Reflections on the 9th International Islam & Liberty Network Conference in Mardin

Prof. Dr. Mustafa Acar, Necmettin Erbakan University, Konya, Türkiye

This is a belated reflection on the 9th ILN International Islam and Liberty Conference held in Mardin, Türkiye, on October 27-28, 2022. It has been almost 5 months since we met in Mardin, our memories started to fade out, I know, but I have reasons for this delay.

It would be better of course to write something on the evaluation on the conference and our impressions right after the meeting. However certain important and unexpected events interrupted, so I had to delay this for a few times. Let me mention two most important among the several ones.

The 1st one was that I was working on translating an important book by R. Zitelmann, a famous German intellectual, “10 Greatest Fallacies of Anti-Capitalists,”[1] of which I promised to finish the translation by the end of the year. As they say, “first things first,” it was important for me to finish it and deliver the manuscript on time. I might write something further in detail about it later, but let me say this for the time being: This is an interesting book critically evaluating and debunking the myths about capitalism with respect to poverty, hunger, inequality, wars, hegemony of the rich, danger of fascism, environmental destruction, climate change, financial crises, monopolies, greedy and selfishness, etc. [2] Based on a survey held in 32 countries, the book compares and contrasts people across the world in terms of the degree of anti-capitalism. It was interesting to see that the most anti-capitalist country in the world was Türkiye! This was not a surprise for me at all, on the contrary, it was confirming my personal observations and the opinion I developed over the years after walking around over 40 countries all over the world. Maybe more later on this…

The second obstacle that prevented me from writing a piece on my reflections on the Mardin conference was the devastating recent earthquake Türkiye had in early February 2023. It was certainly the most disruptive earthquake Türkiye ever had since the last 100 years, causing more than 50 thousand lives, 110 thousand wounded, some 200 thousand buildings demolished, 11 provinces affected terribly. In the midst of the harsh winter conditions, millions of people had to migrate to other cities leaving everything behind. In an effort to accommodate those who had to migrate and replace them for a while, university education was interrupted and switched to online education in the beginning of the Spring semester. The damage has been estimated to be around $100 billion,[3] a huge, unprecedented cost at any respect. Thanks to the generosity of the people and the generous help from over a hundred countries from outside, Türkiye is now in a process of recovery, binding up wounds, reconstruction and urban renewal.. The solidarity and help offered by 102 countries in the aftermath of the disaster should actually direct us to rethink and question the validity of those conspiracy theories shared by many influential circles arguing that “there are no friends of Turks other than Turks,” or “Türkiye is surrounded by seas from 3, but enemies from 4 sides!”

Normally it should not take much time to write up a few pages of impressions and reflections on a scientific meeting, but as you would agree, it is a matter of concentration! These two major obstacles combined with some other routine tasks and academic responsibilities, I was not able to concentrate on evaluating the conference and sharing our impressions on our travel to one of the most interesting cities of Türkiye. So I am glad that I finally had a chance to come back to ILN Mardin conference and write up my experience. Well, it was a nice and unforgettable experience not only in terms of coming together with friends, intellectuals, colleagues and activists, but also in terms of our travel, sightseeing, walking around the streets of the ancient city of Mardin, and visiting some important places there.

Founded in Istanbul in 2011 to bring together academics, researchers and intellectuals to demonstrate the consistency of the universal values of religious, economic and political freedom with Islam, ILN has a noteworthy record in terms of organizing a number of scientific, cultural and intellectual activities within a relatively short period of time. This is admirable for a young NGO which is just 12 years old to organize 9 international conferences in a number of Muslim countries including Morocco, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Türkiye; conducting 3 summer workshops (Iran, Tunisia, Pakistan); publishing 3 important books on Islam, freedom and open markets; and releasing many webinars and podcasts on various issues. Mardin was the last of the 9 conferences held so far through which around 1300 academics, researches, intellectuals and students from 30 countries came together and discussed the issues important for the future of the Muslim world. Many thanks to those who worked hard to make these events a reality, in particular Ali Salman, the CEO of Islam and Liberty Network Foundation, and Tasnim Idriss, the associate director.

After 3 years of virtual activities and online conferences due mostly to Covid-19 pandemic, ILN organized its 9th International Conference in Mardin at the end of October 2022 in collaboration with Mardin Artuklu University. It was an opportunity for many intellectuals, academics and activists to meet, exchange ideas and discuss many issues around the main topic of the conference “The Future of Democracy, Peace and Economic Progress in Muslim-Majority Nations.” Personally, I had an opportunity to see some friends from Türkiye I haven’t seen for some time and meet many new friends from a number of countries across the globe including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia, India, Nigeria, the UK, and the USA. Speakers from around the world presented papers discussing the issues related with the main topic from different angles including liberty and tolerance in Islam and Christianity, historical and economic analysis of Islamic civilization, dynamics between Islam and freedom, hegemonies of Islamism, Islamic ethics towards the refugee, cross-cultural variations in the relationship between economic freedom and macro performance, freedom and governance in OIC countries, secularism and fundamentalism, Islam and liberty network index, etc. I myself talked about freedom, the Muslim world and the Turkish experience with free market economy. The main idea was that the outlook of the Muslim world in terms of economic and political freedoms is not promising; there are a number of historical, political as well as intellectual reasons for this where the internal political factors and intellectual-philosophical, mentality-related problems have a relatively bigger role. Türkiye has been struggling to establish a free market economy since the early 1980s where there have been ups and downs with increasing macroeconomic performance when market oriented reforms are high and vice versa.

Equally important with the academic, intellectual discussions, we had a number of visits, walked around the streets of the ancient city Mardin. It is impossible to mention all of them within the scope of a short evaluation, but we can tackle with a few of them.

Mardin as a harmony of cultures, religions and languages

Being an amalgam or blend of different cultures, religions, languages and ethnic identities, no doubt that Mardin is one of the most interesting cities of Anatolia. When you walk around the narrow streets of the ancient city, one can feel like traveling back in history and seeing people with different ethnic origins, religions, languages, dialects, and cultures. Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Sunnis and Alevites, Jews and Christians of which Assyrians (“Suryanis”) make a large community have been living there together in peace and harmony for not hundreds, but thousands of years. If you want to see a real multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural city, Mardin is a perfect destination you should go and see. One can see mosques, palaces, monasteries, churches and synagogues coming from different civilizations and historical periods: Ancient Christianity, Islamic civilization, Artuqids, Assyrians, Romans, Byzantium, Arabs, Seljuks, and Ottoman Empire.

Following the scientific talks and presentations, we had a chance to walk around the city. Qasımiyyah Madrasah, Deyrulzafaran Monastry, Mardin Castle, Mardin Grand Mosque (Ulu Cami), Savurkapi Madrasah, and Sabanci Museum were especially worth mentioning. The ancient city has a peculiar architecture and style with yellowish-brown color dominant everywhere. In the Qasımiyyah Madrasah the yard with water pool (Havuzlu Avlu) is very interesting to see with 5 pools representing different stages of one’s lifetime: the 1st representing infantry, the 2nd childhood, the 3rd and the spindly pool representing youth, the short 4th one representing old age, and the last one to which water felled representing death and the judgment day. Looking toward the vast lowland or plains to the south of the city was fantastic. We had a very warm visit to Deyrulzafaran Monastry where we were accepted by the priest and had a nice conversation about the history and the functionality of the monastery. Sabanci Museum has a rich collection of the historical remnants and antiques from different civilizations prevailed at different times. Built in 1190, the Mardin Grand Mosque is also fascinating in terms of visuality and architecture with its functionality to serve all four Sunni schools in Islam.

We also had a dinner at Leyli Konagi (Leyli Mansion). It was very impressive to hear songs from the live music team in four different languages: Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian. No doubt music has a universal language, appealing to all people from different cultures with different mother tongues at the same time. It was interesting for me to hear that some of the famous popular Turkish songs (e.g. Üsküdara gider iken aldı da bir yağmur!) are originally coming from Arabic or some other languages. Again it was impressive to see that this mansion has been serving people of different ethnic and religious origins for decades, singing songs in different languages every night..

It was very touching for me to meet many young university students there who have already heard about me, or read some of my books or articles. They started smiling when I was presenting my paper and had some jokes about being a presenter coming to the stage towards the end of the session when people started to get distracted and feeling tired etc. We had very fruitful conversations with them during the city tour, at the bus when travelling around, and during dinner. They were lovely, sincere and enthusiastic. It was very rewarding to meet young, energetic students in a faraway city you are visiting some 30 years after your last visit, you don’t know them but they know you, and extend very nice feelings and compliments for you! This is the good and rewarding side of being an academic.

Finally, when I asked the local people what should I buy from Mardin to take home as gifst to my loved ones, 3 items came to the forefront: sugared almonds (badem şekeri), mortar coffee (dibek kahvesi), and bıttım sabunu (a special bath soap). Of course sticky magnets one can stick to refrigerators with illustrations of Mardin’s interesting places or buildings are sine qua non!

Well, as they say in Turkish, “size doyum olmaz,” i.e. you are not  going to get enough of talking and having fun. But every good thing has an end, so let’s stop here. Once again it was a lovely, noteworthy, unforgettable experience to participate in the ILN Conference and visit Mardin. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to those who organized the event and brought many good people from around the world together in one of the most beautiful and interesting cities of Anatolia. Until next time, take care of yourselves, good bye, ma’assalam, fi-emanillah, Allaha ısmarladık![4] :))