[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Among the hundreds of comments these pages receive everyday, categorically anti-religious comments are quite abundant. Religion, for those commentators, is the source almost all evil in the world.
Faith in God, they say, led to religious wars and inquisitions in the Middle Ages and it leads to terrorism, male-domination or communal bigotry today. Accordingly, unless humanity trashes out all religions – first Islam, but ultimately all of them – we will not be able find peace of mind.
The funny thing is that these ultra-secularists speak as if theirs is a road that has never been taken. But, in fact, humanity has tried their post-religious world – and it hardly turned out to be any better.
The great experiment
I am speaking about the giant social experience called the 20th century. The one before that, the 19th, was actually a time when the views of our ultra-secularists peaked in Western thought. Thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim and Freud heralded the death of religion and the rise of a thoroughly secular world. And this world, they thought, would save humans from bigotry and misery by turning them into rational and scientifically-minded individuals.
This faith in “science and reason” as the ultimate guide for mankind created a widespread optimism in the first decade of the 20th century, as European intellectuals praised the “new man” and his steady march toward an enlightened future. But soon, their dreams were shattered by the worst man-made tragedy mankind had ever seen: The Great War of 1914-18, in which nearly ten million European men killed each other – not for God nor the Church, but for the nation. The latter had simply replaced religion as the object of veneration and loyalty. And apparently it made the world no less safe, secure or happy.
The cult of the nation, and its lesser forms such as the cult of ethnicity, continued to haunt the past century, leading to terrible conflicts, wars, and genocides in almost every part of the world. The old battle cry, “God wills it,” was just replaced with, “the nation wills it.”
But more evil was to come. In the aftermath of the Great War, the disillusioned Europeans started to look for a new source of inspiration. Soon, they found it in a new alternative to religion: Ideology. Fascism swept many countries, the worst case being the Nazi Germany.
As thinkers such as Leo Strauss stressed, the way to Nazism was paved by the secularization of the German society before and during the Weimar Republic. No wonder the evils the Nazis committed, at least seemingly, were justified under the secular tools of the modern age: their racism, which led to the Holocaust, was inspired not by the Bible, but Social Darwinism.
A rivaling secular ideology, which also found its basis in “science,” was communism. And its crimes eclipsed anything the world had seen before. More than 100 million people were killed under the tyrannies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. The latter had 2.5 million people executed in a country of 9 million.
Even in Turkey, the secular age has not been much of a blessing. Most Westerners are pre-programmed to think the other way – that the great secularization drive in Kemalist Turkey was a great leap forward, and any retreat from that paradigm is a risky step, if not a total descent into darkness. Little they realize that it was that very ultra-secular Turkey which denied and banned the Kurdish identity, sent Jews and other non-Muslim to labor camps (in the early 40’s), or systematically tortured thousands of political dissidents.
In fact, historically speaking, it is very plausible to argue that Kurds and non-Muslims were freer in pre-Kemalist (i.e., Ottoman) Turkey. (It is also reasonable to think that they will do better in a post-Kemalist one, in which the excessive secularism and nationalism of the past century will be replaced by a religion-friendly secularity and a pluralist concept of the nation.)
The brighter side
I am not trying to say the secular age brought only such evils to the word. No, not all. The 20th century was also the stage for the advancement of human rights, democracy and liberalism. Modern science enriched our lives, widened our knowledge, and cured our diseases. In Kemalist Turkey, women’s rights were advanced, along with mass education. These are among the bright spots of the secular age, along with the very dark ones I noted.
But the same spectrum exits within religions as well: they may have very good and very bad outcomes. They have caused wars and persecution in history, but they also inspired civilizations, and upheld justice and compassion among their peoples. Today, they cause not only bigotry and militancy, but also charity and other contributions to civil society.
The question, then, should not be how we can create a more secularized world. It should be how we can find the sources for tolerance and open-mindedness in every tradition, whether they be religious or secular.
That is what I often try to do regarding Islam – and I believe that it is a more promising endeavor than the Islam skeptics assume.