Islamism in Turkey is a poor emulation of what Che Guevara did in his time, according to columnist Ali Ünal, who has recently come under the spotlight for his analyses following a major graft investigation involving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's inner circle.
Ünal states that Islamists feel they have to be anti-US, anti-Israel and anti-Russia, an approach he says cannot be a true manifestation of Islam, explaining: “Islam is based on its own values. A Muslim considers Islam in his actions; he does not identify himself by his enemies and opponents. This is a destructive approach. It is a reflection of an inability to follow Islamic precepts in daily life."
Prime Minister Erdoğan targeted Ünal following a column in which he stated his belief that a disastrous mining accident on May 13 in the town of Soma in Manisa province that killed 301 miners had been caused by the recent mistakes of both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and its voters. However, Ünal has criticized the AK Party harshly ever since Dec. 17, 2013, when several businessmen close to the government and the sons of three ministers were detained in a graft investigation that has resulted in the four ministers' resignations.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has accused the Hizmet movement of being behind the graft investigation, claiming that the allegations are part of a plot to overthrow the government. In an interview with Sunday's Zaman, Ünal explained what has changed over the past 12 years and the reasons behind his growing criticism of the government in recent times.
Spending his youth studying in Iran after the revolution and helping Iranian revolutionary ideas spread in Turkey through his translations from Persian, Ünal also explained how and why his views changed after seeing the inside face of the revolution.
The prime minister referred to your column on the Soma mine disaster at a party group meeting. Was your column misunderstood?
My column was clear. In the human world, fate does not rule. If God does not create, nothing will exist just because of man's will and power. God says in the Qur'an, “And do not incline toward those who do wrong, lest you be touched by the Fire." (11:113) Abdülkadir Selvi argues that a professor said this verse had been revealed in the Meccan period [i.e., before the Prophet Muhammad's migration to Medina] and that it refers to the unbelievers. The Qur'an does not refer to wrongdoers; instead, it refers to those who do wrong. In other words, this verse states that whoever does wrong and whoever shows an inclination towards those who do wrong, they will be touched by the Fire.
This explanation is also made by Elmalılı (Muhammed Hamdi Yazır), Zemahşeri, Beyzavi, Sayyid Qutb and al-Qurtubi, as well as the Iranian [Mohammad Husayn] Tabatabai. So they are distorting what I wrote in my column. Let us say that they are doing this; but why are they distorting the Qur'an? I am saying that if you are opposed to what I quoted from the Qur'an, then this means you believe the Qur'an is wrong. Selvi responded by arguing that I was the one who believes the Qur'an is wrong. This is a shame.
The prime minister voiced the opposite of what I had said and argued that I had written something that I actually had not. And he insulted me further. And Ahmet Taşgetiren criticized me and my effort to refer to the Qur'an and interpret developments based on this reference as doing archeological work on the Qur'an. So according to Taşgetiren, the Qur'an and the stories narrated in it are just archeological material. They are not aware of the repercussions their writings hold, but only defend the mistakes of the government.
So there is a distortion of the facts?
They have been telling and writing so many lies since Dec. 17. The Qur'an narrates that Iblis (Satan) told God: “Then, by Thy power, I will put them all in the wrong. Except Thy Servants amongst them, sincere and purified (by Thy Grace).” The famous Islamic scholar Fahruddin Razi says in his work on this verse, “Because he is aware that he will not put all in the wrong, he made an exception in his vow (Servants amongst them, sincere and purified) to remain a truth-teller.” A lie is something even Satan is ashamed of. Therefore, a Muslim cannot rely on lies. So even Iblis must be ashamed of the lies being told since Dec. 17.
So are natural disasters caused by sinful acts?
The Qur'an clearly states that any evil that happens is because of your acts. God says that He does not wrong the people, but they wrong themselves. A sinful act is not something that contradicts the precepts of religion alone. Compliance with the rules and principles enshrined in the operation of daily life by God also matters. What needs to be done should be considered carefully. We cannot possibly say that the victims of the Soma disaster deserved what happened to them. On the contrary, God does not distinguish between the oppressors and the oppressed in such general disasters. This is what a test requires.
The victims in these disasters are considered martyrs in our religion. In this period, the prime minister has cited a lot from Bediüzzaman (Said Nursi). Let me refer to two criteria of his: “If the administrators were responsible, those who acted unlawfully would cause serious harm and destruction to the ordinary people and to the country. They would cause general disasters including earthquakes, droughts, pandemics and hurricanes.” Also: “A general slap of wrath is caused by the mistakes of the majority; and most people join in the mistakes and acts of the wrongdoers by justifying or endorsing their acts, thereby contributing to the disaster.”
The anti-government style and opposition in your columns have become more visible after Dec. 17. But you had been criticizing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) before. What is the main reason for your opposition?
Some readers who are apparently pro-AKP ask why I had not criticized the AKP for 12 years. First, the AKP in the period from 2002 to 2010 is not the same AKP in the period from 2010 to 2014. Secondly, I have always criticized the policies of the AKP that I believed were wrong, and I never unconditionally praised the AKP. And I clearly stated my reservations. First, I have been distant towards the AKP administration, and I did not vote for this party in the first two elections. I did not vote for this party because I was concerned that it would make major compromises to the Islamic lifestyle compared to the right-wing parties, and I was right. There has been a huge ethical and moral erosion and corruption during the AKP's terms in office.
Secondly, I was also concerned that the AKP administration was involved in the US-led Greater Middle East Project. And it turns out that I was right in this matter as well. The prime minister sometimes dismisses the allegation that he has been involved in the Greater Middle East Project. However, in a group meeting, he declared: “We are serving as co-chair in the Greater Middle East Project of the US. We have a duty in this plan.” This is a plan that seeks to divide the Muslim world and convert the Muslims to Protestantism.
You make this argument, but some argue that people are paying greater attention to religion and have become more religious in recent times.
I have written many columns in which I argue that we are not becoming religious and that our approach to religion is becoming corrupt. It was once argued that 80 percent of the people attend Friday prayers. That is not possible! Friday prayers are a duty assigned to men; half of the population are women. They said it was 80 percent of men. That is impossible; there is no need to carry out a survey. Friday prayers are performed in mosques. Count the men praying inside a mosque and the men outside during Friday prayer time. This is a simple and precise survey. The Turks have not become religious over the last decade. The opposite is the case.
Is religion an oppositional ideology in Islamism, which arguably serves as the basis of the current administration?
Islamism focuses on the creation of an Islamic state. The AKP emerged on the basis of the same approach. This attitude seeks to control the state and politics, not religion. They believe that the problem will be solved when the state is seized. However, the Qur'an places an emphasis on inner change first: "God does not change the condition of a people until they change themselves." This hadith presents the case succinctly. You are governed by what you deserve. When the problem is framed in reference to politics, religion is inevitably made an opposition ideology.
Another Islamist argument is that Turkey is the abode of war. This means that an Islamist needs to wage war to make Turkey the abode of Islam. Islamism is a poor emulation of Che Guevara in Turkey. I noticed admiration among young Islamists for Che Guevara before 1980. They were Islamist revolutionaries, and what they criticized most fiercely were religious communities that they viewed as supporters of the US. Aren't they doing the same now? They do not have a strong and active line of Islam, and they judge by their opposition. Are you against the US, Israel or Russia? Islam is based on its own values. A Muslim considers Islam in his actions; he does not identify himself by means of his enemies and opponents. This is a destructive approach. It is reflection of an inability to follow Islamic precepts in daily life.
Is this the main reason for the rigidity of Islamic ideology?
Ideologies are usually rigid. When religion is made into an ideology, particularly an oppositional ideology, this leads to anarchy and even terrorism in the name of the religion. Shiism and Kharijism are the most obvious examples of this in history. They are opposite in theory, but in practice they lead to similar repercussions. Both have survived through their strong opposition to the Sunni majority, and they have never served the spread of the Islamic message. Shiism still exists physically. Kharijism is not existent as a separate sect or branch of Islam. However, we can argue that it has been resurrected in the present time in Islamism, as an attitude. In many respects, Islamism is neo-Kharijism.
The Shia have struggled with the Muslim majority for their whole history. Are their extensions in Turkey doing the same now?
More than that. Those who became Shia later are harsher.
How did you become knowledgeable on Iran?
Not Iran, but I know the Shia very well. I have followed the Iranian revolution since 1978. I am one of the people who are chiefly responsible for the spread of a pro-Iranian stance and Islamism in Turkey, because of my translations. I worked as a staff member in the Iranian Consulate. I used to stay at the office after work to prepare a six- to seven-page bulletin every day. Back then, we had 1,000 subscribers. I used to read all the English papers in the consulate. In 1982, I also traveled to Iran as an observer at an international meeting. I know the revolution and the internal politics of Iran. But thank God I realized the truth was different.
Is there an Iranian threat in Turkey? Or is it just paranoia?
There is a serious Iranian threat. Unfortunately, we were only able to see this in the leaked recordings after the Dec. 17 process and the indictments of the prosecutors investigating the Tevhid-Selam organization. The recordings reveal how Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rejected a scheduled visit by Energy Minister Taner Yıldız to northern Iraq in 2012 and late 2013; we realize the gravity of this problem and threat when we take a look at how the crisis was resolved. The political administration is constantly bragging about its foreign policy. But the case is different. When some American papers published criticisms of the undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), government circles argued that they had made these criticisms because of our Syria and Egypt policies, pursued independently of the US and Israel. However, the current state of affairs in our relations with Egypt and Syria confirms this is not the case. We have become a dysfunctional state in the region and in the world. We are depicted as a country that has submitted to the demands of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
What is your view on the ongoing process and the future of the Hizmet movement?
In the Battle of the Trench and the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, the companions of the Prophet were pushed into a corner. These were times of a huge test of their patience and solidarity. God acknowledged the sincerity and dedication in their hearts. They passed the test, and God defeated their enemies in the Battle of the Trench and with the Treaty of Hudaybiyya in different forms. So the whole point is to remain patient and sincere, as well as dedicated, like the companions did in those instances.
‘I am not a Twitter user; if I start, I would find no time for other things'
What do you do on a regular day?
Like every Muslim, I start my day with the dawn prayer. I do my work; currently I work at home. I read the Zaman and Bugün dailies, because I trust them and their reports. In addition to a Turkish translation of the Qur'an, I am also working on a book focusing on the Dec. 17 process. I hope it will be out in late June. I read in the evenings and I also watch some TV to relax.
What TV series do you watch?
I watch “Seksenler” (The Eighties) because of its nostalgic theme. In the 1980s, I spent time in the military, the Iranian Consulate and the İnsan Publishing House. This series revives my memories. Birol Güven knows the people. But our people had a certain understanding of religion. It would be better if he added these religious items as well. He only pays attention to the holiday prayers.
There is a Twitter address operating under your name.
None of these are mine. I deliberately do not use Twitter because I cannot stand injustice. If I become a user, I will have no time for other things.
You majored in English philology; how do you get along with English literature?
Sadly, I forgot most of it. I graduated from the department of English philology in 1977. So I was pretty familiar with English and American literature. Sometimes I used to read a novel on some nights. I did not like Turkish novels and novelists. The novel is strong in the West, but poetry was strong in our literature.
Who do you read?
Sufi literature is my priority. I particularly read Alvarlı Efe, Aziz Mahmud Hudai and Niyazi Mısri and their works and collections. Necip Fazıl is excellent in poetry. He is no less masterful than Shakespeare in “Bir Adam Yaratmak” (Creating a Man). I admire Mehmet Akif, particularly his poems “Bülbül” and “Leyla,” Yahya Kemal's "Kendi Gök Kubbemiz," Mehmet Akif İnan, Erdem Beyazıt and Sezai Karakoç. I like the writings of İsmet Özel over his poems. I love the style of Bediüzzaman's works. Fethullah Gülen is powerful in writing and poetry. Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır is an excellent scholar who uses the language masterfully. I love the stories of Ömer Seyfettin and Refik Halit Karay.
Do you engage in sports?
I played football up until the age of 42. I was into football in my childhood. I was a fan of Galatasaray because of my uncle's influence. My dad used to give me TL 1 as my allowance. I used to pay 25 kuruş to buy Cumhuriyet and 50 kuruş to buy Fotospor. The reason I bought Cumhuriyet was that it used to publish all the lineups of the second-division teams as well. I was seriously into football back then. I also loved basketball, boxing and wrestling. Now, thank God, I am no sports fan. But I usually take a look at who's won and who's lost. I could interpret football games. I could even write a column on football matches.
What do you listen to?
I usually listen to religious music, modern art music and some folk music as well. I like Ali Ekber Çiçek. My tastes and favorites also include Barış Manço and Zeki Müren. Bediüzzaman dislikes music that is overly sad, but sometimes you can seek some solace in it. And I find this solace in some songs, religious music and folk songs. And sometimes I take refuge in poems as well.
Ali Ünal is a Turkish author frequently associated with the Hizmet movement, which is inspired by US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. In 2006 Ünal translated the Qur'an into English. His translation has been noted for its use of contemporary English, which makes it more readable than some classical translations. Ünal is author and editor of "Islam Addresses Contemporary Issues," "Islamic Perspectives on Science: Knowledge and Responsibility," "The Resurrection and the Afterlife" and "Islam and Humanity at the Crossroads." He is also a columnist for the Zaman daily.
Published on Sunday's Zaman, 08 June 2014, Sunday