Turkey to open major Islamic centre near Washington
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.”