[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Many years ago, I came across a book, which claimed to explain “Israeli terrorism” in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was full of photos showing Israeli soldiers attacking and harassing Palestinians, and presented huge captions that included verses from the Old Testament, and especially the Book of Joshua. If the Israelis were breaking the bones of a Palestinian youngster — a globally notorious scene from the ‘80s — then the caption would include a verse with something like “Thou shall break their bones.” The book’s argument was blunt and simple: The Israelis were torturing a nation because that was what their religion ordered them to do.
The more I learned about the Old Testament and the politics of the Middle East, the more I realized that what the book presented was not analysis but anti-Semitic propaganda. It is true that Israel’s 40-year-long occupation is a pretty brutal one, and that the Old Testament included some belligerent passages, but the reality was much more complex. I noticed that Jewish religious sources also include many words of wisdom and compassion, and that there are so many Jews who are willing to have peace with their Arab neighbors. Indeed the militants who advocate and even practice violence in the name of Judaism — as CNN’s Christian Amanpour recently exposed in her superb documentary, “God’s Warriors” — are pretty marginal. Moreover, the source of their hatred is actually not the confrontational passages of the Torah, but the political and social situation that they are in.
In other words, they go angry and violent not because they read their religious texts, but because they focus on the harsher parts of those texts since they are already angry and violent for a myriad of reasons.
The Sloganization of Scripture
In recent years, I often recall my experience with that anti-Semitic book and the way it misread the Hebrew Scriptures, because I see that more and more people are doing the same thing with the Koran. When Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda bomb innocents, or when some fringe imam in a radical mosque preaches hatred toward non-Muslims, these greenhorn “Islam experts” find some passages in the Koran, which apparently justify such extremists. No wonder that these extremists themselves refer to similar passages in the Koran or other Islamic sources. The situation is very similar to the strange agreement between the anti-Semites and the Jewish terrorists on the wrong notion that Judaism justifies carnage.
One common problem in all such misreading of the scriptures is the “sloganization” of certain verses or passages. This is done by taking a part of the holy text out of its textual and historical context, and turning into a slogan that will justify a mundane political agenda. For example, some Islamic revolutionaries, especially the ones who are inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, used to find a political message in this verse: “Those who do wrong will come to know by what a great reverse they will be overturned!” (26:227) But in fact the verse speaks about the punishment that God will hand down to unbelievers on judgment day.
The crucial mistake here is to overlook Islam’s scholarly tradition called “tafseer,” which is the study of the meaning of the Koran. Tafseer has a basic rule: A single verse or passage can’t be understood in itself; it has to be evaluated according to the other parts of the Koran, the general goals and principles of the holy text, and the way it was implemented by the prophet. Yet most radicals — whether they be Islamist or anti-Islamist — don’t have the time to waste with tafseer. They rather copy-paste the divine words to make powerful slogans.
All of these came to my mind when I read the latest piece by fellow columnist Burak Bekdil. He was expressing his suspicions about the AKP government, and Turkey’s “intellectual Muslims,” and the way that they have become friends with the West. This was weird, and perhaps “a tactical cooperation with the condemned,” according to Mr. Bekdil, because he was pretty sure that the Koran condemned non-Muslims. He confidently quoted some verses such as the one, which read, “O (Muslim) believers! Don’t make friends with the Jews or Christians.” (5:51)
Interestingly some marginal anti-EU Islamic groups in Turkey — such as the one led by “Professor” Haydar Baş — use the same verses to make the case for an anti-Western Muslim agenda. Yet, like Mr. Bekdil, they overlook the traditional tools of tafseer, and especially other passages of the Koran, such as this crucial one:
“(Muslims!) God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just. God merely forbids you from taking as friends those who have fought you in religion and driven you from your homes and who supported your expulsion. Any who take them as friends are wrongdoers.” (60:8-9)
One should also note the Koranic verse which tells that “all who have faith in God and the Last Day and act rightly” including “those who are Jews, and the Christians” will be rewarded by God in afterlife. (2:62) In other words, the Koran does not denounce Jewish and Christians an “unbelievers,” as it is often thought. It actually says that the existence of different religions on earth is in accordance with the divine will: “Had God willed,” the Koran reminds, “He could have made you one community.” (5:48)
That’s why Mr. Bekdil doesn’t need to suspect the authenticity of the friendship between Turkey’s Muslims and non-Muslims including the Christians. Although the EU process and the westward-looking policy of the AKP is mostly an issue of political, social and economic realities, it does not bear the theological inconsistency he presumes.
Nor the religious militants have the theological justification they presume that they have. But to expose that, we need to go beyond slogans and try to understand what God has really said — whether His words be in Hebrew, Greek or Arabic.