After September 11, 2001 attacks, the Western world have encountered a new challenge: a conflict more difficult to overcome than fighting against Communism, and an ideology, in the minds of many people, more dangerous than Soviet Russia. There was a new threat in the world, and it was called “Islam.”
Actually Islam has existed for about 1400 years, covering a geography that includes the Middle East, Central Asia, Northern Africa, and most parts of Southeast Asia. Mulsim immigrants were always entering the West, but they had their own way of living, and many who did not integrate well were isolated from society.
After September 11th, Westerners have started to suspect the motives and intentions of these generally silent and introverted people. Were they harmless people just trying to survive in a different society, or were they a new threat for peace, tolerance, democracy, and human rights in the Western hemisphere?
Soon, politicians and the media focused on this issue, and many reached the conclusion that “Islam was not only a religion, but it is also an ideology aimed to spread around the world, penetrate in every society, and transform them into a new form which was not democratic and peaceful”.
The overall opinion of an average Westerner about Islam is mostly negative. The religion is seen as an anti-democratic, oppressive, primitive kind of belief system, which gives no room to personal freedoms and human rights. Unfortunately, even though the sources of information are not very reliable compared to most in our era, this image, somehow, is believed to reflect the general truth about Islam and its political motivations.
Because of this negative image, many countries have established new prohibitions on fundamentalist versions of Islam. For example in April 2011, France banned wearing the burqa (a black cloth covering a woman’s whole body) in the streets. Even though this ban is itself anti-democratic, it is hard to deny that most women wear burqas not because they want to, but because they are told to do by their husbands, fathers, or brothers. This is a both psychological and physical pressure that exists throughout a woman’s entire life.
The problem of the burqa is an example exhibiting one of the main controversies of Islam in the West: the rights of women in a Muslim society. According to many Muslim intellectuals, everyone has free will and has rights to live in the way he or she believes. But in practice, these rights are almost impossible to exercise. In Islam there are very strict rules, created over centuries and perpetrated through Hadith, and these rules limit the lives of women much more than men.
In Europe and the U.S., women fought for their basic rights and won them eventually. To dismiss these rights is unthinkable for most of Western society, but according to the “unwritten” rules of Islam, women can receive only what men agree to give them.
According to Islamic law Sharia, women have a limited right to inheritance. For example after the death of the father of a family, a sister receives half of what a brother receives. According to Nisa, verse 11 of the Qur’an, God says that men should take “what is equal to the share of two females”. We see the same situation in courts. The testimony of one man is equal to the testimony of two women. In Islamic law, two women are equal to one man (Baqarah, verse 282). This is a fact of the Qur’an, and it is unquestionable in Islam.
In Islamic literature from across the centuries, one can find hundreds of arguments that Islam sees women as second class humans. Rules stated in the Qur’an and some sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed are interpreted to teach that women are like the devil and should be controlled by men by any means necessary.
For decades, Turkey has been known as the most democratic and liberal Muslim country in the world. This impression is true when the founding principles of the Republic and its unique secularist tradition are compared to modern-day Iran or Saudi Arabia. But that does not mean that Islamist groups are tolerant of other groups in Turkey. In the recent history of Anatolia, fundamentalists have attacked innocent people claiming that they were “infidels” and were the “enemies of God.”
In the late 1970s, Sunni extremists attacked the Alevi community (a smaller order of Islam) in many cities and massacred hundreds, including babies, children, and pregnant women. In 1993, in the city of Sivas, fundamentalist Islamists attacked a group of intellectuals visiting the city. They trapped these intellectuals in a hotel and then burned the building, burning 37 people alive. The reason stated for the attack was that one of these intellectuals, a famous writer named Aziz Nesin, had declared that he did not believe in God, and that the rest of the intellectuals either were Alevis or had sympathy for the Alevi people. Finally, a few years ago in the city of Adıyaman, it was revealed that a family had buried their daughter alive in their backyard. The parents told the police that the girl had short talks with boys from their neighborhood and violated their honor. According to this family, burying her alive would clean their family name and clean their conscience when they faced God.
As news of fundamentalists’ actions spread across the world, Westerners have begun to fear the effect of these fundamentalists in their own societies. Especially in Europe, they are mostly worried about immigration from Islamic countries and the rising number of fundamentalist Muslims in their societies. It is obvious that some Western politicians have used the fear of Islam and encouraged Islamophobia in order to gain political power, but this does not hide the reality that fundamentalist Islamist ideology is incompatible with the values of Europe and U.S. It looks that this century will be a battle ground for the clash of these two worlds and two ideologies.
Gönenç Ünaldı is an independent researcher and writer living in Istanbul, Turkey. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences from Eskişehir Anadolu University in Turkey, and his Master’s degree in International Relations from Istanbul Kültür University in Turkey.