Islam and liberalism c. 1909

100 Years Ago Today is a blog that, as its tagline indicates, delivers old news really fast.  I enjoy reading these snippets of yesteryear because they remind me of how far Homo sapiens has advanced—technologically, socially, and culturally—but also, paradoxically, how little we have changed emotionally.  As a species we are still governed by passions we understand intellectually but cannot always master practically, so basic human nature is still our fundamental limiting factor.

Yesterday’s post on 100 Years Ago Today contained excerpts from a Boston Daily Globe article written by a man some consider to be the father of human rights reporting, Mr. James Creelman. This Canadian-born journalist was travelling through the Ottoman province of Adana, reporting on the slaughter of somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 Armenian Christians—now known to us as the Adana massacre.

During his investigation Mr. Creelman met with Nazim Pasha, the Wali (Governor) of Syria, and put to him many questions that have resonance for us today.    I was intrigued by their discussion, so I asked Mr. Frank Herron (the proprietor of 100 Years Ago Today) if he could provide the full text of the article, which he did quite graciously.  The answers are illuminating, to say the least.

When I called upon Nazim Pasha, the governor general of Syria, who was in his early days a liberal writer and who was once degraded for refusing to serve the evil purpose of Abdul Hamid, he declared there was no possibility of danger to the constitutional government from his province.  There were several prominent reactionaries in Damascus yet, but they were notoriously lacking in intelligence.  The intelligent Damascenes were frankly committed to the policy of equal rights for all races and religions.

“But how can there be equality, ho can there be even safety for Christians in Turkey so long as the sacred Moslem law prevails?”

“Islam as practiced in its earlier days, as conceived and as perfected in its teachings at the time of Moslem greatness, obviously calls for a liberal form of government.  Constitutional rule is a logical outgrowth of the principles of the Koran.  Turkey is above all things a democratic country.  The history of Islam—I need only refer to the great Caliph Omar—proves that the various religious elements can live together, and are required to live together, in harmony and equality.  Moslem chivalry and tolerance are proverbial.  But we must go back to the pure religion of the days of Omar.”

“How are you going to secure conditions that will prevent the massacre of Christians in the future?”

“By compulsory education, by universal service in the army, and by improved means of communication.  So far as Moslems especially are concerned we need perhaps, first of all, an educated body of religious teachers.  These massacres have been the result of fanatacism bred by ignorance, not the result of true faith.  No one should be allowed to preach or teach or act as a religious officer in any way who has not first been properly licensed by an examination.”

“Islam has in recent years become burdened with and corrupted by innumerable traditions and opinions which have obscured our real religion, and which have been blindly accepted and misinterpreted by ignorant and, consequently, fanatic men serving the mosques.  During the reign of Abdul Hamid these irresponsible imams and students, so-called, of theology, have greatly multiplied, and have enjoyed special favours and privileges.

Hereafter we must and will insist that no man shall serve a mosque who has not passed proper examinations and received official authorization to preach and minister to the spiritual needs of the congregation to which he has been assigned.  It is ignorance that breeds fanaticism.”

Several Christian missionaries on the edge of the massacre district asked me to question the Moslem authorities on the meaning of this vigorous passage from the ninth chapter of the Koran:

“But when the sacred months are passed away, kill the idolators wherever you may find them; and take them and besiege them, and lie in wait in every place of observation; but if they repent, and are steadfast in prayer, and give alms, then let them go their way; verily God is forgiving and merciful.”

The answer of every Moslem has been that the particular condition of conquest under which God spoke through Mahomet passed away, and that non-Moslems were permitted to pay taxes, and, after submitting to the authority of the state, retain their own religion.

— Creelman, James.  “Creelman in Damascus.  No. 1—Interview with Nazim Pasha, Governor of Syria.” Boston Daily Globe, 28 September 1909: p. 7.

One cannot help but wonder if the Wali was being naïvely optimistic or intentionally disingenuous in his description of dhimmitude and the associated jizya tax; they are not in any real sense synonymous with “equal rights”.

Even more interesting though is the perceived future direction of Islam toward a more liberal, tolerant future.  When Muslims did eventually purify their religion of extraneous human traditions and opinions, what resulted was Salafism (or wahhabism); a thoroughgoing rejection of the modern secular state in favour of a return to increasingly austere forms of sharia. Including the explicit rejection of any legal equality for women and non-Muslims.

Contrary to the governor’s confident assertions, better literacy, education and means of communication have actually resulted in a faith less tolerant of different opinions.  It can be concluded instead that Muslims themselves have decided their true faith is a lot closer to close-minded Salafism than Nazim Pasha’s rose-tinted, liberalised version.  Based on the example of Mohammed himself, it would be difficult to argue that they are wrong.

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