Three thoughts keep swimming around my head: part four

So today I was back at church for the first time in two weeks - it was wonderful.  Oh sure, it would be a hoot to still be in Turkey - playing incredible gigs each night - and exploring that fascinating, beautiful, complex and challenging place.  And I very much hope we can find a way to make a number of return trips to Istanbul and beyond.  Part of my deepest motivation has to do with building bridges of friendship - and that takes time, presence and a ton of patience. Still, it was sweet to be back on my home turf checking in with my staff and congregation and getting ready for my buddy's wedding this weekend, the celebration of both Dianne and my birthday with our children and Eucharist (both on Wednesday at 12 noon and Sunday during 10:30 am worship.)

Today I want to wrap up my on-going three part reflection (in four parts) with what I hope is a nuanced look at why I think this trip mattered - and I do think it mattered - albeit in a humble and still deepening way.  A conversation with one of our hosts during dinner before our last gig illustrates why.  Our host, a successful business person in both Turkey and the USA, with a Ph. D. and many years of practical and academic work in both lands, continued to be curious about my role in the band.  After all, I am the cleric amidst the musicians - an oddity to be sure.

Earlier in the week, he had told me that he serves an international site answering questions about Turkey for potential tourists.  And when my calling was revealed - we were intentionally circumspect about my work - he said, "You could really help us all out if you would try to educate your congregation about Islam.  For example, I don't know how many times I get foolish questions like ' can Muslims drive during the fast of Ramadan?'"  He paused with disdain and then composed himself saying, "I mean really?  Where do people get this stuff?" (In a subsequent intra-band dinner we thought it could come from some Americans encounters with ultra-Orthodox Jews who, indeed, cannot drive during their sacred fasts - or on their way to Sabbath worship.  Who knows...?)

When I told him that my congregation has been involved in a series of educational events over the past three years - from studying the essentials of Islam and supporting the work of Greg Mortenson's work with building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan to welcoming some recent Muslim guests from Pakistan during worship - he was pleased.  And when we got to sit next to one another again, he asked, "I think I know your answer to this question, but let me ask any how:  where do you come out on the creationism vs. Darwin question?"  He smiled at me and waited.

"Well," I said carefully not really knowing where this was going to lead, "while I appreciate and value the sacred poetry and mythology of my tradition - and find great spiritual insight in the stories of creation celebrated in Genesis - I know that these words are not scientific.  So, while I know that there is more to life than science and the obvious, I come out closer to trusting Darwin than creationism when it comes to facts.  I prefer the poetry of the Bible, to be sure, but do not believe it is the whole story."  He looked at me carefully - and then smiled like a Cheshire cat.  "I am surprised.  I thought you would have said you favored a strict reading of Scripture."

And then he said what made the whole trip for me:  "There is great value in meeting a clergy man like you - more in Turkey need such encounters - you give me hope that there is a way for modern life and faith to embrace."  (Our band members thought there are a lot of clergy in the US who might also benefit from a little less fundamentalism, but that was a conversation for another day.)  This people to people business - one conversation opening possibilities and hope between two people - is a slow and humble way of building trust. But it is of great value, too - especially in a place like Turkey that is experiencing a rise in what some are calling puritanical Islam.

They make a distinction and reject the word fundamentalist - preferring puritanical - for a few key reasons.  First, although there are beautiful exceptions (mostly in the West), Islamic jurisprudence - which makes no secular vs sacred distinctions - tends to be based on ancient fiqhs (interpretations of Shariah) that are rooted in the decisions made in the 14th century. "Classical jurists were unequivocal in declaring their rulings to be their own opinion which should not be accepted uncritically. They loathed the idea that a 'school of thought' should be formed around the juristic judgements... but that is exactly what happened." (Islam: a graphic guide)

Over time, a number of schools of though based on classical jurisprudence appeared and five now dominate:  Hanafi (in the Indian subcontinent as well as West Africa and Egypt), Malki (in North and West Africa), Shafi (in Malaysia and Indonesia), Hanbai (in Arabaia) and Jeferi (in Iran and Iraq.)  "Consequently," write Ziauddin Sardar and Safar Abbas Malik, "much of what goes under the rubric of Islamic law is in fact classical fiqh - time and space bound opinions and rulings - or fatwas - of early jurists. What this means... is that much of Islamic law is frozen in history... and has been so for almost eight hundred years."

I know what theology and law trapped in time produces; my own Calvinist tradition often gets caught in this quandary and we can see it played out in spades in the Roman realm, too. And while the heart of Islam - like my own Reformed world - celebrates the notion of "reformed and reforming," breaking with history is hard business.  Especially when that religious history is also culture bound to conservative and rural areas like it is in Turkey.  This is one reason to make the distinction between fundamentalist and puritanical Islam.

A second has to do with the willful commitment to looking backwards rather than towards the future.  If it is true, and I think that it is, that much of the theological conversation in Islam has been dominated by "time bound moral decisions" shaped by a 14th century context, an alternative would be to acknowledge this historical fact and explore renewal - or reformation - or the possibility of theological discourse in the 21st century.  But that doesn't seem to be where the majority of Muslim intellectuals in Turkey are headed.  Rather, they seem committed to looking to the past - and as the old axiom states with bold clarity, "If you always do what you've always done..."

This was explained to me in some detail a number of times by our respective hosts during our jazz tour of Istanbul.  I appreciate from the outset that our hosts are deeply committed to the secular divide in Turkey - they celebrate the separation of mosque and state - which is something that doesn't make any sense to most Islamist intellectuals.  The Islamist intellectuals of contemporary Turkey claim this is a false, modernist division because all of life - like all of God, is one, yes?  So how can there be a state - and a spiritual realm - this is a violation of God's will?  But, since 1922 this is also how Turkey has operated and our hosts are in the modernist camp. 

And here are a few ideas they shared with us about why they fear the continuing growth of puritanical Islam in Turkey:

+ We were told that given the dominance of the current President - Erdogan - who was just re-elected to his third term, both the police and the court system are now under the control of Islamists.  Is it a coincidence, then, that Turkey has imprisoned more journalists who question the government than China? They say not...

+ We were told that wives of aspiring bureaucrats and educators needed to publicly wear the hijab or else their husbands would not even be considered for advancement. Already there is a massive dispute about women being covered in the university; some say it is the only way rural women will be educated while others say this is a tactic for advancing puritancial Islam into public life.  It will be under consideration in the new constitution.

And we given a new insight into the battle of the head scarf - read Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel Snow for a feel for this conflict - for it is not about style, but Islamist politics. Until 10 years ago most women who chose to wear a head scarf came from rural areas and wore a simple peasant's scarf like many rural women wear.  Now, in addition to more women garbed in a total burqahs, the vast majority of head scarfs in Istanbul are the hijab - not the peasant scarf - which, our hosts insist is a political and religious statement about puritanical Islam.  There has even been the introduction of something worn underneath the hijab - an extender of sorts - to make it more visible and "in your face" as our friends said.  They are worried what Turkish society will be like in 25 years as these incremental public acts of puritanical religion become commonplace.  (My wife likened it to the contemporary assault on Roe v Wade taking place in states all across the US; there is no longer a head-on assault but a gradual chipping away that cumulatively is very effective.)

What's more, these anecdotes are explored more thoroughly and empiracally in both Sena Karasipahi's study, Muslims in Modern Turkey: Kemalism, Modernism and the Revolt of the Islamic Intellectuals, as well as Mohamed Charifi's, Islam and LIberty: The Historical Misunderstanding.  Both authors suggest that the new Islamic intellectuals of Turkey - born of modernism and increasing democracy post 1980 - still "tend to see modernism as the new form of atheism, in which we worship the market, machines, money, theories of organization." (Karasipahi, p. 86)  Further, they reject the West as a whole: "In fact, they equate Western civilization with Christianity... whose profane concepts like democracy, secularism and modernism are not only incompatiable with Islam... (because) they believe that modernism originated in the West and has a Hebrew-Christian and Greco-Roman foundation which cannot be acommodated within Islam." (p. 7)

My colleagues from the World Board of the United Church of Christ suggest that the rise of puritanical Islam in Turkey is not growing.  In 2007 they wrote: The Turkish government, which is secular and democratic, is highly sensitive to religious extremism and cracks down swiftly on those who use violence or advocate the overthrow of the state. The Turkish military sees itself as the guardian of Turkish secularism and has not hesitated to speak out or even take action if it thinks civilians are not doing enough to prevent religious extremism. At the same time, a European Stability Initiative Report appears to raise more questions @

Now, please don't misunderstand:  I know that there are a number of creative and contemporary writers and thinkers working to encourage a renewal of Islam beyond the medievalism that continues to be dominant. I think of Karen Armstrong and Willow Wilson, Mary Margaret Funk and Huston Smith, Rick Steves and Steven Kinzer, Ed Husain and Lucy Bushill-Matthews, Marie Byrne and countless others from Bono and Yussaf Islam to Imam Feisal Abdul Raif and his spouse, Daisy Kahn.  I give thanks to the work of Eboo Patel @

There is a creative energy - and good work - but I know it is no more normative than progressive Christianity is in my onw land.  In Turkey, at least for now, there is a 90 year history of checks and balances.  What's more, the puritanical Islamist intellectuals of Turkey are not interested in political revolution. They teach that the heart must return to the true way and so have a very different commitment than Iran.  For this, I give thanks.

I also pray that we find a way to move towards a deeper and more varied dialogue in the coming years.  Jazz might be part of the bridge - I think it helps opens doors - but we're going to have to have more than three cups of tea to find ways beyond our very deep differences, yes? But cups of tea help - so does jazz - so does prayer. I am eager to take the next step... and give thanks to the work Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and others are doing re: JUST PEACE 2 @


Black Pete said…
No matter how small the achievement, no matter how carefully one must tread, is it not better to be part of the solution than part of the problem? Advancing the Community of God?

Thank you, James.
RJ said…
I think so,too Peter. "inch by inch, row by row..."
Daniel Hirsch said…
I like your post...I am grateful to you for this great post....
Thanks Turf Suppliers Cheshire

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