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Turkish religious thinker ponders future of Islam

Turkey’s veteran religious thinker Levent Gultekin may have a solution for both Islamophobia and Islamic extremism.
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Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he argued that Islam would be the panacea to Turkey’s ills. As a writer, publisher and media executive, he helped his fellow Islamists gain power to right past wrongs. Today, however, he has given up on them. He is disappointed in what his country has become and he is disheartened by his fellow Muslims’ failure to adhere to the Quranic notions of humility, honesty and justice.

Meet Levent Gultekin. His latest writings and interview with Al-Monitor offer simple yet effective ideas to a world plagued with Islamophobia and Islamic extremism.

Gultekin started his career as a journalist in 1994 with Turkey’s leading Islamist newspaper, Yeni Safak. In 2000, he established Gercek Hayat (Real Life) magazine, which enjoyed a respectable following among Turkey’s religious youth. A few years later, Gultekin became vice president of one of Turkey’s largest pro-government newspapers, Star. He resigned from that position in 2009 and wrote columns under the moniker “Acik Cenk” (Open War). Throughout this journey, Gultekin sought ways in which pious Muslims could improve their societies and governments in Turkey and elsewhere.

What makes Gultekin such a fascinating figure is that he foresaw the problems with political Islam in Turkey before the outbreak of hostilities between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their former allies, the “Hizmet” movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen. In 2012, Gultekin began to criticize the two sides for being more interested in taking over the reins of state rather than addressing Turkey’s fundamental problems with freedom, justice and democracy. In 2013, he took to task the Erdogan government and the pro-Gulen press for supporting the extremists in the Syrian civil war.

In an article on Dec. 28, Gultekin went beyond the Erdogan-Gulen acrimony and raised a more basic question: Why have Muslims failed so spectacularly for 1,400 years to establish just, prosperous and peaceful societies? In the article, Gultekin challenged those Muslims who fall back on the tired excuse of “but this isn’t real Islam” when confronted with extremist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “Which one is real Islam?” he asked, and lamented how “as people’s religiosity increased [in recent years], so have their sinfulness.”

“The problem,” Gultekin said, was not Islam but “our inability to understand the religion in the context of the 21st century.” And he warned, “Unless we find a way out, we will destroy ourselves.”

I asked Gultekin to expand on those themes in an interview for Al-Monitor. He argued that pious folks’ frustration with the corruption and power-mania among Turkey’s “devout mighty” is widespread. He said, “Given my connections in pious neighborhoods, I have concluded that there is a prevailing sense of disappointment [and] doubt about religion.” He said this disappointment was related in religion’s failure to address social, political and economic ills. “Religions are meant to organize societies around a particular faith; it imposes moral standards on society.”

“Islam never practiced what it preached,” he said. The only exception, he argued, occurred for a short period under the second caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab (634-644), who he said achieved social peace and good governance by ignoring the most draconian elements of the Quran. When Islam mixed with politics and dynastic disputes later on under “Ali, Aisha, Uthman, [t]he Umayyads, the Ottomans, etc., [it] lost its purpose.”

For Gultekin, the parallels with present-day Turkey are unmistakable. “Take Fethullah Gulen,” he said. “He studied the Quran for 40 years, read the hadiths and was cultivated in Islamic manners, yet that did not stop him from committing injustice against other people. Or [take] Tayyip Erdogan. He was raised with Islamic discipline for 40 years — on values such as haram, halal, fear of God — but we can all see where that has taken him. Now people ask, ‘If religion cannot make these men honest and moral, how is it going to [help] us?’”

“So, do you think ascending to power has stained the Islamist movement?” I asked. Gultekin corrected me, saying, “Gaining power has not stained Islamism — it has destroyed Islamism. Islamism has nothing to give to society anymore because Islamists have nothing left to say.”

Gultekin is reluctant to prescribe solutions (a rare trait among most Turkish intellectuals) because he is “not a theologian or a religious scholar.” He said, “A solution cannot come from the suggestions of one person — I aim to open up the debate. The more people raise questions and debate, the quicker this issue will be resolved.”

While respecting his reluctance to impose a prescription, I urged Gultekin to explain for Al-Monitor what he had in mind. He proposed that, because principles such as morals, honesty, justice, equality and freedom are universal (and the basis of virtually all religions, including Islam), “religious issues that fall outside the scope of those principles should cease to act as a focal point for society.” Gultekin apparently wants those principles, “which are at the core of Islam anyway” to become the secular foundations for all Muslim societies, so that such societies could embrace believers and nonbelievers alike. He said, “What Christianity experienced in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries, Islam and Muslims shall experience now and in the future.” This embrace of secularism by someone who spent most of his life confronting the excesses of Turkey’s secular nationalists is remarkable.

Much has been said about the relationship between Islam, political Islam and extremism in recent years, and especially in the wake of the brutal attacks in Paris last week. Amid the tried and tired dispute over whether Islamophobia breeds Islamic extremism or vice versa, paying attention to Gultekin and his defense of universal values would be a good way to end those two great ills.

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