Turks May Show World Another Side of Islam

Bonnie Penner Witherall, a 31-year-old graduate of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was murdered at a clinic where she worked in southern Lebanon. A Palestinian guerrilla official blamed her murder on “a hostile Muslim reaction” to Christian evangelizing, an explanation that does not reflect well on the locals. Lebanon has a large Christian population, and for a while there attempted to be a free-ish country, though 30 years of feral civil war have tarnished those aspirations. If that is what the people of Lebanon think of religious liberty, maybe even the State Department and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta can be persuaded to look askance at their travel documents.

Remember the elephant-dung Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and how then-Mayor Giuliani crusaded against it? When Catholic icons are handled with levity in America, the most apoplectic Catholic politicians will threaten to cut off the subsidies of the light-minded. Things are different in Nigeria, where a Lagos newspaper suggested that the prophet Muhammad might have been happy to marry a contestant in the Miss World pageant, which was scheduled to be held in the country early next month. In reaction to that bit of lèse-majesté, riots broke out in the Muslim north of the country in which over 100 people were killed.

Missionaries and Nigerians can make the front page, but royalty lands above the fold. The royal in this case is Princess Haifa al-Faisal, daughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and wife of that country’s current ambassador to Washington. She, it seems, was sending $2,000 a month, since 1998, to the family of Osama Bassnan, a Saudi man living in San Diego. Her spokesmen say the money was charity, to help Mr. Bassnan’s sick wife: “Princess Haifa is a very generous lady who goes out of her way to help people.” But Congressional investigators are concerned that Mr. Bassnan also had two sick friends-sick enough to help fly an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon on 9/11. Everybody knows that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis; anti-Saudi conservatives have been bellyaching for months about Saudi money funding anti-American religious schools around the world. The possibility of a money trail from the Saudi royal family to the pockets of mass murderers was too juicy for the mainstream media to pass up.

So which was it, charity or subversion? We will never know for sure (the Saudis certainly won’t help us investigate). The answer is probably both. Rich Saudis (a designation that includes all the royals) must have a conflicted attitude about their wealth. They know they didn’t produce it-God put the oil in the ground, and Americans take it out. They also know it enables them to live slack and un-Muslim lives, at least by the austere standards of their Wahhabi sect. They do, then, what the perplexed and fortunate always do, which is to spread their money around. They cannot construct a just society, but they can answer letters from beggars. They are not competent enough to fight for the liberation of Afghanistan from the Soviets, or (as they conceive it) of Palestine from the Jews, but they can pay for it. They will not forgo Bentleys and Moët, but they can write the paychecks of puritanical divines. If money from one account leaks over into another, would they mind, or even notice-so long as no blow falls on their heads? When President Bush met President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg last weekend, the Russian reminded the American about “those who finance terrorism.” Good point, Vlad.

This roundup of Muslim bigotry and criminal irresponsibility ropes different phenomena together. Lebanon and Nigeria are countries wracked by civil strife. In Lebanon, rival ethnic and religious gangs compete for power with foreign support. In Nigeria, the Muslim north seeks to impose itself on the Christian south. Saudi Arabia presents the spectacle of an autocracy uneasily allied with a theocracy. Who will be the master in the house?

Turkey may be in the process of showing the world something different. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, was a radical who came to power in the wake of two crushing failures. The old Ottoman state, ruled by a sultan who was simultaneously the caliph, or religious leader, had frittered away much of its empire and become the sick man of Europe. The Young Turks, army officers who tried to take the country into modernity, instead led it into World War I on the German side. Defeat and an attempted Allied partition followed. After beating back Turkey’s foreign foes, Atatürk chucked everything old that he could pitch over the side: veils for women, fezzes for men, Arabic script. He was like Evelyn Waugh’s Emperor Seth, with the personality of General Sherman: a modernizer who made it stick.

One thing he tried to make stick was a secular democratic state. Democracy went down only passably well; as one diplomat told me, the Turks believe in democracy because Atatürk told them to. The army staged coups from time to time, when the politicians displeased it. This month, in the midst of a recession and the corruption scandals of older political parties, the Justice and Development Party, a Muslim party, has won in a landslide.

Justice and Development, however, does not want to follow the path of Arabia or Nigeria. “We want to prove that a Muslim identity can be democratic” and “compatible with the modern world,” said Abdullah Gul, the new prime minister. Is Mr. Gul sincere? Will other forces in Turkish society-the traditional parties, however tarnished; the army; 80 years of strenuous modernization-keep him so?

Turks can see another argument for moderation in their neighbor, Iran. There ayatollahs, reverse Atatürks, came to power in the late 1970’s, determined to cleanse the country of iniquity. Now students riot for liberty while President Mohammad Khatami, a Gorbachev figure, tries alternately to appease and stifle both them and the clerical hard-liners who wish to keep the country bound.

It is no business of Americans how Muslims govern or misgovern themselves, so long as they do not wish to kill us. But Muslims should be concerned whether they live in tyrannies, religious jails or well-run countries.

Turks May Show World Another Side of Islam