It is nothing but a cynical farce for Turkish Islamist rulers to suddenly remember the idea of interfaith dialogue in the aftermath of the brutal Paris attacks in order to appeal to the Western audience while they demonize and persecute the very Turkish groups that have been persistently engaging in this dialogue for decades.
The topic of interfaith dialogue, outreach activities and interreligious exchanges is now equated to a treacherous act and an ultimate betrayal of the government and the religion of Islam in Turkey, a country that is under the iron grip of Islamist rulers who are not shy about demonstrating their antagonistic attitude toward such outreach activities. That policy was officially on display a year ago when Pope Francis called for increased interfaith dialogue during a visit to Turkey to battle religious extremism and radicalism. His host, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the top political Islamist, did not even utter the phrase in a joint press conference with the pope, declining to confirm the importance of dialogue. In fact, with the pope standing next to him, Erdoğan bashed the West and the Vatican for hostility towards Muslims.
Francis' encounter with Turkey's top official imam, Mehmet Görmez, who is in charge of the Religious Affairs Directorate, was even worse. Görmez recounted his conversation with the pope last week during a workshop organized in İstanbul by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA). “I asked the pope whether the Vatican is considering developing a new relationship with Muslims. He said, ‘Yes, we have an interfaith dialogue project.' Then I said to the pope: ‘If you are contemplating making a connection with Muslims under that title, good luck with that. Such a relationship cannot be established'.” Görmez was making a point that he's fundamentally opposed to interfaith dialogue.
Unfortunately, this is the narrative that has now been adopted by Turkish officials in the current Islamist government. It is hardly surprising to see dozens of articles appearing in pro-government media on a weekly basis, vilifying work on interfaith studies. The man who has borne the brunt of most of these unwarranted and unhelpful attacks is undoubtedly Mr. Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic scholar who inspired a global movement called Hizmet for the service of humanity with his lifetime teachings focused on science, critical thinking and interfaith dialogue. He was declared public enemy number one with all kinds of trumped up charges leveled against him in order to discredit his work on interfaith studies and defame his credentials as a Muslim scholar.
The hostile tone toward Gülen was set at the highest level, by President Erdoğan, in the aftermath of corruption scandals that implicated senior officials in his government as well as members of Erdoğan's family. Gülen's criticism of corruption in government put him in the crosshairs of Erdoğan, who started calling Gülen all kind of names in a frenzy of hate speech, describing him as a “traitor,” a “hollow preacher,” a “virus,” a “false prophet,” “hashashin”-- an aberrant terrorist group of assassins in history -- and other things. In public rallies, he criticized Gülen for meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1998.
In a false indictment prepared against Gülen on orders from Erdoğan and his associates in the judiciary, the interfaith work of Gülen was harshly criticized and listed as if committing to dialogue among faiths and religions was criminal activity. There is no article in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) that criminalizes interfaith dialogue, yet Gülen was accused of engaging in such activities as part of a full-blown conspiracy to topple the government without any evidence presented to back such far-fetched claims.
The award given to the late President Süleyman Demirel at the “National Reconciliation, Tolerance and Dialogue” conference in 1997 by the Journalists and Writers' Foundation (GYV), of which Gülen is honorary chairman, was listed as evidence in the indictment. Even then-US Ambassador Mark Parris was accused of supporting the Gülen movement by allegedly helping convince Demirel to participate in the GYV interfaith event. Dialogue conferences held in the US by the movement were cited as further proof of wrongdoing in the indictment and were likened to activities of the controversial religious organizations of Opus Dei and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
For sure, the issue of challenging invaluable interfaith work and defeating the very purpose of having dialogue goes way beyond Gülen. He was simply made a villain in this negative campaigning by Turkish political Islamists, but the hostility toward establishing such dialogue runs deeper and further. It rears its ugly head at every opportunity that presents itself.
For example, in April, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu even accused the pontiff of joining in “an axis of evil” against his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and Turkey. “An axis of evil is being created against us. An axis whose entire motivation is to hinder the AK Party is being formed,” Davutoğlu told party comrades after Pope Francis' remarks characterizing the killings of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire as “genocide.” “The pope has joined these plots against the AK Party and Turkey,” he noted. He could have restrained his criticism to the point of discussion of the Armenian issue, yet he jumped forward and accused the man who is revered by more than 1.25 billion church members worldwide of being evil.
Turkish political Islamists have their own partisan and hard-liner orthodox clergy to justify their actions in the name of Islam. Hayrettin Karaman, a professor of Islamic law who is known as Erdoğan's chief fatwa (religious edict)-giver and held in high esteem by the government, exposes the real mentality of Islamists in his 2011 book “Diyalog ve Kurtuluş Tartışmaları” (Debates on Dialogue and Salvation) as well as in his regular columns in the pro-government and Islamist Yeni Şafak daily. In his op-ed piece on Aug. 24, 2014, Karaman claimed that the Vatican's real purpose for interfaith dialogue is to convert Muslims to Christianity. He warned that millions of expat Turks abroad have been exposed to intensive Christian propaganda and criticized religious scholars' engagement with Christian and Jewish groups.
That is in sharp contrast to what Gülen has been preaching. Just the other day, while I was driving I came across one of Gülen's recent speeches being replayed on the radio. He was recalling the visit of some 60 Christians from the Najran region of the Arabian Peninsula who were mostly clergy, including a bishop, to the Prophet Muhammad in Medina in A.D. 631, a year or two before the Prophet passed away. They were accommodated at a place very near Masjid an-Nabawi, also called the Prophet's Mosque, one of the holiest mosques for Muslims. When they needed a place to pray and conduct services, the Prophet Muhammad pointed to his mosque and told them to have their services in his mosque. During their stay, the group had exchanges with the Prophet on various religious matters. They did not convert to Islam, but learned about Islam during the visit and made a friendship pact before they left.
In his speech, Gülen was touting this as evidence of how far the Prophet went to accommodate non-Muslims in a sincere effort of interfaith dialogue. He said today it would be almost unimaginable for Christian clergy to hold services in one of the landmark mosques in İstanbul, something he said would prompt a rebellion and violent uprising. He is right. Gülen was mentioning this case as an example of how today's Muslims, by and large, do not know the true teachings of the Prophet who led not only by words but by example as well. The fanatical and radical groups who purport to follow the Islamic Prophet with sheer violence and terror do not know their religion or the Prophet. Their actions have nothing to do with Islam. That is why Gülen has been coming out forcefully as a strong voice against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for decades.
It is a shame to see that Turkey, once touted as a role model for moderation, tolerance and a center of dialogue, is now on the path of becoming a nation hostile to interfaith and intercultural dialogue under the strong push of belligerent political Islamists who seized the levers of power and do as they please without checks and balances.
Published on Today's Zaman, 30 November 2015, Monday