09 August 2013

Turkey & My First time Visiting a Muslim Country

Photograph by Gavin Hellier/Getty Images, via National Geographic

I really meant to write this post a couple weeks ago. I had a trip to the States planned, but I thought it would be easy to type this out on the plane, or in the train, or in a local coffee shop, where I'd sip my Cafe Vita coffee pensively. HAHAHAHA. Let's be real: it was Seattle in the summer time. I slept on the planes, planted myself in front of a window and drank beer on the train (the views down to Portland are incredible), and spent time in coffeeshops gabbing with friends I hadn't seen since we moved.


Here's the thing about these blog posts: As much as I write for you, I think I more write for me. To remember. To capture what has happened before the experiences fade softly into the recesses of my mind. I'm a little worried, honestly, that I waited too long on this post, that it won't be quite as rich as if I had written it back in early July. For that, I'm sorry, both for you and for me.

I loved Turkey. Some places nestle into your heart and Turkey was that for me. More than just sightseeing, this place made me more aware of my worldview, of my culture, of my country in ways I didn't expect. It was a country that - more than most places I've visited - made me think differently. It noticeably shifted my perspective.

I feel like this could be a minefield, and I'm going to handle this as gently as I can. I love my home country, America. Even though I rarely say it (because America has a tendency to oversell it in general), I am proud of my country, most days and in most ways. We have some serious flaws (de DUH), but on the whole, we are a'ight.

Let's jump in.

I don't know any Muslim people. That's a hard sentence to write, but I think it's true. Now, I might know someone who practices Islam but I'm not aware of it... because why would you publicize that in the States? I mean, really. Let's be honest: there's a huge prejudice against Islam in America. I didn't fully realize this, I don't think, until I went to Turkey. Not only was I in the minority (98% of Turks are Muslim), but I was able to put faces to those who practice the religion. My inability to do that before made me realize that until I stepped off the plane in Istanbul, I couldn't make a personal connection, in any way, to Islam. It's not something people are broadcasting. This hints at the perception of the religion within the US.

You know how Dan Savage says the best way to improve gay rights is to come out? His argument is once people realize that their friends, their family, or their sons and daughters are gay, the movement is personalized and easier to understand, accept, and respect. I think it's the same with the Islamic faith. Once we can put faces of those we love to the religion, it is infinitely easier to understand and realize how different it is than the fundamentalist, terror organizations, who have about as much in common with Islam as the Westboro Baptist Church has in common with modern Christians. Or Fundamentalists Mormons have to Latter Day Saints.

Turkey is a popular holiday destination for Iranians, Iraqis, and Saudis, as well as Asians and Europeans. This leads to an amazing mix of people waiting in line for the Hagia Sofia. Our guide in Kapadokya mentioned that the women in the black niqabs were mostly Iranians, not Turks. Turkish women, according to our guide (a Turkish Muslim herself), usually wear only the veil as a personal preference (she didn't, saying she was "modern," as was her mother). Standing in the hot, dusty desert, it was easy for me to see how a veil could be a practical, as well as religious, choice. It's counterintuitive, but covering up can almost keep you cooler than wearing fewer clothes. I think that context is important in understanding how religious and cultural traditions came about. The climate, I think, made some previously perplexing things seems totally logical. (Now, I'm not saying this is the entire and only reason for the veil. Of course not. I'm saying it could be like the restriction of pork in a kosher diet. Many Biblical scholars think that pork was often contaminated and unsafe in ancient times. Now it's a religious belief, but there many have been many reasons that it became such. Nothing develops independently.)

Ala Magazine cover via Mecca Donna
It was so interesting to see advertisements for modest wear, to see clothing shops for the long coat-like dresses many women sported. It was incredibly different than anything I had experienced before, even in Japan. It reminded me how much there is out in the world & how narrow my experiences can be.

Turkey was also the first time that I visited a mosque and heard the call to prayer. The first time I heard the microphoned Imam's voice, I felt nervous. It's one of those feelings you don't expect and can't predict. I was totally embarrassed at my (internal) response. I realized, in contemplating my reaction after, that the only times I've heard the call to prayer have been via television shows, like "Homeland." The call to prayer there is usually followed by terroristic acts. I know. How terrible is that? Of course I would have the reaction I did. Apparently, I'm no better than one of Pavlov's dogs. It took almost a week of constantly hearing the prayers that I began to associate them with beauty and piety and spirituality. I don't think you have to believe in the Muslim God to recognize and appreciate its followers' devotion.

It didn't make me feel weird or judged to be a non-Muslim in Turkey. It was, strangely, similar to being a Westerner in Japan: it was so obvious that I was different and from the outside, I was almost reserved from judgement and given a wide berth. I felt zero animosity toward me as a woman, a Westerner, a Christian, or as an American. None, and for that, I am very grateful to the citizens and tourists of Turkey.

In Japan, I'm gaijin, in the Middle East, I'm infidel, and in Mexico, I'm gringo. I know all of these words can carry a negative connotation, but I don't find myself bothered by them. I am an outside person to the Japanese. I am a non-believer of the Muslim faith. I am a white, English speaking American. These other tribes are not my own; I am here as an observer, to witness and appreciate the world and how it is both similar and totally different than my own.

I actually found it easier to divorce myself from any judgement from the Muslim faith than from the Christian faith. I was raised Catholic, as was my husband, and members of our family are very devout. I find myself feeling more guilt, more judgement, more anxiety when I have to interact with devoutly Catholic faithful than I do with Muslim or Evangelical Christian faithful. When I hear about Catholic dogma, I have to constantly confront the fact that I listened, I prayed, and I stepped away. My actions, while highly personal, are an unavoidable Statement On The Church. When I was visiting Turkey and would see women in hijab praying in the back of the mosque, I could distance myself and appreciate it. It wasn't personal. I've never had to contemplate me being in hijab at the back of my place of worship, so my personal feelings are left, delightfully, out of the equation. I can simply appreciate this woman's faith and the expression of her spirituality. I found it easier to do for Muslims than for my own Catholic family. This, THIS, was eye opening. I really hope that I become more accepting of people whose values I personally decided against the way I so easily found acceptance for people who values were foreign.

When we were in Turkey, there were massive protests/riots going on over Gezi Park (on a micro-level) and the balance between Church and State (on the macro-level). I had no historical knowledge of Turkey before my visit, so it was a little bit of a crash course in history and current politics. Let me say two things right off the bat: there was NO chance of an "Arab Spring" uprising. That's not what the protests were about. The one thing all Turkish people seemed to agree on was the continuation of Turkey as an independent nation. How they wanted it governed seemed to be the area of contention. Second: the international news media was being terribly irresponsible and inaccurate. It was shocking to see the photos on CNN and the BBC and then arrive in Istanbul. Honestly, it looked like a different city. Let's just say the cropping does wonders. When the Prime Minister took the international media to task for irresponsible and inflammatory reporting, the old Sarah would have thought he was full of it. Hating on the media? Routine dictator move. The new Sarah? Eh, I think he had a pretty good point. The media reports were not lining up to the reality of the situation. That said, I don't think journalists should be in jail, and there is some legitimate beef about that. It's complicated, this situation.

When Amos and I were digging into the reasons behind the unrest, it was surprising that some the "conservative" or Muslim influenced laws were less strict than those we have in the US. For instance, a controversial law had just been passed disallowing open containers of alcohol and limiting the hours of sale for alcoholic beverages. You guys, it was the SAME LAW as in the States. We are strict with booze, and I would make the argument that comes from the Judeo-Christian and strong Puritanical roots of our nation. Turkey's law - this law the international media was decrying as a sign that the country was slipping into radicalization - was the same flipping law that we have in America. Now, I think the law is annoying and paternalistic. But is it a sign of radicalization? Or just a manifestation of commonly held religious tradition?

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Turkey is having an internal debate over the degree that its Muslim faith should influence its democratic rule. There is internal strife over the role of the military, the role of secularism, the role that Ataturk's founding principles should be upheld or updated. What Turkey made me realize was how similar that discussion is to ones that are happening in the United States.

While America has the separation of Church and State as a founding principal, in my travels it has become increasingly clear how blurred that line is. For good or for bad, we are a Christian-influenced nation. We debate the merit of prayer in school, and many people are upset that they cannot have their children pray in public school. Now think for a minute: what if this debate was happening in Turkey? What if the big push was to have Muslim children be able/compelled to pray to Allah in schools? What would we, as Americans, say about this? What claims would we make about the stability and integrity of the modern Turkish state? You see where I'm going with this: We are, in ways, a Christian version of Turkey, to a lesser and less-violent extent, and these questions that Turkey is grappling with are the same ones facing our country. We have a strong religious tradition that sometimes comes into conflict with a secular government. Resolving that line -- balancing the rights and the will of very different types of people -- is a tricky one. I found myself willing to cut Turkey some slack once I realized how America was struggling with similar issues. I know the government in Turkey can be autocratic and bullying. But remember, Kent State happened in America. We are not a shining beacon on a hill.

Protests and unrest are inherent to democratic governments. I know Turkey isn't wholly democratic, but I think things like Gezi Park are an important part of its journey as a modern state. The conflict between the secular and liberal city and the conservative and religious rural areas is not a foreign concept to me. How often do we face that in America? In Washington State?

Beyond the food, the history, the architecture of Turkey, I am so glad we went so I could see the people. That's where I learned, that's where I grew, and that's where I came to understand my homeland and myself in a new light. A slightly grayer and more complicated picture arose, and while that may lend itself to convoluted and inarticulate blog posts, it does help me feel a part of my tribe even more, and a very willing citizen of this fantastic world.


  1. Most excellent Sarah. I wish everyone blogged about their travels to foreign lands. Thank you thank you for this insightful entry

  2. Loved this post, Sarah. This part especially resonated with me: "When I was visiting Turkey and would see women in hijab praying in the back of the mosque, I could distance myself and appreciate it. It wasn't personal. I've never had to contemplate me being in hijab at the back of my place of worship, so my personal feelings are left, delightfully, out of the equation. I can simply appreciate this woman's faith and the expression of her spirituality. I found it easier to do for Muslims than for my own Catholic family. This, THIS, was eye opening. I really hope that I become more accepting of people whose values I personally decided against the way I so easily found acceptance for people who values were foreign." Beautifully put


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