Where East Meets West

We have been in Turkey during a time of rising tensions which has provided a great opportunity to discuss politics with the kids. Below is a short political diversion from our travel blog based on these discussions.

In three weeks in Turkey we were able to get only a cursory view into the lives of the people of this great and unstable land. The country amazed us with its western-ness. In Istanbul and the western coast, it is easy to forget you are outside Europe and not in Italy or Greece. But the minarets with their frequent calls to prayer, the women with their headscarves, and the constant barrage of salespeople eager to barter remind you this is not the West. If it sounds a little confusing, it is, not only for tourists but also for the Turkish people and apparently the government as well. Turkey is a Muslim nation but officially a secular state comprising Turks, Kurds, and some smaller minorities. (The Greeks and Armenians were pushed out or traded long ago.) Different groups latch onto different aspects of the society in shows of patriotism, ethnic pride, or religious devotion. It is a country on the edge and the ubiquitous military presence reminds you things are always bubbling under the surface.

During our last two days in Turkey I was able to get off the tourist track and see a little more of the everyday existence. I didn’t plan to spend time wandering around suburban Istanbul, but Anne and the kids needed more pages in their passports, a job that falls into my realm of responsibility. After searching the neighborhood where the guidebooks said it was supposed to be for over an hour, I finally discovered the consulate had recently moved to a new location almost an hour outside the city. In order to get back and forth between the tourist center of Sultanahmet and the new building, I could either pay 50 lira ($35) each way to take a taxi or 5 lira ($3.50) to take a combination of public transport–the tram to the funicular to the metro to the bus. On our budget, the latter won out. During my two trips and the hours I spent wandering the non-touristed neighborhood outside the consulate while waiting for the passports to be processed, I tried to pay attention to the different groups I passed. Devout Muslim women in Turkey wear a headscarf which covers all their hair. Others wear headscarves with hair showing as a fashion statement rather than an act of contrition or acceptance of the words in the Koran. Based on an informal count of headscarves, the number of devout Muslims was much higher than I expected. As the center of secular Turkey, I assumed most Istanbul women would be wearing jeans and sporting modern hairstyles, but this was not the case. A good 1/3 to 1/2 of the women appeared to be wearing religious scarves.

These women are just one sign of an increasingly Islamic Turkey. About 30% of the vote currently goes to religious candidates. If this group gets much bigger, it could become a majority, and the Turkey we know could change dramatically. Of course this group claims it wouldn’t change from the secular path the country is on, but most of their opponents disagree. As an outsider I do not know all the ramifications of Turkey heading in an Islamist direction, but the secularists are afraid of the changes it would bring. This is a hard area for Americans to understand. We separated religion from government early in our founding. We retained our Christian heritage, however, and it would be hard to argue that America is not a Christian country. Our particular battleground for determining just how Christian is our courts. We accept the rule of the courts, which occasionally remove what most would consider good Christian practices or icons from our society, but we also fight to protect the right of minorities to worship in their own way, free of oppression from the majority. The result is that we have created a free society where people practice religion as they see fit, for the most part harmoniously.
Turkey walks a much thinner line. There is little peace between the secularists and the Islamists. The secularists are the majority and have long oppressed the Islamists. Turkey has a founding father– think of Jefferson, Adams, and Washington all rolled up into one. They commonly refer to him as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks, a name granted him by the government during his lifetime. When he established modern Turkey in the 1920’s, he essentially banned fundamental Islam. Women today are still forbidden from wearing headscarves if they work for the government or attend government schools. In addition, the current government has outlawed political parties considered too extreme. Despite the difficulties and hurdles to being a strong Muslim, more Turks are choosing to follow an increasingly religious lifestyle. For many of them this is difficult since they almost have to choose between their country and their faith. This is not a choice people should be forced to make–not Christians in the Sudan, Buddhists in China, or Muslims in Turkey.

A montage of Ataturk pictures

At least this is the way I felt before the trip. I was raised in a religion that teaches us to respect secular laws, even when those laws are flawed. I grew up in a country where we are taught to respect each other regardless of our differences and that we all have personal freedoms we protect for each other. (I recognize we are not always consistent, but that is the hope and the hope is worth repeating.) I now realize that not all countries and religions think this way, including some segments of Islam. I had hoped it was only the fringes that were incompatible with the modern world. I wouldn’t want people to think all Americans are gun toting maniacs shooting up schools and malls, even though a tiny fraction of us are. Likewise I don’t expect all Islamists to board planes and fly them into buildings, even though a tiny fraction of them have. The difference is all Americans think shooting up schools and malls is deplorable, but a small and not insignificant portion of Muslims do not think terrorism is deplorable; some even think it is laudable.

Quote showing Turkish pride in a Muslim way

I don’t have the knowledge or the time to understand why some Muslims feel this way, but I do know their belief is not unique: India has Hindu groups just as uncompromising and intolerant and even some of America’s fundamentalist Christians fail to follow Christ’s example of tolerance and forgiveness for all. I do know that if a religion is not going to tolerate others’ beliefs and puts faith above law, there will always be problems. As far as I can gather this is why even though Turkey is a Muslim country, it is so afraid of becoming an Islamic state. Sharing borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria and in close proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the examples of what happens in a radicalized Islamic state are abundant and frightening. Even as passing travelers, we can sense the difference between the secular Islamic states like Turkey and Indonesia and the officially Islamist ones such as Egypt. The former are rapidly becoming important players on the world stage, building strong economies, improving the lives of their citizens and giving them all the modern day marvels to which we have grown accustomed over the last 50 years. This progress makes most of the people in these countries happy, and they regularly demonstrate and will perhaps even fight to keep their states secular. In contrast, those who are unhappy have been working hard, especially with the poor, to move their countries to a more radical position. If the Islamists get their way, Turkey could be in trouble. The track records of its neighbors stand as bleak reminders of the years or decades the country will fall behind and the freedom that will be lost if secularism fails. Iran is certainly the extreme, but its religious government now dictates hairstyles and enforces them through police action. This week over 1,000,000 of Turkey’s 65,000,000 people took to the streets to protest the presidential candidacy of a religious politician. Their actions show they understand the consequences of a move toward theocracy and also that there are no simple answers to their situation. We will watch from afar as this still young country fights to preserve democracy and pray it can figure out how to give freedom to some without losing freedom for all.

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6 thoughts on “Where East Meets West

  1. My husband and I love your photos of New Zealand- we lived there for 2 glorious years and are homesick for its beauty (and fish and chips). We’ve traveled abroad for most of our married lives and are expanding our family in the next year. So often our friends have told us: “You know, once you have kids, you can’t lead even a fraction of the lives you’ve been leading these past several years.” It’s then that I promptly direct them to your website as if citing a groundbreaking study’s conclusion that having children does not equal death in the suburbs. Thanks for the inspiration, all six of you.

  2. Hello again,
    I have been following your site ever since I saw you on tv, on Oprah show. Being a Turk especially intrested me you visiting Turkey. Well obviously you cannot exactly know all internal Turkish politics, but I like to give a brief history of our near past. Until 1950 Turkey was ruled by Republican People Party (Ataturk’s party).Until that time we built the infrastructure, opened schools, factories, built railways, since there was no private capital, state had to do it all, and we started paying Ottoman’s debt in 1929 when the world economic crisis broke out. In 1950 elections Democrat Party(!)won, (they won mostly because the public servants were saying Ismet Inonu, prime minister of Republican People Party, was very stingy, didn’t give them a salary raise that they were asking for!, imagine at that time we didn’t have any external debt, and the budget was giving surplus, and the Democrat Party wasn’t elites’! party, they were talking as their villager, peasant partisans)and so called Democrat party with the help of American’s created first external debt, under the name Marshall Aid (indeed we didn’t need that, we didn’t enter 2. world war, we were sellig chromium to Europe in ruins, shortly doing pretty well). This Democrat Party was supported by The United States in the name of the cold war against communism. Well first they changed the prayer in the mosques from turkish to arabic ( so people wouldn’t understand anything, it is easy to fool people that way!), opened religous schools everywhere, suppressed the media and the public. They ruled the country for 10 years and went down with coup d’etat, but the damage was done. 1960 constitution was the most modern and best constitution ever. Then late 60s began the fighting between right and left. There was another coup d’etat, this time against all the modern gains,against 1960 constitution, against the socialists. And finally we had 1980 coup d’etat, which swept away all the humanist, modernist, socialist, it was the last blow and ever since Turkey became more religious. Before 1980 women weren’t wearing those scarfs(turban indeed), only the peasants and villagers were wearing scarfs without any hair covering concern. It is normal today that you see many women covered their hair unfortunately. After the elections in 2002, you see even more. We believe that the last two last two coup d’etat were made thanks to the United States, because Ataturk’s revolutions were made against emperyalism, were made for freedom, to be independant economically and politically, because unfortunately the location is the world’s most unstable place, because it is very strategic, a tampon between communist Russia and oil rich araps, The United States would prefer a puppet government instead of a patriot of freedom. And now this Islamist government is very wellcome for the americans. If it were only to them they would send soldiers to Iraq along with the americans, they would give the permission to use Incirlik base, they would do anything to keep their big brother “Americans” by their side. ( It is a paradox, isn’t it, while you were fighting against radical islamists else where, you are feeding another in Turkey, of course the objective is not to create radicals, just to keep them moderate, keep the reins in control for the big “Green Band Project or Moderate Islam Project”, forget about the secular Turks, who would care if their freedom is taken from them, or they are being killed with uncontrolable illeterate ultra islamists/nationalists ). This is how the mechanism works down there. You said that Iran is the most extreme, how about Saudi Arabia, do you really think that there is more freedom there, maybe you didn’t hear bacause it is The United States ally.
    And the answer to your question “why some nations cannot separete religion from daily life and live harmoniously. Well first of all in your country Islam is not a menace, nobody is trying to change the regime; second Islam is not only a religion , it is a set of very strict rules that regulates your daily life. It is a threat to every open society.
    I hope I enlighted why Turkey is becoming more religious. I wish you a happy trip. I don’t expect you to put this comment on your site, I just wanted to write to you.

  3. Funda,

    As a registered user this comment when straight up. I definitely would like to leave it up. You are correct we can not understand centuries of history in three weeks. All we can do its filter what we see and learn through the lenses we have built. It is great to hear from someone with more personal insight.

  4. Tom,

    You’ve written a very insightful blog here. From the outside looking in, I think you’ve hit the majority of my perceptions right on the head. Having lived in Turkey a few times, I’m very worried for this country. It heartens me to know that the majority of the country is still for the secular gov’t, but I worry about charismatic speakers with the Islamist bent gaining the upper hand. It could take them entirely in the wrong direction (Iran is a prime example) and I would be heartbroken if that happens. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    In the meantime, thank you and your family so much for writing this blog! What an education not only for you all, but for the rest of us reading! Enjoy the remainder of your travels.

  5. Tom, I’m curious what it is like being in another country when something tragic happens here at home in the U.S. Here we know what it was like when the Virginia Tech tragedy occured, but with your family over seas…what must that be like? Your post gives us an insight what it is like to be in another country when something significant happens there. Still, what was it like for you and Anne when you heard what happened here?

  6. Lyn, When a tragedy happens at home, we feel some of the pain but it is then that we also feel far away. We have sporadic acces to the Internet and rarely get news anyother way. When something happens we are usually oblivious for a day or two. However, with Virginia Tech we learned about the shootings right away and then had to deal with not knowing details for a day or two. We do miss out on some of the group greif that accompanies tragedies. It probably takes something really big like 9/11 or Katrina for the the whole world to greive with us. Just as it takes something really big like the tsunami or something really shocking such as Steve Irwin for us to join in on other countries tragedies. For example, India has something big and shocking about everyday and we don’t hear about them at home. When there are things like the shooting in Utah, which was in a mall we frequent, or Virginia Tech we end up getting much of our information and filters from people we know in emails. It also is different if we are in a country where the news is in English. With Virginia Tech we saw it on the news when we went to stores and restaurants but couldn’t understand anything they were saying.

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