FaithWorld

Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.

Gül and Erdogan started their careers as Islamists critical of secularism, but along the way came to see secularism as the best guarantee of more rights for Muslims. The secular system, they found, pledges to respect individual rights — the problem was that the rigid army-guided secularism of Kemalist Turkey did not allow them. One shorthand way of describing these ex-Islamists is “Muslim Democrats” analogous to the Christian Democrats of post-war Western Europe. Their stress is much more on promoting Muslim values than imposing Muslim laws. This is an important turn in political thinking in the Muslim world. If Turkey continues along the road it’s on, it could become easier to answer the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy.

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in the old city of Istanbul, June 5, 2007De Bellaigue’s “Turkey at the Turning Point?” gives a useful overview of the evolution of the AK party which he says “gives grounds for hope. It is possible that an Islamist movement with a history of intolerance and bigotry will succeed in transforming Turkish politics along genuinely democratic lines”.

A visit to an Armenian church in Islamic Iran

Iran’s Black Church stands near Chaldoran, 650 km (404 miles) northwest of Tehran The rest of the world often forgets that there are Christian churches dotted across the Muslim world and some of those communities date back to the earliest years of the faith. Fredrik Dahl and Reza Derakhshi from our Tehran bureau recently visited a remote medieval outpost of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their report says:

The last priest left the Black Church more than half a century ago and now the picture on the wall of a former monk’s cell is of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, not Jesus.

But Iran says this medieval Armenian Christian retreat in a mountainous region close to Turkey and Armenia shows it is observing the rights of other faiths.

Ball in Vatican’s court after Muslim dialogue appeal

Pope Benedict prays with Muslim clerics in IstanbulAn unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).

The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.

The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.