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Secular Turkey

Where Nationalism Trumps Religion


Making something out of nothing is always pretty difficult.

My intentions in coming here were pretty clear: I was to explore the connections that existed, if any, between environmentalism (or ecological sustainability) and religion, of course in the Islamic context.

In the short time that I have spent here I have come to some fairly simple conclusions: In the course of Turkey’s attempts to integrate into the global economy, and especially the European Union, other factors have taken precedence over the religion. Secular issues and beliefs drive economic perspectives here. Whether or not this is good for the environment will take some time to figure out, but don’t worry guys, I’m on it.

Granted, my time here has been short and confined to the part of Turkey that is seeing the most development, the Western part. Here one can see veils on the women, and hear prayers being called in every district of this city, but religion doesn’t have much of an apparent influence on the way this government handles either internal or external pressures.

When looking at this country as a product of its history, one quickly notices how important and valued the idea of secularism is here. Behind Turkish nationalism, I am certain that secularism and Islamism come in tied for second—secularism may even have a slight edge.

The dualism existing in this country between secularism and Islam truly makes it difficult to write about the latter, especially because of what this country has done to compartmentalize religion.

In the past century, following the fall of the Ottoman empire, Turkey has stood out in contrast to its southern and western neighbors. Except for a coup in the early 1980s, it has remained a fairly stable democracy. Many attribute this to its secular government. Turkey has withstood various attempts to turn the country into an Islamic republic, largely thanks to the association of Turkish nationalism with Kemalism (after M. Kemal Ataturk), one of the founding principles of which is secularism. Schools are secular. And long before France and Belgium began brooding over the issue, Turkey had already banned any kind of head scarf from being worn in any school (even private schools), whether by students, teachers, or visitors. This law also goes for universities and military facilities. In courthouses, visitors are allowed to wear them but employees are forbidden to. There are those who protest and wear headscarves everywhere, but the fact of the matter is to be secular is to be normal.

In all reality it is much more accepted to be an atheist out here than, from what I remember, back in the States. Not to say that it is full of religious zealots but the fact of the matter is that religion is everywhere in the U.S.: There are multitudes of different beliefs being practiced, and as long as one belongs to one of these faiths one should be fine; it is those who have expressed their non-belief who are seen as the deviant minority. Whereas nonbelievers and atheists are embraced here in Turkey, at least among the people I have spoken to.

Although the current Turkish administration has had a somewhat tumultuous history vis-à-vis religion, President Abdullah Gul’s statements are not appreciably different from those of most American presidents who invoke God in their speeches or quote Biblical verses during their campaigns. The major point here is that religion in this country is, because of historical influences, drastically confined to the private place, making it extremely difficult to study religion in action.

Any of you who have been keeping up with these entries have probably noticed that I have spoken very frequently about Islam. I have worked my best at trying to find the influences of religion out here on the general society, but beyond the minarets and older women in head scarves, I see Islam but I don’t feel Islam.

I see and feel a country booming economically in hopes that it will return to the world stage as a significant player in global politics. I see and feel a country with the potential and ambition to integrate itself with the West again, keep ties with its Islamic neighbors, and help other countries develop in its path. I see and feel a country that is developing so quickly that there is confusion amongst its people about where the culture is heading. I see and feel a country where people are aware of environmental problems, but are more focused on getting this country to stand tall with the rest of the developed world, and they’re close.

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