So a few cartoons have generated a firestorm that refuses to be put out. Just a couple of weeks ago a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina rented a jeep and drove it through a student plaza on the campus, injuring nine people, including a visiting scholar. Police are still investigating the crime, but one factor that may have contributed is that the UNC campus paper printed one of the now infamous caricatures of Muhammed, arousing the anger of many Muslims. The car driver, an Iranian Muslim, has plainly said he attacked the campus because it was the will of Allah.
I live a basically quiet, safe life in Istanbul, Turkey. My neighbors are Muslims…all of them. Turkey is 99.9% Muslim. This statistic of course doesn’t reveal the important sub-groups that exist here. For example, about 20% of the population are Alevi, a Shiite sect that has a very “liberal” attitude towards religious traditions. Turkish Alevis are some of the country’s strongest supporters of democracy because without it they might suffer oppression from the Sunni majority. And then there are all the “secular” Sunni Turks. These are folks who drink, dress just like “Christian” Europeans, and interpret their religion liberally. Many of these would be agnostic or even atheist.
The devout Muslims too, most of them as best I can tell, don’t seem particularly hostile. They work hard and take care of their families. They send their kids to school and take vacations when they can. There is one problem they seem to have though. They find it hard, if not impossible, to envision a world where Islam is not dominant. In our section of the city Muslims recently held a conference called “Can cultures associate with one another?” Such a question would seem absurd in our multi-cultural milieu, but it is a very real concern in a homogenous culture that allows little to no opportunity for dissent.
This is the thorny part of the whole Islamic question. The word Islam means “submit” (not “peace” contrary to popular misinformation). It is a comprehensive system of faith and practice that covers not only the inward and inter-relational world of individuals but the whole of society. Until 1923 when Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, the Islamic world had a spiritual and political head who ruled from his seat in Istanbul. Those Muslims styled as “jihadists” are waging a war to reestablish this sacred office. But even for the less extreme Muslim, the existence of any society of people not “submitted” to Allah is in itself somewhat a provocation. It seems without some kind of reform within Islam, just stopping the printing of a few cartoons won’t stop the tension. In the meantime, the people who aren’t “submitted” must be willing to weather the storm.
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