A different kind of Islamic society to counter ISIS

Can an assertive Turkey and a rising China present a different vision of what Muslim societies can become?

The world is now suffering from the excesses of an ideologically unipolar Sunni-Islamic world that is largely characterised by an intolerant, exclusive and divisive religious orientation that has subtly influenced a majority of global Muslims since the oil boom years of the 1970s.

There are two countries with sizeable Muslim populations that can provide much needed balance to this monolithic Muslim worldview: Turkey and China. They can counter the perverted understanding of Islam that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Boko Haram used to justify the killing or brutal torture of non-believers, women and Muslims who did not support them.

Turkey and China have strong Islamic traditions that have given rise to a religious life based on tolerance, inclusivity, adaptability and contributiveness. Given their current economic and political clout, they are well-placed to create an ideologically bipolar Sunni-Islamic world that can help global Muslims embark on a path of moderation and development to reclaim its pride of place in the world.

These are my reflections after I attended the First Asia-Pacific Summit of Islamic Leaders in Istanbul in October, organised by the Turkish government, and involving its President and Prime Minister. Unfortunately, due to the tragic bombing in Ankara three days before the summit, PM Ahmet Davutoglu could not attend and was represented by his deputy at the opening. Nevertheless, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the closing.


It was not difficult to sense through the summit that Turkey was asserting itself in the Islamic world. This summit for the Asia-Pacific region was the last in the series of Islamic summits that Turkey organised this year for different regions - namely Eurasia, Africa, Europe, the Balkans and Latin America.

Above: A mosque in Instanbul. Turkey has the credentials from its Ottoman past to play a big role in spreading the tolerant and inclusive orientation of Islam to Muslims today. Tolerance and inclusivity were the main features of Ottoman rule.  PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

In short, Turkey managed to mobilise numerous Islamic leaders from a very large part of the world to deliberate on the future of global Muslims. It was a coup of sorts to be able to do this when Muslims are much divided today.

Keynote speeches from the senior Turkish political leadership carried three themes which could be useful as pathfinders for many global Muslims who are currently beset with a host of problems and crises. The first theme was about the past. Turkey lamented how it had neglected the historical ties developed with Muslims worldwide during the Ottoman Empire, which was a global power for about 620 years from 1299 to 1922. The Turks expressed a desire to re-connect with Muslims whom they had ties with in the past, including those in places as far away as the Indonesian Archipelago.

Above: Despite China's Muslims, some seen here praying, forming only about 1.7 per cent of its population, China was given the stage during the opening of the First Asia-Pacific Summit of Islamic Leaders in Istanbul in October. This was recognition of China's rise as a global power.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

The second theme was about the present. Here, Turkey is keen to step up cooperation with Islamic countries and communities in the areas of development, education and humanitarian aid, which could contribute to alleviating the woeful plight of suffering Muslims.

The final theme was about the future, a theme that was not expressed clearly but can be gleaned from the proceedings. My observation is that Turkey desires to assert itself in the understanding and projection of Islam in the world today, in which expressions of harshness, barbarity, excesses, anger and bitterness by Muslims have destroyed the image of Islam. This perceived desire by Turkey is not necessarily bad if tolerance and inclusivity become the essence of a renewed understanding of Islam, and will provide a counterbalance to the intolerance promoted by a domineering Islamic orientation that has influenced many in the Islamic world today, especially terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.

Turkey has the credentials from its Ottoman past to play a more prominent role to spread the tolerant and inclusive orientation of Islam to global Muslims today. Tolerance and inclusivity were the main features of Ottoman rule over a diverse empire which was poly-ethnic and multi-religious where scores of languages and literatures existed. The result was that non-Muslims preferred to be under Ottoman control as they enjoyed freedom to practise their religions and safety from persecutions. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church preferred to be under the Ottomans rather than the Latin Franks or Venetians, while Protestants who had a dark history of persecution in Europe also felt safe under the Ottomans.


China was given the stage during the summit's opening, which had religious affairs ministers from Muslim-majority countries deliver their speeches. This was an honour for the Chinese even though China was a Muslim-minority country and the head of its delegation was not a minister. This must be recognition of China's rise as a global power and the significant role that Chinese Muslims may be able to play in the Islamic world. Notwithstanding that it has 23 million Muslims or only about 1.7 per cent of its total population, China has been significant in Islamic history.

China was first mentioned in the saying of Prophet Muhammad that encouraged Muslims to travel as far as China to seek knowledge. This was unusual because the Prophet had never been to China to know that there were lessons to be learnt from the Chinese. Interestingly, China was on the ascendancy in the 7th century during the lifetime of the Prophet and this must have been a known fact in Arabian society.

In the year 651, the third Caliph, Saydina Othman, sent messengers to establish relations with China, and that year is regarded as the year Islam was introduced to China. More encounters were made through the northern overland Silk Road and the southern sea spice route. It was recorded in history that Muslims spread across the Yuan and Ming dynasties from the 13th to the middle of the 16th century. Many famous Chinese-Muslim astronomers, mathematicians, architects and military leaders emerged. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, numerous Muslim scholars who mastered Confucianism too began the "Arabic to Chinese Translation Movement" to translate many Islamic works.

A special form of Islamic education, called the Jingtangjiaoyu (mosque education), was introduced. All these developments contributed to the localisation of Islam in China. There is, therefore, a strong core of adaptability and contributiveness in the Chinese Islamic traditions that developed over more than a thousand years.

China and Ottoman Turkey were historically linked by the ancient Silk Road, which was also a channel for civilisational exchange. China was the eastern end while Turkey was the starting point in the west.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's bold idea of the One Belt, One Road programme provides an excellent opportunity for both countries to use their strategic positions to globally spread an Islamic orientation of tolerance, inclusivity, adaptability and contributiveness as a means to balance the ideological unipolar Sunni-Islamic world

Developing an ideological bipolar Sunni-Islamic world is an important step in the global fight to defeat ISIS terrorism.

•The writer is Head, Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'A different kind of Islamic society to counter ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe