Turkey was my Big Trip this summer. I had been invited to be part of an Interfaith Friendship Tour sponsored by the Atlantic Institute, a coalition of Turkish citizens and Turkish expatriates here in America who wants the world to understand their country, their culture, and their faith.
Many Americans have voiced dissatisfaction with Islamic moderates, even denying they exist, a kind of Every-Muslim-Is-a-Terrorist mentality. “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak up?” they ask.
Answer: They do!
The trip I took with a half-dozen other educators and academics was an attempt to get the word out that Muslim men and women are spread across the theological spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal, just as Christians are. We enjoyed an introductory week, learning about the geography and people of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country. For those of us who are Americans, the Turkish people contradict every stereotype. Turkey, technically, is a secular nation, not Islamic. That means Christians can meet to worship, as can Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. The Big Sin in Turkey is not to be Turkish.
That’s a sweeping statement that needs a great deal of nuancing. I walked at will through the streets of Istanbul and visited a Protestant church that worshipped freely. We (our small group) enjoyed dinner in the home of a Turkish family who were conservative, with the wife wearing a headscarf and seemingly obedient to her husband. We also dined with a family that was more moderate theologically. The wife wore modern clothes with no headscarf and functioned with equal status in the home and in conversation with her husband and guests. It is a diverse culture.
That’s consistent with what I learned prior to this trip. We were asked to read several books about the history of Turkey, and I did. If people want to know about moderate Muslims, they can turn of the TV and pick up a book such as Islam without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol. Islam has the same problems that Christianity has in that various parties or denominations interpret the holy writings differently. Then others come along and interpret the interpretations differently. Yikes.
Also, in getting to know men and women of other faiths, especially Islam, I am aware that not everyone is equally pious or diligent in the practice of their traditions. Some Christians go to church twice a year, Christmas and Easter, and some go three or four times each week. Muslim folks are no different.
Certainly, in a week’s time (this was my third trip to Turkey), I have not become an expert on Turkish culture, politics, or faith. But I do know that when you paint entire regions of the globe with one color and say “they” are all the same, you display ignorance rather than intelligence.
In fact, a few friends were concerned about me going to a predominantly Muslim country. While I was in Turkey, roaming around safely, an American was murdering Christians in Charleston, South Carolina.
Over and over and over, I repeat the words of the prophets, of angels, and of Jesus: Fear not.
So, I went to Turkey and loved it. Istanbul is 16,000,000 people, vibrant, bustling, full of interesting places and people. I’m glad I went. I had a Turkish bath. I ate Turkish Delight, cheese, olives, and dates. I drank Turkish tea.
Having been to Europe many times, it’s easy to tire of castles and cathedrals. Turkey is a different culture and landscape altogether. Spice market. Giant bazaar.. Fairy chimneys and mushroom shaped rocks. Underground houses. Underground churches. A real harem at the palace. Never saw that in Brussels. We visited mosques, churches and a Jewish synagogue.
As a group, we went to Ephesus, which plays an important part in the New Testament. In Cappadocia, we visited hermitages where monks separated themselves from the world. We flew in a hot air balloon. We learned history. We visited schools. We were introduced to the Hizmet (or Gulen) Movement. The Atlantic Institute is part of this larger coalition whose purpose seems to be to promote education, interfaith dialogue and health and human services.
The group of half-dozen South Carolinians, ourselves pretty diverse, bonded during the trip and enjoyed each other’s company. And we were really impressed by Turkey.