Sitting in a museum café, I heard tourists quizzing their guide — trying to get it straight. “So, where did they get the name Quran for their Bible? So, it could be considered a Bible?” Sooner or later, at a mosque visit, every Turkish guide is asked, “So, was this church built before or after Christ?” I like seeing guides heroically stay charming, and stick with the tour-guide mantra, “There are no stupid questions.”
Things are confusing. I’m here during the holy month of Ramadan and devout Muslims are high-profile in the streets. No-name neighborhood mosques literally overflow during prayer time and carpets are unfurled on sidewalks, interrupting the pedestrian flow.
At the edge of town, I passed an old shepherd with small flock enjoying some public grass in a freeway cloverleaf, surrounded by the sprawl of 10 million people. In the midst of all that modernity, he was raising sheep for an upcoming Muslim “sacrificial festival.”
Ramadan is, in balance, a great time to travel. You don’t realize it, but most people are not eating or even drinking all day. I offered my waiter a suck of my hookah water pipe. He put his hand to his heart and explained he’d love to, but he was fasting for Ramadan.
If you sleep lightly, you’ll wake to the sound of a prayer and meal just before dawn. Sun rises and the day-long fast begins. Then, at about 7 p.m., the food comes out, and the festival begins. Mohammad broke his fast with dried date or olive — so that’s usually the fast-breaker to this day. Saying, “Allah kabul etsin” (may God accept…your fast today),” the staff at a restaurant where I was just having a drink welcomed me to photograph them and then offered to share.
Every time I witness the breaking of the fast, people offered to share their food. At the restaurant I said no, but they set me up anyway — figs, lentil soup, bread, Coke and baklava. I thought the Coke was a bit odd… but my guide said it’s not considered American any more. It’s truly global.
I don’t want to overstate this move to the right in Turkey, but keen and caring observers are concerned that it’s an ominous start. Imagine not being a fundamentalist and watching your country gradually become fundamentalist — one universal interpretation of scripture, religious clothing and prayer in school, women covering up and accepting a scripturally ordained subservient role to men, laws being rewritten. A ruling class that believes they are right and others are wrong.
I have friends in Turkey almost distraught at this country’s movement to the right.
It’s an emotional and confusing thing to witness and try to understand. It’s an evolution that is like a rising tide…seemingly impossible to stop.
I am intrigued by teenage Muslim Britney-wannabes covering up under scarves. You know they wear high heels and thongs…but their heads are covered. In a fine silk shop, the girl there demonstrates scarf-wrapping techniques. One way looks simply demure and conservative. Then she ties it under her chin and around her face with an extra fold on top and she becomes orthodox. It was chilling to watch. I got goose bumps.
At the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, one attracting the most conservative worshippers, state-employed female security guards were wearing conservative, religious headscarves (striking — even ominous — to local observers). Stalls offering free food, literature and computer programs with a Mavis Beacon-type prayer guide surrounded the mosque. Targeting poor and less-educated cross=sections with incentives, it reminded me of the old-school “bras and bibles” strategy of Christian missionaries. People say there’s huge money (especially from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) promoting Muslim orthodoxy.
The mosque was filled to capacity and the courtyard was filled with the overflow crowd. Village women knelt to pray with their men. My friend predicted that in two years, they will no longer pray next to men. She pointed to a stairway already filled with fundamentalist women who believed they should worship separately.
There’s discussion of adding “women” to the section of the Turkish constitution which promises “children and the disabled are under the protection of the state.” Modern women wonder why they would be put in with kids and the disabled. Propaganda is directed at women, and it is the women who are pulling moderate Muslim societies like Turkey to the right.
I asked, “Should a Christian be threatened by Islam?” My friend said, “If you have self-confidence in your system, assuming it deserves to survive, it will thrive. Christendom should be threatened by Islam only if the Christian West seeks empire here.”
I find a huge irony in the American fight with Islam. I believe we’re incurring incalculable costs (real and intangible) because we are nervous about something we don’t need to be nervous about. And because we’re nervous about it, we need to be nervous.