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Turkey: Islamic Reformers Look Back To Future

(epa) ANKARA, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On a dusty road atop a hill in a working-class neighborhood of Ankara, a German Catholic priest meets regularly with Muslim theologians. Together, as friends, they drink tea and debate the meaning of life. Clash of civilizations? Not here.

At first glance, Felix Koerner might appear to be an odd ambassador for Islam. Tall, blond, and German, Koerner is a Roman Catholic priest. But he also happens to be a leading authority on a burgeoning theological movement in the Turkish capital that aims to reconcile Islam with modernity.

"When Arabs ask, 'But can a Turk really be a good Muslim theologian, because he doesn't know Arabic?' Well, they all know Arabic very well," Koerner says. "But they shed another light on Islam -- by bringing in [reflections from] Western philosophy, sometimes Christian theology, even."

The result, according to Koerner and Turkish theologians and historians interviewed here, is not a distortion of Islam. Rather, it is a deeper view, based on a fuller appreciation of the religion's traditions and literature.

The 'Ankara School'

Koerner, who has lived here for several years, is a frequent guest of the Theological Faculty of Ankara University. Some of the theologians and historians there make up the so-called Ankara School, an informal group whose mission is to help forge a "modern Islam" that is also faithful Islamic tradition.

Felix Koerner (RFE/RL)

At the heart of their work, which has the approval of Turkey's state religious authorities, is a rejection of the literalist reading of the Koran.

"Some verses in the Koran are [about] war," says Nahide Bozkurt, an Islamic historian who has written a Turkish textbook about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. "We can't understand the holy book in a literal way, because the name of the religion is Islam. 'Islam' means peace."

Bozkurt is currently working on a project to demonstrate that Islam, by its very nature, rejects violence and terrorism.

"Some verses in the Koran are [about] war. We can't understand the holy book in a literal way, because the name of the religion is Islam. 'Islam' means peace."

She is convinced that Islam's vast literature must be understood in its historical context. Bozkurt also thinks the narratives and biographies of Muhammad that appeared in the centuries after his death in 632 must also be carefully checked for accuracy and seen in their historical setting.

Tradition Of Rethinking?

But when many Muslims see the Koran as the literal word of God, interpretation can be a tricky business.

"To prove that rethinking is something traditional is a challenge they also face, which is important for themselves, for their critical friends in the non-Turkish world, but also in their own country," Koerner says.

To Mehmet Pacaci, however, "rethinking" is clearly more traditional than literalism. Pacaci is among the leading theologians of the Ankara School. He also has studied in Germany and read the classics of Christianity and Judaism. He calls Koerner a friend and, together with others, they often meet over tea and debate the meaning of their faiths and ways of interpreting them.

To Pacaci, literalism is a modern movement that began in Egypt in the 19th century. He calls it a superficial way of understanding Islam, one that rejects the centuries-old tradition of understanding not only from the Koran but also from the literature that followed Muhammad, as well as the consensus of the Islamic community.

Practicing 'Itjihad'

Some Muslims might view interpretation as betrayal. Korner notes that there is an "unwritten" dogma that says the door was slammed on "ijtihad" -- that is, the Muslim use of reason as way to achieve modern readings of Islam -- back in the 13th century.

Simply put, Pacaci says that is false.

"Some people say that the door of ijtihad is closed," he says. "But when we look at the history of Islamic law, Muslims nations, we always see that ijtihad has been practiced."

Mehmet Pacaci (RFE/RL)

Pacaci says the core beliefs of Islam are timeless and changeless. He says that what differs from age to age is articulation -- the way the faith is lived in the light of new generations and new challenges. That includes the way that Shari'a, or Islamic law, is understood.

He cites an example. Some literalist Islamic societies believe that under Shari'a, a thief must be punished with the loss of his hand. But Pacaci notes that this contradicts the traditions of several Muslim societies. For example, he says that theft during the 600-year reign of Turkey's Ottoman Empire was treated in a far different way -- with incarceration or fines, but usually not dismemberment.

"[Literalism] appeared with Wahhabism, it appeared with reactionary Muslim movements," Pacaci says. "I mean, reducing Shari'a to a couple of punishments -- this is the reductionist approach to Islam and literalist approach."

In this light, Pacaci argues that literalism is not only a superficial way of understanding Islam, but it is also a modern phenomenon that ignores Islamic history and literature. In other words, interpretation is a return to the roots of Islam -- to what he calls the "classical" approach.

Possible Impact

The Ankara School is just one part of a larger reform movement in Turkey, where society has had a more Western look ever since its founding as a rigidly secular state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

For example, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, is currently overseeing a project to filter misogynist statements from the hadith, the traditional sayings and deeds of Muhammad that is the second most important source of Islamic law after the Koran.

Might the Turkish laboratory begin to influence the rest of the Islamic world?

The youthful Koerner, a Jesuit who helps minister to Ankara's only public-access church, recently published his doctoral thesis in English so that the wider Muslim world could read more about Islamic reform theology in Turkey.

And he believes Turkey is already making an impact.

"There are Arabs coming into Turkey and discovering that this is a way of rethinking Islam without losing the Muslim identity," Koerner says. "Modernity and Muslim identity must in some way go together."

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