I have just returned from an academic trip to Turkey and Jordan. As travel often does, the trip provided me with an added perspective on American life and culture, simply through adding a comparative model. As an intern at Interfaith Alliance, I cannot help but see its value in the current, and raging, debate over religious liberty. In fact both nations are struggling with the place of religion in their public realms, and their debate provides interesting fodder for ours.
Turkey, a fiercely secular Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk, has seen nearly a half dozen military coups, interventions orchestrated by ranking military leaders whenever religion, namely Islam, become too much a part of government. This reality included the regular disillusion of parties with supposed “Islamist” leanings and often the imprisonment of their leaders. Reciting Quran or even mentioning one’s faith in a public forum was often cause for repression. In a very real sense Turkey was that nauseating state that made Rick Santorum throw up, “one where people of faith cannot approach the public life.”
However, since the early 2000’s this status quo has begun to change. The AK party, a fairly conservative democratic party, came to power under the stewardship of Turkey’s current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, famous for his public reading of an Islamic poem, and subsequent imprisonment in 1998. The Islamic leaning of the AK party has brought them mass support, as they garner nearly 50% of the popular vote, but also a great deal of condemnation. Some in Turkey and abroad, overplay or simply misconstrue the influence of Islam in their politics (perhaps most notably in the American context, Rick Perry, who referred to Turkey as a country led by terrorists). In a meeting with our class, an AK party parliamentarian, defended his party and told us Islam was a major part of his character and informed his beliefs, but also impressed upon him the value of a secular government.
In Jordan, the tides of the Arab spring have brought the discussion of religion in politics to new light. While the waves have certainly been gentler to the small Hashemite monarchy, especially compared to its close neighbor, Syria, change has certainly found its way to Jordan. In Amman, my class had the opportunity to meet with the Islamic Action Front, the Political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. The ideal state described by our speakers there, and one more than a few Jordanians subscribe to, is an Islamic state, though not in the sense the average American might imagine. Rather, they painted a picture of policy change that would discourage discrimination, as the Quran places all men and women on the same plain of equality, end corruption, as a sin Islam condemns, and support acceptance of the minority Christian population, as the Quran teaches there is no compulsion in religion. In an article in Time Magazine, the Freedom and Justice party of Morocco (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing in that nation) noted an interest in the model US Republican party leaders could provide as politicians who use their faith to inform their politics.
In short, the ongoing debate over the place of religion in the public realm is not unique to the United States. In fact, in a short guided discussion at Jordan University with a number of graduate students, I saw a microcosm of this international debate unfold. One student argued that the ideals of Islam were best expressed through a secular government, and that while policy could be informed by these beliefs, it need not don the title of its creditor. Another student countered that the people of Jordan were Muslims, and their government should mirror this quality; consent of the governed requires it. At this time, a fellow classmate of mine, and convert to Islam offered a unique perspective. “Some brothers back home” he offered, “feel we [Americans] are living in the closest thing on Earth to an Islamic State.” In perhaps the most powerful argument for a secular state I can imagine he credited the United States, the nation of all religions, as the closest to the ideal state of his religion in particular. As our President here at Interfaith Alliance, Welton Gaddy, always says, separation of religion and state is “good for government, and good for religion.”
John Favini has been interning for the spring in the Field and Outreach department of Interfaith Alliance. A Sophomore at Lafayette College studying international affairs, John’s internship is in combination with a semester at American University’s program on the Middle East and World Affairs, which included a 3 week trip to Jordan and Turkey.