By Mustafa Akyol
Dear Pope Francis,
As I as writing these lines, your plane was about to land in Ankara. As an ordinary Turk, and a Muslim, I just wanted to wish you welcome, and share some thoughts about Turkey, Islam, and, if you don’t mind, even about your mission.
As we all know, the Muslim world is not going through the best of times. Rather, it is going through the worst of times. The underdevelopment of Muslim countries, in almost all areas of life, is made much worse by the zealots who kill or oppress people in the name of Islam. They threaten not just Christians or Westerners, but many of us as well.
Yet the world should understand why these zealots exist. The secular mind often has a hard time in grasping the nature of the challenge, therefore often concluding, “religion is the problem.” Yet the very history of your own institution, the Holy See, is a correction to such simplistic views. There have been times when the Catholic Church, a bit like the militant Islamists of today, launched holy wars on “infidels” and punished “heretics” in brutal ways. But the same Catholic Church today opens soup kitchens for the poor and provides healthcare for children. The very history of your faith, in other words, proves that religion can be a force for both good and evil.
Therefore, the big question for Islam today is how we will defeat, or transform, the Muslim zealots, and re-establish Islam as power for peace, liberty and compassion. At this point, the experience of your faith, and the evolution of its doctrine, can be an eye-opener for my fellow Muslims. What was achieved in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was commendable, as your admirable efforts to extend the church’s sympathy to formerly excluded groups such as gays and atheists. It will be crucial for Muslims (and perhaps even more conservative Christians) to understand that you take these liberal steps not to deviate from the divine path, but, quite the contrary, to extend that path to places it has never reached. That is why I am thankful to you for your willingness to have more “dialogue” with Muslims. Please keep it up, and continue to be open to the believers of Islam.
As for Turkey, the country that you are now visiting, there is lots to say. One piece of good news is that we have less trouble with Muslim zealots, especially when compared to the chaos across our southern borders such as Syria and Iraq. But we do have lots of trouble from a particular zeal that St. Augustine wisely defined many centuries ago: “Libido dominandi,” or the lust for power. Turkey is bitterly divided today between a government that is burning with that libido, and opponents - many of whom would act no differently if they were in power. This keeps Turks so busy with denigrating each other, to the extent that they become blind to all else, even, to some extent, to your very important and valuable visit.
Nevertheless, be sure that you are opening minds here, especially with your exemplary modesty. The media has noted, rightly, that you refused to stay in luxurious five-star hotels and be driven in expensive limousines. This is quite a lesson, especially at a time when our president has just spent a billion dollars on his new colossal palace and his fancy new jet. Thanks for reminding us that greatness lies not in extravagance, but rather humility. “The last shall be the first,” after all, as a wise Nazarene that we both love once said, “and the first shall be the last.”
With all best regards, a fellow monotheist