The efforts to establish a unifying foundation of mutual respect, understanding and trust among the members of different religions and to eradicate distrust and suspicion are worthy of high praise, and I would like to express my appreciation to the organizers of this seminar on the dialogue of civilizations and the future of the Middle East. The ideas that are generated and shaped during such gatherings have the potential to serve as important building blocks for projects that will make the world a better and safer place to live in.

The historical fact that members of different religions lived side by side in culturally most diverse places like Jerusalem for hundreds of years in peace and harmony during Ottoman times shows that mutual trust and global peace are possible so long as justice and basic human rights are observed and equality before the law is upheld. There is a lot to be learned from such experiences, and the invisible threads that held these diverse groups of people together for so long need to be investigated.

The rise of the European Union as a monument of peace and harmony on the common ground of shared values from the centuries-old conflicts and the ruins of two world wars is a testimony to the effectiveness and the importance of dialogue and the mutual trust that follows. At a time of heightened concern over the clash of civilizations, it is important to establish a common ground on shared human values such as fairness and mutual respect on which all civilizations can coexist peacefully and develop freely, turning the planet earth into a colorful garden of civilization flowers — to the point that each flower complements and enhances the beauty of other fellow flowers rather than being a threat to them. It is thus possible to establish a worldwide union on the common ground of universal values and basic human rights and freedoms that cater to differing tastes and flavors, turning the world into a grand feast and a glittering diamond.

In our search for the solutions, the guiding light should be knowledge, reason and the realities of time. The platform should be true democracy. And the process should be mutual consultation and dialogue in an atmosphere of free speech in which the ideas can clash and emanate rays of truth.

The source of threats facing humanity is not the civilizations themselves but rather the destructive traits in human nature nurtured by injustice, indifference and ignorance. Destructive souls equipped with overgrown destructive traits will exhibit destructive behavior even if they are nurtured by the highest civilizations. As Said Nursi puts it: “The bee drinks water and makes honey. The snake drinks water and makes poison.” Likewise, the sunlight that lights up the world can cause the things with a tendency to go bad to decompose and stink.

The real problems underlying the perception of the conflict and the eventual clash of civilizations are ignorance, distrust, injustice and the violation of basic human rights and freedoms. The solutions to these problems are education, establishing mutual trust by getting to know one another, being fair in dealings since justice is the core of all virtue and observing the rights and freedoms of individuals. But we should start by being part of the solution, not the problem. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Therefore, everyone and every segment must start by adopting modern values such as freedom, democracy, justice, reason and sciences, and making positive action the cornerstone of their movement.

Ignorance and bigotry are the major obstacles on the road to advancement; and education is the key to the removal of those obstacles, the opening of the channels of dialogue between civilizations and establishing lasting peace in the world. But effective education can occur only in an atmosphere of freedom of thought and expression, and thus in an environment of democracy. Therefore, we cannot address the greater problems facing the region and the world unless we initiate a process to establish greater democracy in the broader Middle East and north Africa.

An inspirational Chinese story

A long time ago, a girl named Li-Li got married and went to live with her husband and mother-in-law. In a very short time, Li-Li found that she couldn’t get along with her mother-in-law at all. Their personalities were very different, and Li-Li was angered by many of her mother-in-law’s habits. In addition, she criticized Li-Li constantly.

Days and weeks passed. Li-Li and her mother-in-law never stopped arguing and fighting. But what made the situation even worse was that, according to ancient Chinese tradition, Li-Li had to bow to her mother-in-law and obey her every wish. All the anger and unhappiness in the house was causing the poor husband great distress. Finally, Li-Li could not stand her mother-in-law’s bad temper and dictatorship any longer, and she decided to do something about it.

Li-Li went to see her father’s good friend, Mr. Huang, who sold herbs. She told him the situation and asked if he would give her some poison so that she could solve the problem once and for all. Mr. Huang thought for a while, and finally said, “Li-Li, I will help you solve your problem, but you must listen to me and obey what I tell you.” Li-Li said, “Yes, Mr. Huang, I will do whatever you tell me to do.” Mr. Huang went into the back room, and returned in a few minutes with a package of herbs. He told Li-Li: “You can’t use a quick-acting poison to get rid of your mother-in-law because that would cause people to become suspicious. Therefore, I have given you a number of herbs that will slowly build up poison in her body. Every other day prepare some pork or chicken and put a little of these herbs in her serving. Now, in order to make sure that nobody suspects you when she dies, you must be very careful to act very friendly towards her. Don’t argue with her, obey her every wish, and treat her like a queen.” Li-Li was so happy. She thanked Mr. Huang and hurried home to start her plot of murdering her mother-in-law.

Weeks and months went by, and every other day, Li-Li served the specially treated food to her mother-in-law. She remembered what Mr. Huang had said about avoiding suspicion, so she controlled her temper, obeyed her mother-in-law and treated her like her own mother. After six months had passed, the whole household had changed. Li-Li had practiced controlling her temper so much that she found that she almost never got mad or upset. She hadn’t had an argument in six months with her mother-in-law, who now seemed much kinder and easier to get along with.

The mother-in-law’s attitude toward Li-Li changed, and she began to love Li-Li like her own daughter. She kept telling friends and relatives that Li-Li was the best daughter-in-law one could ever find. Li-Li and her mother-in-law were now treating each other like a real mother and daughter. Li-Li’s husband was very happy to see what was happening.

One day, Li-Li came to see Mr. Huang and asked for his help again. She said: “Dear Mr. Huang, please help me to keep the poison from killing my mother-in-law! She’s changed into such a nice woman, and I love her like my own mother. I do not want her to die because of the poison I gave her.” Mr. Huang smiled and nodded his head. “Li-Li, there’s nothing to worry about. I never gave you any poison. The herbs I gave you were vitamins to improve her health. The only poison was in your mind and your attitude toward her, but that has been all washed away by the love which you gave to her.”  The moral of the story is, as said in China, “The person who loves others will also be loved.” This can be extended to nations as well as civilizations.   

Effective education

The age we live in is rightly called the age of information and communication, and technology has become the greatest source of wealth and power for individuals, corporations and nations. There is a universal emphasis on education and intense efforts to have a knowledge-based economy.

The primary goal of education is not to acquire knowledge but to master the ability to develop new knowledge. This ability is the engine of progress and the driver of change. If education consisted of recording information in memories, then computers would be the most effective learners and the most knowledgeable beings on earth. Yet computers are only tools, and they have value only in the hands of people with motivation, self-confidence, imagination and creativity. Therefore, educating individuals without equipping them with such attributes is really bringing out highly trained individuals — like intelligent robots — only to be manipulated and exploited by masters. If a nation has the desire to bring out world leaders in sciences, technology, culture and even in world policies, the starting point is the creation of an environment in educational institutions of all levels in which students are highly motivated, develop self-confidence and are encouraged to be imaginative and creative. And the basic platform on which this can be accomplished is democracy, in which individuals are equipped with the highest level of freedom and are provided with the utmost rights. Technology development is a highly creative activity, and it is nourished best in the lands of freedom. Therefore, it is no surprise that the most technologically advanced nations are the ones with the highest level of freedom. Oppression undermines creativity and closes the door to development, making a nation dependent on others. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Without adequate motivation, confidence, creativity and imagination, education cannot be very effective, and individuals cannot develop to their fullest potential. This results in the waste of human resources, which are the key resources of modern times.

Freedom and democracy

If we look at human history, we will see that there are natural developmental stages of humankind from infancy to adulthood. First it was savagery and the uncivilized era, then slavery and captivity, followed by the era of free labor. Judging from tendencies and aspirations of all people, there can be no doubt that we are in a period of freedom. Every age comes with its own basket of values, and abolishes older values which have become irrelevant. Those who close their eyes to this reality and insist on doing business the old way are antiquated, and the result of this is backwardness and drifting away from the contemporary world.  

The basic feature that makes human beings human and distinguishes them from the rest of creation is the possession of free will, even on a limited scale, and bearing the responsibility of their choices. Humankind owes its existence to freedom, which is a core value of humanity. Hence, respect for freedom and free will is respect for the existence of humankind. Attempts to abolish freedom and to robotize humankind are an assault on the essence of humanity, and human nature rejects such an assault. Freedom can be viewed as an attribute of belief, and the compassion and dignity that stem from belief should keep one from oppressing others or being oppressed by others.  

Humanity, just like a human being, goes through the stages of growth and development, and it has its periods of childhood and adulthood as well. It is possible to understand the lack of freedom, the abundance of prohibitions and the strictness of the rules during the childhood period of humanity to safeguard against deception and harmful influences. However, humankind has now outgrown childhood and reached maturity. Skills for reasoning and questioning have advanced, and education and science have established a healthy common ground. In a time like this when the winds of freedom are blowing at global scale, fearing freedom and seeking refuge in prohibitions is backwardness and falling behind the times. Yes, there will be some who make the wrong choices and suffer a loss in this environment of freedom. But this loss will be small compared with the greater good brought about by freedom. As Nursi said, forsaking an act that will result in a great benefit in order to avoid a small loss is a great loss. It is well established that the lesser evil is acceptable for the greater good. If an evil which will lead to a greater good is abandoned so that a lesser evil is avoided, a greater evil will then have been committed.

The phrase “use it or lose it” is applicable to the brain as well as to the muscles. When an athlete stops exercising, he starts losing muscle and his athleti c abilities start to decline. When a person starts eating less, his stomach gets smaller. Likewise, when a person stops thinking, the intellectual abilities of that person will begin to diminish. Considering that brain power is one of our greatest resources, true poverty is the lack of adequate brain power rather than the lack of material goods. Genuinely poor countries are those that are poor in intellectual resources and imagination, poor in self-confidence and initiative, and poor in hope and future outlook. The starting point to cure these ills of poverty is democracy equipped with the highest level of freedom. In oppressive societies, people begin to think alike. As Walter Lippman puts it, “When all think alike, no one is thinking very much.” Harry Fosdick adds, “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”

Democracy may have its faults, but it sets the stage for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Oppression, on the other hand, is an inhuman system and serves the base interests of the few at the expense of the common good. Today many oppressive regimes carry the label of democracy or republicanism in their names. But truth does not change simply by switching names. Karl Popper cites a clear distinction: “I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence ‘democracy’ and the other, ‘tyranny.’” Oppressive regimes are easily recognized by the presence of disproportionately privileged individuals, which is an indication of injustice and spreads hatred and animosity. Democracy is the best assurance against injustice. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Democracy and religion: friends, not foes

The presence of deeply rooted prejudices and misunderstandings — even in this age of information — is truly unfortunate for humanity. Many people, for instance, religious or not, still believe that religiosity and democracy are opposites of one another and cannot coexist. Similarly, many believe that a democratic government is incompatible with Islam and that Islam, therefore, poses a potential threat to democratic regimes. This cannot be further from the truth.

Democracy is the regime most compatible with Islam. The Khulefa al-Rashidun (rightly guided Caliphs, the first four leaders of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Mohammed), who were elected by the free will of the Muslim community, were presidents in the real sense. This application of the principle of democracy in the purest and earliest era of Islam is clear proof that the form of government most suitable to the essence of Islam is democracy, not monarchy. The early Muslims’ determination of their presidents by election while monarchism was the rule all over the world and their decision to choose leaders that were not the kin of the Prophet is highly significant. It shows that the companions of the Prophet, known for being the most pious of Muslims, were true democrats.

The essence of real democracy is freedom in its broadest sense, starting with the freedom of expression and practicing free consultation in decision making, rather than yielding to the imposition of a person or a group. Indeed, republicanism is a regime of consultation with the public. The Quranic verses “they conduct their affairs by mutual consultation” and “consult with them in your affairs” can be cited as proof that democracy is the form of government most compatible with Islam. The Prophet of Islam interpreted these verses in the best way possible during his lifetime by consulting with the prominent members of the community and following the majority opinion, even when it is against his own opinions (as happened with the famous decision regarding the Battle of Uhud).

A scholarly view on freedom, democracy, politics and Islam

The prominent and influential Turkish Islamic scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960) reconciled modern values, believed to be contrary to religion by many, with religion. He considered freedom more important than even physical sustenance and he saw freedom of conscience and religion as the most basic of human rights. He saw the separation of religion and state as a reality of the times and he made positive action and the maintenance of peace and order a cornerstone of his movement. A careful study of his Risale-i Nur (The Treatise of Light) clearly shows that Nursi, while being deeply pious, was a strong advocate of freedom, democracy and republicanism with the utmost respect for the freedom of religion and conscience.

Nursi states that all forms of leadership, including presidency, are a type of servanthood, and he bases this notion on a hadith (a saying of the Prophet) that he views as a “constitution of Islam”: “The chief of a nation is the one who serves its citizens.” About this hadith, he writes: “Public officials and administrators are not chiefs, but servants to people. Democracy and freedom of conscience can be based on this fundamental law of Islam.” While many Muslim thinkers have had a difficult time trying to reconcile Islam and democracy, Nursi based freedom of conscience this fundamental law of Islam and presented democracy and freedom of conscious among basic human rights and freedoms.

Using the term constitutionalism in the sense of republicanism, Nursi describes it as follows: “Constitutionalism is the sovereignty of the people. That is, the elected representatives, who are the embodied form of public opinion, rule and the government is a service provider and, thus, a servant.” He continues: “The essence of constitutionalism is that power lies with the law, and the individual is nothing. The basis of despotism is that power lies with an individual, who can subject the law to his will — the defeat of justice by power.”  Nursi states that republicanism turns society into true humanity by elevating it from animalism and that this is the key to progress.

Nursi stresses that Islam has no connection with the bigotry that comes from ignorance and lack of reasoning: “What is appropriate to Islam is strength of piety, which is fortitude, perseverance and adhering to righteousness. It is not at all the bigotry that stems from a lack of reasoning.”

Nursi wrote: “Despotism is oppression. It is dealing with others in an arbitrary fashion. It is compulsion relying on force. It is the opinion of one person. It provides extremely favorable ground for exploitation. It is the basis of tyranny. It annihilates humanity. It is despotism that reduces man to the most abject valleys of abasement, has caused the Islamic world to sink into misery and degradation, which arouses animosity and malice, has poisoned Islam … and has caused endless conflict within Islam.” He even went further, naming oppression a “fatal poison.” Associating Islam with despotism is the overturning of the truth.

It can be said that governments based on reason, science and consultation within the space of freedom of speech and expression and which have the backing of the general public are fully compatible with Islam so long as basic codes of morality, such as justice and virtue, are observed. The notion that Islam is not compatible with democracy is a complete fallacy, and the fact that the leadership during the earliest days of Islam was a republic based on public opinion is evidence for this. Moreover, public opinion has always been a valid source of decision-making in Islam.   

Nursi presents freedom of conscience as the most fundamental right and freedom for the people of our time. He also views the secularism of governments, through the separation of religious affairs and state affairs, as a natural outcome of the freedom of conscience, which prohibits any compulsion or use of force in religion.

Nursi stresses that the time for compulsion, intimidation and deception is over and points out that any social change instituted by these means is bound to be limited, superficial and temporary. He says that the freedom of conscience guaranteed by true secularism is one of the most fundamental principles of this age of freedom. For him, the violation of the freedom of conscience –or even the neglect of its importance — is an insult to humanity.

Nursi likened religious belief to a diamond and politics and worldly matters to pieces of glass. Therefore, he views the use of religion as a political tool as an injustice and insult to religion and as an error that lowers its value in the eyes of the people. In this age, when all faces are turned to worldly matters and the earthly life is placed in the center while the afterlife is ignored, it is unavoidable for religion to be lowered to a political matter and to be used as a tool if it is mixed with politics. Under current conditions, religion and politics are a deadly combination. Such a combination will result in the politicization of religion and not the spiritualization of politics. Nursi’s predictions have clearly come true. For example, the phrase that we have grown tired of hearing in the media is “political Islam,” not “Islamic politics.” Service of Islam has been confused with the destruction of Islam and the confusion still continues. It is as though Islam, which belongs to all humanity, has been taken hostage by a political faction. 

The search for peace

Justice breeds contentment and trust, which lead to peace, while injustice generates resentment and distrust, which lead to unrest. Mutual assistance enhances love and respect among people and communities, while greed and selfishness incite jealousy and hatred. Dialogue sets the stage for mutual respect and understanding, while the lack of dialogue paves the way for misinformation and suspicion, giving rise to unfounded fears. To fight against malaria, attention should be turned from mosquitoes to the swamps that breed them. The breeding swamps for the threats that face humanity and jeopardize our future are injustice, indifference and ignorance. These swamps can be dried by justice, compassion and understanding. The world is paying a very high price for its atmosphere of distrust, budgeting over $1 trillion each year for defense against perceived threats. If each country set aside just 1 percent of their defense budgets for peaceful projects to fight global injustice, ignorance and poverty, soon they would be surprised to see that they no longer need the remaining 99 percent for military training and weaponry.

Now is the time to look deeply into the prevailing realities and values of the times and to unveil the face of Islam that is in agreement with these values. Islam is a religion of reason, not bigotry, and it can easily be observed in harmony with modern values. The modern platform of intellect, science and fairness should be viewed as a firm ground for the religion, rather than a threat. In this age of freedom, those who observe individual rights and freedoms, seek virtue and high moral values and embrace the dominant values of the age, such as justice, science, mutual consultation and public opinion, will ascend, while those who ignore the changing times and rely oppression and despotism will descend.

Those who resort to violence to further their cause should pay attention to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.” The ones who think they can fight violence with violence should listen to William Hazlitt, “Those are ever the most ready to do justice to others, who feel that the world has done them justice.” Benjamin Franklin has a word of warning to the security-crazed: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” I end these reflections with a note from Dwight Eisenhower: “Although force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”