a muslim country?

Istanbul Travel Blog

 › entry 12 of 14 › view all entries

Argh, day #2 without a blog entry.  But this time it’s really not my fault: yesterday I wrote a fairly lengthy comment on religion in Turkey (which for once I actually thought was pretty good).  Just as I was almost done, some friends came over, so I left it unfinished for a couple of hours.  Later, after adding a few more sentences, I tried to publish the entry, but something went awry and - poof - everything I had written was gone.  I tried everything to get it back, but to no avail, so now I have to try to recreate my lofty, elegant, insightful prose (ha...) solely from memory.  Here goes:

As modern and western as Istanbul is, it’s still the largest city in a predominantly (upwards of 95%) muslim country.  The calls to prayer ringing through the city five times daily (to my American ears still one of the main things that constitute Istanbul’s ‘exotic’ appeal) serve as a constant reminder of that fact.  So, too, do the sights of many women in headscarves on the streets, and the faithful praying in the mosques that double as some of the city’s main attractions, seemingly oblivious to the tourists wandering around snapping photos.  Yet the relationship between Turks and religion is not a simple one, nor so easily defined.

Two of the main principles of the modern Turkish republic are secularism and laicism.  It’s funny; we Americans hold (or at least are supposed to hold) the separation of Church and State as almost sacred, but in comparison to Turkey, the US is practically a theocracy.  In the interest of creating a modern, progressive democracy, Ataturk and his band of merry men disbanded the caliphate (the muslim equivalent of the papacy) which for centuries had been held by the Ottoman sultans, abolished and/or banned political parties with religious affiliations, and instituted various other reforms designed to limit the role of religion in public life.  For the past 80 years, the Turkish army has been the main guarantor of this legacy, and has at various times staged or threatened coups to curtail what it has perceived to be undue religious influence within (legitimately elected) governments.  Today, most well-educated and western-leaning Turks (so most of my friends and the people I’ve met through them), still adhere to the kemalist tradition and are very secular and skeptical of religion in general.  They dislike the current government, mostly because it is led by the AKP, a conservative political party with veiled religious affiliations.  Some have even gone so far as to describe the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as an 'idiot' (not that comments disparaging the intelligence of the head of the government is such a rare thing in the US...), not because of his policies, but because they perceive him to be following a hidden religious agenda.  Similarly, they are often heavily critical of devout muslims, who seem to them to be dragging the country backward.  Veiled, or ‘closed’ women, as the Turks call them, (i.e. those completely covered except for their eyes) are one of the main objects of this anti-religious scorn.

The pope’s visit to Turkey in early November raised some very interesting questions regarding the tenuous relationship between politics and religion in Turkey, and also about religious freedoms here.  Much was made of the pope’s call for greater rights for Turkey’s tiny christian minority (catholic or otherwise), but what seemed to get lost in the hubbub was the fact that the country’s muslim majority is denied those same rights.  It’s not that the government is purposefully persecuting Christians; all religion - regardless of creed - is very intentionally allowed an extremely limited sphere of influence.  To allow greater power to christian organizations would therefore mean allowing greater power to their muslim counterparts, which the government is extremely reticent to do, because it fears the negative impact such strengthened religious organizations might have on Turkey’s future growth and stability.  The restriction of religious rights is one of the worst side-effects of Turkey’s strict official secularism; the relatively moderate brand of Turkish Islam and dearth of fanaticism inside the country are two of its main success stories (for a very interesting and much more detailed analysis of the pope’s visit, check out this article from the Turkish Daily News).

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photo by: Memo