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FEBRUARY 2001

MONTHLY    *    Vol 15-02 No:170    *   FEBRUARY 2001 / ZIL-HIJJA 1421H
  email: editor@islamicvoice.com

TRAVELOGUE


Torn Between Islam and the West

A Fortnight in Turkey

Torn Between Islam and the West

Yoginder Sikand

Museum of Mevlana and Selimiye Mosqu

Museum of Mevlana and Selimiye Mosque

Mosque in Konya

Mosque in Konya

Mosque in Diyabakir

Mosque in Diyabakir

TURKEY, once the centre of the Ottoman Sultanate, is today in the throes of tremendous upheaval. Like in all other Muslim countries, Turkey, as I discovered on a recent trip, is torn apart between the forces of globalised American culture, on the one hand, and its traditional Islamic moorings on the other. The divide roughly coincides with class divisions, the Turkish elite consciously courting a pale imitation of a Europe that consistently refuses to recognise it as its own. The first thing that struck me as I entered Antalya International Airport in southern Turkey was a group of elderly women, dressed in traditional hijab, behind whom loomed a large luminous poster advertising a local beer. Islam and westernisation maintain an uneasy balance in much of Turkey, competing with each other for the allegiance of the country’s 65 million people, all of whom, except for less than half a million, are Muslim.

As the bus sped down the wide, smooth highway from the airport to the city, a modern, almost Western, industrial town unfolded before me. Skyscrapers, large shopping malls, huge car show rooms and flashing neon lights, women in tight, almost suffocating jeans and even tighter tops, all this and more pointed to the unrelenting drive for Europeanisation that the Turkish elite have undertaken ever since Mustafa Kamal Attaturk deposed the last Caliph and embarked on a path of complete Westernisation.

Kurds were ruthlessly suppressed in the past inasmuch as they were barred from speaking in Kurdish language in public

My guide-book described the eastern part of Turkey—the mountains of Anatolia stretching to the borders of Iran, Syria and Armenia— as the real heartland of traditional, Islamic Turkey, and so there I headed, barely having arrived at Antalya. My first stop was Konya, a drive of some six hours to the north, passing through dense pine forests and skirting a lake almost the size of a little sea. Konya is said to be the most decidedly ‘Islamic’ town in all of Turkey, and Islamic political parties have a particularly strong base here. Konya is best known for its tomb complex that contains the grave of one of the deeply revered Muslim mystics and poets, Maulana Rumi, author of the classic Masnavi and the Diwan-i-Shams-i-Tabrezi.

Checking myself into a small hotel, I walked down to the Maulana’s dargah. The dargah is now a museum for which an entrance ticket must be purchased. Officially, there are no Sufis there, or anywhere else in Turkey, any more, for Attaturk banned all the Sufi orders in 1925. At one time the dargah was known for its ‘whirling dervishes’, Sufi mystics of the Mawlawi order that Rumi founded, but today they are extinct. The closest one can get is to view a commercial stage performance of whirling actors dressed as dervishes in a posh restaurant nearby for a hefty entrance fee. Here, as in much of Turkey, tradition has been turned into an exotic tourist attraction, with little or no organic link to people’s lives.

Konya, once the capital of the powerful Seljuk Turks, has numerous massive mosques and madrasas. Of the several historic madrasas scattered around the town, the most famous is the Karatay Medresesi, built by the 13th century Seljuk general Jalaluddin Karatay. Today, like most other madrasas, this structure serves as the Tile Museum. Close by, the equally impressive Inje Minare Madrasa is now the Museum of Wood and Stone Carvings. Indeed, Attaturk banned all traditional madrasas in Turkey, and today not one of these traditional centres functions. Islamic education is now provided by what are called Imam Hotip [Khatib] schools, where students are trained to become imams under the careful supervision of state authorities. I was told that these schools are now being rapidly curtailed by the government, fearful of their growing influence. For higher Islamic education, most Turkish universities have a Faculty of Theology [Ilahiyet], where research in Islam can be undertaken, again within the parameters laid down by the state.

East of Konya is the vast Anatolian steppe, where the Kurdish people live. Like the Turks, the Kurds, who account for some 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, are also Sunni Muslims. They, however, have their own culture and speak their own language, Kurmanje. As a reaction to efforts to forcibly incorporate them into the ethnic Turkish community, the Kurds resorted to armed struggle, and over 30,000 people have lost their lives in a bloody movement that still continues at low instensity. Harsh laws were imposed on the Kurds, including even a ban on speaking the Kurdish language, which was made a penal offence, but which now has been removed from the statute books. Although the Kurdish-speaking parts of eastern Turkey are considerably poorer than the rest of the country, things are beginning to change today with the discovery of oil in the region.

The eastern, largely Kurdish-inhabited Turkey contains numerous shrines of great importance in Islamic history and tradition. The town of Urfa, or Ur near the Syrian border, is one of the most popular pilgrimage centres. At the foot of a sprawling castle is a shrine dedicated to the Prophet Abraham, marking the spot where he was born. The fort is said to have belonged to the tyrannical king Nimrod.

The harsh Anatolian sun is particularly severe in Urfa, settled as it is in a flat plain on the edge of a vast desert. Longing for cooler climes, I made my way to Dogyubayazit which is situated at the foot of the Mt. Ararat, the peak where the Prophet Noah’s {Nuh’s} ark is believed to have come to rest after the Flood.

It was in Dogyubayazit that I met Hussain, a bright, friendly Kurdish young man, a mine of information on Turkish history and culture. Hussain was also an activist of what is called the Nursi movement, Turkey’s most popular and vibrant Islamic movement today. The Nursi movement, Hussain explained, was founded by a charismatic scholar, said Badiuzzaman Nursi, in the early years of the 20th century. At this time, the Ottoman Caliphate had been abolished and Attaturk had embarked on an anti-Islamic drive. The shariat law was completely replaced by European law, Muslim head dress was banned and the European cap made compulsory and the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin. Many devout Muslims who defied these laws were jailed and some were even killed. Attaturk even forbade the azan in Arabic, insisting that it should be in Turkish instead. Nursi protested against Attaturk’s secularisation policies, for which he was imprisoned, spending most of his life in jails. During his several spells of incarceration he wrote several books, seeking to show how Islam was the answer to the problems of the modern age. These books, taken together, are called the Risala-i-Nur or The Epistles of Light, which today are immensely popular among a new generation of Turkish youth. As an activist of the Nursi movement, Hussain was critical of what he saw as the hostility of the state towards all forms of Islamic expression. He insisted that the future of Turkey lay with Asia rather than with Europe, with Islam rather than with Western secularism and hedonism, a point that many ordinary Turks make, but which many among the Turkish ruling class apparently consider little short of treason, so far has the Turkish state moved from its roots.

I left Turkey with mixed feelings, impressed, but at the same time distressed. Turkey has made remarkable strides in the economic sphere. With an annual per capita income of $3500, it is way ahead of India. Yet, the price it had to pay for this is cultural alienation on an unimaginable scale. Does modernisation necessarily have to assume the form of westernisation? Does economic advancement necessarily mean abandoning one’s own rich cultural heritage? Is it not possible for an Islamic Modernity, rooted in local traditions, to take the place of blind imitation of western models? These are some of the questions that many young Turks I met during my visit are today having to grapple with. 

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