[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
In yesterday’s Turkish Daily News, there was a photo of a group of Turkish demonstrators who gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and held a banner that read, ”We are all Christians!” They were protesting against the attacks on Christian communities and especially the savage slaughter of three missionaries in Malatya seven months ago by a gang of ultra-nationalist brutes.
Fellow TDN columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who is also a lawyer and the president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, made me recall, once more, how much Turkey needs that stance against our homegrown fascism. In his Nov. 22 piece, “What is going on in the Malatya massacre case?,” Mr. Cengiz shows how prejudiced the Turkish legal mind can be against Christians. These people, although they are our fellow citizens, are seen by some prosecutors as dangerous aliens, and their religious missions are looked upon with suspicion and distaste. When such a phobia about internal enemies becomes a norm within a state, it is only natural that some maniacs in society take violent action to teach them a lesson. Every level of that bigotry is a shame on our country.
The Carpenter of Nazareth
The only real way out seems to be accepting the basic foundations of democracy that every different creed and identity should have a place under the sun. Every democrat, of course, should stand by that principle and by those who are persecuted due to the lack of it. And I am sure that’s what the Taksim protestors had in mind when they cried, We are all Christians.
Yet I want to go further and sign up for that motto in a not just a figurative but also a literal sense. As a Muslim, I think all my co-religionists and I are indeed Christians.
That might sound odd, so let me explain. The whole Christian creed goes back, of course, to Jesus of Nazareth. He was, for many people, just an eccentric Jew who created some trouble for the Jewish orthodoxy and the Roman authority. For other people, though, Jesus was absolutely extraordinary. First of all, he was born of a virgin. Moreover, he performed miracles: He healed the sick and raised the dead. And he did all this because he was the “Word of God.”
This view of Jesus is commonly known as the core of the Christian faith, but it is also a part of the Islamic one. The Koran teaches all of the above and praises not just Jesus, but also his mother Mary and his apostles, in a very profound way. At the end of sura (chapter) 61, the Koran even commands Muslims to take the apostles as their role models.
To be sure, the Koran differs greatly from mainstream Christianity on the issue of the nature of Christ. The Muslim scripture denounces the Doctrine of the Trinity, which defines Jesus as a part of a triune God. But, interestingly, that issue has always been very controversial among Christians, too. In fact, one of the early Christian views on this matter, the one argued by Arius of Alexandria (d. 336), was compatible with the Koranic picture. The ”heretical” Arian doctrine was that Jesus was not God; rather he was created by God.
The big dispute over the Trinity will remain, of course, but this neither changes nor overshadows the striking fact that Christians and Muslims are the only two communities on earth who revere Jesus Christ. If the Old Testament is enough of a bond to speak of a Judeo-Christian theology, Jesus should be enough to search for a Christo-Muslim one, too.
Perhaps that’s why the Koran defines Christians as the best friends of Muslims. ”Nearest among men in love to the believers,” verse 5:82 says, ”you will find those who say, ’we are Christians’.” It also praises the morals of Christians, saying, ”amongst them are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.”
That’s why the earliest Muslims, led by the Prophet Mohammed, regarded Christians as their friends and allies in a world damned by idolaters. Yet soon political conflicts overshadowed theological affinities. As Islam unfolded in history, many military and cultural conflicts arose with the Christians. Yet the common bond of belief in God and in Jesus remained a potential source of reconciliation.
Theology versus politics
That source is still alive today and that’s why the theologically driven Muslim attitude in Turkey is generally cordial toward Christians. The best examples would be the Nur movement and its up-to-date version, the one led by Fethullah Gülen, which have always been in favor of dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Christians.
On the other hand, there is the politically driven Christophobia. It is based on garbage such as secret plots by missionaries to tear Turkey apart or the heinous effort to reclaim Istanbul as the capital of a “new Byzantium.” To combat that mania which appeals to many secular minds as well as the religious we need modern values of democracy and liberalism, to be sure. But theology has something to offer, too.
A NOTE: Kemalism Revisited
In yesterday’s TDN, fellow columnist Burak Bekdil quoted extensively from a reader who criticized my argument that in Turkey Atatürk has been turned into a demigod and Kemalism a religion. ”Kemalism is NOT a religion,” the critic claimed, ”it is not a guide on how to live our lives.”
Well, I am not sure. Kemalism actually has clear commandments on dress code. (”Thou shall not put a scarf or fez on your head.”) But of course it is not a traditional religion with details such as dietary laws. It is rather a “political religion” as defined by theorists such as Eric Voegelin.
Mr. Bekdil’s favorite critic also points to the similarity between ”the general reading the Nutuk” and a devout Muslim reading the Risale-i Nur, a Koranic commentary. He is totally right and that is precisely my point. Since Kemalism is a creed like many others, it definitely should have a place in the pantheon of democracy. But it should not be enacted as the official ideology. When you do that, what you get is just another sort of theocracy.