Discussions regarding the intersections of faith and politics can always become heated (never use these subjects during a holiday dinner if you ever want to be invited back), but when these issues are discussed intelligently and with patience on both sides, the experience can be enlightening.

On Veterans Day, Pacifica Institute Utah brought the journalist Mustafa Akyol to the Salt Lake Marriott for their annual Interfaith Friendship Dinner.  Our veterans place their bodies in front of the threats to our freedoms, so it was wonderful to have this holiday celebrated by such an event.  Members of the Muslim communities in Utah were present to recognize the debt owed to service men and women, and to thank these brave souls for their commitment to our freedom.  Many Muslims emigrating to the US do so to escape harsh environments and threats posed to them by others who claim themselves to be Muslim; the right to observe a person’s faith in peace is a wonderful blessing, and we joined in thanking those who make this possible.

After special recognition to veterans in attendance, young members of Pacifica performed a Dervish dance, spinning to spiritual music and inviting some of the ambient atmosphere of Turkey into the setting.  My parents-in-law and I particularly enjoyed visiting with others at our table including Mr. Semsettin Kilic, who described himself simply as a volunteer.  I found out later that he is actually the Outreach Coordinator for the West America Turkic Council; all of the volunteers and officers of Pacifica and its affiliates at the dinner were equally self-effacing, and it was wonderful being surrounded by so many kind and generous people.  Then Mr. Akyol spoke.

He said that the first time he came to America his friend took him to McDonald’s for pancakes – “I had no idea there was anything in the world which could taste so good!” he said, then on his next trip he discovered that many other restaurants had stolen the idea from McDonald’s for themselves.  “Now I know this isn’t the case,” he explained, “but many times it is very easy to have misunderstandings when we first come to another culture.  When we suspend judgment during our fist interactions, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate another culture.  Things are not always as they first seem.”

One danger, he explained, is the nature of media in different cultures.  “It is the nature of media to only show the most shocking, horrifying, and exciting stories, especially in an international setting.”  As a journalist, he has a unique “front row seat” view of this phenomenon.  “Here in the US the most common portrayal of Muslims is the extremist terrorist, and the parallel in Turkey is startling.  The most common figure appearing in media coverage for American Christians is the pastor of a certain Florida church who burned a Qur’an.  That is freedom of speech,” Mr. Akyol was quick to point out, “and however strongly I may disagree, it is his right to do that.  And although a great number of Christian congregations in the US and even the President of the country have apologized, in Turkey the millions of gracious American Christians are symbolized in the media by one pastor and his congregation of 50 people.”

This kind of narrow exposure must not be allowed to be the voice for all of a religion.  “Every religion has been used and abused for political purposes, but this is not the faith in question.”  He went on to explain that it has been a routine of political leaders to couch their agendas in religious terms, and twist the faith of followers to their own ends.  And when authoritarian governance cloaks itself in religious terms, things can become scary.  “The religion as enforced by the authoritarian regime becomes a reflection of the society before the faith emerged, and passages of scripture used to justify the authoritarian view are twisted far out of the original context.”  Two examples were given from his many visits to Saudi Arabia.  The religious police, he said, will forcibly close a shop and escort the workers to mosque so they will pray – the worshipers are no longer attending a church out of reverence or piety, but out of fear, and the whole point of worship is defeated.  And the justification for refusing women the opportunity to drive cars stems from a hadith of the prophet Mohamed, “You shall not suffer a woman to travel alone in the desert.”  “Now this is a verifiable hadith (divinely inspired utterance), but speaking with fiqh scholars from around the world I learned that Mohamed spoke this at a time and in an area when bands of robbers roamed the desert ways, and unescorted travelers were easy pray.  How on earth can that be applied to driving a car?”

And he discussed the subject of apostasy.  Recently, several incidents have made international news causing many around the world to believe that Mohamed declared all who left the faith must be killed.  By studying the history of this belief, Mustafa found that this notion originated with Sharia jurisprudence schools after Mohamed’s death, and applied specifically to soldiers in battle.  “The term ‘apostasy’ was originally applied to soldiers defecting to fight with the enemy in the midst of a battle, which today is called treason, and the punishment was death; but off the battlefield this has no application to a person becoming Christian or any faith other than Islam.  Mohamed declared that a person’s soul was only God’s to judge, and we have no right to do so.”

After his remarks, Mr. Akyol took some very difficult questions about his views; I enjoy hearing people defining their faith, and Mustafa consistently did so with grace and aplomb.  His last comments were very insightful.  Having the right to worship according to one’s conscience is a beautiful gift belonging to all, and enforcement of religion is always a twisted thing.  “Faith” he said “can never be imposed, only proposed.  And the expression of faith should never be enforced, but always enjoyed.”

It was a wonderful evening.  And I particularly enjoyed the brief moment he took to visit with me and sign my copy of his book, Islam Without Extremes:  A Muslim Case for Liberty.