Finding overt religion in modern western democracies takes skill, patience, and most importantly the inquisitive eye. We have (that is those of us living in the US, Western Europe and even Japan) over the course of the past three centuries, figured out a way to put the important aspects of our lives into their proper places. This means of course that business is business, family is family, school is school, and religion is religion. Never do we mix business with friendship, nor do we allow theology to pervade the spheres of politics or law. The way that we understand this phenomena boils down to one of the most basic foundations of our modern societies — the separation of church and state; secularization at its finest. Granted there are those who strive to takes us back to 15th century theocracies, and although this group is growing, they still have a long way to go before they succeed. The founders of our democracy made it this way and with hope and faith it will remain.
The founder of the modern secular state of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had the same dream in mind. After a recent visit to his colossal tomb I began to realize how much this man and his dream are revered in this country. His tomb is surrounded by a massive architectural feat that sits on one of the highest hills in Ankara. It is literally a crime to speak ill of this man or to disrupt the nationalist unity that is defined by his dream. A devout Muslim, intellectual, and above all else a revolutionary and freedom fighter, this man liberated his people from the powers of foreign Greek forces. Atatürk lived under the governance of the last real empire in the world — the Ottoman Empire — which existed long before the formation of any of our modern nation-states. His vision is parallel to that of Adams, Franklin, and Washington who freed themselves from the shackles of the Anglican Royal Church. We have all learned about these things from early on in our lives but history is blurry and time fogs the vision of the individuals that set forth to make a better life not only for their kin but for their country and their people. This is the definition of a revolutionary.
This mans dream remains, but of course, time changes everything. As the world moves into the 21st century and globalization sets in, pockets of resistance to certain aspects of this globalization (like the Burger Kings, McDonalds, and KFCs that I see strewn around this city) becomes more and more apparent. Where we have valiantly separated, rather, compartmentalized the important aspects of our lives, many Turks are struggling to keep Ataturk’s dream alive. An easy distinction to make between Christianity and both Islam and Judaism is the basic structure of these religions’ holy texts. Where Christianity invests itself in proverbs, passages, and the idea of a messiah, Islam and Judaism have foundations in the laws that define the religions and give structure to society and govern its people. Examples of full-on theocracies in the Islamic world have always sent chills down my spine in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where Islam is law. Turkey is one of the only predominantly Islamic countries with a secular government so Islamic law is not fully integrated into its constitutions. This provides for a really interesting experience.
What makes this all so confusing here in Turkey can be seen through a basic image that I will relay to you now. As I was walking back to my apartment on one of the main streets in the center of Ankara, I turned and noticed a pretty peculiar image: An advertisement at one of the many boutiques street showed a woman dressed in lingerie, her sexuality biding young women to purchase her company’s undergarments. Directly in front of this poster I saw a woman in a traditional Muslim veil. The best part about this little realization that I had came about in the juxtaposition of the female in this society. As I was making this distinction in my head the mid-afternoon prayers began to be belted out from a loud speaker connected to a light post, in front of a hidden Mosque. This Mosque was sitting right next to the very store that was selling femininity and sexuality. Yeah, wow.