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Revisiting jihad in the New Turkish Republic

HDN | 3/30/2010 12:00:00 AM | Mustafa AKYOL

A conference that gathered dozens of scholars and addressed thorny issues of Islamic jurisprudence would probably be unthinkable in a Turkish university a decade ago.

I spent last weekend in Mardin, a must-see Turkish city. Located near the Syrian border, it is a home of Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians, along with various other religious groups some of which you might have not even heard. Moreover, placed on the skirts of a magnificent hill, the city is full of centuries-old mosques, churches and homes, giving the looks of a truly medieval town. Everything you see is breathtakingly old, natural and authentic.

The only thing which looks terribly novel, unnatural and inauthentic is the huge slogan carved on the hill that overlooks the city: “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’ – Kemal Atatürk.” This slogan has actually been stamped on zillions of walls, stones and mountains in Turkey, since the Kemalist Republic decided that every citizen should be happy by proclaiming their Turkishness. Cities such as Mardin, where you have very few ethnic Turks, got special care.

[HH] Rethinking the fatwa

Whatever. I was in this magical town for more than sightseeing. There was a conference held at Artuklu University titled, “Mardin: The Abode of Peace,” and addressed how İbn Taymiyya, the 14th-century scholar from the same city, defined the Abode of War.

These two “abodes” were terms used by medieval Islamic scholars to divide the world into friends and foes. İbn Taymiyya, an iconic figure in this political theology, argued that the Mardin of his time, ruled by Mongols who converted to Islam yet fell short of observing the shariah, fell short of being the Abode of Peace (or Islam). Hence he gave a “jihad fatwa,” saying that Mardin “constitutes a third type [of domain]… in which the one who departs from the Law of Islam shall be combated.”

In the 20th century, this fatwa was rediscovered by radical groups in the Arab world who saw their ruling classes as İbn Taymiyyah saw the Mongols: tyrannical hypocrites. Hence came the violent jihad on secular Arab regimes, a war that was later diverted by al-Qaeda, quite ambitiously, from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy,” i.e., the United States.

The Mardin conference was an effort to challenge this violent political theology. You can read its details in the stories of the Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review. I will just share two observations.

First, we should see that the problem is not in medieval Islam, which was well-suited for its times, but in the blind willingness to use it today without any reinterpretation.

The scholar who made this point, and who actually gave the best talk in the two-day event, was professor Ahmet Özel from the Islamic Studies Center of Istanbul, or İSAM. He explained that there was no international law, human rights or United Nations in the pre-modern world, and Islamic scholars naturally thought that any place not ruled by Islamic law would be dangerous for Muslims.

Yet today, Dr. Özel noted, along with Mustafa Ceric, the wise mufti of Bosnia, Muslims do find peace, security and liberty in democratic Western countries, even more so than they find in Muslim-majority states. “That’s why these classical definitions of abodes do not make sense,” Dr. Özel noted, arguing for a whole new terminology.

The reason why some Muslims are unwilling to build such new terminology is textualism: a blind adherence to a text with a total disregard for its context, and the change that has occurred since its making.

But textualism is not the only way to understand Islam: there is also a tradition of a more rational and dynamic interpretation. Moreover, the same problem arises within secular minds as well. Orthodox Marxists and orthodox Kemalists, for example, are no less textualist than Orthodox Muslims. They take what Karl Marx wrote in the 19th century, or what Mustafa Kemal said as in the early 20th, as everlasting truths that should be preserved and obeyed, but never criticized.

[HH] A pivotal country

So, then, the solution to Muslim dogmatism is not secularization, for there is nothing that makes the secular mind less dogmatic. The solution is rather a change of the static mindset with a dynamic one. How this is possible is a huge question, and my answer lies in democratization, political liberalization, and the free-market economy. And, besides, the emergence of good examples that other Muslims can emulate.

This brings me to my second point, which is the possible role of the New Turkish Republic as one such good example. The term is coined by Graham Fuller, an American political analyst, who rightly observes that this new Turkey, which is, unlike the old one, at peace with its Muslim identity, can become a “pivotal” country in the Muslim world, and help the latter’s transformation.

The conference in Mardin was a good illustration. A conference that gathered dozens of Arab scholars, held in Arabic, and addressed thorny issues of Islamic jurisprudence would probably be unthinkable in a Turkish university a decade ago, when generals saw Islam as a nail and themselves a hammer. The country’s bizarre notion of secularism meant that religion should simply be ignored in all aspects of public life.

But the New Turkish Republic is more willing to play a constructive role in the debates within Islam. This is probably disturbing for both the secular and the Islamic fundamentalists. For the rest of us, it should be good news.

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