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  • A few weeks ago, I had a chance to go to Saudi Arabia.

  • And the first thing I wanted to do as a Muslim

  • was to go to Mecca and visit the Kaaba,

  • the holiest shrine of Islam.

  • And I did that; I put on my ritualistic dress,

  • I went to the holy mosque,

  • I did my prayers,

  • I observed all the rituals.

  • And meanwhile, besides all the spirituality,

  • there was one mundane detail in the Kaaba

  • that was pretty interesting for me:

  • there was no separation of sexes.

  • In other words, men and women were worshiping all together.

  • They were together while doing tawāf, the circular walk around the Kaaba.

  • They were together while praying.

  • And if you wonder why this is interesting at all,

  • you have to see the rest of Saudi Arabia,

  • because this a country which is strictly divided between the sexes.

  • In other words:

  • as men, you are simply not supposed to be in the same physical space

  • with women.

  • And I noticed this in a very funny way.

  • I left the Kaaba to eat something in downtown Mecca.

  • I headed to the nearest Burger King restaurant.

  • And I went there -- I noticed that there was a male section,

  • which is carefully separated from the female section.

  • I had to pay, order and eat in the male section.

  • "It's funny," I said to myself,

  • "You can mingle with the opposite sex at the holy Kaaba,

  • but not at the Burger King?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Quite, quite ironic.

  • Ironic, and it's also, I think, quite telling,

  • because the Kaaba and the rituals around it

  • are relics from the earliest phase of Islam,

  • that of prophet Muhammad.

  • And if there was a big emphasis at the time to separate men from women,

  • the rituals around the Kaaba could have been designed accordingly.

  • But apparently, that was not an issue at the time.

  • So the rituals came that way.

  • This is also, I think, confirmed by the fact

  • that the seclusion of women in creating a divided society

  • is something that you also do not find in the Koran --

  • the very core of Islam, the divine core of Islam --

  • that all Muslims, equally myself, believe.

  • And I think it's not an accident

  • that you don't find this idea in the very origin of Islam,

  • because many scholars who study the history of Islamic thought --

  • Muslim scholars or Westerners --

  • think that, actually, the practice of dividing men and women physically

  • came as a later development in Islam,

  • as Muslims adopted some preexisting cultures

  • and traditions of the Middle East.

  • Seclusion of women was actually a Byzantine and Persian practice,

  • and Muslims adopted it and made it a part of their religion.

  • Actually, this is just one example of a much larger phenomenon.

  • What we call today Islamic law, and especially Islamic culture --

  • and there are many Islamic cultures, actually;

  • the one in Saudi Arabia is much different

  • from where I come from in Istanbul or Turkey.

  • But still, if you're going to speak about a Muslim culture,

  • this has a core: the divine message which began the religion.

  • But then many traditions, perceptions, practices were added on top of it.

  • And these were traditions of the Middle East medieval traditions.

  • There are two important messages, or two lessons,

  • to take from that reality.

  • First of all, Muslims --

  • pious, conservative, believing Muslims who want to be loyal to their religion --

  • should not cling onto everything in their culture,

  • thinking that that's divinely mandated.

  • Maybe some things are bad traditions and they need to be changed.

  • On the other hand, the Westerners who look at Islamic culture

  • and see some troubling aspects

  • should not readily conclude that this is what Islam ordains.

  • Maybe it's a Middle Eastern culture that became confused with Islam.

  • There is a practice called female circumcision.

  • It's something terrible, horrible.

  • It is basically an operation to deprive women of sexual pleasure.

  • And Westerners --

  • Europeans or Americans -- who didn't know about this before,

  • [saw] this practice

  • within some of the Muslim communities who migrated from North Africa.

  • And they've thought,

  • "Oh, what a horrible religion that is, which ordains something like that."

  • But when you look at female circumcision,

  • you see that it has nothing to do with Islam;

  • it's just a North African practice which predates Islam.

  • It was there for thousands of years.

  • And, quite tellingly, some Muslims do practice it --

  • the Muslims in North Africa, not in other places.

  • But also the non-Muslim communities of North Africa --

  • the animists, some Christians and even a Jewish tribe in North Africa --

  • are known to practice female circumcision.

  • So what might look like a problem within Islamic faith

  • might turn out to be a tradition that Muslims have subscribed to.

  • The same thing can be said for honor killings,

  • which is a recurrent theme in the Western media --

  • and which is, of course, a horrible tradition.

  • And we see, truly, in some Muslim communities, that tradition.

  • But in the non-Muslim communities of the Middle East,

  • such as some Christian communities, Eastern communities,

  • you see the same practice.

  • We had a tragic case of an honor killing

  • within Turkey's Armenian community just a few months ago.

  • Now, these are things about general culture,

  • but I'm also very much interested in political culture

  • and whether liberty and democracy is appreciated,

  • or whether there's an authoritarian political culture

  • in which the state is supposed to impose things on the citizens.

  • And it is no secret

  • that many Islamic movements in the Middle East

  • tend to be authoritarian,

  • and some of the so-called "Islamic regimes,"

  • such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the worst case, the Taliban in Afghanistan,

  • they are pretty authoritarian -- no doubt about that.

  • For example, in Saudi Arabia,

  • there is a phenomenon called the religious police.

  • And the religious police imposes the supposed Islamic way of life

  • on every citizen, by force --

  • like, women are forced to cover their heads --

  • wear the hijab, the Islamic head cover.

  • Now that is pretty authoritarian,

  • and that's something I'm very much critical of.

  • But when I realized that the non-Muslim,

  • or the non-Islamic-minded actors in the same geography

  • sometimes behaved similarly,

  • I realized that the problem maybe lies

  • in the political culture of the whole region, not just Islam.

  • Let me give you an example: in Turkey, where I come from,

  • which is a very hyper-secular republic,

  • until very recently, we used to have what I call "secularism police,"

  • which would guard the universities against veiled students.

  • In other words, they would force students to uncover their heads.

  • And I think forcing people to uncover their head

  • is as tyrannical as forcing them to cover it.

  • It should be the citizen's decision.

  • But when I saw that, I said,

  • "Maybe the problem is just an authoritarian culture in the region,

  • and some Muslims have been influenced by that.

  • But the secular-minded people can be influenced by that.

  • Maybe it's a problem of the political culture,

  • and we have to think about how to change that political culture."

  • Now, these are some of the questions I had in mind a few years ago

  • when I sat down to write a book.

  • I said, "Well, I will do research

  • about how Islam actually came to be what it is today,

  • and what roads were taken and what roads could have been taken."

  • The name of the book is "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty."

  • And as the subtitle suggests,

  • I looked at Islamic tradition and the history of Islamic thought

  • from the perspective of individual liberty,

  • and I tried to find what are the strengths with regard to individual liberty.

  • And there are strengths in Islamic tradition.

  • Islam, actually, as a monotheistic religion,

  • which defined man as a responsible agent by itself,

  • created the idea of the individual in the Middle East,

  • and saved it from the communitarianism, the collectivism of the tribe.

  • You can derive many ideas from that.

  • But besides that, I also saw problems within Islamic tradition.

  • But one thing was curious:

  • most of those problems turn out to be problems that emerged later,

  • not from the very divine core of Islam, the Koran,

  • but from, again, traditions and mentalities,

  • or the interpretations of the Koran that Muslims made in the Middle Ages.

  • The Koran, for example, doesn't condone stoning.

  • There is no punishment for apostasy.

  • There is no punishment for personal sins like drinking.

  • These things which make Islamic law,

  • the troubling aspects of Islamic law,

  • were developed into later interpretations of Islam.

  • Which means that Muslims can, today,

  • look at those things and say,

  • "Well, the core of our religion is here to stay with us.

  • It's our faith, and we will be loyal to it.

  • But we can change how it was interpreted,

  • because it was interpreted according to the time

  • and milieu in the Middle Ages.

  • Now we're living in a different world,

  • with different values and political systems."

  • That interpretation is quite possible and feasible.

  • Now, if I were the only person thinking that way,

  • we would be in trouble.

  • But that's not the case at all.

  • Actually, from the 19th century on,

  • there's a whole revisionist, reformist -- whatever you call it -- tradition,

  • a trend in Islamic thinking.

  • These were intellectuals or statesmen

  • of the 19th century, and later, 20th century,

  • which looked at Europe, basically,

  • and saw that Europe has many things to admire,

  • like science and technology.

  • But not just that; also democracy, parliament,

  • the idea of representation,

  • the idea of equal citizenship.

  • These Muslim thinkers, intellectuals and statesmen of the 19th century,

  • looked at Europe, saw these things, and said,

  • "Why don't we have these things?"

  • And they looked back at Islamic tradition,

  • and saw that there are problematic aspects,

  • but they're not the core of the religion, so maybe they can be re-understood,

  • and the Koran can be reread in the modern world.

  • That trend is generally called Islamic modernism,

  • and it was advanced by intellectuals and statesmen,

  • not just as an intellectual idea, though,

  • but also as a political program.

  • And that's why, actually, in the 19th century,

  • the Ottoman Empire, which then covered the whole Middle East,

  • made very important reforms --

  • reforms like giving Christians and Jews an equal citizenship status,

  • accepting a constitution,

  • accepting a representative parliament,

  • advancing the idea of freedom of religion.

  • That's why the Ottoman Empire, in its last decades,

  • turned into a proto-democracy, a constitutional monarchy,

  • and freedom was a very important political value at the time.

  • Similarly, in the Arab world,

  • there was what the great Arab historian Albert Hourani defines

  • as the Liberal Age.

  • He has a book, "Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,"

  • and the Liberal Age, he defines as 19th century and early 20th century.

  • Quite notably, this was the dominant trend in the early 20th century

  • among Islamic thinkers and statesmen and theologians.

  • But there is a very curious pattern in the rest of the 20th century,

  • because we see a sharp decline in this Islamic modernist line.

  • And in place of that,

  • what happens is that Islamism grows as an ideology which is authoritarian,

  • which is quite strident,

  • which is quite anti-Western,

  • and which wants to shape society based on a utopian vision.

  • So Islamism is the problematic idea

  • that really created a lot of problems in the 20th-century Islamic world.

  • And even the very extreme forms of Islamism

  • led to terrorism in the name of Islam --

  • which is actually a practice that I think is against Islam,

  • but some, obviously, extremists, did not think that way.

  • But there is a curious question:

  • If Islamic modernism was so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries,

  • why did Islamism become so popular in the rest of the 20th century?

  • And this is a question, I think, which needs to be discussed carefully.

  • In my book, I went into that question as well.

  • And actually, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that.

  • Just look at the political history of the 20th century,

  • and you see things have changed a lot.

  • The contexts have changed.

  • In the 19th century,

  • when Muslims were looking at Europe as an example,

  • they were independent; they were more self-confident.

  • In the early 20th century, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire,

  • the whole Middle East was colonized.

  • And when you have colonialization, what do you have?

  • You have anti-colonialization.