Interview with Turkish Islamic scholar Professor Mustafa Ozturk

"Religious groups need to be transparent"

Mustafa Ozturk, a professor specialising in "tafsir" – Koranic exegesis – at Istanbulʹs Marmara University was recently accused of blasphemy. Convinced that various Islamic groups seeking to influence Turkish politics are responsible, Ozturk is actively considering self-imposed exile. Interview by Ayse Karabat

You have recently received death threats. Why?

Mustafa Ozturk: I represent the protest approach. For me, religion is not about regulating the nitty gritty of daily life in accordance with the sacred texts. Religion conceives that basic principles and theorems construct the human being, based on morals and ethics. Yet Muslim individuals should also benefit from philosophy, science and received wisdom, because I believe that religious texts are not applicable for all times and kinds of sociologies. For those taking the traditional approach, however, the situation is the opposite. They claim that even if the text dates back 1,440 years, it is still applicable. I, on the other hand, believe that God addressed the people in and of that time, as well as in the abstract, in accordance with basic principles such as justice, the oneness of God and social solidarity.

Take slavery, for example, which is mentioned in the Koran. If we think like the traditionalists, we can assert that because God mentions it, slavery cannot be abolished. Yet slavery is not a universal norm. Back then, it was not possible to abolish it; religion merely proposed the regulation and humanisation of the system. What makes me sad is that although the Koran implies that slavery should be abolished, it was Western civilisation that ultimately banned it.

You have been defending these ideas for a long time. Why are you experiencing an increase in attacks now?

Ozturk: My instincts tell me that those who are behind the attacks consider me a threat to their traditional views, because when I defend my ideas, I am able to debunk their traditional arguments. I hit them with their own weapons. They can see that my ability to convince people is growing stronger. We are also in the run-up to local elections. Those who attack me are trying to tell the powers that be "look how powerful our group is? We can harm anyone we call a target, so youʹd better listen to us."

Why do some Islamic groups feel the need to boost their power in the political arena?

Ozturk: They are out to seize control of certain state institutions like the Diyanet – the national religious affairs directorate – that regulates all Islamic issues relating to public life and the country as a whole. Nor am I the only Islamic scholar to have been targeted. Common to all these targets are their relations with the Diyanet. They are seeking to provoke pious Muslims, saying "you see, Diyanet is publishing and supporting the works of people who defend ideas contrary to our beliefs. So stand up and take action." By doing so, they hope to establish hegemony over the religious institutions, seizing control of them in order to determine religious policy in Turkey. Moreover, the economic potential is huge. If Diyanet publishes a book of yours, for instance, and directs all of its members to buy one, you can make a fortune in a single day.

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