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Turkey Balances Democracy and Islam

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The Indianapolis Star

For the past week I’ve been traveling around Turkey with eight other Hoosiers on a trip sponsored by the Indianapolis-based Holy Dove Foundation. Our group from Indianapolis is diverse: Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jewish, Caucasian and African-American. For all of us, this is our first trip to Turkey.

As I write this, we are in the city made famous by the great 13th-century Sufi Muslim poet and philosopher Rumi, whose mystical approach to Islam inspired the Whirling Dervishes and Ottoman sultans as well as centuries of devotees worldwide.

For the past week I’ve been traveling around Turkey with eight other Hoosiers on a trip sponsored by the Indianapolis-based Holy Dove Foundation. Our group from Indianapolis is diverse: Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jewish, Caucasian and African-American. For all of us, this is our first trip to Turkey.

As I write this, we are in the city made famous by the great 13th-century Sufi Muslim poet and philosopher Rumi, whose mystical approach to Islam inspired the Whirling Dervishes and Ottoman sultans as well as centuries of devotees worldwide.

Holy Dove Foundation is part of the Gulen movement, a Turkish Muslim organization that is committed to fostering interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue and understanding. The officially non-political movement has several million followers in Turkey and includes professional associations, media outlets and dialogue centers. It has established well-respected schools throughout the world that stress science and math education.
We have encountered groups similar to our own from California, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma. An important goal of these “dialogue trips” is to expose American clergy, academics and other professionals to the moderate Islam found in Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim. Islam as practiced in Turkey represents a tolerant and open-minded approach to the faith, one which is rarely if ever covered by the U.S. media.

In our travels we have enjoyed dinners and conversations in the homes of local Turkish families, and we have all been overwhelmed by the genuine, heartfelt hospitality. We were provided with feasts of delicious Turkish cuisine and the evenings ended with our hosts presenting us with gifts. We brought our own gifts to exchange, unique items from Indiana.

These were the homes of traditional, middle-class Muslim families, with most of the women wearing hijabs, the Muslim headscarf. It was their understanding of Islam and its traditions that inspired their warm and welcoming hospitality.

The Turks I have observed here seem to approach life with a live-and-let-live attitude toward others. Women in the latest revealing fashions walk down the street hand in hand with girlfriends in traditional Muslim dress, and secular Turks and foreigners openly consume alcohol at restaurants without rebuke from observant Muslims seated nearby.

Umar al-Khattab, the imam of Masjid al-Fajr, the mosque just south of Marian College, and a member of our tour group, has traveled throughout the Muslim world but sees something unique in Turkey. “Islam in Turkey appears to offer more flexibility in how people choose to practice their faith,” he observed. “In other countries, there is a perceived norm of how people are supposed to practice Islam. Those who don’t do as expected are seen as going against the grain of society. Turkey is different.”

Turkey’s democratic political system can offer an important counter-model to the repressive theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But Turkey is engulfed in a constitutional crisis. The 85-year old Republic of Turkey is officially secular. Whereas Iran requires women to wear headscarves, Turkey bans the headscarf from public buildings and universities. This effectively bars observant Muslim girls from acquiring a college education in Turkey.

The Supreme Court, in a manner that many Turks view as overreaching its authority, has just overturned a constitutional amendment rescinding the headscarf ban that had been passed by the democratically elected governing party, the moderately Islamist Justice and Welfare Party.

There is intense distrust between the secular and religious political parties here. Observant Turks are asking for greater freedom to practice their faith, but their secular opponents fear this could be the first step in turning Turkey into another Iran. The great irony is that Turkey’s approach to Islam is far more moderate and welcoming of diversity than what exists in many other Muslim-majority countries today.
Turkey can show the world that democracy and Islam can be compatible. The tougher question, however, may be whether Turkey’s hard-line secularism and democracy are compatible.

 

By Pierre Atlas
Indianapolis Star (Print Edition) and IndyStar.Com
For the article's link please click here. (Date accessed: 12 June 2008)