That is “pious” Turkey, but “pious” not necessarily in the sense of dedication to Islam’s essential teachings, but rather to various norms of display and attitude such as how one dresses or covers herself, dietary restrictions and other commandments regarding non-spiritual practice.
I have become quite used to “pious” twisting and corrupting of Koranic verses for political purposes, but at a recent event I saw that the power of “political spin” among the pious knows no limits.
The occasion: Honoring a visiting professor who has gained international fame for his studies on Islam, democracy and secularism.
The venue: A Western embassy in Ankara.
The date: A hot noon last week.
The cast: The hosting diplomats, the visiting professor, a leading member of Parliament from the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a professor who writes a column for a newspaper with too obvious links to the "Muslim Pope" who resides in Pennsylvania, a researcher from a think tank too obviously linked to the AKP, a female activist from a "Muslim" NGO working for women’s rights, and my poor self.
Throughout the lunch and discussion, I tried not to make too much noise in this all-too-pro-AKP gathering of guests, fearing total defeat in this one vs. five (including the visiting professor) set-up should things turn violent. It could be too late before our neutral hosts saved me from enemy attacks. So I listened obediently, remembering to nod often, and even tried to look good to the others by helping with translations for the professor. With only a few minutes to go, the professor asked the female activist to tell him more about her NGO and its activities. This apparently pious Muslim lady said that her organization defended women’s rights, especially with its national campaign for campus freedom for women wearing the Islamic headscarf, or "turban."
My mind was busy wondering whether that particular women’s rights organization would launch a campaign if Muslim women who wear mini-skirts and are harassed by pious Muslim men in their neighborhoods appealed for help. I was also thinking silently, why would a women’s rights organization identify itself with "Muslim women" only? Would just "women" not make a just enough cause for democratic struggle? Do pious Muslim women have different rights than secular Muslim women? Are freedoms divisible?
I returned to her speech when I heard her confidently arguing, "Islam is the most feminist religion." I attempted to ask her a question, but was instantly silenced by the activist and the professor Ğ though certainly in a polite manner. I left the lunch unconvinced and did some research. "Anyone can interpret any verse in any way," the experts told me in unison. "As long as you find an audience to follow youÉ"
The heart of the matter is a Muslim’s interpretation of the Koran, not only about issues related to feminism, but also to our nation’s deep divide along pious/secular lines. Pious Muslims often have faith based on a dogmatic interpretation of Islam’s holy book, which they view as the unchallengeable word of Allah, letter-by-letter, line-by-line. Hence, for example, their abstinence from even a drop of alcohol or bite of pork, which are explicit Koranic commandments.
Secular Muslims, on the other hand, may have faith deemed by the others as "too loose" because it is often based on a non-dogmatic interpretation of the Koran. The "big Turkish crack," in simplistic terms, is nothing but a clash of two lifestyles based on two different interpretations of the role of religion in daily life.
I asked the "Muslim feminist" lady how she or her organization would interpret the verse that discriminates against female children in the sharing of inheritances. She smiled back and said that they "interpret that verse differently." I was astonished, rethinking classical Islamic arguments decorated with the words "the word of God," "it’s a sin to interpret" and "verses are the eternal truth and cannot be modified or commented on."
But if the verses are "untouchable," how could a pious Muslim defend her case simply by saying "we’ve reinterpreted that verse?" If everyone is free to interpret verses, no matter how explicit they are, why do pious Muslims only reinterpret the verses that fit into their political agenda and leave the others "holy"? Would someone be welcome if he reinterpreted the verses on alcohol and pork and concluded that good Muslims need not abstain from either? What is the gauge in this selective tolerance for reinterpretation? Why would any reinterpretation not touch on other practical matters?
I sincerely wish that lady the best of luck because she and her friends will need much good fortune. I am not going to repeat the verse that allows men to marry up to four wives (a privilege not granted to women), or the findings of a study last year that said a quarter of Turks think women and men should not work in the same office. But here are a few examples of holy verses from "the most feminist faith":
- "...And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree [of advantage] over them..." (2:228)
- "...Let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her..." (2:282)
- "Allah [thus] directs you as regards your children’s [inheritance]: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females..." (4:11)
- "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means..." (4:34)