Turkey Risks Reforming Islam's Holy Texts

Turkey has been on the EU’s “Candidate Country List” since 1999. The principal obstacle — aside from the pseudo-war between Greece and Turkey over the island nation of Cyprus — is how Turkey tries to balance religion and politics.

It is a one-off hybrid. Doubts persist over its ability to remain a modern secular, yet Islamic, state. Fears that Europe is evolving into Eurabia run high. Those against Turkey’s accession sometimes invoke the old line about what happens once the camel gets his nose under your tent flap. 

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has decided to uphold Tony Blair’s commitment to champion Turkey’s bid for EU membership. But early last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy jointly renewed their opposition to having Turkey become the 28th fully accepted EU member nation. The best they were willing to offer was privileged partnership status, pending Turkey’s ability to conform to a slew of non-negotiable EU membership requirements. A number of these involve agreeing to accept EU policies on human rights. One mildly amusing demand is that Turkey eliminate Article 301 from its Penal Code. That would be the law which forbids “insulting Turkishness.” Those found guilty of committing a 301 are looking at a four-year jail term.

The Turks are very sensitive when it comes to national pride, including the Islamic nexus of its cultural identity, which is why the latest theological news out of Turkey caught lots of folks by surprise.

Turkey is attempting what may be nothing less than an Islamic Reformation. The Turkish Martin Luthers — at enormous risk to themselves and their government — are trying to reinterpret the basic law of Islam. 

The significance of that cannot be understated: the radical Islamic nations — Iran, Saudi Arabia and all the others — regard the Koran and the hadiths (the sayings of Mohammed that are the basis for the only permissible interpretations of the Koran — are perfect and not subject to interpretation, as Westerners interpret Christianity and Judaism.

Two weeks ago the Turkish government’s powerful Department of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) announced that 35 religious scholars, in the Theology Department at Ankara University, were nearly finished a three-year forensic examination of the Islamic Hadiths.  After the Qu’ran (Koran), the Hadiths are the second most sacred text in Islam. They are the sayings and deeds of Mohammed and constitute a handbook on how to live as a devout Muslim. Ninety percent of Sharia Law is based on the Hadiths. 

There have not been any attempts to open the text to new interpretations since 1400. In that year, the reigning Caliphate (based in Turkey) proclaimed that Islam had reached such a state of perfection that no further modifications to the Hadiths were necessary. However quietly, some Islamic scholars question the authenticity of some of the sayings since they were handed down through oral traditions. Others are seen as anachronisms. The scholars cite prohibitions about women traveling alone as an example of what can be revised. In the days of Mohammed, traveling was a dangerous proposition. The old laws do not have the same context in modern society, although attempts to alter the overall status of women continue to generate friction. The wearing of headscarves (hijabs) is a hotly debated issue. On the other hand, Turkey has made strides in ending forced marriages and comes down hard on those who carry out honor killings against unwilling (usually very young) brides.

For Turkey’s government to “bless” this reinterpretation of passages in the Hadith came as a shock to many Muslims. To an unknown number of Wahabbi terrorists, it is down right heretical. Turkey knew that the announcement could have evoked violent reactions. That none have occurred — so far — is significant.

When the BBC broke this news, observers in the West were similarly stunned. Was this a sign of a coming détente in the clash of civilizations? Was Islam ready to initiate its own Reformation? Cynics wondered if Turkey wanted EU membership so badly that it was willing to risk an Islamic backlash just to further its chances. Was this just a stunt?

In fairness, the Turkish government, elected last July, has done much to innovate both its domestic and international policies. Its recent eight-day incursion into Iraq to squash Kurdish rebels raised eyebrows, but the EU and USA did supply intell to the Turkish military in support of the objective. Once the troops were back across the border, Turkey immediately announced plans to invest $12 billion in the impoverished  – predominantly Kurdish — southeast corner of the country. There are 12 million Kurds living in Turkey — one sixth of the entire population. The idea is to win the hearts and minds of the Kurds and turn them against the independence-seeking rebels. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, described the investment package as fighting terrorism on psychological and socio-economic levels. This plan includes creating a Kurdish language television channel, building two dams, creating a network of water canals, paving roads, and removing landmines along the Syrian border.

The blogosphere has, predictably, erupted with conflicting points of view on the Hadith reformation. The naysayers condemn Islam as nothing but “imperialism with a religious face.” A chorus of voices warned that this religious refinement is all smoke and mirrors and that Islam cannot change without recanting the violent edicts in the Qu’ran. The optimists are guarded. The general consensus from that quarter is that updating the Hadiths will do nothing to end jihadist movements, but Turkey’s endeavor to open the doors of theological inquiry should be applauded. The EU has made no statement regarding the Hadith revisions. Methinks the jury remains hung.

But Turkey’s actions will reverberate far beyond the EU. They are — in the ideological war in which we are engaged – much more important than what France thinks of Turks’ culture.