The Economist, amongst many others, loves to refer to Recep Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, and his Justice and Development Party, as “mildly Islamist”. He has steered Turkey to new levels of economic prosperity. He has completely overturned the Attaturk secular model of Turkish society and he has turned Turkey into an Islamic State. What I wonder does “mildly” anything mean? Is “mildly” a compliment or a condemnation of compromising mediocrity?
Let’s start with Erdogan. He has been trumpeted as a moderate, and yes, a mild Islamist. Once Turkey was the largest state of Muslims in which Jews could live comfortably and without harassment. Now it is a state where Ishak Alaton, one of its most prominent Jews, feels uncomfortable and unwanted, targeted by the endemic anti-Semitism that sadly has become a raging disease throughout the Muslim world and beyond. It is not just the Jews. While proclaiming his moderation, Erdogan continues to slaughter Kurds and deny them equal rights in Turkey today. Of course, he also refuses to acknowledge the massacre of Armenians, though he will get upset at Syria for its massacres. His selectivity and hypocrisy in regard to Israel is such that he encouraged a nongovernmental group of toughs to sail to Gaza against the wishes of the NATO he belongs to, because he wants to have his cake and eat it too. But he refuses to acknowledge any responsibility or blame for the fiasco that ensued. He demands apologies from everyone else, but seems incapable of apologizing for anything himself. Well, if this is mild you can keep it. Would they call Israel’s policies mild, I wonder?
What is mild then? Surely no one would call the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia mild. Or the Ayatollahs of Iran. Though we should recall that Khomeini was called “mild” at first too, because initially he tolerated the secularists, non-Muslim dress for women, and freedom of lifestyle choice. Only slowly, almost imperceptibly, did he hand over the core elements of industry and power to like-minded fundamentalists and then succeeded in imposing his fanaticism on everyone else. This, of course, is what will happen in Egypt now.
But in reality all of this is by the by. If Erdogan’s wife covers her hair, he and she are still described in Europe as mild. If a Jew’s wife covers her hair with a sheitel, would her husband or she be called mildly Jewish? I doubt it. Not even mildly Orthodox. But non-Muslim Europe is desperately trying to fool itself that there is such a phenomenon as mild Islam. This is what will flourish in Europe and as such it will be anodyne and undemanding and not affect the so-called Christian character of the European Union.
I actually recall telling a conference of Muslims and Jews in London thirty years ago that it would be a mistake for Muslims to follow the Jewish example. When religious Jews came to the UK in large numbers they tried very hard not to be conspicuous, not to make demands and not to assert themselves. As a result the level of ignorance and assimilation was catastrophic. If we have come back from that brink it is only because after 1967 Jews felt confident enough to assert themselves. My advice at the time was for Muslims NOT to be mild. Mildness rarely succeeds. The Muslim world is now rampant. But hold on. Isn’t that also true of the Jewish world?
You see, we are so used to the majority of Jews not being religious, that amongst Jews “mildly religious” means being more non-Jewish than Jewish. It means having Jewish components in one’s life but of relatively little practical significance, perhaps once or twice a year. That is enough to reassure ourselves that we are loyal to our religion, our culture, or our people. Such a position was the default position of Western Jewry. But no longer. The mildly Jewish world is fast disappearing. Either it is assimilating or it is becoming less mild.
We do not call Orthodoxy, in any of its manifestations, “mild.” We talk more about the degree of commitment. But in a world of commitment, it is the strong commitment we admire and which we believe will preserve the tradition rather than the mild sort. But wherever we look around the Orthodox world, we are seeing exactly what is happening in Islam. The only difference is we do not have a tradition of trying to impose it on others. It is bad enough that now, in too many communities, we try to impose it on other Jews.
This is where names and labels come into it. We used to have “Orthodox”. Then some added Modern Orthodox. To counter that came ultra-Orthodox. But ultra-Orthodox did not like the term and so they switched to Charedi, pious, trembling before God. It sounds purely descriptive. But it isn’t. Wahhabi or Salafi does not just describe a way of being religious, like mysticism or Sufism or Chasidism. It describes a state of mind, a state of offense, a state of expansionism, of triumphalism. This is what is happening in Judaism as much as Islam. At this moment we do not fully realize it because the numbers are still comfortably on the side of the non-religious, but it is changing.
As a caring Jew, I would completely welcome greater religious intensity and commitment, just as I would, as a citizen of whatever Western country, welcome more Muslims becoming more spiritual and better, more tolerant, less anti-Semitic human beings. But for this disease of imposition, this mark of the fanatic that seeks to impose his truths, his interpretations, his choices on everyone else. And the only way to avoid that in a modern state is to refuse to allow religion to interfere with the lives of ordinary citizens, not to allow specific alternative religious courts and social pressures to override civil law. Jew, Christian, Muslim, whatever religion, should be free to practice to whatever degree of intensity they desire. But let us not pretend it is mild. For the mild and the anodyne do not survive in the face of the dramatic onslaught of the Western values of excessive pleasure, indulgence, and egotism that reminds me in no small measure of the last days of the Roman Empire.
Let Erdogan fight for his vision of his state and Israel for hers, so long as they are both honest and fair. Whether it is religion or politics, I would rather we tell it as it is and use terms that honestly differentiate those for whom it is a personal expression of faith, loyalty, morality, and tolerance from those for whom it is an ideology to be imposed and forced onto others.
And whatever New Year you celebrate, may it be a good one!