MAHJABEEN'S MUSINGS: A MUSLIM TRAVELER ALONG THE AMERICAN WAY; Trapped between Islam and Ideology, at This Critical Juncture Turkey Is Neither East nor West

By Islam-Husain, Mahjabeen | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998 | Go to article overview

MAHJABEEN'S MUSINGS: A MUSLIM TRAVELER ALONG THE AMERICAN WAY; Trapped between Islam and Ideology, at This Critical Juncture Turkey Is Neither East nor West


Islam-Husain, Mahjabeen, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MAHJABEEN'S MUSINGS: A MUSLIM TRAVELER ALONG THE AMERICAN WAY: Trapped Between Islam and Ideology, At This Critical Juncture Turkey is Neither East nor West

I was rather young, just into my teens, when my diplomat father took us to live there, but I remember Turkey very well. It was such a jumble of contradictions. It has a 99 percent Muslim population, a much higher percentage than countries like Indonesia or Pakistan, and yet Islam was never overt.

In the early `70s Turks greatly idolized Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modem republic of Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Many a town square had his serious frown frozen on his largerthan-life statues.

It was a concept very foreign to a nonTurkish Muslim that an entire nation idolized a man who seemed to have brought it to the very brink of blasphemy. Turkish children were told graphic stories of the "Father of Modem Turkey" snatching the veils off women's heads, and how wearing the hijab was declared unlawful. In the logic of this military hero, who won all the World War I battles he fought while all of his fellow generals were losing theirs, the external appearance of a nation's citizens had a direct bearing on its progress. Secularism, which would make Turks dress like Europeans, was therefore the key to future Turkish achievement.

Turkey is situated on both sides of the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, making it, geographically speaking, both Asian and European. Perhaps this physical division explains the dichotomy of its politics.

In the 1970s, we had to remind ourselves that we were indeed in a Muslim country. Ataturk had decreed that the adhan, or call to prayer, must not be audible beyond the confines of the mosque in which it originated. Microphones and loudspeakers would be too disturbing to the people living around the mosque. This is a very difficult concept for other Muslims to fathom. Yet Turks did not question it.

In Turkey, secularism had become synonymous with Turkish patriotism. Similarly, secularism was not just a part of the constitution. It was the constitution.

It seemed to me that just as the people looked European and also acted European, they had come to believe the government line that Turkey was "progressive" only because it was secular! In the recesses of my fuzzy teen-aged mind, however, even I knew that there was no linear connection between material progress and either spirituality or the lack of it.

Turkey is blessed with superb natural scenery, and buxom, bikini-clad women enjoying the sandy beaches rounded out to perfection. Coming from the Islamic "Protectorate" of Pakistan, where even dresses were a no-no, the diameter of my eyes was only matched by the drop of my jaw. My sari-clad mother was unabashedly stared at and -- of all shockers -- was admonished by an elderly woman to cover up the little sliver of waist that peeked out of it.

My Turkish was too rudimentary for me to suggest that this elderly lady might better advise her rounder micro-mini attired countrywomen that miniskirts should respect some finite limits to their ascent. Instead I concluded that things kind of evened out. The Turks stared at my mother and our family stared at the young Turkish womenfolk.

December in this secular Muslim country was a month to remember. Our apartment building was on a hill and in December each balcony would be lit with a Christmas tree, except that in Turkey, as in the former Soviet Union, it was called a "new year's tree." The sight was indeed breathtaking, but I did not understand, particularly since the New Year it commemorated had nothing to do with the Islamic calendar. …

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