Interesting Times: Turkish delight

Breaking the fast with one hand on the wheel

October 26, 2006 13:59
4 minute read.
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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Istanbul is a great place for a vacation. We had been worried that it might feel like we were stuck in Jerusalem's Old City writ large. As absorbing as our home town's sites are, spending a precious four days in a too-familiar labyrinth of cramped bustle seemed like a poor prospect for rejuvenation. In reality, the city was delightful. There was plenty to see and do, with sufficient touches of European civility combined with a Middle Eastern flavor of the exotic. The city's history as the serial capital of two empires - Byzantine and Ottoman - was reflected in its most stunning monuments, some of which were churches converted to mosques, revealing the best art of both eras in the same buildings. Not only do Europe and Asia meet over the Bosphorus - the majestic waterway that splits the city - but so do East and West, Islam and Christianity. But most striking was how comfortable we felt as Western - and even Israeli - tourists in a clearly Muslim country. This is not to say that even cosmopolitan Istanbul is as licentious as a European city, or Tel Aviv, for that matter. There were no florid billboards. Many women, though not most, wore traditional head coverings. Ramadan was a good time to gauge Turkish religiosity. Restaurants were open for business during the day and their patrons were not just tourists. Yet many were keeping the month-long daytime fast, which entails rising before dawn to eat and fasting until the cannon goes off at sundown, about 6:30 p.m. Each evening, there was a rush on the eateries, where some would sit in front of their food waiting for the minute the fast ended. Almost every store in the bazaar would close for 20 minutes as the proprietors broke open a picnic basket inside, then went back to work. Once we were in a taxi at that much-awaited second, when the driver grabbed a roll and some cheese that had been sitting on the dashboard all day, breaking the fast with one hand on the wheel. MY COUSIN and her husband, who speak Turkish and are taking their sabbaticals from Tel Aviv University in Istanbul, noticed that more Turks are fasting in recent years during Ramadan. As it is with Jews and Yom Kippur, many more people keep the fast than attend daily prayers. The New York Times reported in July that "With the European Union acting more unsure about whether to admit Turkey, there are signs that conservatism is growing across the nation, both politically and culturally." A nationwide poll found that Turks were reciprocating European ambivalence - Turkish support for joining the EU has dropped from 74 percent in 2003 to 58% this year. In addition, 68% of Turks now believe that a cornerstone of modern Turkish founder Kamal Ataturk's separation of mosque and state - the banning of head scarves for women in official capacities - should be overturned. SOME ARE already warning that these trends pose a serious threat to Turkish secularism. Professor Emre Kongar told The New York Times: "Unfortunately the present government is using its political power to transfer the capital from secular to religious circles... It's a real threat to the secular democratic regime." In The Wall Street Journal last week, Michael Rubin warned that, as leader of the ruling AKP party, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has "spoken of democracy, tolerance and liberalism, but waged a slow and steady assault on the system." AKP-led municipalities have banned alcohol. Erdogan has also made subtle moves toward making the educational and judicial systems more Islamic. Rubin notes that on October 1, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer warned parliament, "The fundamentalist threat has not changed its goal, which is to change the basic characteristics of the state." The next day, Turkey's armed forces chief warned cadets of growing Islamic fundamentalism and promised "every measure will be taken against it." The standard responses to the threat of Islamism in Turkey are (1) the military won't let it happen and (2) integration into the EU is the antidote. These parameters, however, look at Turkey's future too narrowly. Turkey and the EU are busy spurning each other, but this may not be as significant as it seems. How can a Europe that itself is already increasingly coming under the sway of its growing and radicalizing Muslim populations serve as a brake for Islamism in Turkey? In any case, some speculate that the EU's cold shoulder will not drive Turkey toward Islamism, but toward America. More significant than the EU and even the deeply ingrained Ataturkism of the Turkish military is the state of the West's defense against militant Islamism. If the jihadis seem to be winning globally, Islamism will become increasingly difficult to resist within Turkey as well. Wafa Sultan, the fiery Syrian-born psychiatrist interviewed in this newspaper yesterday, is convinced that Islam is unreformable. She tells how in recent years a Palestinian mother killed her own daughter because she had been raped by her two brothers, and how Saudi police forced young girls to burn to death rather than escape a fire with their heads uncovered, both in the name of Islam. Sultan's conclusion is understandable, but Turkish reality disproves it. Democracy is not a permanent facet of the human condition, and needs to be defended to survive everywhere, not just in Turkey. But even if it is eventually overcome by a global Islamist tide, today's Turkey has already proven that, properly defended and nurtured, Islam and democracy can coexist and produce a tolerant, successful, and advanced society. As a living example of Islamic moderation, Turkey is doing more than its share in the struggle to repel jihadi aggression. Its future depends not just on the fierce loyalty of the Turkish public to the modern state as reinvented by Ataturk, but on the determination of the West to defend its own polity against Islamist barbarism.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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