Adrian Hamilton: Could Turkey create an Islam acceptable to the West?

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It was Manichaeus, the third century founder of the religion that bears his name, who announced his ministry with the statement that he would write his beliefs down himself, in contrast to previous religions, which were riven by internal divisions because their founders never did so.

He was right, of course. The great religions – Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam itself – all suffered from the fact that their followers had to rely on second-hand texts, often written centuries after. The Gospels, the Torah, the Buddhist sutra and the hadith of the Prophet Mohammed were all bedevilled not only by problems, and fierce arguments, over interpretation but also authenticity. On the one hand it opened the way to constant re-interpretation of religious lore as each generation looked at its guiding texts in a different light. On the other hand it equally opened itself to exclusive demands for orthodoxy based on literal interpretation of the texts.

Not that writing down a set text saved the Manichean religion or its founder.

Manichaeus, protected by one Persian ruler, was thrown to the Zoroastrian establishment by the next, to die in prison or, in some accounts, by crucifixion. His religion, which had spread rapidly along the Silk Route, collapsed under the pressure of Islam to the West and Chinese state religion to the east, to be recalled only in the madder flights of George Bush and Tony Blair's vision of a world caught in a battle between good and evil. Despite Manichaeus's insight into the fundamental weakness of established religions, it was they that survived and thrived in an endless redefinition of their texts. The lack of precision that was their weakness also proved to be their strength. This background is important when considering the latest news about Turkey's attempt to update the hadith, or sayings of Mohammed, on which much of Islamic sharia law is based. Sharia is too easily taken as peculiarly Islamic and particularly absolute. It isn't. As in other religions, Islamic law and the hadith on which it is based has been subject of constant revision by scholars seeking to understand what was a true reflection of the Prophet's views and what were the product of the customs and social mores written down a century and more after the event.

What is different with Islam at this time is the extent to which there has been a rise in orthodoxy and a return to a conservative interpretation of Islam in the Muslim world, largely for political reasons. A resort to faith, and the narrower interpretation of it, has become a means for Muslims to regain self-esteem at a time when they see themselves swamped by western values and betrayed by corrupt western-supported rulers.

For the middle class as well as poor Muslims, faith has become a route to dignity. And the trend to orthodoxy has been given added edge by the petrodollar-funded spread of the extremist Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia.

What is different about Turkey's move to liberalise the more oppressive tenets of the hadith is not so much what it is doing but that it is a state department of religious affairs which is doing it, at the behest of a governing party of Islamist origin elected to power in a secular country. That opens up the intriguing possibility that Turkey, an eager applicant for joining the EU, could bring with it an Islam redefined to become acceptable to a liberal west. It equally arouses fear that this is just the start of bringing Islamic law and values to a country that has been secular in constitution and culture since Ataturk turned it into a republic over 80 years ago.

It is easy to exaggerate the particular significance of the Turkish move. Turkey is no longer a centre of Islamic thought. Since the growth of orthodoxy is in itself partly a reaction against the west, anything that smacks of making Islam more westernised will tend to bring an immediate counter-reaction. The diktats of a department of religious affairs of a secular state is hardly the place where a reformation of a religion is going to start.

And yet the question of religious reformation in Islam is of profound importance to the West and to Europe in particular. The battle against extremism, in so far as it is a "battle", is not in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those have become problems of our own making. The challenge comes from within Europe itself, and how we respond to the resurgence of faith within the Muslim community.

Dismissing Islam as an intrinsically oppressive and even barbarous relic of medievalism, as some do, isn't going to help. We need to understand it as a living religion which has its impulses of reform as its drive to orthodoxy. Much like Christianity and Judaism in fact.