Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- In every government office in Turkey, one will find the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk often on a horse wearing his famous hat and with the Turkish flag draped behind him. However, in the office of Dr. Mustafa Cagrici, the Mufti of Istanbul, there are two pictures of Ataturk, one with the Turkish leader wearing the western hat and another, in which he wears a suit and tie and is surrounded by a number of Turkish religious figures in their cloaks and turbans after the establishment of the secular Republic of Turkey. Like many, Cagrici considers Ataturk a “secular Muslim” and does not see any contradiction in this description.
Dr. Mustafa Cagrici is a respected figure amongst the Turks. He hosted Pope Benedict XVI at the Blue Mosque following the controversy surrounding the Pope’s citation of a Byzantine emperor that depicted Islam in a negative light during a speech he delivered in Germany. In prayer, the Pope faced Mecca behind the Mufti of Istanbul. Many considered this a symbolic apology from the Pope.
Asharq Al Awsat interviewed the Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici in Istanbul. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q: In your opinion, what distinguishes Turkish Islam from Islam in other countries in the region?
A: During the modernization period, Turkey was one of the first countries that began to establish strong relations at an early stage with the West. Turkey has established relations with Western countries based on the foundations of democracy and secularism. This makes Turkey different from the rest of the Islamic countries as it is still connected to its past and its values, but at the same time it is living based on modern values. Turkish society has become more conservative over recent years. The results of the last elections prove that society has become more conservative. Nonetheless, there is another fact [to take into consideration] that Turkey lies between the Islamic and the Western worlds and that it has established relations between the two sides in a correct, meaningful and effective manner. Although Turkey has some internal problems, it protects its culture and understanding of Islam. There is healthy democratic debate on Islam, modernization and culture.
Q: You mentioned that Turkish society has become more conservative over recent years, is this evident as a result of the elections or due to social indicators such as the increase in women wearing the veil, for example?
A: There are many indicators, including the victory of the Justice and Development Party [AKP] and the increase in the number of women wearing the veil. In my capacity as the Mufti of Istanbul and professor at the faculty of religious sciences, I can say that the level of interest in religious education and the teaching of the Holy Quran in Turkey is on the rise. If we look at those who finance and support these Quranic schools, we find that they are modern and educated businessmen who live a modern lifestyle and are active in today’s world. Islam in Turkey took on Turkish characteristics when Turkey became a Muslim country. There are approximately 500 religious secondary schools that are called the “schools of imams and preachers”. These schools teach social and cultural subjects as well as religious subjects and are affiliated to the Turkish Ministry of Education. In addition, there are 23 religious science faculties. In these schools and faculties, true knowledge about Islam is taught; consequently, it was easy for the Turks to adhere to modern values in a sound manner.
Q: What do you think of Sufism in Turkey?
A: Sufism has a special position for understanding Islam in Turkey, however in the 19th century the meaning of Sufism was distorted in Turkey and the Islamic world, where Sufi practices have a negative impact on Turkish society. Although the Turkish state abolished Sufi schools under the law, Sufi schools, in fact, continued to exist. But the negative aspects of Sufism have been eliminated because we have a healthy religious education.
Q: What are the negative aspects of Sufism that you mentioned?
A: At one point, Sufism led to negligence on part of the Turkish people whereby they were no longer interested in anything, neither in their work nor their affairs. In other words, the common understanding of Sufism at that time stopped Turks from showing interest in public affairs. However, Turkey today is home to religious institutions that adopt modern concepts including the Sufi schools. Many Sufi schools have modern institutions and a huge capital. Sufi orders such as Naqshbandi, Mawlawi and Qadirya exist at present and have political, social and cultural interests without ignoring the Sufi Islamic values. Furthermore, they are powerful and influential in Turkish society and provide people with various services. Sufi schools include many businessmen, who financially support them.
Q: What are the rules of the body that is responsible for issuing fatwas [religious rulings] in Turkey?
A: The Religious Affairs Directorate is the responsible body for issuing fatwas; however, qualified imams also can issue fatwas. At the end of the day, the fatwa is a civil rather than a legal or official matter. Generally speaking, because of this, it is issued by an authorized body, namely, the Religious Affairs Directorate, but qualified imams can also issue fatwas. For example, someone can ask an Imam that he/she knows for a religious ruling if the Imam is knowledgeable enough and there are also religious centres with male and female preachers who issue fatwas. People go and ask them and if they cannot provide an answer, they can contact Dar al Ifta in Istanbul.
Q: Do you have female muftis?
A: Of course, and not only do they issue fatwas regarding women’s affairs, they issue fatwas about all religious affairs. There are 40 female muftis in Istanbul and there are over 400 Quranic schools with over 1,000 teachers.
Q: What is your reaction towards fatwas that encourage jihad for example issued by some clerics?
A: Firstly, such fatwas cannot be issued in Turkey. There have only been a small number of cases [in Turkey] such as in Britain and the US, for instance. Turkey is not Pakistan. The Turks as a whole were amongst the biggest number of people who opposed the war against Iraq. They have peacefully expressed their opposition to this unlawful war as bloodshed only causes more bloodshed. Moreover, ending Western hegemony and bringing peace to the Islamic world should be achieved via peaceful means. I always ask our visitors from Western countries about what they expect from the Islamic world that is surrounded by Western countries in the military, political and economic senses. They are powerless and are oppressed by the West. What can you expect other than war and violence? The condemning of violence is one thing and the analysis of violence is another. What the entire West is doing is condemning violence rather than analyzing it. Consequently, it cannot find a remedy for this disease.
Q: What is your opinion on martyrdom and jihad in Iraq in your capacity as the Mufti of Istanbul?
A: It is prohibited.
Q: Why is it prohibited?
A: It is difficult to answer this question. The person who carries out such act faces Allah alone and he is the one to decide whether [he believes] it is right or wrong.
Q: But in your view is it prohibited?
A: I do not think that it is halal [religiously lawful].
A: Because the Iraqis and Islam are paying the price for these acts, which are an offence perpetrated by some against Islam therefore, I do not think it is halal. Today, the Islamic world is rich; is this wealth being used for the sake of the future or to build culture? There is no university that is on the same level as Harvard in the entire Islamic world. The Islamic world has failed to contribute to modern inventions. The Islamic world always blames others and sees itself as an innocent victim. This is part of our problem.
Q: How many mosques are in Turkey?
A: There are over 80, 000 mosques in Turkey.
Q: What are the most frequent questions raised by Turks in mosques?
A: When are you going to pray for rain [laughs]? The most popular questions are related to marriage and divorce and everyday issues. The number of Turks going to mosques is on the rise. In Istanbul, for example, there are 3000 mosques and we are about to build 350 new mosques in line with the increasing numbers.
Q: In your opinion, why are religious inclinations increasing in Turkey?
A: I think the reason behind this is the method with which religion is taught in Turkey. It is a modern and enlightened method, making people feel that one can be religious and part of the modern age at the same time. In that sense, Turkey is like the United States. When crises take place in America, people think that the solution is religion. It is also the case in Turkey; when internal and regional crises intensify, people turn to religious values and believe that the solution lies therein. Most unveiled women perform their five daily prayers according to the religious teachings that we follow. Religion is not a formal matter; rather it is values, behaviour and ethics. This is how the Turks understand Islam. There is a conflict in Turkey with respect to religion; nonetheless, it is not between those who want religion and those who do not want it. The truth is that those who do not want religion in Turkey are a very small minority. The conflict is between those who believe that religion must be reflected in the individual practices, behaviour and values and those who argue that religion is about outward appearances such as the veil, beard etc.
Q: What is the difference between Islam in Turkey and Islam in the Arab world from your point of view?
A: Unfortunately, I think that due to the conflicts and daily problems in the Arab world, the Arabs have failed to analyze the meaning of Islam. On the whole, this is the situation in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The real sense of jihad is to accelerate the pace of progress. Religion has two sides: belief in the heart and cultivation of the mind and each one is dependent on the other. Islam is a journey. If your heart believes and you are mindful, it is the sense of jihad, that is, the jihad of mind and knowledge, which is the greatest jihad. However, the Prophet Mohamed [PBUH] is an Arab, who was born in the Arab region that has a great history. This great history will help the region to formulate the future. I think that the Arab world’s future could be great in the next fifty or one hundred years.
Q: In the Arab world, some look at the Turkish model as one that can benefit the Arab world. Do you think that the Turkish model is suitable for the Arabs and could be imported to the Arab world?
A: The term ‘import’ is inappropriate. What is required from Arab and Turkish societies is to strengthen dialogue on common values. They can benefit from each other as there is no party that is better than the other. Strengthening the democratic experience is the most important thing. There is a lovely proverb by al Farabi: the state governed by philosophers is ideal, but the state governed by democracy is even better. The democratic state is in better condition than others because there is freedom in the democratic system. If the Islamic world opened the door to democracy and freedom, its problems would be resolved in the blink of an eye.