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Secular Islamic Turkey

KIRI OZTURK (reading to her children from a children’s book): Allah made camels with great big humps. Allah made elephants with long, slinky trunks.

KIM LAWTON: In a suburb of Istanbul, Kiri and Orhan Ozturk are teaching their kids about their Muslim faith. Kiri is American, and Orhan, Turkish. They met while Orhan was studying in the United States and were married in 1992. Kiri converted to Islam shortly after that. They moved to Turkey three years ago and say they’re happy to be raising their kids in a Muslim environment.

Kiri Ozturk

Ms. OZTURK: It’s so nice to be part of a community that you can share, and you don’t need to constantly be explaining why you’re doing things, especially during Ramadan when you’re fasting. It’s so nice to have everybody else be fasting at the same time.

ORHAN OZTURK: It’s a great feeling. Whenever you want to go, you go do your prayer, and you belong to a community. In the States you are basically segregated.

LAWTON: It may be a Muslim environment, but Turkey is officially secular, and there is intense public debate here about how to maintain that often tricky balance.

Ms. OZTURK: Trying to figure out what a non-Arab, practicing Muslim secular country should look like, how it should behave. And I don’t think everybody agrees yet on what that image is or how to put that together.

LAWTON: Partly in Europe, partly in Asia, Turkey has long been a bridge between East and West. But it doesn’t fit neatly in either.

ORAL CALISLAR ((Newspaper Columnist, CUMHURIYET): When you look from the Western side, Turkey is very Eastern country. When you look from the Eastern side, Turkey is very Western country.

LAWTON: The modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who imposed a strict secular nationalism in an effort to westernize the country.

John Esposito

JOHN ESPOSITO (Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding): Ataturk promoted aggressively a notion of secularism, which was a very absolute separation of religion and the state, although the state did control religion.

LAWTON: John Esposito directs the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and has written widely about Islam in Turkey and the Middle East. He says all too often secularism translates to hostility.

Mr. ESPOSITO: If you look at secular elites in Turkey, their notion of secularism is not simply separation of church and state. They basically have a very negative attitude towards religion — towards religion itself.

LAWTON: Oral Calislar is a columnist at the leftist daily newspaper CUMHURIYET. He says the secularists don’t want to see Turkey become a theocracy like Iran, which imposes strict Islamic law.

Mr. CALISLAR: Iran example always threatens Turkey’s people’s mentality. They thought that some day, if we don’t be careful, Turkey will be Iran, and because of that the secular people are afraid from that, and because of that they are very careful about Islamic movement, political Islamic movements in Turkey.

“When you look from the Western side, Turkey is very Eastern country. When you look from the Eastern side, Turkey is very Western country.”

LAWTON: A more openly Islamic view has been on the rise in this democratic state. The prime minister and current ruling party come from a religious political movement and often clash sharply with the secularists, and people like the Ozturks say those clashes filter down to average Turks, sometimes presenting challenges in living out their faith in their daily lives.

Mr. OZTURK: In a way, sometimes it’s easier in the States than here.

Ms. OZTURK: Yeah, I agree.

Mr. OZTURK: Although we are secular country and, you know, over 98-99 percent Muslim. But we go by the secularism very rigidly.

Ms. OZTURK: There’s sort of this message that’s going around that to be Muslim, to practice your religion is sort of backwards, old fashioned, and that to move forward is to be modern, to be more like the West.

LAWTON: One of the fiercest conflicts is over wearing the Islamic headscarf. Although it’s common to see women with the traditional religious head covering, Turkey has a longstanding ban on wearing headscarves in any public buildings, including government offices and universities.

Kiri chooses not the wear the scarf, but she sympathizes with those who do.

Ms. OZTURK: Women who choose to wear a headscarf cannot go to school, cannot get jobs, cannot enter many government buildings.

Mr. OZTURK: You can get jobs only in the private sector, not the…

Ms. OZTURK: …in the private sector, but even in the private sector…

Mr. OZTURK: …in the private sector, it’s harder…

Ms. OZTURK: …most of the private sector won’t hire women with scarves for fear that their corporation might be interpreted as being a religious corporation.

“Now Turkey is trying to redefine its identity, and this identity will never and shall never be a totally secular country.”

LAWTON: Headscarves are accepted at ZAMAN, a daily newspaper that promotes Islamic values. Columnist Kerim Balci says the ban fuels resentment.

KERIM BALCI (Newspaper Columnist, ZAMAN): Now Turkey is trying to redefine its identity, and this identity will never and shall never be a totally secular country. Turkish secularism needs to accommodate religion also. I think people will be more peaceful when they are able to express their religious identities more and openly.

LAWTON: The Turkish government oversees Muslim religious activities through an office of religious affairs currently headed by Ali Bardakoglu, who met with Pope Benedict XVI last month. That office hires and pays the country’s imams and writes the weekly Friday sermon they are supposed to deliver.

Only three minority faith groups are officially recognized: Armenian Orthodox Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Jews. All three technically have freedom of religion, but there are many restrictions. For example, they are not allowed to train new clergy.

Patriarch Mesrob II leads the Armenian Orthodox Church, Turkey’s largest religious minority.

PATRIARCH MESROB II (Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate): We are citizens of Turkey, and we do have certain issues that we would like to be solved, like having a seminary, teachers of language, teachers of religious knowledge, and these are some of the difficulties we face.

LAWTON: Roman Catholics and Protestants don’t have official legal status but are allowed to operate. Pope Benedict and the European Union have been pushing Turkey to grant more rights to its minorities. The EU has also raised concerns about the freedom of expression, especially Article 301, a vague law that makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness.” Among those prosecuted under the law was novelist Orhan Pamuk, who won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The charges against him were dropped on a technicality.

LAWTON: Columnist Oral Calislar has spent a total of seven years in prison for things he has written. He says the situation is better today.

Oral Calislar

Mr. CALISLAR: Yes, I am criticizing always, today also. I don’t make any backwards step, yeah. I can write what I think, but it creates sometimes some problems.

LAWTON: Turkey has already made many reforms sought by the EU, and Calislar says there is growing resentment that the EU isn’t giving Turkey a fair shake.

Mr. CALISLAR: There are so many problems between EU and Turkey, and some of them are coming from Turkey, inside Turkey. But some of them are also coming outside. For example, some EU countries are not acting fairly to Turkey.

LAWTON: John Esposito believes it comes down to cultural and religious differences.

Mr. ESPOSITO: Within a 30 or 40-year period, Islam has gone from being relatively invisible in Europe and America to basically being the second or third largest religion. So (a) that’s an issue; (b) in many European countries, in addition to religion falling off, you have a growing anti-immigrant attitude.

LAWTON: Despite the issues of concern, Turks across the spectrum believe their system can be a model for other Islamic countries.

Mr. OZTURK: Turkey can be an example and I think it is an example, an example of a Muslim secular country that Western world wants to see, including U.S. and EU.

LAWTON: Turkey certainly isn’t the only country debating the role of religion in society. How this ancient crossroads between East and West ultimately resolves those debates will reverberate well beyond these borders.

I’m Kim Lawton in Istanbul.

  • pasimportant

    the Zaman-newspaper is owned by a radical and influential islamic fundamentalist, a wolf in sheep’s cloth.

    “Turkey can be an example and I think it is an example, an example of a Muslim secular country that Western world wants to see, including U.S. and EU.”

    I want to see the continued denial of armenian genocide? Ok, i got it. The whole article is smear propaganda.

  • U.L.

    Turkey has never been “a bridge” between East and West. That is extremely tired old multicult propaganda. Turkey has no place in the West, or in the E.U.

  • A. George Nilmun

    Turkey is controlled by the military and a typically repressive, intolerant and violent Moslem “GREY” mentality mired in its own sense of backward inadequacy and insecurity: That old guard should hurry up and die off, God willing, so that Turkish youth can make a four centuries leap into the 21st century where religion and education are freely enjoyed; and where it honors and respects the people who lived in “Turkey” thousands of years before Turkey existed !

  • Orhan

    The byzantine empire was a decadent and repressive nation, when the Turks conquered this nation they brought peace and prosperity to the area. Armenians were treated like humans unlike the byzantines who treated them like animals. Turkey is rich in history, its people are hospitable and loving.

  • ByzantineHistorian

    Orhan’s comment: “The byzantine empire was a decadent and repressive nation, when the Turks conquered this nation they brought peace and prosperity to the area. Armenians were treated like humans unlike the byzantines who treated them like animals” is total nonsense, expressed someone who has obviously never read of the many sources of Byzantine history. Regarding political structure, Byzantium, the Ottomans and other Turkish dynasties (Seljuk etc). were ALL authoritarian, so it’s absurd to tax Byzantium with being “repressive,” since the Turkish dynasties were all equally “repressive” in that way too. The Byzantine state did quarrel with and occasionally imprison or expel some non-Chalcedonian Armenian clerics from churches under Byzantine control for their supposed “heresy.” This seldom, if ever, led to repression of lay Armenians. (Byzantium never had anything like the Roman Catholic Inquisitions that led to rooting out “heresy” even among lower-class laity. Byzantine religious intolerance was directed at clerics). In contrast, all Turkish dynasties treated ALL Armenians, both cleric and lay, and of all classes as social and legal inferiors (dhimmi). Thus ordinary lay Armenians were on the whole better off under Byzantine rule, other things being equal, since they were not ipso facto treated as legal inferiors. Turkish dynasties were certainly no more “peaceful” that Byzantium was, and in the 1050-1400 period, Anatolia was much less peaceful, under constant raiding by Turkish dynasties, than before the Turkish incursion into Anatolia.(See Speros Vryonis’ “Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor” for extensive use of historical sources illustrating how devastating Turks were in this period). Both Byzantium and Turkish dynasties had “decadent” periods, where the state weakened in the face of stronger foes. It’s poetic justice that the Ottomans, having gratuitously destroyed Byzantium, eventually experienced the same process of attacks from stronger states, military decline, and then its own destruction. Should make those like Orhan, who promote simplistic propaganda about “decadent” Byazntines and “prosperity”-bearing Turks rethink the absurdity of their opinions.

  • Jenna

    Sorry, “not important”, but Zaman is owned by Fethullah Gülen, who is decidedly NOT a fundamentalist of any kind. His “agenda” is knowledge, tolerance and respect of and for all people. You cannot find one thing he’s written or said that was “radical” — the man is a saint!

  • Dan

    The Byzantine Empire was destroyed by the Fourth Crusade. Their fellow Christians looted all of the fantastic wealth of the empire and took it all the way back to Italy, Germany, France and even England. Many artifacts survive today. Crusader subterfuge allowed them to gain entry to the impregnable walls of Constantinople. They murdered tens of thousands of innocents, who were looked upon as a very different culture, because of the existence of eunuchs in the Royal Court. Much of this was a ruse to steal the great wealth and any excuse would do. I believe this was in the mid 1200′s (you can look up the date). The empire was a hollow shell after this time and still held out against the European mercenaries hired to man the great artillery of the Sultan. By the mid 1400′s less than 7,000 men fought against the huge army of the Mehmet (some say up to 200,000 men) and finally fell after near starvation and the destruction of the walled defenses by huge siege cannons. This battle marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, an empire which had lasted for over 1,100 years and which contributed an unbelievable level of learning in so many areas: the Justinians Code Of Laws -the foundation of modern Western Law, Art, Architecture – Hagia Sophia is one of the wonders of the world and they preserved the Greek and Roman history and culture that we know through them today. Even the Arabs are dependent on this amazing empire for their own history). There was no, “Dark Ages” in Europe because of the existence of Byzantium.

    The immigration of the last of the Byzantines helped to create the Renaissance in Europe. What have the Ottomans and Turkey contributed to the world? I’m just asking?

    The Ottomans were no benign force. Anyone who was not a Muslim was a second class citizen and treated as a
    Dhimmi. (Google it). The end of the Ottoman Empire then led to the slaughter of millions of Christian Armenians
    that has conveniently been denied by the Turks, despite mountains of bones still to be found all over the Armenian areas.

    Turkey doesn’t deserve to be part of the EU. The flood of enemies of Christianity would hasten the inevitable destruction of Europe. The demographics of Muslims in Europe already is only 50 years away from parity in population, because of low birth rates by secular Europeans, who no longer believe in themselves or their culture. The authoritarian regimes of Muslim nations will soon grow over Europe like weeds on ancient ruins.

    Wake up Christian Europe before EurAbia becomes a fact! Demographics are destiny.