Turkey best to define Muslim modernity, says Vatican envoy

Turkey best to define Muslim modernity, says Vatican envoy

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey best to define Muslim modernity, says Vatican envoy

Turkey’s envoy Kenan Gürsoy says the West’s fears of Islamists coming to power during the Arab Spring are not as big as one would hawe expected. ‘The West realized that they could not truly understand the Islamic world and also Turkey’s image that is reflected abroad as the Muslim/democracy synthesis has provided a good example,’ he says. DAILY NEWS photos, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

The disappearance of critical thinking in the Islamic world has led to a stagnation resulting in the Islamic world’s failure to integrate itself with the contemporary world, according to Professor Kenan Gürsoy, Turkey’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Thanks to its rich cultural inheritance, however, Turkey is in the best position to delineate Muslim modernity, Gürsoy – who is also a philosophy professor – recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.

If we have to be self-critical, what can we say about the causes of Islamophobia in the West?

The Ottoman world, and thus the greater Islamic world, was at least 50 years ahead of the Western world in terms of science and philosophy until the 16th century. The gradual disappearance of critical thinking in the intellectual sense is, in my view as a philosopher, the most important reason for the stagnation that started in the 17th century.

We remained stuck in a crisis in terms of philosophical critical thinking. If we look at the consequences on religious living, then we need to say that if there is no deepening of contemplation and philosophy, then work on religious sciences will also stagnate. We see that a philosophical problematique in the Islamic philosophical thinking tradition has reached an impasse. That is the relationship between faith and reason.

The essential characteristic of Islamic thinking has been to create harmony between faith and reason, which produced extraordinary works in both philosophy and the sciences until the 13th century.

If you can establish the right relationship between faith and the mind you can attain great accomplishments. Descartes and the other thinkers that followed him like Spinoza and Kant in the 18th century took the Western world in a different direction in terms of faith and reason, philosophy and religious living. The Islamic world was unable to do so after the 16th century. In other words, in the domain of civilizations, creativity and freshening [rejuvenation] in the initial centuries were not continued and the clearest manifestation of this is that, due to the lack of critical thinking, there was no process of integrating with the contemporary world, be it in science, art or politics as was the case in the West.

Would it be too simple to say that Christianity renewed itself while Islam was unable to do so?

It would be wrong to say that. There have been and there are efforts at renewal. But we are having difficulties. We are in a period of a crisis of civilization. We say many new things but we can’t talk the language of the people. But we [Turks] can come up with a new synthesis because we know both the East and the West. We are the inheritors of the East’s cultural legacy and, at the same time, are conscientious of the fact that the West has opened up our horizons as well.

There is an opportunity to start a new period for Turkey as well as for those cultures similar to ours. If we succeed, we can even offer a better formula to the world for harmonious living between different cultures, which has not been truly accomplished by the West. We are best-placed due to Turkish culture, which gained a universal language with Islamic thinking – a culture that came to Anatolia passing by several cultures and religious episodes. We are the children of a culture that had encounters with Buddhists, Jews, Christians, as well as Anatolian and Balkan cultures because we did not stay in Central Asia but hit the road. It has been through Islam that all these gains have acquired a universal language. We have been fed by the humanist culture of Mevlana [Jalaladdin Rumi], Yunus Emre, and Hacı Bektaş.

But do you think today’s Turkey reflects this potential?

We are at a political, social, cultural and philosophical turning point. It is more evident today than before because Turkey is emerging from being a closed, inward-looking country. It is trying to become influential worldwide not only from an economic point of view but also from the view of cultural perception. We have started to think more in universal terms. This universal thinking has a moral-conscientious dimension, as well as a political-economic dimension. Can we succeed? We are going in the right direction if this process is well managed. There is an opportunity to mobilize the potential of our cultural legacy which has been unused so far.

Why were we unable to make the most of that cultural legacy?

In the process of Westernization, we had a sectarian view – an approach that said ‘my recipe is the right one.’ All intellectual work needs to be in interaction with other intellectual works. Yet the least amount of dialogue was in our intellectual world. We can think we are very modernist and very positivist and be convinced that we have a recipe that fits with the contemporary realities. But if you are closed to the outside, [especially] those views that are contrary to yours, then your intellectual work is doomed to dry up.

Turkish intellectuals were not able to comprehend the cultural legacy of the society in which they lived. They became prisoners of a conceptual world; I don’t claim it was the wrong world, but they should have harmonized it with the cultural legacy from which it came. They should have created a language with which they could have talked with the people. They did not do that. This was the greatest problem of Ottoman and Republican intellectuals during the period of Westernization.

What you mean is that because intellectuals believed Islam was the reason why we remained backward compared to the West, they turned their backs on religion.

They looked down on it. This attitude not only made them alien to their own people and isolated them, but larger sections of the people were deprived of [their intellectual contribution], too. The intellectuals could have made an intellectual analysis of the religious values which were endorsed by the people and could have opened the way for renewal. They could have thought about what religious living should be like in today’s world. There is no clergy in Islam. The Vatican made many changes in the 1960s on several issues like religious worship. [In our case], the intellectuals are the ones who do these [changes]. They distanced themselves from the religious dimension of the local culture and deprived us of a renewal process. Their contempt created the problem of dignity. People said, ‘I am here in this country with my values and I fought for this country. Why don’t the intellectuals comprehend my language?’

What is the reflection of this situation in today’s Turkey?

The absence of a bond between religion that is practiced and intellectuals is the fundamental reason why the required rejuvenation in religious living in Turkey did not take place. Otherwise, today we could have a contemporary outlook as Muslims. What would be our outlook on works concerning bioethics? The Catholic world has a view on that issue. What should be the Islamic view on human rights, et cetera?

But what about Turkey, where religiosity has been on the rise, as has been the case worldwide?

It seems that the positivist and materialist theories of the 20th century were not satisfactory. The Western world experienced a spiritual crisis and looked for something new. The first place you look is those institutions you have forgotten. But in the Muslim world there is something additional. The rise in religiosity can also be explained by a view that says: ‘I want to learn my own values. I don’t want to think within the Western format.’

There is also a political dimension as seen in the Muslim world, from the Taliban to al-Qaeda, which entails a counter-positioning against political imperialism and a resistance to cultural imperialism. The rise in religiosity in the Western world could remain limited to the spiritual dimension. In the Islamic world, the issue gains political characteristics and from that point on, because of the failure to properly develop the cultural legacy of the past, the solution is found in resorting to arms. It takes up arms in the name of fighting cultural and political imperialism. This is also another consequence of the absence of critical thinking in the domain of religion and intellectuals turning their back on this domain.

How should we proceed then? We are best-placed to do that. We have for better or for worse completed the synthesis as we have lived with the Western world. Our encounter with democracy has been difficult but efficient. If we are to make a critique using a universal language, it is Turkey that is the closest to doing this in the Muslim world.

Put simply, how would you summarize what needs to be done?

We are trying to define the stance of a contemporary Muslim with a universal horizon. We are trying to define Muslim modernity. We need to raise awareness of the fact that a Muslim has a place in the modernization process.

Where can we start? First, we need to start by asking where we made mistakes. We have to make a critique of political and ideological Islam, because we need to bring the religious experience to the forefront on behalf of Islam. We need to take bring to the forefront what the Muslim says with ‘This is what I, as a Muslim, live.’ This should not be reduced to politics. An analysis of political/ideological Islam would open another door; this would permit a perception of Islam from the viewpoint of ethical values. The concept used by Islam is the virtue of justice which is not possessed by any country or political view and which is above legislative or executive powers.

As Muslims of the present day, we need to have a rejuvenated look at what these virtues we see in religion can contribute to the contemporary historical and universal flow. If you are operating from an ethical point of view in the Islamic approach, then we begin an individual effort as ourselves. This entails an effort as a Muslim to define what being a human means. Where can we start? One point is the effort to understand the ‘other’ – how can we form a world with the other? This is, in my view, the essential philosophy. If the other is at the same time a ‘pious other,’ be it a Buddhist, Jew or Christian, then how should we communicate, how can I establish a relationship between his religiosity and mine? This brings me to ethics among religions, which is an area in which I work. This is a philosophical area we find ourselves in when we wonder about Islamic ethics. This is about defining the essential principle of living together. This is an area that comes up when I wonder about issues such as rising religiosity in Turkey.

What is your outlook on religiosity in Turkey?

If there is rising religiosity, we have to put three question marks and six exclamation marks next to it. Is it just in form? Is it the effort to adopt the traditions of our villages to urban life? Is it about restricting ourselves to certain categories and avoiding seeing the other? Is it to say I am above all and create new imperialisms? We need to question all these issues.

What do you think about the West’s fear of Islamists coming to power due to the Arab Spring?

I was expecting the fear would be much greater but it is not actually. First, the West realized that they could not truly understand the Islamic world with their own categorizations and understood that it could really see the internal dynamics. So maybe they are in a wait-and-see period.

Second, Turkey is a very good example. The image that is reflected abroad as the Muslim/democracy synthesis has provided a good example.

Who is Kenan Gürsoy?

Professor Kenan Gürsoy is Turkey’s ambassador to Vatican. A graduate of Rennes University and Paris Sorbonne University, Gürsoy has worked intensely on Turkish Sufism, existential philosophy, phenomenology, ethics and comparative religious

ethics. After working at Erzurum’s Atatürk University and Ankara’s Language, History and Geography Faculty, he moved to Istanbul in 1997 and became part of the academic staff of Galatasaray University, where he served as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences between 2000 and 2009. 

Gürsoy was appointed as envoy to the Vatican in 2009. Among his books and publications are “Ethics and Sufism,” “The problems Jean Paul Sartre’s atheism has created,” “Do we have a universal project?” and “Do we have a philosophical tradition?” Gürsoy also anchored a TV program between 2005 and 2009.