Eight years ago, Abdurrahman Yazigan came to the United States from Turkey in order to study. He is a Kurdish Muslim working with the Atlantic Institute, an organization affiliated with the Hizmet movement that promotes and facilitates inter-religious dialogue. Yazigan has a thorough understanding of Islam and the current geopolitical problems facing the Middle East and other parts of the world, and he travels throughout the Southeast, lecturing on these topics. He obtained his citizenship last year and awaits his fiance’s visa acceptance into the United States. His family still lives in Turkey.
Jeremy Beaman: First of all, I have to get your insight into what’s happened with the coup and Erdogan.
Abdurrahman Yazigan: It’s a very bad situation, what’s going on in Turkey. Some people say that Erdogan and his government, that what they want is to be totally authoritarian and that whoever is against them will be silenced. Erdogan uses that as an excuse to close the television stations, radio stations, and universities of those who disagree with him. Erdogan uses any kind of excuse to take more power. 100,000 people have lost their jobs and 115 universities have been closed. Erdogan blames people who are against him politically, even though they weren’t necessarily involved in the coup, and that’s why he closes those places. Now, I’m living here, so I am able to compare, but many people in Turkey believe that is normal or okay. In this country, you are free to say whatever you like about the government and there is no problem but in Turkey, if you oppose the government, even if you just say there is something wrong, you will be seen as a terrorist and put in jail. When I talk to my friends, I tell them “Go to Europe, come to the U.S. so that you can understand the difference.” Like I said, Erdogan has been looking for an excuse to take more power and now he has his excuse.
JB: And you work for the Atlantic Institute, correct?
AY: Yes; the Atlantic Institute is part of the Hizmet movement, which Erdogan and others are blaming for the coup.
JB: Erdogan also blames Fethullah Gulen (founder of the movement), who is here in the United States.
AY: Yes and he is the head of the Hizmet movement. Hizmet means “service,” as in service for the society. Maybe you have read Gulen’s article in the New York Times. Hizmet strongly supports democracy and mutual respect among different people. Each member of Hizmet strongly believes in democracy and justice because without those things, it is impossible to exist peacefully in the world. We strongly believe in democracy, justice, human rights, all that stuff. In fact, Turkey did very well with those things, starting back in 2003 and most of the people working within the Hizmet movement worked for Erdogan’s government. At that time, Erdogan emphasized democracy.
JB: What happened?
AY: I think Erdogan wanted more power.
JB: What do you think will happen next?
AY: It’s very hard to tell. Hopefully we will attain purer democracy. We have democracy, but not like the U.S., not like Europe. We want democracy like the U.S. They say that Egypt has democracy, but democracy is not only about elections. You must look at the rights of other people, Muslim and non-Muslim.
JB: Which are the strongest democracies in the Middle East at this time? I would say Egypt, Turkey, even though it has problems right now, and maybe Jordan. What do you think?
AY: I think it’s hopeful that Egypt will have a strong democracy. In fact, the story of Egypt and the story of Turkey are very similar. In both countries, we have seen a form of political Islam take control, in Egypt with el-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood and in Turkey with Erdogan. The Hizmet movement strongly opposed political Islam because within political Islam, we cannot see real democracy.
JB: Now what do you mean when you say “political Islam?” Does that include Shari’a?
AY: Possibly, and again, within political Islam you cannot see real democracy. For example; during Ramadan, political Islam says you have to fast, but in civil Islam, the choice is yours.
JB: So the two options are political Islam and civil Islam?
AY: Yes, so in civil, the choice to fast is up to you. But right now, in political Islam, the government enforces law that you must fast. In Saudi Arabia, they have a religious police. During Ramadan, if you do not go to the mosque to pray, the police come to your home and ask you, why aren’t you going to pray? But in civil Islam, it is up to you. The religion, it is between you and God. We do not need political Islam.
JB: Now let me ask you a question about that, because I just wrote an article about Islam and Christianity. Christianity did not begin as a political religion. Jesus hardly said anything about politics, and he said nothing about establishing a religious government. But it seems like Islam, since the beginning, has been about politics. Would you agree with that?
AY: No, I do not agree because when we look at the life of the Prophet, we can see that it was not political Islam. For example, when he moved from Medina to Mecca, he made an agreement between Christians Jews and Muslims that everyone has a role in government but after the Prophet, it depends what you are looking for. If the government in a Muslim country was not democratic, then the rulers put their religion into the government and mixed the two. The Ottoman Empire was different. It had Shari’a law but only for Muslims, not for non-Muslims. We want democracy, civil Islam. If you want to go to the mosque and pray, that is your choice. If not, that is also your choice.
JB: What you are saying seems to run contrary to much of the mainstream in Muslim countries. Would you consider yourself a Sufi Muslim?
AY: The Hizmet movement is very close to Sufism.
JB: Would you say that tawhid, the oneness of God, is the most central belief in Islam?
AY: Well tawhid has more to do with the religion than politics, but yes, the religion is structured around that belief. It is the common belief between Shia, Sunni, and Sufi Muslims.
JB: The reason I asked is because I have another Muslim friend very similar to you, in that he believes strongly in western democracy and that so many of the problems in the Middle East come from the perversion of Islam. He says that Islam is all about the oneness of God, but Muslims over the centuries have made it about other things.
AY: You know, right now we have the same problem that you had before, Christianity, the problem between the church and the government. The problem we have is that many scholars try to equate this time to the time of Mohammed. For example, they might say that the Prophet Mohammed did not use a car so we don’t have to, which does not make sense. We cannot bring that time to this time, many things are going to change over time. The main things have to be the same: you must believe in God and the core beliefs, but the things around the core beliefs can change, depending on the environment, the time. For example, apostates used to be killed. The reason for that was that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all had different armies so if someone left the religion, he betrayed his army as well. This time is a different situation, so apostates should not be treated that way.
JB: How do we stop ISIS?
AY: We need help from the U.S. and other European governments.
JB: What about the Middle Eastern governments?
AY: Well, many of those governments practice political Islam and are not very different than ISIS. The solution is democracy.
JB: Are the problems in the Middle East happening because of the religion of Islam?
AY: I do not believe it is the religion. I am a Muslim but believe strongly in democracy. The problem is that too many of the commentators of the Quran are pressuring governments to return to how things were done during the time of the Prophet. It does not make sense to me why you cannot be a Christian in a majority Muslim country. That is not true Islam. When you look at the life of the Prophet, you cannot see those things happen. For example, when he went to Medina, he made peace. He did not kill those of other religions. People today use the religion for their own purposes, to gain power, like Erdogan. It is not about Islam.
JB: It seems like after every terrorist attack, President Obama and others come out to the public and declare that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam whatsoever. Do you agree with that? Is it fair to say that religion motivates terrorists, whether true religion or a perversion?
AY: Yes, and let me explain. We [Muslims] need to have a louder voice. Without any reason, we need to condemn the attacks. They have no justification in Islam. But still some people try to find an excuse, and that is not acceptable. First, we need to criticize ourselves and ask why these people, who grew up in a Muslim society, are killing people? If we say, “Yes they are terrorists but…” You cannot say but. For example, it is happening in France. Many say, “The attacks are bad but remember what the French did in Algeria.” Those are different from each other. We cannot justify attacking civilian people because of what their government did.
JB: I’ve heard you say before that the Muslim world needs a reform. What should reform look like?
AY: There are many Muslim scholars saying we need a reform, like Tariq Ramadan. Christianity had a reform and we need one too.