Interview with Jihad Turk
Bayan Claremont is one of the few institutions offering graduate degree in Islamic studies in the United States. Operating as a division of the Claremont School of Theology in California, Bayan aims to contribute to “a world that understands Islamic values in a modern context,” as the vision statement reads on their website. Under the current climate of phobias, be it against Islam or immigrants, Bayan and other institutions that focus on Islamic studies have a serious role to play – to provide a convenient medium of communication among members of our society. Professor Jihad Turk, the President of Bayan, is surely one of those Muslim leaders in the United States who can keep channels of dialogue open and help shape a Muslim identity that is confidently unified with the Western context. Professor Turk was very kind to accept our request for an interview during a family visit in Cleveland, OH. We could not help but start our interview with what is perhaps so striking about him at first sight: his name, which is a very intriguing combination.
The Fountain: I am sure you have had to answer this question many times, but could you tell us about your name? Given the current circumstances, it must have been an interesting experience.
Jihad Turk: I am an American kid from Arizona. Having a name like Jihad, growing up, you’d think, would be a challenge for me. But I grew up in the seventies. People just thought Jihad was an exotic Mexican name. My father is an immigrant from Jerusalem. He is Palestinian, he was born in Palestine in 1938. He came [to the US] in 1956 as a teenager. He met my mother, who is a Christian American. They got married and had me in 1971. My father chose the names of the two boys and my mom chose the names for girls – I have three sisters. My father told me the meaning of my name when my classmates and teammates in soccer were giving me the nickname Jay for short. He insisted and said, “No, your name is Jihad, and I chose that name because it means something important. It means the struggle to do the right thing. And it is worth the extra effort for people to say the full name. I have always been very aware of the meaning of the name since I was seven or eight. And as for the name Turk, it has to do with my great grandfather who was conscripted into the Ottoman Empire military as an officer in WWI. He was given the nickname Abu Turki, which was cut short when my father emigrated to the US in the fifties.
The Fountain: How much do you feel like that name has shaped your identity and made you who you are?
JT: It was really the experiences of being part of a pioneering Muslim family in Arizona and Phoenix in the seventies and eighties, participating not only in the mosque but also one of the things that my father and mother did was that they sent us to a summer youth camp for Muslims, a family camp that’s been operational since the sixties, called the Muslim Youth Camp. And they sent us to MYNA, Muslim Youth of North America, which was like a Muslim youth leadership training program. There I met other Muslims who became close friends, even though they lived all across the country, far away from me and Arizona. We formed a special bond. Some of the mentors I came to know as councilors or teachers at those programs really inspired me to learn more about the religion. Ultimately when my parents divorced when I was seventeen, it led me to explore more seriously religion in general and Islam in particular; it led me on a journey around the world, where I learned Arabic and Farsi (Persian). I studied in both the Islamic University of Medina and then in the University of Tehran and in Qum. I went on to pursue Islamic studies for my graduate work as well.
The Fountain: You are now the President of Bayan Claremont, a graduate school in Islamic studies. Tell us about the goals and vision of Bayan.
JT: I was fortunate. While I was pursuing my PhD at UCLA in Islamic studies, I was hired as the imam or the religious director at the largest and oldest mosque in LA. It was in that context where I was able to serve a very large, dynamic, and diverse American Muslim community, and interact with imams and Muslim leaders from across the country, where I began to identify some of the major needs of the American Muslim community, plus having a wife and four kids, I saw some of the challenges of raising a Muslim family in the United States. It was through those experiences and through also serving as a counselor at MYNA, the same camp that I grew up in, that I identified a major need: the need to develop leaders for the American Muslim community who were well adjusted in their identity as both American and as Muslim. It might seem like a straightforward idea, but to have a leader who doesn’t see the conflict in being fully American and fully Muslim, and can help young people have a coherent and unified identity, is a major step, I think, we need to take as a community. We need to embrace this approach. Because what I have noticed is that many immigrant families, whether they be from Turkey or the Arab world, Indo-Pakistani or Persian backgrounds, isolate and insulate themselves from society and think that they are passing on the culture and the faith successfully in doing so, until they have a rude awakening when their children go off and sometimes leave the faith and don’t affiliate themselves with the Muslim community. That’s because children growing up with a household that is very cultural and religious within the house; but leaving the house, they have a split personality and were not only just American but also not religious, not respecting the values and traditions of their families outside the household. Having leaders that can help the families and the young people [develop] a unified identity that is fully Muslim but also fully integrated into the modern world and to the United States of America. It is important.
The Fountain: How do you believe the American identity can contribute to being a Muslim in this globalized world? And how can being a Muslim contribute to America?
JT: There are a lot of tropes and themes going back to early encounters with colonialist powers where Muslim intellectuals would visit the West. Some of them, like one Muslim scholar said when he visited western Europe, “Here we have Islam with no Muslims in it, and in Egypt we have Muslims with no Islam.” That’s an exaggeration, of course. But the idea is that there are values in the West that are very Islamic, whether it’s the freedom of speech – something that is challenged in many Muslim lands, including Turkey – freedom to practice religion and to be protected in whatever it is that you believe in and however it is that you worship, [as well as] civic engagement, participation, and governance to ensure that there is not only justice in your local community, but at the national level, and even the opportunity for people to participate in policy making at the international level through elections and the democratic process. It is not perfect; there are many problems with it. That’s where I think being Muslim comes in. Because as Muslims we have values that we can offer to society, try and participate, and exert influence in a way that is positive and constructive to the society in which we live. Given that the system opens its arms to us and welcomes us not only to become citizens but also to participate fully, it would be a dereliction of our moral responsibility to not take up that opportunity and challenge, and offer the beautiful responses inspired by our connection to God through Islam.
The Fountain: While covering different disciplines of science and the humanities, we encourage readers to explore life by exercising both their hearts and minds. This is in part in response to the downgrading of religion to an identity only, in which the faithful, be they Muslims or Christians or members of other traditions, in fact are believers culturally. What would you say about this challenge?
JT: One of the things we have lost as an ummah, internationally speaking, is our rigorous, academic foundations in not only studying our own faith but in studying the natural sciences. There is a lot of debate on “closing of the door of ijtihad” and all of those things; I don’t fall into the category of those who believe that this collapse or downgrading of our intellectual production occurred because of that. Even in that timeframe I think there has been much evidence that there was still significant contribution to various scientific fields up until the last hundred and fifty years or so. But I do think it’s lost for the most part and part of what’s lost is this curiosity, the ability to look with a scientific eye at nature and reality. This is something that’s lost not only in our tradition but also to the West: to be able to do that within the religious framework. So, we have lost the religious framework to look to science, and [how to create] a scientific-minded western world within a religious framework. One of things I think Islam has been better at than most other world religions, historically, is to seamlessly encourage exploration of science to its fullest without any reservations and to do so with a sense of awe and wonder of the Creator of all things, in a way that there has not been a conflict. We don’t have this conflict between church and science that manifested itself in other parts of the world historically that has driven many people away from religion altogether. We have exhortations in the Qur’an to go and explore and understand the creation and the existence. As God says in the Qur’an, “Only those who have true knowledge are in true awe of God” (35:28). So, a standard is set that we should pursue ’ilm, i.e. knowledge, scientific knowledge as well. One of the things we are trying to do at Bayan is to reignite the skill of critical thinking. If you study in a seminary wherever that may be in the Muslim world, you are oftentimes just taught to memorize certain texts that are already established; but you are not taught critical thinking skills and given the ability to apply those skills to the texts to extract from historical tradition the axioms and principles that we can apply in a way that is most relevant not for just Muslims in the West but Muslims in the modern world. Having that scientific frame-of-mind, rekindling that critical thinking skill that we always had historically and has only waned in the last hundred and fifty years or so, we can reclaim that as part of our central identity. Not only would we be well adjusted for modernity, but we would be able to reengage with the scientific world in a way that would allow us to begin to contribute once again in significant ways.
The Fountain: Religious thought in many parts of the world, especially in the Muslim world, today is being used more like an instrument to define relations with the “enemy,” with the “other,” and to respond to the colonizing powers. This is obviously not what a religion is for, which is an expression of an inner feeling and a source of faith and hope. One way of tackling this could be to review our understanding of the world by both scientific and religious references and reach a reconciliation between our hearts. The Hizmet Movement, whose main goal was to promote this sort of education and dialogue throughout the world, is now being persecuted in Turkey, where it was born, and in some Muslim countries where the Turkish government has influence. What are your thoughts about all of this?
JT: One of the things that Hizmet is doing really well is providing high quality education. I am not a member of Hizmet. But from visiting some of the schools here in the United States and around the world, it seems to me that there is great success in education that is focused on science. The scientific focus of the schools is something that will produce students who can be not only successful for themselves but also contribute to the success of their communities, their families, and the countries in which they live. It is a shame that these schools are being forced to close down. Hizmet does three things very well from my perspective as an outsider: provide high quality education, oftentimes in communities that are underserved, sometimes impoverished. So, it is lifting up communities that are marginalized. [Two], Hizmet is focused on charitable work and relief efforts. And [lastly], it is trying to bridge the gap of understanding between cultures, communities, and religious groups. Those misunderstandings often lead to conflict and even warfare in certain circumstances. To have the efforts of this movement undermined not only by systematic persecution at home but also through the curtailing of fundamental modern values of freedom speech, freedom of association, and others is a travesty. It is heartbreaking to see the persecution and undermining of such great efforts that are of benefit to humanity.
The Fountain: The United States is a country where religion is still alive in many ways. However, an extreme secularist worldview is also on the rise, more so in Europe, dominating the politics and philosophy, as well as identities. How do you see the future? Do you think religion will survive?
JT: For sure, you see in Europe a decline in religion much more dramatically than in the United States. You do see growing trends of secularism and atheism. I would say atheism is a kind of materialism. Materialism is sometimes misunderstood as a focus on money and wealth. Materialism is a scientific posture, almost like an anti-theological posture that explains everything through anything but God. It is like an anti-God theology or philosophy. Oftentimes it cloaks itself in the garb of science, when in fact the claims made by materialists who are demonizing religion and vilifying faith are doing so despite the fact that their claims are not backed up by a purely scientific approach. At Bayan we partnered with Claremont School of Theology and we put out a conference entitled “Science between Religion and Materialism.” We explored in that conference the area that is clearly scientific, where science can speak with authority, and where the edges of that are, and where either materialism makes claims that are not scientific, or religion makes claims that are not provable or disprovable scientifically. For example, the claim that God exists. You would not say that there is proof that God exists in pure scientific fashion, nor can you say that God does not exist using a pure scientific method. Both of those claims are made by people of faith in religion and by materialists. Even though they claim they are the scientific-minded folks, they are making non-scientific claims. They try in a very deceptive way to fool the audience, the masses, into thinking that they are more rational and sound, but in fact oftentimes for reasons of interpersonal bitter experiences, they have their agenda that is not rooted in science per se. So, what we can do as an institution is reestablish not only the solid position that science should have but also identify clearly the boundaries that define the scientific realm, and then still have conversations about what faith or materialism does have to offer. Then we can have more honest conversation, and if we can [make them] accessible to the public it will not necessarily create this tension between most people who are scientifically minded and faithful people. Many Muslim and Christian scientists historically do not see that conflict. It has been exaggerated and conflated in recent times by certain individuals, but unjustly so. We can reclaim the complementary relationship between the two and push back against the movement that vilifies faith and religion based on science.
The Fountain: Finally, what would you say about the debate around women and Islam?
JT: To be honest, Islam does not mistreat women. But some Muslim individuals and cultures, quite frankly, might and do. If we are to take our religion seriously, we have to reevaluate our traditional and cultural practices and ensure that what we are doing upholds the role of women in our societies and gives them not only proper rights but also the dignity to participate in creating great communities. At Bayan Claremont we are not only inclusive of women at the level of board of trustees – our chair of our board is a woman – but also we have women in prominent positions of our faculty – the chair of our academic committee is a woman. Many of our faculty members and students are women as well.
The word “Bayan” means – ironically – lady in Turkish. But the name of our school is from the Qur’an, chapter Rahman (55), which means clear, coherent speech reflecting clear, coherent thinking. Empowering women through education and positions of influence in society, we can live up to the Qur’anic and Islamic responsibility that we have to ensure that women are given their full rights and justice.
We are creating a university in the United States that is offering a world class graduate level education and accredited degrees to empower Muslim intellectuals and leaders to help bring communities in the United States and around the world to a position of excellence. We are doing that by not only having a solid foundation on the tradition of Islam but also in the modern world, [founded on] critical thinking and best practices in leadership in order to achieve that lofty goal. Our degree program is in partnership with other faith community institutions of higher education, i.e. a Christian seminary, a Jewish seminary, a Buddhist university, because we feel that there is a lot of common ground in terms of values [Islam shares] with other world religions that we can build upon for the common good. Having our institution work closely with other world religions, their leaders and future leaders, is a recipe for bringing about a more peaceful society in a more peaceful world.