When approaching the discourse on “Islam, Europe, andDemocracy,” and laying aside apparent understandings and admissions, we are faced with certain observations and questions. A first approach of “Islam, Europe, and Democracy” bears with it a certain consensus. That is, that Islam, as a religious system, with more or less apparent theocratic elements—depending on the countries it dominates and where it is applied, as well as due to its “essentialist” religious and political trajectory in time and sociopolitical process—does not carry with it European values and the imperatives of the West, such as democracy and, consequently, the spirit of Enlightenment. Such values are considered shaped by the European spirit—due to both Christianity and secularism—and produced by the struggles of the French Revolution against religious authority and the tyranny of monarchy. A variety of historical, spiritual, philosophical, and political journeys have yielded a unique heritage for the individual, society, and humanity as well, thereby safeguarding human rights and protecting the individual from the terms and imperatives of a religiously and politically pre-modern communal life. Democracy guarantees that a state functions with elected representatives and that all citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of their sex, color, religious beliefs, and political opinions. Different languages, religions, and cultures are therefore to be respected as equal within the framework of a statutory secular law.
This point gives birth to a multiplicity of questions. Such questions concern not only the national and religious histories of the European states and their different financial status, but also their political past or present.
When it comes to religion and politics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims find themselves in the same predicament. Both of these religions adhere to a particularly strong concept of sacred tradition. This tradition is distinct from revelation itself, but revelation can only be properly interpreted through this tradition. Theological thought, detailed practices of corporate worship, and ascetic disciplines of individual spiritual striving are the key components of both faiths- and crucially, all of these key components must be understood using the words written by their religious ancestors. Moreover, because both communities are globally decentralized—neither of these faiths has a single person to whom all believers look for authoritative guidance—this concept of tradition is absolutely crucial for keeping the integrity of the faith itself, especially in the tumultuous modern context.
This means that both faiths have an historically rich and consistent tradition of belief and practice, and have both conveyed immense spiritual riches across the sometimes-harrowing journey of modernity. But this concept of tradition has one major drawback: the premodern political and social context, during which all of the texts through which we understand the core of our faith were written, was radically different from our own. This is a dilemma common to all religious believers, but I believe it is especially serious in the case of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, given just how strong and all-encompassing our notion of tradition is. When it comes to politics, the contours of the dilemma are particularly clear: nearly all of the central texts of our authoritative and interpretive traditions were written in the context of empire.
In 2019, I had the pleasure of immersing myself in the history of both Christianity and Islam, where they are woven together in the beautiful and magnificent architecture of the Hagia Sophia.
During my trip, numerous Christian icons, which were plastered over during the Ottoman Empire, were being uncovered and restored, bringing back to life its true Christian history. I remember thinking to myself, Turkey should be proud of this heritage and of its efforts to preserve and to further uncover the Christian heritage of this building. Only a country and leader secure in its identity would invest in such an effort.
It was, therefore, very disappointing to read about the effort underway to convert the Church commissioned by the emperor Justinian I in 537—turned mosque by Mehmed II in 1453, turned museum in 1934 by Turkish President Kemal Atatürk—back to a mosque by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When I first read paragraph 56 ofFor the Life of the World: Toward A Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, I immediately had the sense that it represented a major step forward in Muslim-Orthodox relations. I think it is important to call special attention to this part of the text, because this paragraph is perhaps the most effective discussion of Islam I have encountered in a modern Orthodox ecclesiastical document. This paragraph is an excellent guide for Orthodox Christians when thinking about Islam because it describes Islam in ways that reflect how Muslims themselves understand their faith. At the same time, it also remains true to Orthodox self-understanding by accurately identifying where these two faiths differ from each other.