M. Orhan Tarhan, Late ASA Board of Trustees
Since 9/11 the United States government is having pains in handling the American Muslims. On one side it wants to prevent more terrorism, on the other side it wants to avoid looking anti-Muslim by investigating Arab-Americans. That is a tricky situation to be in. Since 9/11 the government succeeded in avoiding to show the Political Radical Islam as the enemy, and called the fight against the 9/11 attackers the “War on Terrorism”. Terrorism is a method of warfare.
What makes some Muslims terrorists is to be found in a particular Islamic sect called Wahhabism, hatched in the 18th Century in Arabia. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist sect that wants the Koran to be followed word for word. Discussion of ideas, particularly discussion of the Koran, is not allowed. Wahhabis believe that Muslims have nothing to learn from non-Muslims and have the right to subdue other sects and religions, by force if necessary. Wahhabism stands against just about anything the Western civilization is standing for. Since Wahhabi Arabs could not challenge Westerners in a conventional warfare, they decided to destroy that civilization by terrorism. There is no wonder that sixteen of the nineteen attackers of 9/11 were Wahhabi Saudi Arabs. That is the root of terrorism. The Arabic name of the organization headed by the ex-Saudi Osama bin Laden to fight the West is “Al-Qaeda”. That means variously the foundation or the rule. It is a convenient name to avoid the use of the word “Islam”.
Ironically, the Saudi government is in pains of appearing anti-Al Qaeda, while running or financing many Madrassas (Islamic schools) that teach the Wahhabi version of Islam, propagate anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, and anti-American hatred. Several mosques in Medina were praying during May for the destruction of Jews and Americans. The Saudis are too much enmeshed with that movement to be able to combat it. They always played both sides of the game. I believe that the United States cannot fully defeat terrorism, without forcing the Saudis to close their Madrassas that are terrorist hatcheries.
Of course there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are not Wahhabis. What kind of religion is then conventional Islam? Conventional Islam is divided in several big sects like the Sunni and the Shiite sects. The present practice of religion in these sects is the result of centuries of local cultural influences. The Koran includes many statements and their contrary. For example, parts written during the Mecca period say that “There is no compulsion in Islam”, and those written later in the Medina period say that “Believers who change their mind and leave Islam can be killed”. The Ottoman Empire practiced for 600 years the tolerant first version and left the countries it conquered in Europe in their own faiths. Therefore, their conquests, contrary to general belief, were not to spread Islam by force of arms, but to form an empire. Today, the theory and practice of Islam in conventional Muslim states is mostly the result of ignoring most of the Koran and of being led by the cultural local influences. In countries such as Turkey and Iran, where no Arabic is spoken, the knowledge of believers about the Koran is very limited and depends on the instruction of the local Imams. Thus, none of the populations of these Muslim states would go to war today to spread their sect or their religion. Conventional Islam is not an aggressive religion. We should not put conventional Islam and Wahhabism in the same pot. Conventional Muslims should not be blamed for the misdeeds of Political Radical Islam represented by Al-Qaeda.
Conventional Islam may not be dangerous to the rest of the World, but it is dangerous to the people who live by it. That statement requires some explanation. History shows that Muslim populations increasingly grew unfit to survive in the modern world. They grew weaker and poorer. Islam has not kept up with the scientific and technological development of the Western World. It did not do any research of its own. The Koran states that all knowledge is contained in the Koran and that there is no knowledge outside of it. Also the thoughts of the Koran are considered “absolute knowledge” and those thoughts cannot be discussed or debated. Such a mentality is not conducive to progress. On the other hand, in the West no thought is sacrosanct, anything can be debated, that is how ideas can be improved and how progress is made.
The first one who understood this handicap of Islam was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He saved the Turkish nation from unsurvivability by outlawing the Sharia (laws that regulate the life of Muslims) and closing down the Madrassas in the Republic of Turkey, and by advising the people to be guided by science and technology. He replaced religious schools by secular schools to educate the majority of the people. Turks still believe in the Koran but they are not living by it. They can be modern people and do live in a kind of democracy.
Actually Muslims living in the United States and Europe are subject pretty much to the same laws. Yes, there is freedom of religion here, but a Muslim cannot have four wives, because it is illegal to have more than one wife in the U.S. That is the law of the land. If he or she commits a crime, he/she will not be prosecuted by Islamic Law, but by an American court. Thus, Muslims living in secular countries can believe in the Koran, but could not be allowed to live by it. Although there is no Wahhabism among American Muslims, many Muslims are subject to the thoughts of Islamists who consider the war against terrorism as a war against Islam. Islamists resent openness of discussions on religion. The U.S, is concerned that such closeness generates terrorist thinking. That is a very troubling matter for the U.S. where freedom of speech is a right and a pillar of the social system.
How should we treat all the other Muslim states? We might think that if religion is more important to them than economic and intellectual welfare, it is their own business to choose poverty and mediocrity that would be the result of their choice. However, is it in our interest to leave such states in their own misery? Such basket cases always cost the UN large funds to feed and to keep peace. There is of course a more desirable alternative: We might show to them that they cannot live by Islam and be prosperous and strong at the same time. We may inspire them to only believe in Islam, but to live in modernity and to join the one civilization, the Western civilization. We have to compete with Al Qaeda for the minds of the conventional Muslim populations by waging a war of ideas, by convincing them that it is better for them to live intelligently (by using their heads} than by living stupidly (in poverty and weakness). We must make sure that the emphasis of such discussions should not be religious, but strictly economic. After all, we are not interested in their religion, but in their lives. Undoubtedly such a war of ideas will cost a lot less than a military war and, in my opinion, has more of a chance of being successful. Such wars of ideas should be fought quietly, without presidential speeches and newspaper headlines. We should not give the impression of imposing on them our culture or religion. Thoughtfully designed radio and TV broadcasts should be directed to these countries, giving normal news, presenting shows in their language, illustrating secular life, freedom of thought, open debates, rational thinking, etc.
Now we have been in war against the Political Radical Islam or Al Qaeda for almost two years. We have defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan and freed that country from absolute theocracy. Osama bin Laden is still at large and continues to direct pretty destructive attacks against the Western World. The Iraq War has distracted our attention on the fight against Al Qaeda. Incidentally, the Government has still not been able to prove its reasons for starting the Iraq war. We have to refocus our aim at Al Qaeda. We have to understand that our enemies are the Worldwide Organization of Al Qaeda and the Saudi Madrassas in Saudi Arabia and in other Muslim countries that feed the Al Qaeda organization. These schools must be closed and replaced by secular schools or we will never be able to win the war on terror.