Before writing this piece, I had a couple of rather conflicting thoughts, that made me resist the urge to write a personal account of my visit to Turkey. My initial enthusiasm to pen down my extraordinary experience was soon met by a greater impediment when I searched the internet to gather more information about Turkey, as I will explain later. I would not have done justice to myself if I would have written an article instead of a personal account. And so, I have decided to shut down those thoughts and do what I wanted to do anyway, i.e. to enlighten you about my journey, along with the aftermath, as it was in Turkey. Nothing more and nothing less.
Turkey, one of the five countries to be a part of both Europe and Asia, was a journey of a lifetime. Having visited five cities and towns over a course of twelve days, I experienced breath-taking architecture (mosques, museums, palaces, theatres and natural beauty), talked to Turks and ate traditional Turkish delicacies. I consider myself to be in a position to form an opinion about the country and its citizens. An Islamic country, where 99.8% of the population follows Islam as its religion, Turkey was truly a blend of modernity and cultural heritage, where people had accepted the reality of the modern era while remaining true to their own roots. It rightfully stood in the middle ground, embodying the qualities of both Europe and Asia. The country’s two wonders of the ancient world: The Temple of Artemis and The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, its rich traditional architecture, a blend of Islam and Christianity, was intellectually stimulating and visually captivating at the same time. The cherry on top was the state-of-the-art infrastructure, pristine surroundings, the technologically-advanced society and the open-minded people.
It’s a little hard to digest that an Islamic society can be so advanced and modern, isn’t it? Turkey certainly broke the few stereotypes I might have had against Muslims and reinforced the sense of respect I had for the religion. There were some incidents that took place during the journey that compelled me to think highly of Islam. In Islam, women are often expected to wear traditional dresses (like burqa, hijab, niqab, etc.), look after the domestic chores, and behave in a modest and polite way. However, men and women in Turkey wore western attire; jeans and t-shirts among other dresses. In the entirety of my journey, from a big city like Istanbul to a small town like Selcuk, I did not see more than 20% of the women with headscarves, let alone garments fully covering their body. The work culture was inclusive and women were financially independent. I remember eating at restaurants and cafes where women waited tables, even at night, a phenomenon uncommon in my supposedly more liberal home country, India. Furthermore, unlike India, smoking in public was not considered a taboo in Turkey and both men and women openly smoked in the streets. Although smoking does not imply modernity, yet to experience it in an Islamic country is a big deal.
There was one incident that stood out from the rest and acted as an ‘inception’ for my exploration of the Islamic world. It was when I visited the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, where a college student had volunteered to explain the history of the mosque to visitors. While explaining the prayer pattern, he said that women stood at the back during Namaz so as to ensure that men do not get distracted during prayer. I found this absurd and initiated a discussion on the point. My father was apprehensive that the discussion might turn into a heated argument and tried to stop me. To this, the gentleman instantly replied, “I want to hear her opinion. She (Muslim women, not me) is the disadvantaged one.” This incident indicated both a positive as well as a negative point for Turkish Islam: positive because the younger generations were open-minded and negative because the religion put women in a position of disadvantage.
To further my proposition, let us take a look at some statistics. According to the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA, Turkey is a developed country and is considered advanced in terms of infrastructure, technology, industrialisation, per capita income and standards of living. For a better understanding of Turkey’s economic and social situation, let us compare it with India:
In spite of some troublesome trends like rising unemployment and inflation, the above statistics provide enough evidence that Turkey is a developed nation.
My curiosity to learn more about Turkish Islam and to uphold my findings led me to collect pamphlets everywhere I went and undertake an in-depth search on the internet. But, what I read online was in stark contrast to what I saw through my eyes. I was appalled by the negative portrayal of Turkey in almost all of the articles I read! All of them had some common themes: economic and political instability, humanitarian crisis, disputes based on religion, and so on. I was distressed to find out that a staggering 477 women were killed and another 232 injured at the hands of violent men in Turkey in 2018. It was only when one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars Sıla Gencoglu filed abuse charges against her actor boyfriend in 2018 that a media frenzy was set off, which sparked the long-awaited national debate about violence against women. Furthermore, the Women in Statistics 2017 report stated that only 28% of women above 15 years of age were part of the Turkish labour force. These incidences reduced the confidence I had in Turkish Islam.
Furthering my research, I found out that Turkey’s current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party have made the constitutionally secular country more conservative and religious. The pro-Islamic authoritarian President aims to raise a ‘pious generation’ and thus promotes the growth of state-funded religious education in the country. Although the AK party claims to be secular, it seeks to change the country’s laws to greater reflect its growing Muslim identity. So, why did the modern people of Turkey elect Erdogan into power in the first place? This is because, in the first decade of his rule starting from 2003, he initiated several rapid economic and democratic reforms in the country. However, legal and democratic standards quickly deteriorated after 2013, and his focus shifted to the promotion of Islam. As a result, people became fearful that the President might slowly erase the line between Religion and the State, and make Turkey a non-secular country, upsetting the great balance put in place by the great Atatürk.
These steps have received a backlash from the Turks, especially the younger generation, and the level of piety has declined over the years, despite an increase in religious education. There has been a significant drop in people calling themselves ‘religious conservative’, from 32% in 2008 to 25% in 2018. People who say they fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan declined from 77% to 65%. Figures for ‘nonbeliever’ and ‘atheist’, which had been barely registered in 2008, increased to 2% and 3% respectively.
Now comes the final question. Is Turkey a modern or a conservative Islamic nation? The internet is full of Turkey’s past, which lost its way under President Erdogan, both economically and socially. However, what I saw was Turkey’s future, where the so-called ‘pious generation’ is changing course and embracing people from all religions and backgrounds. There is no chance that the AK party will come back to power in the next Parliamentary elections if it continues with the same narrow mindset of making Turkey an Islamist nation. I would urge the readers to develop a positive outlook towards Turkey, a country adapting itself with the changing times while retaining its cultural heritage. There’s more to this beautiful nation than what meets the internet!
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