societies and civilizations? Islam is, of course, the hot topic here. Because unlike modern Europe, which is thoroughly secular, most Islamic nations are quite religious and considerably pre-modern. How to modernize them has been a crucial question for their elites since the 19th century. Many of those elites chose the way of the “reason nuts” and tried to reconstruct their societies by authoritarian tools and secularist goals. In return, they have faced strong reactions from those who remained loyal to their faith. However the Anglo-Saxon story shows that modernization can come within a religious, not necessarily a secular, medium, if the religion in question is “dynamic,” not “static.” But is Islam open to being a dynamic religion? There are many who would rush to say “no” — and the most zealous of them would be the secularists within Islamic societies — but the Islamic golden age of medieval times defy their arguments. Moreover there are many fine Islamic thinkers who theorize modernist interpretations of Islam. Of course an “Islamic modernization” which is only in history and on paper would not be terribly impressive. But there are also living and evolving examples — such as Turkey's new Muslimhood which is in favor of liberal democracy, not an “Islamic state.” The event which took me to London this time, the conference titled “Muslim World in Transition: The Contributions of the Gülen Movement”, was addressing one of the leading actors of this saga, Fethullah Gülen. As Turkey's most popular Islamic scholar and sage, he has inspired a mass movement based on the deepest values of Islam articulated by Sufism. Gülen's millions of followers are not only preaching a message of peace and tolerance, but also leading an impressive effort of education and interfaith dialogue. One of the key features of this movement is their pro-business and entrepreneurial spirit, and it very much reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon way of piety. The fact that the conference was hosted by the British House of Lords was, thus, quite symbolic. Alas, if the Islamic world will be able to breed a “dynamic” interpretation of its faith, then Turkey, it seems, will be one of its main architects. So, keep watching.
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