Islam and Christianity are frequently described as “missionary religions.” Considering that well over half the planet’s population belongs in some way to either tradition, there’s no small truth in that. But Islam’s concern has often been preaching to the already converted; the tradition of tajdid, or renewal, goes hand in hand with islah, or reform.
Muslims often focus more on making Muslims better Muslims than on making new Muslims. Take the largest Muslim movement in the world, the Tablighi Jama’at; it’s a non-hierarchical movement of Muslims leaving their homes to visit other Muslim communities, encouraging congregations to renew their focus on core Islamic practices. Muslim reformers of all stripes seek to take Islam back to the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad, the embodiment of moral truth and good character—however differently they interpret him.
This historical tendency is often picked up by Muslim-majority nations, who pursue similar ends through modern means. These nations try to take the lead in shaping the return of Muslims to more ‘authentic’ expressions of their faith. Often this meant Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan pushing their religious agendas alongside their foreign policy objectives. It made for messy, even ugly, politics, with ideological wars complementing actual wars—and Islamic thought another victim.
Saudi Arabia funded madrasas in Pakistan, leading to Iran and Iraq funding madrasas in Pakistan; in generally more benign instances, Egypt dispatched scholars to other Muslim countries, and issued scholarships to bring scholars to study in Egypt. But whatever the specifics, it was hard to see these countries, as they’ve existed over the past few decades, offering models. Who wants to practice Islam like Pakistan, considering where Pakistan as a nation is? Is Saudi Arabia’s vision of a Muslim society actually compelling?
But in the last few years, there’s been a new player that combines religious activism, global reach, historical authenticity, and a national model that is genuinely impressive. I’ve spent the last few days meeting folks from a number of civil society organizations in Turkey.
They’re well-organized. They have fantastic facilities. And they have the desire to push their vision of Islam globally: Eastern Europe and Central Asia where Turks have historical and cultural links respectively, as well as West Africa and South Asia. These aren’t just ordinary organizations, either. There are TV stations, in several languages, private schools, journals and magazines, dialogue projects, and literary festivals.
I met young Albanians and Macedonians studying Islamic sciences, between themselves fluent in Albanian, Turkish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and English; they’re in Istanbul for general studies and religious sciences, and they’ll complete their undergraduate educations in Turkey. Those who go back to Albania and Macedonia will be reacquainting their homelands with their faith tradition, from which Communism generally distanced them, filtered by a Turkish experience.
And it’s far broader than just Albania. I came across West Africans studying Qur’an—and speaking Turkish. Tourists from Indonesia, India, Egypt, and other Muslim societies, finding in Istanbul a cultural touchstone, an inspiring mix of the modern and the pious, challenging the traditional players in the politics of Islamic practice. They all come here for a reason; the visibility of Islamic practice a far cry from where the country was even two decades ago.
Turkey offers something fellow Muslim nations can’t: Access to the West, and the institutional sophistication to be attractive and engaging. But I think there’s another country, too, that will have a new part to play in the changing dynamics of Muslim reform movements. And that’s Egypt. This is something of a forecast, but I see promising conditions ahead.
Turkey is farther along, in terms of the statistics one often throws out in such discussions, but Egypt has potential advantages, too. Unlike Turkey, Egypt has no imperial legacy to overcome—Arabs and Kurds will always eye Turkey a bit suspiciously. And Egypt, being Arab, has cultural and social authority magnified in other spheres. The most popular Qur’an reciters, for example, are dominantly Egyptian.
Let’s hope Egypt develops democratically; in that case, very quickly we’ll see Egypt’s religious culture birth new movements and tendencies which seek to marry their historical religious legitimacy and the energy of their recent revolution. Without a doubt, Egypt has played a key and perhaps unparalleled role in the last two centuries of Middle Eastern Islam, and could do so again, with the added advantage of size and reach.
In that respect, Turkey and Egypt are less rivals than complements, with common strengths—but different regions of influence. Egypt looks across the band of the middle of the geographic Muslim world; Turkey has historically had a profound impact on Central Asia and the Balkans. They’re also more likely and able to challenge Iran and Saudi Arabia for the authority to speak to Muslims.
These are far better places to look to for future directions in Islamic thought and practice. Cairo and Istanbul, for example, will fairly or not overshadow Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, if only because they’ve been central to the Muslim imagination for longer. And both Cairo and Istanbul are megacities, with robust tourist industries and diverse populations.
They are, in other words, open to the world, yet old enough to have a confidence in their place in the world. They’re used to folks from all over passing through, and not only for Islamic instruction. They have a very different take on centers of Muslim reform movements in the recent past—places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran.
The democratic structure solidifying in Turkey right now, and just emerging in Egypt (hopefully successfully) will have a deep impact on Islamic reformism across the region; if Egyptian democracy takes hold, it will help elbow out the Islamist movements we’re used to hearing about—narrowly ideological, and often disturbingly politicized—far more quickly than we’re ready to imagine.