Listening to Turks explain Turkey’s Islamic reform plan

March 1, 2008

Internet logo of Diyanet, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Department

Still confused about Turkey’s plan to review the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and reclassify the sexist and superstitious ones as unauthentic? Unsure whether this is a revolution, a reform or a revision of Islam? I gave my take on it here yesterday, but I’ve since found two explanations that shed a lot more light on what’s going on. The better of the two is a column in today’s Turkish Daily News by Mustafa Akyol, a young Istanbul journalist with a knack for explaining Turkish Islam clearly. I won’t summarise it — just go read it, it’s not long.

IslamOnline did a good job on this, too, in an interview that gave Mehmet Görmez, deputy head of Diyanet (the government’s religious affairs department shown in the logo above) more space than he got in other reports to explain what’s being done.

MinaretMinaretAkyol and Görmez both make an important point. Many Western journalists approach Islam from a starting point vaguely based on Christianity (hence the misguided quest for an “Islamic Reformation”). They don’t have to be Christians or believers or even know much about Christianity to do this; it’s as much a part of our cultural baggage as our native languages. Conversely, Muslims approach Christianity from a square one closely linked to Islam, their primary religious reference. Nobody starts out tabula rasa in this exercise. The gap can be bridged, but to do this we have to report what is actually happening, rather than just what we think is going on. Listening to these two Turks is a good place to start.

Akyol says of the Koran: “Westerners who haven’t read this book generally assume that it must be something like the New Testament – i.e., a book which reports the life and works of the religion’s founder. Yet that is not the case at all. The Koran actually hardly speaks about Prophet Mohammed. It rather speaks to him.”

Görmez says:The Western media have read what we are doing from a Christian perspective and understood it in line with their Christian and Western cultures.”

Diyanet made the same point in more official jargon in a communique it put out on Friday.

The headscarf issue and this hadith story have put a spotlight on Turkey and that’s a good thing, even if there are misunderstandings. Islam has many faces — just look at these recent Reuters stories and blog posts from Malaysia, Lebanon, India, United States and France — and the Saudi version is not the only one around. Turkey is at the cutting edge of some important trends in contemporary Islam. Bookmarking Akyol’s blog The White Path is a good way to keep up with what’s happening there.

Internet logo for Mustafa Akyol’s blot The White Path

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