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Turkish reader reflects on religion’s role in Middle East

Alexandria Kassman, thank you for your comments. (“”Religion should unite, not divide,”” March 27, 2009) I am a 78-year-old retired hospital pharmacist living in Turkey with my wife. Stereotyping is the method used by those who are indifferent, too lazy, too proud or too filled with hate to see the “”other”” as human.

There are many factors that divide people besides religion, e.g. ethnicity, nationalism and political or economic ideologies. Religious differences even among believers over small matters reflect the small and narrow minds of many who fail to focus on the essence of faith.

Individuals may be able to overcome differences, but when they act as a group that competes with another group over doctrine and how to apply or implement their faith, especially in the public arena, or where there is a political dimension, conflict can arise.

Differences in social policies regarding the role of women and the family and the view that there is a universal standard of behavior that must be adhered to everywhere and for all time puts one group as modern and progressive and the other as backward and barbaric.

The feminist crusade for liberation of women is still going on in the West even though the radical brand is not as influential. As an American Muslim from a converted Jewish father, I am aware of the strong feelings held by many Muslims, especially after the establishment of Israel. There is a rising religiousness in the Muslim world and a political wish to get rid of undemocratic governments and bring back the previous benefits of Islamic civilization to counter the humiliation of years of colonialism and imperialism and the mistaken view that communism, socialism or a Western-style democracy is the solution to their problems.

Islam is being suppressed from Tunisia to China and in the Asiatic Republics. Islam in Turkey is seen as a threat to the secular state and women are deprived of the right to go to school or work in government with a head covering. France does not allow it or any religious symbol to be worn in school, and the growing Muslim population is seen as in danger of changing the indigenous culture and values by not assimilating instead of simply integrating.

Whether it is a war of civilizations or values, tolerance of diversity and pluralism is not there except in the U.S. and the UK, which have longer experience with immigration.

The Palestine/Israel conflict and America’s one-sided policy has exacerbated the problem. The attitude of most Israelis towards Arabs is well known. Terrorism was seen as the only solution and this has enabled Israel to continue the occupation and the latest Gaza offensive in the name of self-defense has angered moderate Israelis.

Actually, most adherents of the major religions are ignorant and do not understand the ethical dimensions of their faith. Religious leaders, especially in the Muslim world, have not sufficiently addressed this problem, which requires an all-out effort to educate. Politics have gotten in the way. Moderates have not been able to have their voices heard because the stronger voices of confrontation and polarization have increased.

With young people like you there is hope, especially if there are more intercultural and inter-religious exchanges. Political and religious leaders may manipulate the masses and it is the responsibility of the educated laity to counter this.

The Muslim world is very diverse but is today seen as a security threat and any development of Islamic thinking and practice with the idea of unifying Muslims into a block is looked upon as a threat to the interests of the West, particularly the U.S. Our government refused entry to Tariq Ramadhan to teach at Notre Dame and didn’t allow Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) either in the name of homeland security.

I hope Obama can modify U.S. policy, especially where it sees any Islamic resurgence as terrorism in the making. Where moderation cannot breathe fresh air, fanaticism breathes fire.

Ameer Raschid

Bodrum, Turkey