Turkey and Religious Identities in the Middle East

Davison who studies about the history of the term the Middle East describes it as “A geopolitical unit that develops around the Islam”. Indeed, at the same time, Middle East finds a niche in minds as “The history of the heritage that remained from Ottoman”, too. The only thing which has continuity in this geography is the hosting of the region to many cultures as a holder of universal values. In addition, the Middle East is a place where there is a multidirectional interaction between shipping, culture and faith areas and as a result of this it has hosted big changes that affected world history. Except for the last two centuries, this geography has always been at the centre of history.

There are bonds between people except sharing common interests; bonds for giving meaning daily life actions is one of them. Unification and interdependence around a certain belief, opinion, feeling and ritual bind each other and make them strong as a community and as people of the community. The collective identity getting by communities came to exist as a result of this need. Religious and national identities originate from the community’s need for unity and continuity. A community or its individuals can have many different sub-identities beside the common upper identity. As this sub-identity moves to the centre as upper identity, conflicts between identities are inevitable. Especially in the areas that the effects of globalisation are intensely seen, it is suggested that single identity creates a “fatal” area multi-identity creates an area that is open to consensus. But in the situations were multi identities are possible; while we consider the fact that every identity cannot be represented in one person in an “equal rate”, dominant identity will be always the formal/ruling identity.

In this text, the religious identities of Muslims in the Middle East are analysed. Following the death of Prophet Muhammad; the Islamic community was exposed to social and cultural changes which led to wars and power fights and provoked the emergence of different religious groups which conflicted with one another. Some of these identities disappeared in the historical process and some of them have survived until today.

Cults that come up from the different interpretations of Islamic orders are mentioned in our language as “denomination (the way that is followed)”. But in the Islamic thought history while Islamic law ecole is generally mentioned as denomination while political-theological ecole is mentioned as “side” or “division”. Baghdadi’s “Differences Between Denominations” and Al-Ash’ari’s “Discussions About Islam” and Al-Shahrastani’s “Devotees and Frivolous” are classical works of the history of denomination and they are related with Islamic thought history. Apart from this, in the first periods, people who stayed outside from the Followers of Sunnah wrote small-scale works to express their ideas. These works named as “makalat” (discussions) and very few of them survived until today.

Scholars following the sunnah wrote works about pervert sects. The reason for this was to warn the community against pervert sects by detailing these ideas as contradictory to the Sunnah doctrine. The same situation is valid in subsequent periods for works of Shia scholars, as well. In the works that were written during the first period, perverts of these groups were explained with rational and transplanted evidence, but subsequent works could not overreach the former works and create a radical criticism. Even groups that had no followers continued to be remembered in the works followed. It’s required to remember that; although these texts refer to religious texts, the reason of writing of these works was to subsidise and gain legitimacy to the dominating understanding. For this reason, they reflect a religious understanding, not Islam itself.

Middle East’s strategic importance and the vast energy sources it possesses led to a confrontation in the region by global and local powers. It not possible to understand the events occurring in this area without knowing the ethnic and religious identity of the Middle East. This geography hosts upper identities like Islam, Christianity as well as many religious and ethnic sub-identities. Religious identities in this area generally associated with ethnic identities. When we think in terms of our subject; Sunni-Shafi’ism and Ash’arism associated with Arabs and Kurds while Sunni-Shafi’ism and Maturidism are associated with Turks. When we speak of Shia, the first identity that comes to minds is Iran. In this topic, there are some exceptions. For instance, there are Arabs or Turks who accepted Shia and there are people accepting Shia or Ash’arism who are neither Arab nor Kurd. Similarly, there are Maturudites and Hanafis who are not Turk. Of course, this is not the ultimate classification of the religious identity of the Middle East. Groups that are close to Sunnism and Shafi’ism but different from them and groups who accept Sufism can also be mentioned. While Sufism rules in countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Salafi-Wahhabi conception that refuses Sufism rules in Saudi Arabia and some Gulf Countries. On the other hand, we should indicate that there are new conceptions and interpretations in Sunnism and Shia that we cannot associate with traditional sects.

Today in the Middle East the two biggest religious groups are Sunnism and Shia. Most of the Muslims in the Middle East are Sunnites. Shiites come after Sunnites. Sunnites and Shiites are divided into various subgroups among themselves. Consisting of these religious identities has many different reasons. Of them; wars, inner conflicts, kinship relations, geographic and cultural conditions, social changing are prominent. There were some familiarising and conciliation attempts between Shia and Sunnism but combination efforts of religious identities intertwining with ethnic and cultural identities did produce any result.

Two key facts of religious identity-based conflict that we witness in the Middle East are Iran and Saudi Arabia. These countries despite being ideologically different, share the same strategic goals. While Saudi Arabia dares to protect the Sunni-Arab World, Iran stands against this notion by clinging to the Shia identity. Saudi Arabia tries to hide its Salafi-Wahhabi ideology which has a marginal status in Sunnism by highlighting Shia antagonism; on the other hand, Iran tries to take all the religious identities that it sees as an ally by using Shia as an upper identity and thus to form a Shia defence line.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Shia’s became a political power again and struggle with the different powers led to the expanding and spreading of political hegemonic conflicts that originated from religious identity. The civil war in Lebanon, inner conflicts in Afghanistan and the power struggle in Iraq, wars in Yemen and Syria and inner chaos in Bahrain are examples of this. While Iran works for a structure that presents integrity and continuity by protecting the Shia identity, Saudi Arabia tries to block this attempt by highlighting ethnic identities in some areas with the help of the United States and Israel.

Although the Sunni identity appears stronger because of Iran’s moves lately, it opens to dangers that originated either from itself or from global power’s manipulations. An identity that is attempted to be created with a specific denomination brings along the consolidation of the denomination which is identified as “other”. Today this is a situation in both Sunnism and Shia in the Middle East. Some parts of the society trigger a new division and crash, intentionally or non-intentionally, by discontenting with Sunni upper identity, by doing sectarian nationalism with rationality, liberalism and development emphasise and therefore forming privileged denomination areas. Whereas, in the historical process and today, in the sources that are consulted by sects it is not difficult to find elements that can be used for their favour or opposition.

Conflicts of the religious identities are not destiny. Today, like in other regions, different religious identities can live together in the Middle East and in this way can enrich each other. In here, the important thing is not creating a religious identity that is pure and strict, it is forming an environment that enables life right to different religious identities. Religious conceptions, denominations and comments should be accepted as legal if they do not resort to violence, do not be disrupter and decomposer and do not attempt to constitute parallel forces to the state. Turkey, a regional power could inevitably be a world state should it approach religious identities in the Middle East from a different perspective. In other words, Turkey should develop “an inclusive policy” in point of religious identities. This, on the one hand, will strengthen our relationship with different identities, on the other hand, make way for prospering of religious intellectual life.

In this topic, some events from the Seljuk and Ottoman period can provide help. We can say that during the Seljuk era, there were warm relations between Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi and a Shiite philosopher Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Likewise, during Ottoman times and until Yavuz’s term, multiple interactions occurred and religious identities which have strong philosophic base perished.

On the intellectual basis, the Ottomans were in contact with the identities except for their own identity. Despite official Maturudite ideology, using Ash’ari books in the madrassahs, utilising the works of İbn-i Kemal (Kemalpaşazade) and some Shiite philosopher’s works are supportive examples of this idea.

Throughout history, in the periods that Muslims had an intellectual wealth,  a variety of relations developed in a parallel way and caused intellectual interactions. When we think in the context of Turkey, the thing to be done is providing consolidation for the interaction between religious identities on a philosophical basis, putting forth the basic essence, not the rituals that compose of the identities. Certainly, the base will be, as in history, philosophical word and Islamic philosophy besides philosophy. By the courtesy of philosophy, we will reveal the basis of our problems that we argue today, and we will provide the handling of our religious identities on the correct basis. Philosophic word and Islamic philosophy will determine the common meeting points without renouncing current religious identities. This will keep us from, at the same time, superficial, barren, discriminator and marginalising discussions, and contribute to a place that we can live with our identities together. Muslim groups can create strong bridges between each other with speaking about the religious -philosophic basis of elements that forms their identities but without permission of the instrumentalization of religious identities as political and ideological. Historical experience and heritage are available. Religious identities today, do not carry a different meaning from triggering and legalising of the current confrontational policies. It is seen that countries that follow a confrontational policy by using the religious identities do not take into consideration the constituent the elements of this identity so much in their domestic affairs