Turkey to open major Islamic centre near Washington

Friday 18/09/2015
The view inside Diyanet mosque, built in 16th century Ottoman design. (Photos courtesy of Diyanet Center of America’s Facebook page)

Washington - One of the West’s largest Islamic centres is about to open near Washing­ton. The project, funded by the Turkish govern­ment, also highlights its apparent new desire to define the narrative of Islam in America.
The Diyanet Center of America is in the middle class suburb of Lan­ham, MD, a short drive from the US Capitol. US President Barack Obama is expected to attend the centre’s inaugural event in autumn, according to Turkish officials.
Diyanet boasts a fresh approach to Islam in America: It houses Turkish baths, a sports facility that includes an aquatic centre and out­door tennis courts. The $100 mil­lion centre can accommodate doz­ens of overnight guests in serviced apartments and traditional Turkish houses that overlook the 16th-cen­tury Ottoman-style mosque amid manicured grounds.
“American community, not just Muslims, are the target of our centre because American society needs to learn Islam in the best and right way and recognise Islam in a true and aesthetic way. We’d like to show the people the smiling face of Islam here,” said Yasar Colak, the social and religious affairs coun­sellor at the Turkish Embassy and a trained theologian. He met The Arab Weekly at Diyanet.
Until now, the main internation­al influencers of Islam in America have been Iran and Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, who usually adhere to more strict interpreta­tions of Islam.
In many US mosques, worship­pers can choose to follow sharia law even when the outcome is un­recognised by US law, such as in cases of polygamy and child cus­tody. It is possible, for example, for a Muslim man to marry up to four wives, when only one wife is registered with US authorities and the other marriages the product of a verbal nikah contract negoti­ated at the local mosque. This of­ten creates legal complications for the polygamous families and their children when it comes to matters of divorce and custody. These sorts of things will not occur at Diyanet, which adheres to Turkey’s schools of jurisprudence and contempo­rary traditions in the practice of Sunni Islam. Polygamy, for exam­ple, is illegal in Turkey.
“In Turkey, we’ve been develop­ing a kind of understanding of Is­lam based on tolerance, away from extremism. So I think the whole world needs our own interpreta­tion of Islam,” said Colak.
For centuries, Turkey has devel­oped jurisprudence in accordance with the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools, considered liberal approaches within the Sunni tradition. Extrem­ist ideology usually derives from a more narrow interpretation of Is­lam, such as Saudi Arabia’s Wah­habi thought or the more general Salafi approach.
The United States’ more con­servative mosques often cater to the diaspora community in which parents are desperate to teach their children Arabic and other native tongues. But some in the diaspora communities resent that language classes are sometimes infused with religious teachings that contra­dict the parents’ relatively liberal worldview, creating an issue that Diyanet also plans to address.
“If you offer a class to teach Ara­bic, you have to teach Arabic only. You should not impose your un­derstanding of Islam. Otherwise, you’re exploiting people,” said Colak. He added that the centre will offer language classes using a secular curriculum, separate from Islamic studies classes, which will also be offered. A more ambitious plan for the near future includes training American imams to serve Muslim communities around the country and empowering them to issue fatwas in accordance with Turkey’s more contemporary inter­pretation of Islamic law.
Diyanet will work with Zaytuna College, the United States’ first accredited Muslim liberal arts col­lege, co-founded by prominent Islamic scholars Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir. The college offers a unique curriculum com­bining in-depth Islamic history and Western traditions.
A similar Turkish Islamic centre was opened in Tokyo and a smaller one in Germany, both also built by the Turkish government.
Asked if this is the first step to­wards building other centres and exporting a Turkish style of Islam to the world, ostensibly competing with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Colak demurred.
“Of course we’d like to do similar ones in other cities but that doesn’t mean we’re exporting our ideol­ogy,” he said. “But we wish that people living across the world have a chance to learn our own under­standing and practice and experi­ence, developed throughout the centuries in Turkey.”