FaithWorld

Turkey says journalists just don’t understand hadith project

Hadith of Sahih al-BukhariThe more outside attention Turkey’s project to purge Islam’s hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammad) of sexism and superstition gets, the more the religious authorities insist it is being misunderstood. Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate, insisted this was not a reform of Islam when the project was presented as just that in western media early this year. His deputy Mehmet Görmez gave us a long interview in March to explain that Turkey was updating its way of understanding the hadith, but not the religion itself. They explain this all in detail, but the message still doesn’t seem to come out that way at the other end.

Bardakoglu felt obliged this week to explain the project once again. He didn’t mention it, but he may have been prompted by the latest write-up, this time a Newsweek article entitled “The New Face of Islam — A critique of radicalism is building within the heart of the Muslim world.”

Ali Bardakoglu, 23 Nov. 2006/Umit Bektas“Even though we have consistently emphasised that our work on hadiths is definitely not a reform of the religion, every time we speak to journalists, some people are still trying to put words in our mouths,” Bardakoglu told the Istanbul daily Zaman on Wednesday. The purpose of the project was “to form a collection of hadiths by classifying the authentic sayings of our Prophet into subjects to benefit more from them in our daily lives and to make them our guide.”

OK, journalists aren’t scriptural scholars, especially when they come from a different religious background from the one in question. But when is a reform not a reform? Why does this project seem to be so misunderstood in the western media (which seems to be the target of this criticism)? Is there something about Islam that foreign journalists don’t understand that means something like this is not considered a reform when it looks like one to them?

Is Turkey facing Khomeini-style return of Islamic leader?

A poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 4 June 2001/Damir SagoljIs Turkey heading towards a Khomeini-style return of its most influential Islamic leader? Turkish media asked the question today after the Court of Appeals upheld the acquittal of Fethullah Gülen on charges of plotting to establish shariah law in the officially secular state. Gülen, who lives in the United States, has millions of followers in Turkey and abroad who support his modern and moderate form of Islam and the schools and media he has set up to propagate it. This week, he came out on top of a Foreign Policy magazine poll of the world’s leading public intellectuals. That was an Internet survey, so it can’t be considered scientific, but the flood of votes for him is a rough indicator of wide and/or well-organised support.

“After the last verdict, there are two questions to be asked: Is Gülen going to come back to Turkey? If he does, it is going to be a Khomeini-style homecoming?” the centre-right daily Aksam asked. Hürriyet, a popular nationalist daily, hinted at a return in a report saying that his U.S. green card appeal had been rejected and he had one month to leave the country.

It’s an interesting thought, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll come back. The secularist establishment, including high-ranking army generals and intellectuals, still suspect him of trying to destroy the secular state. Just because he’s been acquitted in this case doesn’t mean another couldn’t be brought against him.

Harun Yahya preaches Islam, slams Darwin and awaits Jesus

Adnan Oktar, 21 May 2008/Osman OrsalIn the two years I’ve been writing about the Turkish Muslim creationist Harun Yahya , we’ve had to use adjectives like “reclusive” or “mysterious” to describe Adnan Oktar (his real name). The head of one of the Muslim world’s biggest publishing outfits rarely talked to the media. But he has begun speaking out more in public recently. We took the opportunity to interview him and here is my feature — Muslim creationist preaches Islam and awaits Christ.

We met at a richly decorated house in a gated community in Çengelköy, a residential area on the Asian side of Istanbul. It wasn’t his home or headquarters but apparently a meeting place for his group. Oktar, who spoke in Turkish through an interpreter, provided no surprises. One of my questions was whether he planned another huge project like the Atlas of Creation that was mass-mailed around Europe, but he said no. He also kept his cards close to his chest about his publishing houses’ finances, another issue since the Atlas giveaway.

Atlas of CreationWhat was interesting, though, was the way he explained the Atlas campaign as part of his Muslim vision of the end times. Several Turks have told me they suspect he considers himself the Mahdi, the Muslim saviour who comes at the end of time to fight with Jesus against evil and establish Islam as the only world religion. He denied this, but it a way vague enough that his supporters might still believe it. Whatever it is, he sees some role for himself in the end times, which he said will come in the next 20 to 25 years.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today… and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.

“A look at the participants in the final round of the European football championship in Switzerland and Austria suggests this,” kath.net writes in a report from Vienna. “In seven of the 16 participating countries, Catholics are clearly in the majority: Poland (95 percent of the population), Spain (92 percent), Italy (90 percent), Portugal (90 percent), Croatia (77 percent), Austria (69 percent ) and France (51 percent). Only one Protestant stronghold confronts them, Sweden. Of the 8.8 million inhabitants of the northern European country, 80 percent are Lutherans.”

Poland’s team with coach Leo Beenhakker (C) attends Mass in Bad Waltersdorf, 6 June 2008/stringerThere’s no hint of analysis of why this should be relevant, or mention of the personal faith — or lack thereof — of the players on these national teams. This purely statistical view (sports fans love stats, don’t they?) goes on to point out which participating countries have large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants (Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands).

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:- Ensure a moderate head of a prestigious mosque headed the CFCM rather than the supposed “radicals” of the Union of French Muslim Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Work closely with Algeria, which supports the Grand Mosque and its network, the main mosque network for Algerian Muslims in France.

The Grand Mosque network came in third in the 2003 and 2005 elections, so the UOIF and the Moroccan mosques — first represented by the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF) and now the RMF — had serious problems with this interference. Although Sarkozy is now president, it seems he did not bring the same priorities into the Elysée Palace. The current approach shows less worry about the UOIF, which is not really all that “radical” after all, and a tilt towards Morocco. Press reports say Rabat has also become more interested in influencing its emigrants in Europe after Moroccans were implicated in the Theo van Gogh murder and the Madrid train bombings. Anyway, back to the CFCM elections. Once Boubakeur pulled out of the race in supposed protest against the voting mechanism accepted in the two earlier elections, the vote was free for the winners to be the group that actually won the most votes. The Moroccans came in a strong first at 43.2 percent, far ahead of the UOIF at 30.2 percent. This satisfied the Moroccans and smaller groups that will probably ally with them, but left the UOIF very dissatisfied. Now it is clear they are stuck in second place and they don’t like that. So they’re calling for a rotating presidency to let them get the top job some day. Rhone-Alpes CRCM chairman Azzedine GaciJudging from what RMF President Anouar Kbibech said after the results were in (RFI audio here in French), the RMF plans to actually tackle practical problems for Muslims in France. The regional council (CRCM) in Rhône-Alpes, the region in and around Lyon, showed up the national council by producing a 74-page report on its progresson such practical issues over the past three years. The pragmatic regional leader there, Azzedine Gaci (picture at left), has set a high standard for the new boys in Paris to meet. One of the first would be to set up their own website … One fly in the ointment is that the election confirmed the influence of what the French call “consular Islam” — the influence that the so-called countries of origin have on French Muslims. The switch in leadership from the Paris Grand Mosque to the RMF also means a shift in influence from Algeria to Morocco. Turkey has a similar link to ethnic Turks in France, but they are a smaller group (12.7 percent in the election). For all the government’s talk of creating an Islam de France, it persists in fostering this consular Islam.When it was launched, the CFCM aroused interest around Europe because it seemed to be the most developed form of official representation for Islam in a European country. It looked like some kind of answer to the question ‘who speaks for Islam?’ But its immobility over the years made it drop off the radar screen.Representatives attend the ‘Conference on Islam’ in Berlin, 2 May 2007/Tobias SchwarzThere are a mixed bag of efforts to create or maintain Muslim councils in other countries, such as the “Islam Conference” in Berlin pictured at right. Here’s a roundup of them by H. A. Hellyer. Each country has a different approach and there doesn’t seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution.How do you think a Muslim council in a European country should be organised?

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasI’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).

I’ll get back to this issue in a later post.

In the meantime, feel free to post questions in the comments box and I’ll try to answer them.

Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen – threat or benefactor?

Fatih College in Istanbul, run by Gülen followers, 16 April 2008/Osman OrsalPerhaps the most influential Islamic leader that most non-Muslims have never heard of is a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gülen. Now living in the United States, he stands at the head of a broad movement that runs schools in Turkey and abroad as well as businesses and a publishing empire. His group also actively conducts dialogue with other religions. His supporters praise him as an important modern and moderate Muslim thinker, but some people in Turkey suspect he is trying to infiltrate the secular state there.

Alexandra Hudson, an Amsterdam staffer who was recently on secondment to Istanbul, has written a feature about the Gülen movement — you can read it here.

Gülen has an extensive website (in English and other languages) with his writings, videos and articles from conferences about his movement. The New York Times has also done an article on his movement recently, about its work running schools in Pakistan.

Turkey’s Alevis fight back against Sunni religion lessons

An Alevi girl dance during a prayer service in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.

Turkey’s Alevis, some 15-25 million whose faith is rooted in Islam but mixed with other traditions including ….shamanism, form the country’s leargest religious minority but they have never been recognised as a formal religion. This means they can be lumped together with Sunni Muslims, as a recent court case about the mandatory religion classes in state schools showed. The classes, taught in all primary schools, serve as an instruction guide to being Muslim, with topics ranging from how to pray in a mosque to fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Alevis dance during a prayer in a Cem house in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Alevi Hatice Kose took the education ministry to court to win permission to pull her son out of the classes and change the curriculum to include information about Alevis. She won the case, but the government has said it has no power to change the classes, which it says are protected in Turkey’s constitution.

Harun Yahya’s Islamic creationist book pops up in Scotland

Atlas of CreationRemember Harun Yahya’s Atlas of Creation, the lavishly illustrated Islamic creationist book that first turned up in Turkey, then France and other European countries and prompted a disapproving resolution by the Council of Europe? It’s now being mailed to universities in Scotland, the Sunday Herald there reports:

“I find it quite staggering,” said Aubrey Manning, emeritus professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh. He houses his seven copies in a cupboard in the zoology department’s staff room. “Every academic I know says they’ve got one of those. And it’s peddling an absolute, downright lie…”

According to Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in the US who has written several books on Islam and science, Oktar is “the leader of a small religious sect and an art school drop-out.”