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How Islamists are Ruining Islam
Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends ''Vision 2023 Turkeys National Education Ministry'' meeting at Bestepe National Congress and Culture Center on October 23, 2018. ( Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

How Islamists are Ruining Islam

Mustafa Akyol

If religion does not remain in the sublime domain of eternal truths, and if it descends into interference with worldly affairs, it becomes a destroyer of all, as well as of its own self.
— Ottoman statesman Mustafa Fazil Pasha, 1867

During his weekly address at the national parliament, on April 10, 2018, Turkey’s powerful President Tayyip Erdogan had a brief conversation with his education minister at the time, Ismet Yilmaz, portions of which were inadvertently broadcast on television despite a muted microphone.1

It was an interesting scene: In the middle of his address, Erdogan invited Minister Yilmaz to the podium, and asked him about “the report on deism” that his key political ally, Devlet Bahceli, had mentioned in another speech just hours before. When the minister, with utmost respect, tried to explain to his president the findings of this report, Erdogan was heard saying, “No, no such thing can happen.”

The report in question had been prepared a few weeks before by a local branch Turkey’s Ministry of Education, and it warned the Erdogan government about the alarming “spread of deism among the youth.” The official study found that even in state-sponsored religious schools—i.e., the Imam Hatip high schools whose enrollment levels have skyrocketed in the Erdogan era thanks to government incentives and recruitment—a high number of students were losing faith in Islam. “Instead of going all the way to atheism,” the report concluded, “most of these youngsters (that lose their faith) are choosing deism.” That means, despite the Erdogan government’s sweeping efforts to cultivate a new “pious generation,” a significant portion of Turkey’s youth are choosing belief in a vaguely defined God while parting ways with the Islamic faith.

This social trend has been observed in recent years by many other Turks as well, and it has become the talk of the day in the nation. Hundreds of articles in the print media and dozens of discussions on TV have probed the question, “Why is our youth sliding into deism?” In April 2018, Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), first refuted reports on the spread of deist belief entirely, denying the possibility that “any member of our nation can be interested in such a perverse notion [as deism].”2 But then, five months later, Erbas’s directorate “declared war” on deism.3

Turkey’s ‘Deism Plague’: Why Now?

What is the driving force behind this “deism plague,” as Turkey’s religious conservatives call it?4 Some pro-Erdogan pundits have found the answer in what has become the cornerstone of their worldview: Western conspiracy. According to the popular Muslim televangelist Nihat Hatipoglu, for example, deism was “injected” into the glorious Turkish nation by “imperialists” who want to weaken Turkey when it is finally becoming great and Muslim again. According to Ali Erbas, the top government cleric, the real force behind the Turkish youth’s slide into deism is Western “missionaries,” who are supposedly conniving to attract youngsters to deism “to pull them away from Islam” and then to make them Christians later on.5

For other Turks, however, the entire deism controversy presents not a grand conspiracy but a grand irony: In Turkey, a nation which has often taken pride in being “99 percent Muslim,” this unprecedented flight from Islam is taking place at a time when those who champion Islam —the Islamists, including President Erdogan and his loyalists in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—are more politically powerful than ever.

In fact, one could argue, this is not even an irony, but rather an understandable causality: there is a flight from Islam because Islamists are in power. As the AKP’s rule has proven unmistakably authoritarian, corrupt and cruel, some of those who are repulsed by its power and agenda have also come to feel repulsed by Islam.

Many are already making this case in Turkey. One of them is Temel Karamollaoglu, the leader of the small Felicity Party, which, like the AKP, is itself rooted in Islamism, but which nevertheless has joined forces with the secular main opposition against the Erdogan regime. “There is an empire of fear, a dictatorship in Turkey by those who claim to represent religion,” Karamollaoglu said in June 2019. “And that is pushing people away from the religion.”6 (Karamollaoglu’s small party represents a growing minority of religious conservatives who are fed up with the Erdogan regime. These Turkish voters also have new platforms in two new political parties headed by former key figures in the AKP who have broken with Erdogan: the “Future Party” led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and the “Remedy Party” led by the former economy czar Ali Babacan.)

Another critic is the U.S.-based Turkish sociologist Mucahit Bilici—a devout Muslim himself—who defines the rush to deism as a part of “the crisis of religiosity in Turkish Islamism.”7 After finally defeating the century-old Kemalist secularist system, he observes, “Turkey’s religiosity has begun to breathe free.” Yet, as a result, “Turkish religiosity has been put to the test, and while it has succeeded politically, it has failed spiritually.” The rise of deism, Bilici adds, is an outcome of this dramatic failure. He adds that:

This process, it should be emphasized, has little to do with Kemalist laïcité, the state-led secularization project of founding statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Rather, it is an organic secularization, entirely civic and happening not at the behest of, but in spite of, the state. It is the consequence of a local, indigenous enlightenment, a flowering of post-Islamist sentiment. Disillusioned by their parents’ religious claims, which they perceive as hypocritical, the younger generation is choosing the path of individualized spirituality and a silent rejection of tradition.

Tehran: ‘The least religious capital in the Middle East’

What has happened in Turkey in the past decade is only a milder form of what has happened in the Islamic Republic of Iran over the past four decades. There, too, the more avowedly Islamic section of society, which had been marginalized for about a century under a secular regime, took back power with a revolutionary zeal. In Iran, the Islamic Revolution, which began in 1979, has been more explicit, sudden and bloody. The revolution that has been ongoing during the AKP’s tenure in Turkey, by contrast, has been more implicit, gradual, democratic, and relatively peaceful. Yet still, in both countries, it is fair to say that Islam came to political power with a vengeance—but only to produce the most unintended consequences.

That is the case, because in Iran, the 1979 revolution’s ambition to re-Islamize Iranian society has instead succeeded, at least in part, at achieving the opposite: the de-Islamization of Iran. Foreign visitors to Tehran often observe these consequences in daily life. One such visitor was Nicolas Pelham, the Middle East correspondent of The Economist. He was detained by Iranian intelligence for weeks in the summer of 2019 before being able to report these observations:

Despite Iran’s pious reputation, Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible. There has been a rampant campaign to build new mosques, yet more people flock to art galleries on Fridays than religious services… Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza…

In the safety of their homes, women often removed their head coverings when chatting over the internet. Darkened cinema halls offered respite from the morality police who enforce discipline. In cafés women let their scarves fall languorously. The more brazen simply walked uncovered in the streets, risking ten years in prison… Iran called itself a theocracy, yet religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority. 8

This pervasive lack of piety is only one aspect of the failure of the Iranian revolution’s zeal for re-Islamization. The more severe aspect is outright apostasy from Islam—the very outrage that the Islamic Republic wants to avert by punishing it with the death penalty. As I wrote elsewhere, Iran seems to be the number one Muslim-majority county in terms of producing defectors from the faith.9 Many of these ex-Muslims adopt Christianity, making the Iranian church “the fastest growing” in the world.10 According to one study, the number of estimated Iranian converts from Islam to Christianity from 1960 to 2010 is about 100,000.11 A more recent study estimates the number as between 250,000 and 500,000.12 Some of these converts secretly practice their new faith in Iran; others run abroad to save their lives.

Still other Iranian apostates turn not to Christianity, but become instead defiantly “godless.” One of them is Azam Kamguian, a feminist activist who barely survived the Iranian Revolution, moved abroad, and wrote several books including, Godlessness, Freedom from Religion & Human Happiness.13 In another volume, she writes passionately about how, in post-1979 Iran, “Islam ruined the lives, dreams, hopes and aspirations of three consecutive generations.”14 Of course, the force that really did these things was not Islam itself, but the Islamic Republic. Apparently, however, it is easy to conflate the two in post-revolutionary Iran.

A Secular Wave in the Arab World

What about the Arab world? That is of course a big and diverse scene, harboring twenty-two separate countries with different political histories and systems, along with distinct sectarian, ethnic or tribal compositions. However, across the Arabic-speaking world as well, it is possible to see the signs of a new secular wave.

Some of these signs were recently captured by Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton University and the University of Michigan. In polls held in six Arab countries— Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq and Libya—its researchers found that “Arabs are losing faith in religious parties and leaders.”15 Accordingly, in a span of five years, the share of Iraqis who say they do not trust Islam-based parties had risen from 51 to 78 percent, and “trust in Islamist parties” in the above-mentioned countries had fallen from 35 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2018. Mosque attendance had also declined more than 10 points on average, and the share of those Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” had gone up from 8 percent in 2013 to 13 percent.

Why is this happening? One answer is that too many terrible things have recently happened in the Arab world in the name of Islam. These include the sectarian civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where most of the belligerents have fought in the name of God, often with appalling brutally. The millions of victims and bystanders of these wars have experienced shock and disillusionment with religious politics, and more than a few began asking deeper questions.

One of those who asked those hard questions and found the answer in losing his religion is Abu Sami, a 52-year-old painter in Baghdad, who spoke to NBC News in April 2019 as one of “Iraq’s closet atheists.”16 “We used to hear that Islam is the religion of peace,” he reportedly said, “but ISIS behaved like monsters, barbarians and even worse.” And from that, he inferred a broader verdict: “Is this a peaceful religion? It is not at all, and I do not want to be part of such a religion.”

Another Iraqi citizen, Islamist intellectual and researcher Ghalib al-Shahbandar, also sees this dynamic and, as a believer, worries about it. “A wave of atheism will overwhelm Iraq because of the wrong practices of Islamic parties,” he warns.17 “They are what has forced people to avoid Islam and other religions.”

In neighboring Syria, torn by the brutality of ISIS and its ilk, as well as the cruel regime of Bashar al-Assad, there is a similar trend: “Rising Apostasy Among Syrian Youths.”18 In the midst of all the violence and chaos, Syrian writer Sham al-Ali observes that, “criticism of religion has become bolder, and that many young Syrians, especially in Europe, are abandoning the religious lifestyles they had previously upheld at home.” He also adds: “Beyond the individual scope, Arab social media is chock-full of anti-religious critics and their content, which fervently calls for the re-thinking of religious myths or ridicules them altogether.”19

In Sudan, another bitter experiment with Islamism has taken place. From 1989 to 2019, the predominantly Muslim African nation lived under the autocratic rule of the colonel-turned-president Omar al-Bashir. The public protests in early 2019—or the “Sudanese Revolution”— pushed al-Bashir out of power, while also revealing his staggering corruption: in his residence alone, security forces found over $350 million dollars in cash. It was a public lesson that “a man who had always whipped up sentiments by talking about his humble beginnings” was only hiding his “gluttonous attempt to rip off generations.”20 And the public really learned that lesson. In the words of Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a prominent Muslim academic based in Qatar, in post-revolutionary Sudan, “Islamism came to signify corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty and bad faith. Sudan is perhaps the first genuinely anti-Islamist country in popular terms.”21

But what really is Islamism?

It may be helpful, at this point, to note that we are speaking about connected but distinct trends here. Disillusionment with Islamism—in Turkey, Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere—may lead to disillusionment with Islam itself. This may lead all the way to atheism, or to deism, or to Christianity. Or it may merely lead to yearning for a less politicized faith. The latter is certainly present in all “post-Islamist” contexts as well, and ultimately it may prove to be a more substantial trend than full-scale abandonment of Islam.

However, it is not that easy to neatly separate Islamism from mainstream Sunni or Shia Islam. Islamists—parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—may be further politicizing the religion, and terrorist groups are adding a perverse element of wanton violence. However, what they are all championing is none other than the Sharia, the legal tradition of Islam, whose mainstream interpretations are full of commandments that are hard to accept from a modern point of view. Examples would include the execution of apostates and blasphemers, stoning of adulterers, amputating the hands of thieves, public lashings for all kinds of sins, dress codes imposed on females, supremacy of men over women, supremacy of Muslims over non-Muslims, and the overall idea of a closed society that is not just inspired by religion but also policed by it.

The late Muhammad Shahrur (d. 2019), the Syrian public intellectual whose reformist views on Islam have been widely discussed in the Arab world, had stressed this point: that the problem is coming from not just the Islamists, who may have a specific political program to implement the Sharia, but also from the mainstream traditional scholars—the __ulama__—who uphold all the archaic interpretations of the Sharia. In one of his writings where he invited Muslims to “critical reason,” Shahrur wrote:

Initially, we thought that Islamism would be explained as a deviation from the ulama’s sound scholarly tradition, and we expected the scholars to refute the Islamists and their aggressive ambitions to politicize Islam and to Islamize the whole world. How surprised were we when we heard not a word of condemnation from our honorable scholars but instead legal explanations that basically condoned the concoctions of the Islamists. We then realized that the ulama’s interpretations of apostasy, [jihad], and [war] were in fact not too different from the Islamists’ positions. 22

From this perspective, the contemporary disillusionment with Islam is not only because of Islamists (whether defined as political movements akin to the Muslim Brotherhood, or the more radical terrorists) but also because of the conservative clergy—Sunni, Salafi, or Shiite—who uphold religious views that defy the modern notions of freedom, equality, and human rights.

Take the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, which has lately wrathfully opposed the Muslim Brotherhood type of Islamists, but which also imposes the strictest form of Sharia at home. Saudi authorities also criminalize, on par with terrorism, “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”23 Yet, as observed by journalist Hakim Khatib, “many citizens in the kingdom are turning their backs on Islam,” and some of them are making it clear in websites such as “Saudis without religion.”24 And one of their motivations seem to be the very crudity of the kind of Islam imposed on them, along with the modern-day opportunities to get a sense of the alternative world out there. In the words of Khatib:

Among other things, perhaps what is primarily driving Saudis to abandon their religion is the country′s strict and dehumanising codex of Islamic law coupled with easy access to information and mass communication. 25

The actual size of this flight from faith is hard to know—as there are no polls, and most people are discreet—but it seems serious enough, not just in Saudi Arabia but also neighboring Arab monarchies, to lead to media concern on a “growing tendency among youth in our [Persian] Gulf societies to become atheists.”26

The Internet, and especially social media, plays a key role here as often pointed out—but not merely as carriers of “godless thought” from outside, as conservatives typically believe, but rather free spaces where frustrations within can be finally expressed and shared, as Abdullah Hamidaddin demonstrates in his 2019 book, Tweeted Heresies: Saudi Islam in Transformation.27 There is a loss of faith in the young generation, Hamidaddin also shows by personal experience, not only because of the questions they ask, but also because of “doubt and frustration with answers readily given by religious scholars holding traditional authority.”28

Similar stories come from Morocco, where politics and laws are relatively mild, but a conflict between traditional Islam and modern values are still present. One of those who took that conflict as a reason to give up on Islam is the ex-Muslim Muhammad who spoke to a Western academic. What made him an atheist, apparently, was the self-righteousness of his fellow Muslims:

The main trigger for his loss of faith was the fact of seeing Muslim believers who regarded themselves “as the only possessors of the one and authentic truth.” The latter included the belief that “Muslims, and Muslims alone, have the right to enter paradise.” “And the rest of the world?,” Muhammad asked himself, “I had a schoolmate whose mother was of Jewish descent. I couldn't think of that lovely woman in hell.” He similarly felt repulsed by hadiths—sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad— which looked “as anything but moral about women, unbelievers, wars etc. 29

Other Moroccan atheists report similar reasons for their loss of faith. For Abdullah, another ex-Muslim, the key reason was the hatred of gays which he encountered in Islamic circles. “How can God condemn homosexuals because of their sins,” he asked, “if God himself created them?”30 For another ex-Muslim, the deal breaker was “puzzlement inducted by moral issues such as gender inequality.”31

All that is precisely why, across the ummah from North Africa to South East Asia, Islamists and conservative clerics are warning Muslims against modern values such individual freedom, freedom of speech or gender equality. In Malaysia, sermons were given in mosques against “liberalism and pluralism,” while its former prime minister condemned “human rights-ism.”32 In Saudi Arabia, the Education Ministry runs a government program in schools, to build “immunity” against “liberalism,” “secularism” and “Westernization.”33 And in Turkey, intellectuals who support the Erdogan regime are celebrating what they describe as the “crisis of liberal democracy.”34

Islam at a Crisis

All of the anecdotes, observations, reports and statistics I have mentioned so far are snippets from a much larger story: That the great Islamic civilization is in a great crisis. This may sound like too broad of a statement to some Western ears, but in fact it could be taken as a fair verdict by most contemporary Muslims, including the Islamists and conservatives I have criticized so far. They would just disagree with me simply on what kind of a crisis this is.

For many, but especially Islamists, the crisis is primarily a political one: Since the abolition of the caliphate, Muslims don’t have strong states or leaderships that are able to mobilize and unify them in order to overcome their internal conflicts, defeat their external enemies (typically the West and Israel) and achieve worldly success. Muslim societies are also swamped by devious “un-Islamic” ideas—if not also the paid agents and fifth columns—of the imperialists, while they themselves continue “sleeping.” To awaken, the Islamists also typically add, Muslims need a vanguard movement (which is often themselves), or a “new Saladin” (which is often their own charismatic leader), that will restore Muslim unity and revive our old glory.

Conservatives would agree with the spirit of this argument, but they would typically add that the current crisis has an underlying moral component as well—if only in the sense that we Muslims aren’t pious enough. Unlike the earliest Muslims, conservatives argue, we modern-day Muslims have indulged in earthly gains and pleasures instead of heavenly ones. Consequently, we lost the blessings of God, and the spiritual power of our religion.

In other words, both Islamists and conservatives would argue that the theory we have at hand—the Islamic tradition—is perfect, while we only fail in its practice. And after every failed practice, they can easily say, “But this is not true Islam,” hoping that the next practice will work. The bitter truth, however, is that we Muslims have a problem with the theory itself. And especially at the very level that Islamists and conservatives see the Islamic tradition as impeccable: values.

Here is what I mean. Until a few centuries ago, hardly anybody in the world would criticize the Islamic civilization for its values. For other parts of the world, including Europe, had nothing much better to offer. When Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), for example, the multi-religious Ottoman Empire looked like a beacon of tolerance. Similarly, when Jews were persecuted in Catholic Spain in the mid-15th century, many of them fled to the Islamic civilization to find safety and freedom.

However, with the rise of liberal modernity, the world has changed dramatically—arguably for the better, at least in terms of it values. “Human rights” has become a “universal” value, accepted by a great portion of humanity (if not by their unaccountable ruling regimes). It thus has become an intuitive truth that nobody should be forced to believe in a religion, and that all individuals should be able to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they don’t harm anyone else. Similarly, equality of all people before the law, regardless of their religion, race or gender, has created a new sense of justice and conscience.

Traditional religions, all of which were born long before the modern era, had to adapt—and most of them did. Protestants gave up persecuting “heretics” and “witches” by burning them at the stake or by some other terrible means. Catholics, whose long history includes grim episodes such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, resisted modern ideas such as political secularism or religious freedom well into the 20th century. But the Church finally took a big step forward with the Second Vatican Council of 1960s and its liberal declaration, Dignitatis Humanae. Judaism, which almost never had the political power to persecute anyone, yet still had a strict communitarianism, went through the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which helped Jews integrate into modern society—and even to help pioneer it.

In Islam, however, we have not yet really taken that big liberal step. Mainstream authorities in many Muslim-majority countries still uphold a pre-modern worldview and jurisprudence whose conflict with modern values is impossible to hide. It just doesn’t look convincing to say, “Islam is a religion of peace,” while adding, “but we kill anyone who apostatizes from it.” Similarly, it doesn’t make much sense to insist, “Islam shows great respect to women,” while we have authoritative texts on how to beat your wife in appropriate ways.

The Way Forward: Islamic Modernism

So, the great crisis of the great Islamic civilization is generated by the conflict between those Muslims who want to uphold this pre-modern worldview and jurisprudence (and, far worse, impose it on everyone else), and other Muslims who have accepted modern liberal values. Some among the latter, especially those who live in the West without feeling the pressure of Islamists and conservatives, may be evading the problem—but only to face it when they look into traditional teachings more carefully. Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, describes how such “religiously literate contemporary Muslims,” can be taken aback:

When these modern, observing Muslims hear sermons and teachings delivered at mosques or read fatwas issued by the ulama, their sensibility and common sense is often shaken and offence is taken. But what they are hearing is genuine Sunnism.35

Moosa himself is a thoughtful proponent of the current called “Islamic modernism,” or “Islamic progressivism,” which is the effort to re-read Islam’s fundamental sources—the Qur’an and the Sunna, or the practice of the Prophet—by placing them in their historical context, and then reinterpreting them, non-literally, in the light of the modern context. This current was born in the 19th century, with political reformists such as the Young Ottomans or religious reformists such as the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh or the Indian Syed Ahmad Khan, who all built the intellectual basis of what historian Christopher de Bellaigue has rightly dubbed The Islamic Enlightenment.36 In the 20th century, Islamic modernism was squeezed by the vicious cycle of conflict between secular and Islamist authoritarians (and it sometimes got co-opted by one of these powerful sides), but it was further articulated by intellectuals such as Fazlur Rahman Malik, who offered a new hermeneutic interpretation of the Qur’an and a critical analytical study of the Sunna.37

Islamic modernism is similar to what Christians and Jews did while embracing liberal modernity: it is loyal to its religious roots, while appreciating the achievements of reason. Daniel Philpott draws that analogy wisely in his 2019 book, Religious Freedom in Islam, where he shows how Catholicism’s path to Dignitatis Humanae can be an example for Islam to grow its own “seeds of freedom,” which are indeed present in the Qur’an and the Sunna.38

As a Muslim myself who has been wrestling with these issues, I believe that this path—Islamic modernism—is indeed the safest way forward for the ummah. It is the path of remaining loyal to the foundations of Islam, while not only embracing modern values rooted in contemporary human conscience, but also harmonizing them with our faith. It is a vision akin to the experience of the Anglo-Saxon world, where religion, freedom and modern progress often went hand in hand, instead of being bitter rivals.39

However, if Islamic modernism remains marginalized, the ummah will be only more torn between two extremes: The conservatives and Islamists who want to preserve and even revive a bygone age, and the modern-minded Muslims who will be further pushed into “deism,” atheism, and various kinds of militant secularism. It will be an experience akin to what France has experienced, where religion and freedom came out as conflicting forces, plunging society into bitter culture wars.

So far, some of that has already happened in the Islamic civilization. But far more bitter, if not bloody, culture wars may come, especially if conservatives and Islamists preserve their illiberal, intolerant and supremacist ways. The former’s rigid attachment to tradition, and the latter’s authoritarian attempts to impose it, have already crippled societies and ruined many individuals. Unless they change course, there may be only more ruins.

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