Critical Thinking about Islam

by Ahu Latifoglu

My Western (non-Muslim) friends and Pietisten have asked me to give them a Muslim perspective on the events of September 11 and subsequent developments. I have struggled with this task because I have feared to be the token Muslim and I have asked myself if I dared speak as a Muslim. How much do I know about religion? I am anything but an expert on religion, terrorism, or Afghanistan.

Another obstacle has been my ever-changing perspective. The ground is too shaky, the issues are too personal; and my opinions change almost daily. The media is not of much help either. Almost everything about the events are blown out of proportion due to patriotism, eagerness to justify, to vilify, or merely thirst for scandal. How does one react properly to the use of the word "crusade" by a US president? How about jihad fighters who voluntarily go to Afghanistan to fight against US forces? And the way the US citizen Taliban supporter is treated? As someone who has some understanding of both the Western and Muslim cultures, I have seen so many cultural and public relations blunders on both sides that it is impossible to put the blame on any one party.

I read Mr. Elder Lindahl's article (Summer 2001) called "How High the Wall?" with interest. He states that "The House of Islam stands in sharp contrast to the kind of separation of church and state with which Americans are accustomed." Such comments may be misleading to readers who are not as well read in Islam as Mr. Lindahl may be. The borders of secularism are somewhat vague and mobile, depending on who's looking. I live in Turkey, a secular country where more than 99% of the popu-lation is Muslim and where the state protects the rights and freedom of churches and synagogues, as well as mosques. It is hard for me to under-stand why US banknotes bear the motto "In God we trust," the President takes the oath on a Bible, universities have their own chapels, and school prayer is even up for discussion. From a strictly Turkish inter-pretation of secularism, all of the above are examples of favoring one religion over another or of favoring religion altogether.

Mr. Lindahl goes on to say that "there is little concept of a secular state in Islam, critical thinking by Muslims about their faith is quite uncommon." This statement undermines the efforts of hundreds of theology schools and scholars of Islam around the world. In fact, the Islamic world has probably seen an increase in the intensity and number of critical discussions on Islam since the whole world has been focusing its attention on it. As any scholar or traveler will tell you, the face of Islam in Istanbul, for example, is very different from that in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Islamic world owes its heterogeneity to critical thinking.

It is true that Islam has the concept of submission at its core. (What is faith but a submission to what one believes to be divine?) However, it also promotes critical thinking, research, and personal interpretation. By definition all religions have aspects which do not pass the test of critical thinking. However, there are also many other aspects that have been debated thoroughly throughout the centuries. And such debates shall go on as societies change over time.

One of the reasons why Islam has been stigmatized by some is that it is seen as a life-style, rather than a religion. Islam does regulate many aspects of social life such as marriage, inheritance, and personal hygiene. However, individuals are free to decide how and to what extent they want to interpret those principles. For the sake of argument, the Bible tells believers, "Do not cut your hair at the edges nor trim the edges of your beard" and "Do not cut your bodies when someone dies or tattoo yourselves" (Leviticus 19:27, 28). Does the Christian world take such advice at face value?

One of the best lessons learned from the tragedy of the attacks has been the realization of a dumbfounding misunderstanding—if not total ignorance—about the other's culture. The Western world has ignored Islam for too long. It is time to see it as a major religion and not just the fringe movement of a handful of radicals. With or without massive oil reserves, fundamentalism or fighting factions, the Islam and Arab worlds (which often overlap but are not the one and the same as many assume) are here to stay. Likewise, Muslims should cooperate with non-Muslims to eradicate radicals who give Islam a bad name and who condemn the West while benefiting from its communication, banking, arms, and technology networks.