Interview with the Director of Religious Affairs Mehmet Görmez on Salafism, ISIS and Turkey (full text)

Translated by: /
Orjinal Metin (tr-12/8/2014)

It had happened before with al Qaeda but now with ISIS the subject of Salafism is on the agenda stronger than ever. Is it really possible to explain such recent movements  with such concepts as Salafism or New-Salafism?
First of all, we cannot evaluate these movements independently of the political setting. That is, these movements are not religious movements only. In our age, especially the occupations of Palestine and Afghanistan led to the emergence of these movements and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and the turmoil in Syria allowed them to gain even more widespread social support. It is known that a Salafi attitude exists in our age. However, this attitude contains mostly a religious stance rather than one based on weapons and violence. The recent spread of Salafism alone cannot explain the movements based on weapons and violence. The term Salafi is a historically known term. The contemporary movements that display similarities to this attitude are called New-Salafism. However, these Salafi attitudes present great variation  among themselves. Moreover, Salafi attitudes are not peculiar to Islam, such attitudes are encountered in almost all religious formations. This approach which is defined as a return to the essence has always existed in Islamic societies throughout centuries. However, it cannot be said that it has been a dominant attitude.

What is the place and importance of Salafism in Islamic thought?
Perhaps what you asked is the most important thing that we need to dwell on in this interview. Without having a good understanding of Salafism, we cannot make sense of the recent developments and find a way out of it. If you allow me, it would be useful to give a detailed account of it. It is important to know the divine reason behind the creation of Man and what kind of capabilities he has. Man was created as Allah's envoy on earth. Based on what capabilities was Man given this status? What is Man's relation to divine revelation? What should divine scripture be understood? We cannot understand the subject of Salafism without first understanding these
Based on Man's nature and capacity, Allah trusted Man with the duty of building up and civilizing the face of the earth. The Quranic expression that states that Allah taught Adam all names, indicates, in addition to other things, that human beings are thinking beings, that they build concepts and use symbols, create culture and ultimately build civilizations. Human history is certainly a witness of this. Man has been able to do and continues to do all these with his natural gifts and particularly his rational capacity. When human beings were alienated from their essence and strayed from their purpose of creation, divine will interfered  with Man through divine revelation to give warning. However, this intervention did not take place in order to remove reason and other human capabilities out of the equation by forcing them to submit to the apparent and literal understanding of self-evident meaning of the scripture and by making the conception and practice of religion in a particular human experience the absolute truth to follow.

Do these literal readings lead to the radical thoughts in religion?
This is an important point, divine revelation does not discount human will power and capabilities. As in all religions, reading divine scripture in a literal way has similar outcomes in the case of understanding the Quran and the hadith. Different ways of reading and understanding them are the origin of sectarian differences. Different theological approaches  have led to the emergence of many sects with varying degrees of similarities between them in understanding and living religion. This phenomenon has been witnessed in all religious formations in history, and it is known to have caused a lot of bloodshed. In Christianity, sectarian differences reached the degree of viewing each other as different religions and therefore declared each other as heretic. The institution of excommunication came into existence in this context. All these resulted in the experience of centuries-long bloody wars between them. This differentiation in the Christian world originated in theological disputes but turned into a political attitude and ultimately resulted in the massacre of large numbers of people. The phenomenon in the west today that we call secularization has its roots in this atmosphere. As a result, religion has stopped being a point of reference for everyday life in the West and was relegated to the private sphere. Thus, in practice, religion lost its potential to have any say in social life.

How were separations and differentiation formed in Islamic history?
As a continuation of the Abrahamic tradition, the Quran takes oneness of God, justice and the existence of afterlife as its basis, and the Prophet practiced these to build a society in Medina that is based on justice, morality and virtue. During the life of the Prophet, the issues of revelation and reason were resolved by presenting them to the Prophet. However, after the death of the Prophet, an extremely rich literature has been created about the relationship of human reason and will power to divine revelation even though it was challenged from time to time. Our relationship to divine revelation, our way of  understanding revelation, developing attitudes to comprehend the Prophet's practical applications of it constitute in essence our way of understanding religion. These different stances lead to religious differentiation in addition to political conflicts. More than a simple argument on method, they include differences in practical applications of religion as well. However, the first differentiation in Islam has a political character rather than a theological one. After the death of the Prophet, the first fights in the Islamic society of Medina took place regarding who would be the next leader. In this  sense, the first disputes in Islam emerged as a result of attitudes about government and politics rather than theological ones. The developments of the early period such as the assassination of the Caliphs, the Battle of the Camel, the Battle of Siffin, etc, originated in political disputes rather than theological reasons. In time, theological references were built upon these political differences and thus theologically and jurisprudentially different ways and methods were established. While in Christianity they went from theological disputes to political separation and conflicts, in Islam it was the other way around. Independently of this, other theological and jurisprudential differences came into existence based on methodical differences.

When was Salafism born?
From the first centuries of Islamic thinking, though in small numbers, monopolist religious discourses have existed  which claimed that Islamic truth was determined in the past, that the first generations of  Muslims who are called “Salaf” understood and interpreted religion flawlessly, and therefore every matter that Muslims will ever need to tackle until the judgment day was already resolved by the first generations. Especially during periods of significant breaks from the past such as social dissolution, invasions, occupations and turmoil, different manifestations of this discourse have presented themselves as a way out. In almost all periods of unrest and when political confusion dominated in the Islamic world, ideas that were in favor of returning to the essence of religion found support in society. This has both sociological and psychological reasons.
In the framework of this mindset, exactly imitating the way the Salaf understood and lived religion is presented as the main goal for all Muslims, and therefore, the methods later generations employed in understanding and interpreting religion which placed emphasis on reason (judgment, convention) as well in addition to the Quran and the Sunnah were dismissed. Not only those who have chosen not to take self-evident verses as the only law and instead used different methods in interpreting the law of God and the schools of law that were founded on these interpretations, but also schools of Islamic mysticism were easily categorized as  innovation in religion. According to this monopolist attitude that sees itself as the only representative of  the truth, anyone who did not unconditionally submitted to the Salafi thinking are viewed as followers of invention and heretics.

So you mean that they see people who do not think like them not simply as 'wrong' but as 'heretic'? Is it that severe?
The fact that this understanding of religion that has been formed by apparent and literal reading of the texts is treated as the religion itself inevitably leads to the adoption of an otherizing language towards other understandings of the religion. This way of understanding has placed itself antagonistically in contrast to reason, convention and judgment. Consequently it has reduced Islamic source of knowledge to only heresy by assuming that understanding and conceiving of religion is simply a matter of adopting the first three generations' work/habits. Therefore, this style of reading not only keeps its distance in relation to  teachings based on the historical accumulation of Islamic knowledge but it also disapproves of certain local and regional variations of Islamic styles and traditions.
As time passes, it has been transformed from scholarly Salafism to a more violent understanding of Salafism that attributes different meanings to the concept of jihad, and as this happens aberration and blasphemy unfortunately get in the mixture as well. The type of inoffensive Salafism that you have read about and found positive has transformed itself in time. It particularly turns into a defense ideology after periods of crisis. Indeed, it has had three major periods in the history of Islam. The first are those who started a movement to return to the essence of Islam after the great encounter with other cultures put them in despair about their own state of affairs. They are known as the followers of the hadith. The second one is Ibn Taymiyyah after the Mongol invasions. The third one is the period starting with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. However, particularly after the major traumas of the invasions of Afghanistan, Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria, it has completely became a violent movement. Violence became a part of it.

Do people who are already inclined to violence choose Salafism in order to legitimize their use of violence or is violence a natural outcome of taking Salafism to its extreme?
I think that Islam's journey has been the opposite of the journey of Christianity. In Christianity the first break was theological, then it became political and it was politicized. In our case, on the other hand, the first break was a political one, and then theological differences were found based on the political break. If we look at the first century of Islam, the first major breaks among Muslims were caused by political differences, not theological differences. The assassination of the Caliphs, the Battle of the Camel, etc. These disputes were originally political and then they transformed into theological ones. It is the same today. In today's monopoly of truth also, they do not go to the first three generations' way off life in search of truth, instead they started to use them to explain their own truth. At the same time, they have presented all their own conclusions as if they emerged in the time of the first three generations. 
How has the Salafi thinking emerged in our day?
There has always been approaches that attribute the tragedies, disasters and troubles we experience to our divergence from the path of the Quran and that its essence is not reflected in our lives. For example, there was the phenomenon of Kadızadelis in Ottoman society. Kadızadeli movement contained a Salafi mentality. Again, during the period when the Ottoman rule was weakened, many religious quests emerged. Wahhabi movement is the starting point of this. The religious foundation of Wahhabism is Salafism. Even though the modern Islamic groups that have taken a stance against modernity also have an attitude that is similar to Salafism, this is not exactly Salafism because they are open to change. For example Muhammed Abduh and Reşid Rıza. However, some of the sectarian teachings that have been established later in history have similarities to Salafi thinking in terms of the critique of the hadith. While Salafi thinking views them mostly as later interpolations into religion,  modernist Islamist movements of our age reject these as a defense against the objections of orientalists to Islam. They object to these conventional understandings in order to show that Islam as a religion is compatible with today's world. In all variations of this thinking, the emphasis on going back to the essence and following the Salaf's path functions as a tool that serves the purpose of displaying strong roots in the past and creating a legitimate foundation for the ideas defended in the face of potential accusations from various circles of being unauthentic, unconnected and rootless, whereas the organization of everyday life is  established on modern ideas, consciousness and paradigms. Thus, in modernist reformist Salafism, when going back to the essence is emphasized it is based on tradition with reference to early-period Islamic contemplation and caution, but when goals regarding the present or the future are in question, they proceed in the direction of quite modern and modernizing paradigms.

What kind of problems does the Salafi attitude encounter in practice?
Salafism in practice contains fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. It tries to impose its own truth on everyone. Moreover, in the metaphysical dimension, this monopolizing and exclusionist understanding results in the loss of such moral sensibilities as the sincerity in religious faith and practice, the conversion of divine love into the form of compassion for all creation, not violating their rights, the attention not to disturb their peace or bother them, and instead of them the exercise of violence and cruelty in the name of religion.

In the context of ISIS, Kharijiyyah is being referenced again. Is it correct and meaningful to look at contemporary movements with such historical references?
Kharijiyyah emerged in the context of the suggestion to resort to establishing an arbitrator in the Battle of the Camel and the suggestion to establish the Quran as the arbitrator. They defend applying to the Quran with the principle of “there is no rule but God's”. In this sense, even though there is a similarity to Salafism, they lean towards more literal readings of the Quran. While Salafism is based on the discussion of method, in Kharijiyyah attitude has more significance than method. While the Salaf accused those who are not part of them as followers of invention, Kharijiyyah attempted declaring them heretics. Kharijiyyah is more similar to the groups existing today that also resort to declaring others heretics. There are also those who have adopted Salafism in method but who also apply to declaring others heretics. 
Instead of comparing what we have today with what existed in the past, we should evaluate each in its own framework. Today there are formations that call themselves Salafi but never employ violence. There are even Salafi formations that favor absolute submission to the state authority. Such formations mostly engage in religious work rather than pursuing social or political goals. It is important to know the historical process. However, it is necessary to evaluate modern formations within their own framework and to know the socio-political foundations of that framework. For example, even though Muslims of Afghanistan have always had a moderate understanding of Islam, the Taliban of today has been formed by the people of that county and Taliban's mentality was formed there. You cannot understand this without taking the occupation of Afghanistan into consideration. Similarly the framework that has been formed in Syria and Iraq is not detached from the social and political environment in these countries.

Can ISIS and similar formations be understood only with reference to religion? For example, in ISIS there are those who can be called "religious" but there are also many who have recently been introduced to Islam.
We cannot explain ISIS or similar movements with only religion and religious thoughts. The atmosphere for them emerged as a result of all the traumas registered in these parts of the world. You cannot think of these independently of the experience of the occupation of Iraq which resulted in the death of 1,5 million people, millions of wounded people and just as many raped women. Traumatized existences have been formed in the whole Islamic world. What has been happening is almost like vomiting all together as a society. Of course vomiting is a symptom of lack of health, of illness.
The fact that people who are introduced to Islam later in life join such radical movements cannot be considered independently of these traumas. There has already been a break about what Islam is. Those who join these movements today come from modern educational institutions. In the minds of individuals who go through the formation of these institutions there is inevitably an influence of positivist thinking that forms the basis of modern thought. In contrast to the past, conceptions of Islam have been formed in these minds shaped by modernity. When a mind that is based on hierarchical thinking and that carries the conviction that truth consists of only what is apparent and visible meets Islam, it forms a narrow and incomplete conception of certain expressions that are found both in the Quran and in the hadith, and subsequently makes them a slogan of absolute truth for itself. First of all, classical Islamic texts and the hadith are freely used out of their original context without the application of any filtering. The style of acquiring this knowledge is an issue that needs to be considered seriously. The root of today's acts of violence is not in Islam itself but in the merging of the perception of Islam with patterns of modern thinking. They have been influenced by contemporary ideologies and movements that see resorting to weapons and violence as a legitimate method of claiming rights. Kharijiyyah is also a group that converted to Islam later. Even though they have the common point of being introduced to Islam later, the biggest difference between them is that while Kharijiyyah is made up of bedouins, those who adopt violent methods are from both more urban and more educated backgrounds. This is a difference that should not be overlooked. Both the way they use technology and their strategic action plans show that  they are not different from other modern organizations. 

There is the example of a French man who converts to Islam and leaves to join the jihad three days later. What we understand from this is that those who do not even have as much knowledge of Islam as the most ordinary Muslim are going to Iraq and Syria to join the jihad.
Such people tend to have the following psychology. They see the life they lived before being introduced to Islam as futile. They think that somehow they need to compensate for all those years in a short time. They generally have such a misguided idea. In fact, the world is not witnessing this attitude for the first time with this recent movement that emerged in Islam. For example, even though sufficiently noticed, there is not a big difference between the interpretation of Torah by those who founded Israel and the interpretation of Islam by those who want to establish a state in Syria and Iraq. They have gathered all the followers of that completely new interpretation of Torah in one place in the world. And this interpretation was based strictly on religious texts. Based on this interpretation, they confiscated lands from their rightful owners. And then, again based on this interpretation, they presented killing and annihilating those who resist it as justified and permissible. Then they bring all the members of that religion from around the world and place them on those lands. In fact, the global community has legitimized this attitude in the case of Israel. Even today, if you ask who Palestinians are in the US or in the UK, you will get people who say, “Palestinians are the occupiers of the motherland of Israelites.” The world has permitted this injustice. Nobody argued that this resulted from a particular interpretation of the religion, nor that this interpretation is the equivalent of Salafism in Judaism. Similarly, when we look at the history of Christianity, we see the Hundred Years’ Wars, and before that the major breaks from religion, the Crusades during which Christians vandalized each other’s places of worship. What happens after that is that people started saying, “if this is religion, we do not want to be a part of it” and the secular thinking that has purged all forms of transcendence from life and existence emerged after that. My concern is that if Muslims do not pull themselves together and continue drifting away from divine wisdom, the developments since the Arab Spring, identification of terror and violence with Islam do not only lead to the consolidation of Islamophobia in the West and subsequently Islam becomes a security issue in those countries. Moreover, future generations will find themselves in the process of a break from their religion, and we do not know where that might take them. We cannot even say with certainty that Europe has completely settled. We all know what secularism leads to in those countries.

In recent past, many young people from Turkey went to different parts of the world (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc) to join the “jihad”. This time, it is reported that there is a big flow of jihadists from Turkey to Syria and Iraq because it is closer to us and more popular. Do we need to be worried about Turkey?
The social sensibility that was formed in relation to Palestine, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya was shared both by those who viewed them with a religious sensibility and by the rest of the society in Turkey. Those who went to join the jihad in those place had gone with a large scale social support and legitimacy behind them. However, especially the actions of Taliban and the attitude of al Qaeda today, it is not possible to talk about such a large scale social support or legitimacy in Iraq and Syria. There might be some who join the movements in Iraq and Syria with a certain sensibility. However, what carries significance for Turkey is whether this is viewed with any legitimacy in the wider society. Majority of people will not favor attitudes that not completely accepted in the societal conscience and that are divisive. Such attitudes remain marginal. There will of course be people who would want to carry the conflicts in the Islamic world to Turkey, so it is important to be sensitive to this issue. We, as a society, can prevent the spread of what is happening in the Middle East only through the establishment of justice, righteousness and law. From this point of view, each one of us, regardless of language, religion, sect, ideology, has to work to create the atmosphere of peaceful coexistence and to establish the principles and ethics of this atmosphere. Our historical experience shows us that an Islamic thinking that is free from violence is more suitable to our identity and personality. Such is our disposition and I believe that everyone will exercise the necessary caution to preserve it. I want to hopeful rather than worried. This hope has to do with the expectation that what has been happening will end up being short-term. Because history shows that interregnum periods always last short. What really stays is common sense, and I believe it will prevail in the long term.

Does the declaration of Caliphate by ISIS have any meaning in the Islamic world?
The declaration of commanding people’s will power by ISIS has no meaning. Nor the declaration that it will command people’s will power. It is natural for Muslims to search for ways of acting together again in unity and brotherhood as Islamic community; however, their methods can be different from each other. The meeting of the Pope with the Patriarch in Istanbul shows that the pursuit of such ideals are in full force in other religions as well. The ideal that is set for each Muslim in the Quran is stated as follows: “We appointed you to be the community of the middle way so that you might be witnesses to all mankind” (al Baqarah, 143). This ideal cannot be wasted by such actions. Therefore, the fact that some people who combine Islam with terror and violence, disregarding all law and ethics even in war, embarking on the massacre of the followers of other religions has no meaning either in Islam nor in the eyes of anyone who has even the smallest amount knowledge of Islam. What lies in the foundation of Islam is the transformation of one’s soul through a depth of faith, and the communal law of the Quran is that societies can only transform through the transformation of individual souls. A social structure that is imposed from above is not Islamic in its essence. Some people’s declaration of the Caliphate would not have any meaning independently of how the masses feel about it. Moreover, the priority of the Islamic world today is the achievement of brotherhood, affection and a union based on them. The conception of the Caliphate in a political sense and theories of Caliphate derived from it has no place in reality. The need for solidarity within the Islamic geography that is based on cooperative brotherhood has the highest priority in the Islamic World.

What do you think of their use of the concept of "The Islamic State” which has a major place in Islamic thought?
Islam sees the mission the creation of a society based on morality, justice, righteousness and law as the core and essence of religion. In this sense, Islam is not a religion of the individual devoid of a sense of community. The concept of “the Islamic State” is a modern concept. Rather than a state with a set framework and boundaries, the community that is envisioned by Islam is based on the core values of safety, capability, merit and mutual consultation. In other words, the construction of an Islamic society as an imposition of state religion from above is not congruent with the call of Islam.

What kind of a role and mission can Turkey have in fighting such formations? Can the concept of “Istanbulite Islam” be instrumental in this concept? How might it be possible to popularize this conception of Islam in the Islamic world?
Islam is a religion with a universal message. It is not possible to construct an Islamic civilization based on the interpretation of Islam from practices of a particular time period or a particular location. Of course it is true that Islam was practiced as the way of life soon after the death of the Prophet of Islam penetrating into a wide geography starting from the Arabian Peninsula and reaching the depths of Asia and the Far East, from the Mediterranean coasts to Europe, from Persia to Egypt and central Anatolia from Diyarbakir to Malatya, coexisting with many other cultures. This extraordinary expansion of Islam by the companions of the Prophet shows us what kind of language and attitude was carried to these places by the companions who were disciplined by the Prophet himself. This language was a universal language and it was a testament to the fact that Islam can be practiced as a way of life in many different circumstances.
Islamic civilization was built along with all these developments, and people lived peacefully in Islamic societies with all their differences. It is a fact that Islamic societies have never been uniformly homogeneous. Not only regional religious communities such as Christians and Jews but also different manifestations of Islam have been able to live in Islamic societies. The conflicts between Islamic communities were never based on theological or religious differences, but rather on political and economic dimensions. It is not possible to talk about sectarian wars in Islamic history unlike in Western history. There were attempts from time to time to create ground for justification by looking for religious references to political conflicts. However, these never took the shape of political attitudes. The kind of understanding of religion mentioned above never took root in the map of the Islamic civilization and culture and remained in the form of narrowly-defined regional dimensions. There have been various different manifestations of Islam in the Islamic world. As long as these different manifestations  do not aim to wipe out others, they should be considered respectable on their own.
Expressions such as Arabic Islam, Turkish Islam, European Islam, etc are things that came into use recently. These are sociological definitions rather than being religious definitions. The universality of Islam does not mean the uniform application of a practice everywhere, but it rather means that the essence of Islam is applicable in all circumstances at all times. What is generated by regional conditions cannot be imposed on everyone as if it is a universal truth. Undoubtedly every geography has its own style and attitudes. However, in the age of globalization, a lot of questions have been stripped of their local identity and have assumed a universal language. Istanbul is indeed a city that contains the cosmopolitan fabric of Islam within itself. Both in the past and today it has had many peculiar aspects. It has always preserved all of its many colors after it became an Islamic city to this day. Istanbul is a city that has been the cradle of various schools of thought and in which many different languages, religions, sects and doctrines have coexisted. The nature of the city accommodates many dynamics. It is never static; it is always open to the world. Because of this quality, Istanbul shows us which references and which sensibilities Islam needs to employ in our age so that differences can peacefully coexist. The concept of Istanbulite Islam as suggested by the Prime Minister does not refer to one type of Islam but the possibility of the existence of many conceptions of Islam at the same time.
It is of utmost necessity to handle the issues at hand with a viewpoint of Islam that is free from all the particular details of different manifestations while not ignoring the sociological reality of Islam shaped by local and regional dynamics. We can talk about the reasonableness, morality and all-inclusiveness of the society that is envisioned by Islam. The primary goal of Islam is to establish the land of peace and security without oppressing the human free will. We have to find ways of transforming the formulas for living together irrespective of any person's religious beliefs into the form of today's laws. If we do not established the rules of law for living together, religious, sectarian and political conflict zones will widen in the Islamic world and incurable deep wounds will settle permanently among societies. And this would lead future generations to form a completely secular society in the Islamic world that takes its references not from religion but from external sources. For this reason, it is necessary to leave prejudices behind and consider giving support to the efforts which focus on preserving the Islamic culture of living together and taking all relevant suggestions into consideration as a life and death matter in terms of our future.

ISIS is using the seal of the Prophet on its flag. Its name is already the Islamic State and they declared Caliphate. Is it possible to prevent the use of these concepts and symbols in this way?
This brings more injury to Islam itself than anything else. On the one hand, Islam is receiving blows by its own ignorant followers. On the other hand, the use of these symbols are creating security risks by other Muslims in other countries. Just one act of murder by ISIS, a murder committed by someone who speaks Oxford English, puts 30 million Muslims in Europe in risk. Both internally and externally, Islam receives the biggest injury in this context.

What can be done then? Can it be solved by simply not calling it the Islamic State?
Of course it is necessary to go back to the roots the situation. No Muslim would accept the direct identification of these things with Islam. There are military occupations, wars, dictatorships. There are scarred minds that grew up in prisons. Whatever the external circumstances are, Muslims have to discuss what they need to do in order to establish their mechanisms of raising Muslim individuals, to correctly establish the relationship between life and religion, to understand the human-divine will relationship and the role of human reason in it. And not only in schools or in mosques, but these issues need to be discussed in a much more serious manner by Muslims in all settings that we use in teaching Islam. The question that worries me most is whether the atmosphere created by the recent major happenings in the Islamic world incidentally created these movements or whether these movements will continue to be produced in larger scale in the future. This question is giving me serious concerns right now.

You mean if ISIS is gone, another one might emerge
To address this correctly, we need to both take into account all aspects of the mindset of people who find themselves in these circles, and to reassess the curricula, education programs and institutions that teach religion, that teach Islam in order to prevent the misappropriation of religion in these situations. 

There have been studies on the people from Turkey who have joined. They show that there are more middle-aged and middle-class people than originally predicted. Average age is closer to 30s. There are people who had job security. There are of course younger people who can be easily persuaded but the number of educated and more mature people is also quite high. 
In our age a lot of troubles are spreading from the top down, not from the bottom up. Actions such as suicide are more common among the higher tiers of society. Therefore it is important to know with what motive they join. Whether it has anything to do with religiosity. Whether the young people who have been otherized in society and who are already living isolated lives are deciding to join based on anger and hatred. These need to be studied. We observe that with globalization and due to the impact of mass communication tools on people, we encounter many different entities.

How should the act of suicide attack be approached from the Islamic perspective?
There is no Islamic basis for the act of suicide attacks. For one thing, perhaps one of the biggest virtues that Islam brought to humanity is the law of war, the ethics of war. Even in war, people have to act within the boundaries of law and ethics. To my knowledge, this type of attacks first appeared in Palestine. For them it was an expression of their trapped and helpless situation. Later it was turned into a legitimate form of action. However, regardless of the situation, there is no Islamic basis for resorting to a form of action that would negatively affect innocent people. It is a form of action that has been completely created by the circumstances of modern times.

The declaration of a state is the point here. Al Qaeda’s main appeal to people was martyrdom but ISIS is also offering life. People go to the Islamic State not only to fight but also to live as its citizens.
Even though the idea and the mentality might claim to be Salafi, their methods and arguments are modern. It contains contradictions within itself. Their methods and strategies are modern but they present the mentality as if it is authentically Salafi. There are other examples of it in the past. It promises not simply paradise on earth but also paradise in the afterlife. This is perhaps one of the most important points that we need to dwell on. How can one person guarantee the state of another person’s afterlife? We see this in Turkey as well. One person comes and says, “submit your will to mine and I will guarantee you an afterlife.” This is something that is completely rejected in Islam. Even the prophet of Islam said to his daughter Fatima, “Do not ever trust that your father is the prophet. Every person will be held accountable for what they did with their own mind, ethical reasoning and conscience.”

The meeting of the Pope with the Patriarch, the search of Christianity to find a solution to the sectarian differences within itself … All these are happening while the Islamic world is witnessing increasing sectarian tensions more than ever observed or imagined before. These movements are negatively contributing to the increasing tensions. These developments have a strategic dimension as well, especially between Iran and other countries. And one of the reflections of this in real life is the killing of many people for the mere fact of being Shiite or Sunni. The condition of this matter at the moment appears to be going in an irreversible direction. Why is the Sunni-Shiite distinction sharpening in such a radical fashion these days?
I am also one of those who do not believe that this is completely a Sunni-Shiite conflict. I believe that lot of factors, anger, hatred, violence get in the mixture under the disguise of sectarian identity. As a theologian, I can say this: The doctrinal differences based on faith between a Catholic and a Protestant, an Orthodox and a Catholic do not exist between a Shiite and a Sunni. Their differences are much greater. There exists a foundational rift between them. Their differences arise from foundational issues of faith. It is about the existence of God. It is also a separation based on the significations attributed to Jesus. On the other hand, Sunni-Shiite dispute is to a large extent political. Who was going to be the caliph following the prophet? Who was right and who was wrong in the Battle of Siffin? Yes, there are some aspects of it that have been determined by the intermingling of the Persian ethnic identity and religion. There are some regional characteristics that have come to be identified with Sunniism. In terms of the founding principles, there would be no ground for disagreement if al-Sistani and the Sheikh of al-Azhar came together to discuss. In general, historical issues have created the disputes. There is no disagreement in terms of matters of worship either. Why is all this quarrel seen as a Sunni-Shiite conflict? How much of it is strategic, how much of it is political and how much of it is based on the different countries’ desire for power? And how all these turn into sectarian war should also be addressed.

What can Turkey do in this context?
Within the context of the Islam and the West dichotomy in the world, if there is an external scheme that is being imposed regarding Islam, it is that Islam should be represented to the West by Shiism. In terms of the Sunni-Shiite juxtaposition, on the other hand, the scenario is that Sunniism should be represented to the West by Salafism. All strategies have been founded on this premise. The meaning of this is that the mainstream of Islamic civilization should be pushed to the periphery; that is, Islam should be represented by its marginal manifestations. Throughout its history, Turkey has represented the mainstream of Islamic civilization. Such marginal Islamic thoughts never took root in these lands. Such movements emerged from time to time but they never occupied a central place. Therefore, Turkey should never be in the position of representing Sunnisim in this scheme because Sunniism is not a sect. What we call “Ahlu Sunnah” is not a sect. The understanding that represents 80 percent of the Islamic World cannot be called a sect. That is the mainstream. Therefore, if some people do Sunniism propaganda, they would be relegating Sunniism to the position of a sect. This would not be of any use for the other Muslims either. Turkey’s stance is really this way. All the way from the Directorate of Religious Affairs with all its institutions to religious schools and the knowledge that is produced in these schools  have this stance. It is important for Turkey to stand above sectarianism without diverging from the mainstream of Islam while at the same time expressing itself as a strong representation of Islam. Not being a side to the Sunni-Shiite scheme is not just good for Turkey but it is to the benefit of all Muslims in the region. Secondly, Turkey can reduce these schemes, fights, violence and terror by using reason in approaching what causes them and by forming the right relationships. A third thing that can be done: Turkey can contribute to the reorganization and correction of curricula and programs that create all these differences.

Lets say a young person around you joined ISIS or a similar organization. What would you say? What advice would you give?
It is necessary to tell that person that killing or dying is not among the principles of Islam, that Islam came to give life to humanity, that it is a religion that was sent to give life to humanity. This is where we need to start. Also, it needs to be told that Islam is not a religion that discounts human reason, that an understanding of religious texts that discounts human reason is also contrary to divine wish, and that Allah does not ask this of human beings. What is piety? It is to do the things that Allah wished for humans on earth. If you interpret those wishes detached from their own context and removing the human reason and capacity out of it or if you take another person’s such interpretation as the basis to regulate life, I would say you do not attain Allah’s wishes for humans. Turkey is lucky that this issue is discussed a lot -the fact that religious education has been a matter of discussion since the foundation of the Republic, that it has been discussed even more starting in the 1940s and that over time it was set into a serious framework. In order to understand what religious high schools mean for this country, we would need to go and see the madrasas in Pakistan. You might have seen them. It is important that we explain to the Islamic world what it means for the students to start the day in the morning by reading the Quran, then going into Chemistry lab, from there to a class on religious commentary followed by a Biology class. Or what a big gain it is that in this country students in the faculty of theology learn this subject by establishing connections between “hüküm” (judgment) and “hükmetmek” (to judge) in the course of a day when they go from a course on Islamic law to a serious philosophy course. If only we had the chance to talk about our experience in Turkey with our brethren in other countries 50 years ago.

To conclude, what does the Islamic world need to do against the dangers posed by groups like al Qaeda or ISIS?
As in the past, in modern times too, the sphere of religion makes different manifestations possible in different parts of the world even though it carries the same meanings in its essence. If we look at it from a solely sociological perspective, we can evaluate these different manifestations of religion as nothing out of the ordinary. Or if we look solely from a theological point of view our criteria of assessing the situation would definitely be different. However, we cannot look at the different manifestations of religion in today's world as the subject of only the realm of sociology or theology. It is necessary to approach them from a comprehensive perspective since these issues are related to a wide range of disciplines, from linguistics to hermeneutics in understanding religion, from sociology to anthropology in understanding society, from political science to the history of religious sects, and to make an assessment of the situation accordingly.
It is necessary to discuss the problematic structure of the two existing approaches to the subject of religion. One of these approaches is to see religion as a inventory of history and the past of the world. According to this, religion will run its course sooner or later, will lose the power it has wielded on the everyday life of humans up to this moment and will subsequently transform itself as a historical myth. This approach which was formed by the Western world in the 19th century continues to exist as a positivist and secular ideology. Those who insist on holding this point of view have difficulty explaining the existence of different manifestations and representations of religion throughout the world, and they take the risk of contradicting their own claim to objectivity in order to give a rational account of all of these. The other approach, which is also quite problematic from a different perspective, is the approach that ignores the relationship of religion with humans and live, and the everyday reality of humanity even though they might start from the rightful point of accepting religion as the common reference point of all humans regardless of which religion it is. The common problem both of these approaches have is while the former limits itself when everyday reality is put on a pedestal in rejecting religion while the latter limits itself when religion alone is put on a pedestal in rejecting everyday reality and knowledge. Understanding these two approaches that appear contradictory to each other at first glance, would perhaps constitute an important step in determining the place of religion in today's world. These two approaches in fact nurture each other. In this context, it is necessary to rise above approaches that are contradictory to each other, in order to establish the foundation which would allow for an understanding of religion and Islam that would be inclusive of our contemporary age. Islamic movements should question themselves in this regard. Only a way of teaching that has an understanding of the language of contemporary reality could be successful in resonating in the minds of future generations. It is absolutely necessary for us to discover the language that is capable of achieving this.

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