My Canadian friend, who believes in God but not organized religion, asked me a good question the other day; “In the Qur’an God is described as merciful and forgiving, so why are Muslim countries so violent and intolerant?” Her question is being asked often by many people nowadays.
It’s very unfortunate Muslims today are unable to portray a good example of the humanitarian behaviors, practices and beliefs of our religion. Looking to the past, Islamic civilization was rich in showing respect for learning and discovery of knowledge, asceticism, and communitarianism.
Many people, like my friend, looking for good examples of a contemporary Muslim society with political order and justice. The irony is that in through the times in the history of Islam there have been many examples, but today there are none.
In our age the masses are moving away from institutionalized religion and shifting towards more radical and fundamentalist religious or mystical new age forms.
The Qur’an, the last holy book revealed by God, includes strong proposals for institutions for humankind that followed the Old Testament. All the Abrahamic religions have essential rules such as restrictions on killing, on substances that change one’s state of mind, adultery, and on interest. For example, the followers of Christianity and Judaism had their own Sharia, the rules of religion in life. Basically, Sharia provides the literal rules; such as security of religion, and keeps children within marriage, spirituality, peace of mind, safety of person and property.
After the death of the prophet there was a bloody power struggle amongst some of his colleagues, which lasted longer than one lifetime (100 years). From this case was conceived the sectarian split that we still feel today in politics and theology. The consequence of this split continues with the violent sectarian conflicts, but they have further split along political and ideological lines. In Muslim lands we need to ask ourselves why there is a fight over which Islam is the right one, since there is only one.
It is too facile to look at today’s events to grasp an understanding of Islam. During the middle ages, Christianity was dark, cold and brutal. At the same time the Islamic civilization of Andalusia was wealthy, aesthetically centered, and thriving. In fact it was the first place in Europe to nurture free-thinking, individualism and the democratic idea.
There are many fine examples of the humanitarian, knowledgeable and creative aspects of Islam other than the implosive self-destructive one we see today. And it is people’s duty to reach back to that history to renew that knowledge.
Islamic hegemony lasted through to the age of European enlightenment. These ideas were not original but emerged out of ancient Egypt and Greece, spreading into Europe at the hands of the crusaders who were returning from their sack of Constantinople and Jerusalem. It grew from questions about the ındividual’s place in the universe.
Islamic and enlightenment ideas are polar opposites. For example, to answer the question of man’s place in the cosmos for the former is to know God, for the latter it is to know oneself. With Islamic mysticism when you look to the cosmos you see traces of God. In enlightenment when you look in the cosmos you see yourself. Another important difference is the meaning of freedom. In Islam freedom is the self-awareness to control your ambitions and instincts given by God. This provides a wide range of freedoms within these confines. On the other hand, secular enlightenment philosophy says human beings change their environment within ethical rules and proclaimed freedom of individual from Church, but the question is letting human nature roam free beneficial for humanity?
The age of the industrial revolution evolved from enlightenment thinking, leading to colonialism followed by globalization. Europe and the United States have dominated these two ages.
When the caliphate (the equivalent to the papacy) fell with the collapse of Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world floundered. Ever since this sudden collapse a new system has been trying to find its way, but unfortunately the countries which were founded in these territories were not founded on democracy but despotism.
These new administrators exploited the people’s natural resources in collaboration with western powers. Even so, people tried to protect their traditions and values. The intellectuals and traditionalists of these countries were against western colonialism but were unable to create a new paradigm that went beyond the views of the western concept of democracy and human rights.
Western interference in economics, politics, and military both directly and indirectly has caused an extreme distortion of society and interpretation of Islam. Groups that emerged as result turned towards a new form of radicalism and conformity shrunk inwards and became defensive and opportunistic.
The region was shaken following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Afghan War, the Western War on Terror, involvement in Iraq, and lastly the Arab Spring. All these developments have led to leadership change from the era of tyrants to the period of unknown. It’s clear that the global spread of radicalization and hate within the Islamic world was ignited by these interventions in the Middle East.
Though administrators in Egypt (Mursi), Indonesia, and other similar countries were selected in a democratic way, they have not succeeded with regards to corruption and justice. So-called “defending Islam” policies became more like an ideology that equates building projects and money with power. Whenever an Islamic political group gains power they defend not human rights but the development of their ideology. This opens the gates to legitimatizing fundamentalist behavior and these groups emerge.
Today the young generation constitutes the majority in the Muslim world though millions are scattered because of war and migration. Most of these people want security and justice over welfare. They see it as inevitable that they will be able to participate in a democracy similar to western countries and so their aim is to immigrate there. They think the values of democracy, human rights and press freedoms can only be achieved in the west, so they risk their and their families lives to reach that goal.
Many Muslims see that only the developed democratic countries can provide the combination of a religious education, the rights and freedoms of a constitutional democracy protected by the judiciary, personal safety and security, and freedom to pray.
Although presently there are some democracy problems in Turkey, it is seen as a freer and more modern country by neighboring Muslims.
Even though some Islamic clerics declare the democratic idea as infidel but they aren’t able to offer an alternative. A well respected cleric and scholar once said that democracy is like the swimmer who never reaches the shores of Islam.
It’s debated amongst İslamic pundits and clerics whether the democratic idea fits our beliefs and holy sources. But we don’t need to discuss this. What is necessary is to go beyond the scope of this debate and look at creating a new paradigm for all humankind but for now we need a pluralist democratic system.
Islamic politicians, clerics and pundits with their ethic and intellectual structure are necessary. However, the problem is that Islamic politicians of our day with their current way of thinking and perceptions of reality do not seem to be much promising to offer a new paradigm for the humanity. That’s why we clearly need a pluralist democratic system.
Muslim politicians should acknowledge the reality that they won’t be able to bring about Islamic order in a secular society.
Instead they should focus instead on serving Islamic values in a secular socıety.
Written by A. Tarık Çelenk
Edited by Stephanie J Coe