Jihad Turk, former director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, gave a lecture Monday touching on religious and national identity, conflict and oppression in the Muslim world and its perception in America.
“One of the things I was very interested in exploring is ‘what went wrong?’” Turk said. “Looking at the history and beauty of Islamic civilization ... it wasn’t all roses and candy, but it was a lot better than alternative environments in the world at that time.”
Turk, who grew up with a Christian mother and a Muslim father, attributes his studies in Islam to this dichotomy of cultures. His focus is Islamic law, according to the Bayan Claremont graduate school webpage.
“Even though there is a perception that Islam was spread by the sword, it’s not like civilization did spread from China to Spain within 90 years of the death of Muhammad,” Turk said. “However, those societies to which Islam spread in the Christian world ... those territories which were Christian remained majority-Christian for 400 years.”
It was a slow process for the populations of the Christian centers in the Middle East and North Africa, he said, to become majority-Muslim through conversion and other tactics. His studies found that the modern perception of Islam has changed drastically from what it was in the past.
“Before the 1500s the world was strictly divided into a world of empires,” he said. “You had the Ottoman empire, the British empire, the Persian empire ... you had these large empires that were characterized by their populations being multilinguistic, multiethnic, multireligious and generally diverse.”
Turk said it was in that century that these empires around the world shifted from diverse empires that encompassed diverse populations to nation-states divided by national narratives, attachments to particular areas, cultures, languages and religions.
“If you look at all the nation-states around the world ... you see that they’re pretty monolithic,” Turk said. “In Germany they speak German, they have these Germanic tribes they look to as their ancestors ... there’s a heritage, a national narrative.”
Turk cited Turkey as an example of an empire that became a nation-state whose monolithic narrative and culture expelled the Armenians, which Turk said was part of the transition to a national identity.
“(The exodus of the Armenians) was part of the transition to a national identity, but also the Kurds,” Turk said.
The Kurds had their own history and culture, he said, but still didn’t have their own country.
“Sykes and Picot -- the British and French guys who divided up the world that they conquered (in 1916) -- they decided not to give the Kurds a homeland,” Turk said, “so the Kurds now exist in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey ... and they’ve been fighting for autonomy ever since.”
Turk said every national conflict can be traced back to competing national narratives within the borders of a nation.
“Look at Iraq: if I were to ask you, ‘who were the three major groups that were fighting each other before ISIS was there?’ you have the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds,” Turk said. “The Sunnis are Sunni Muslim, the Shiites are Muslim and the Kurds are Sunni, so it’s the Sunnis versus the Shiites versus the Sunnis.”
The conflict in Iraq is not easily classified because of each group’s unique qualities, Turk said, as they are three competing national narratives within Iraq.
“My thesis is ‘the challenges modern nationalism with certain state borders in which these different groups are vying for state control,' he said. “To add to that mix, you have regional powers that play a less-than-helpful role.”
Turk said the Kurds want autonomy as a nation so they can establish their own national narrative. He added that since each of the groups have a common religion, finding a unique national identity becomes difficult, and narrowly defined and extreme religions branch from that difficulty.
“Now, how is religion invoked?” Turk said. “It is a very powerful force, it’s a moral force and it’s a force that can, when invoked, either convince people through taking a moral stand … or using fear, saying that your religion is under threat and that fighting for it is a moral and noble cause.”
Turk said that another problem arises when the literacy rate of a country is low, because when a population doesn’t know how to read they don’t question their religious stances.
“If you invoke religion, it’s not like someone will go and double check their sources. They can’t read,” Turk said. “They just go along with the authoritative voice that is publicly disseminated.”
Another two problems Turk discussed were poverty and corruption that allow for self-interested governments to invoke religion for their own nefarious purposes. Turk said that when all of these problems are combined, violence and terrorism emerge with religion used to justify their actions.
“I liked how he touched on the lack of education in the Muslim world,” said Neil Mchugh, an attendee of the lecture, “I felt like (the lecture) was something you could walk away from and really remember.”
Turk believes in desegregating religion and education in the Muslim world so that students can gain a better understanding of their religion and their world.
“As a religious leader and as a person who takes faith seriously, I believe in religious influence in a positive way, to help us realize the potential for us as human beings…to not only be comfortable within ourselves, but allow that self-confidence, our love for ourselves and our Lord to be expressed in a beautiful way,” Turk said.
Fin Martinez is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @FinMartinez.