Posts in English

The Islamic Case For A Secular State -II-

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] There are some myths that many well-educated Turks believe to be true. One of them is the idea that the Ottoman Empire's modernization efforts were continuously resisted and crippled by religion. Italian scholar Rossella Bottoni summarizes the falsity of this cliché well in her article titled, “The Origins of Secularism in Turkey.” “According to received wisdom,” she notes: “In the Ottoman Empire there was a Manichaean struggle between, on one side, the reformers who were Westernizers, liberals, secularizers and modern, and, on the other side, the opponents, especially the ulema (Islamic scholars), who were obscurantist, backward-looking and hooked on the most obsolete customs dictated by religion.” “However,” Dr. Bottoni adds, “some studies prove that the religious class... was divided over the reform issue and that many ulema did collaborate on the modernization and secularization program.” In fact “some ulema were reformers themselves,” while “the protest against secularizing reforms was mainly expressed by the lower echelons of the religious class, such as preachers of small mosques and softa ( medrese students and aspiring ulema).” One great irony of history would be the wiping out of the open-minded ulema by the ultra-secular reforms of the early Turkish Republic. This, unintentionally of course, left religion in the hands of the close-minded softas who dominated rural areas, whereas the cities became secular citadels. That's why, again despite common wisdom, the ultra-secularist project in Turkey did not help the modernization of the country's Islamic heritage. It actually halted its progress. Back to Medina? Yet still Turkey's Islamic circles started to reform themselves thanks to their roots in the Islamic-modernist synthesis of the Ottoman Empire, and their growing engagement with democracy, capitalism, and more lately, globalization. That's why since the '90s, many remarkable ideas emerged among Turkey's Islamic intellectuals on the compatibility of Islam and secular law. One interesting -- but not very promising — effort was the idea of “multiple legal systems” proposed by a group of Islamic pundits including Ali Bulaç. They referred to the “Medina Constitution” of the prophet and argued that there should be a plurality of legal systems in Turkey. Practicing Muslims would be able to choose the Islamic code, whereas others would be free to continue with the current one. However other intellectuals soon reminded that multiple legal systems would be practically impossible in a modern society, and that was precisely why the Ottoman Empire had to unify them in the late 19th century. But the revived Medina Constitution idea was an important experience, because it underlined that Islamic law can't be imposed on people who don't want to live by it. The real groundbreaking thought would be the “historicity” of Islamic law. The theologians who emphasized this view were inspired by the works of Fazlur Rahman, the Pakistani-born Islamic scholar who used to be professor of Islamic thought at the University of Chicago. Rahman emphasized the difference between the principles of Islamic law (such as justice, freedoms and rights) and the way these principles were applied during the history of Islamic civilization. Rahman argued that Islam's principles are eternally valid, but they could take different forms in different ages and societies. Thus, he concluded, Muslims don't need to insert the tribal customs and laws of seventh century Arabia into the life of the 21st. The Turkish theologian who was very influential in introducing Fazlur Rahman's thinking to Turkey was Dr. Mehmet Aydın. Since 2002, Dr. Aydın has been in politics and has been a minister in both of the successive governments of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). I think this implies that the AKP's peace with the secular system, which the ultra-secularists believe to be a ploy, has indeed serious theological justifications. And I will continue to explore them in my next column. A NOTE In his TDN piece dated Oct. 1, 2007, Mr. Robert Ellis makes this comment: “Mustafa Akyol has repeatedly argued that the headscarf ban is a violation of human rights, but unless he is referring to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, which only recognizes those human rights that are in accordance with Shariah, he is barking up the wrong tree.” Not really. I am referring not to the “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights,” but to the annual reports of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in which the headscarf ban in Turkey is noted as one of the “significant problems in Turkey that seriously affect religious freedom.” In its 2007 report, the Commission points to the “restrictions on religious freedom in Turkey, including for the majority Sunni Muslim community” and explains: “Muslims are prohibited from wearing certain kinds of religious garb in state institutions, including government offices, the parliament, judicial buildings, and both public and private universities.” I know that the Anglo-Saxon sensitivity on religious freedom does not always find parallelism in continental Europe, and especially in France, whose perception of religion is negatively affected by its unpleasant history of religious wars and repression. But the reactionary secularism of the old continent leads its societies into deep existential problems, as well pointed out by erudite thinkers such as Pope Benedict XVI. Will write more on that later.
All for Joomla All for Webmasters