Which Image Would You Choose?
This week’s show features two Christian communities who are now minorities in Turkey’s religious makeup. While they are on the spiritual boundaries of the secular state of Turkey, they are finding new-found freedoms under a government headed by an Muslim prime minister.
For our companion website and our email newsletter, we need to choose a lead image. Which one would you pick?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, conducts a service at the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon, northeastern Turkey on August 15, 2010. Orthodox Christians held a rare Mass at an ancient monastery in Turkey after the government allowed worship there once a year in a gradual loosening of restrictions on religious expression. (Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
Orthodox priests get ready for the Virgin Mary service at the ancient Sumela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon, northeastern Turkey, on August 15, 2010. Thousands of Orthodox pilgrims from Greece, Russia, and Georgia attended the Mass, which was led by Ecumenical Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I , the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, at Sumela Monastery for the first time since 1923. (Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It seems to me that while other cities may be mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth.
Who Are Turkish Voices We Can Speak with in Istanbul?
Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flick’s Creative Commons license
Our production team will be traveling to Istanbul this Saturday, and we’re looking to speak with some big thinkers for our public radio program. We want to better understand how Turkey carries forward its historical roots in the Ottoman Empire and before, and how its making the transition from a strict, secular democracy to one that allows for a more expression of religious identity and government rule. Who might be able to tease out the nuances of this tension and growth in Turkey as the country becomes a positive model for other burgeoning democracies in the region?
This person who could walk the line between being an expert who lives out these ideas in his or her daily life. Preferably we’d like to speak to someone who is a practicing Muslim and who grew up with a belief in the virtues and values of Ataturk’s secular approach to democracy. Or maybe this person never felt like those two identities fit in Turkey… But now is hopeful that the two can coexist. How does the larger context play out in individual lives of the speaker and other Turks?
And, since we’re a public radio program aired in the U.S., we’ll need them to be able to carry an hour-long conversation in fairly good English.
Offer your suggestions in the comments section here, or even email me at email@example.com. And, if you know others who might have some ideas, please pass our request along. We’d be much indebted to you.
Can Turkey Inspire Egypt as a Religious Role Model?
by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor
Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.
When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.
Living Tassawuf with Cemalnur Sargut
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the people we’ll be interviewing while in Turkey is Cemalnur Sargut. She is one of Turkey’s deepest and most inspiring spiritual teachers, who is leading a resurgence in the study and practice of Sufism, the mystical manifestation of Islam. She’s a magnetic personality who leads the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association in Istanbul, which reaches millions of people “who would like to apply solutions to today’s problems in the Sufi view that knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love.”
When we’re researching and evaluating a guest for the show, we’ll often listen to recordings of her speaking. We try to gauge not only what kind of talker she might be — the tone, fluidity, and style of her voice — but also her willingness to bring herself into the conversation and tell stories to illustrate what she’s talking about.
Cemalnur Sargut has been a bit more difficult to surmise. Her native tongue is Turkish, so there’s not much audio or video out there of her speaking in English. But, in this audio above, she gives a lecture (which feels more like a dharma talk) to a California audience at the Baraka Institute in October 2009. She speaks passable English before switching back to Turkish with the aid of a translator.
I think there’s enough here to take the risk. It’s the depth of the content that is worth exploring. She shares her experiences about her love for her teacher, her reflections on the nature of the spiritual journey, and her recommendations for how to live a spiritually balanced life. Within the context of Turkey, this should be a dynamic conversation.
Now, how we equip our host with the proper preparation materials for a one-hour interview?
Secularism, Nationalism, and Christian Minorities in Turkey
by Ramazan Kılınç, guest contributor
Halki Monastery and Seminary (photo by ©Nectarios Eben Trevino/Flickr)
In a recent New York Times article Susanne Güsten described the difficulties that Syriac Christians faced throughout the history of Republican Turkey. This story reflects the traumatic consequences of the nation-building process that modern Turkey has experienced since the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish official national identity was based on the ideology of Kemalism, which idealized a homogenous society defined by secularism and nationalism. This ideal, which has been alien to diversity, made life very difficult for ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkish secularism, in contrast to the American experience of secularism that separated religion and the state, excluded religion from the public sphere and aimed to keep it under state control. In an aim to distance itself from the Ottoman Muslim past, the state took a hostile position against religion. It banned organizing around religion. Even today, all religious associations, including Muslim ones, do not exist legally. Related to this, the state does not allow religious education outside of the state domain. The state itself took the responsibility to teach a Hanefi/Sunni interpretation of Islam. The motive of the “secular” state was to institute an “official Islam.” Only a limited number of non-Muslims, excluding Syriacs, were given the right to open religious schools.
Turkish nationalism perceived ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, as a threat to the ideal of a homogeneous Turkish nation. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey and Greece had large-scale population exchanges in an effort to homogenize their respective societies. Turkish Muslims in Western Thrace moved to Turkey while Greek Christians in Istanbul moved to Greece. In later years when nationalism peaked, the status of minorities including Christians worsened. For example, in the late 1960s, when Turkey had international problems with Greece over the Cyprus conflict, the state expropriated land and properties owned by Christian community foundations by using simple legal technicalities. Again when Turkey had problems with Greece, Turkey closed down the historical Theological School of Halki, which was opened to train Greek Orthodox clergy under Ottoman rule in 1844. Additionally, due mostly to the nationalist security perceptions of the state, religious minorities faced restrictions in opening up spaces for religious practice.
Only after Turkish secularism and nationalism started to weaken in recent years, the Turkish government implemented new reforms enhancing the religious freedoms of Christian minorities in Turkey. Although many significant problems still exist, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has passed several laws to enhance religious liberties for minorities over the last decade. The state passed new laws to return all expropriated properties to non-Muslim community foundations or to compensate the community foundations for properties transferred to third parties. The new laws made it easy to open houses of worship even though some local authorities still keep creating bureaucratic hurdles for non-Muslim minorities.
However, the recent reforms are far from satisfactory. They have not yet offered a solution to many problems that Christian minorities face. Religious communities still do not exist legally and they cannot establish religion-based associations and organizations. Similarly, religious groups cannot open educational institutions to teach religion. The Theological School of Halki, for example, is still closed.
The only comprehensive solution to these problems is to redefine Turkish secularism to make it more inclusive. Secularism in its current form is used as an ideological tool to guarantee state control of religion. For religious freedoms to thrive, Turkish secularism should be transformed into a constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedoms while keeping religion out of the control of the state. This change will prevent the state from intervening in the internal affairs of religious communities including Christian minorities. A change that allows an autonomous sphere to religious minorities would also bring them legal guarantees. While it is true that the current government in Turkey is more tolerant of Christian minorities than its predecessors, Turkey still needs a legal framework that protects the freedoms of Christian minorities. Only a transformation of Turkish secularism could make such a legal framework possible.
Ramazan Kılınç is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
We blogged about a small Turkish village that’s being impacted by the stream of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Hatay province, an area that was once part of Syria until 1938. This photograph from the Guardian puts a face to the people living in these camps:
Syrian refugees’ drawings:
Schoolchildren’s sketches of their dream homes at the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Hatay province near the Turkish-Syrian border. Inside the camp, tent canvases have been decorated with refugees’ drawings
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Orthodox Christians and Alevi Muslims in Turkey Fear Consequences of Syria’s Assad Losing Power
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
As our radio show prepares for a production trip to Turkey this coming June, I’m watching for particular stories and voices that might foster our own sense of how to add to the news and information coming out of this country. PRI’s The World offers this smart report on one of the few Orthodox Christian communities in Turkey that has learned to survive in a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.
Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reveals the complexity of the social and religious issues of Tokaçlı, a village in Hatay province of Turkey, which was once part of Syria until 1938. With the Altinozu refugee camp ten miles from its back door and 20,000 Syrians expected to stream across the border, this multi-ethnic community is being confronted by the realities of a Syrian civil war:
“Minorities see the Assad regime as representing multi-ethnicity and religious tolerance. And they can’t imagine anyone in a post-Assad Syria giving them a better deal. Just ask Can Coban who owns a cafe here in Tokacli.
‘You can’t predict the future,’ Coban says. ‘But let’s say radical Muslims win the elections. The Christians’ lives will never again be normal like they are now. They could expel the Christians or their lives could get more difficult. They might be prevented from praying and practicing their religion. They live better now in Syria than we do here in Turkey.’”
Also at stake is a peaceful way of life for Alawite Muslims, known as Alevis in Turkey, because President Assad is an Alawite Muslim:
“Alawites make up about 16 percent of the population, and Sunnis resent them for monopolizing power. And so Alawites are terrified of a backlash. And in Hatay there are fears of that backlash spreading across the border.”
Nowruz: Celebrating Spring and a New Year
by Susan Leem, associate producer
On this first day of spring, Persian families around the world are greeting each other with “Sal-e No Mobarak!” and “Happy New Year!” in celebration of the holiday of Nowruz, a day of beginnings. Translated as “new day,” the solar-based holiday marks the first day of the first year of the Bahá’í calendar and the falls on the vernal equinox.
The holiday has wider cultural and national significance for modern Iranians who often celebrate with family and friends by sharing meals together, cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, and performing contemporary expressions of ancient customs. Rooted in Zoroastrianism (the prophet Zoroaster himself is credited with creating this festival) in pre-Islamic Persia, Nowruz is also celebrated in surrounding geographic regions influenced by the Persian empire in the countries of Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
“Everyone lines up, and, one by one, each person jumps over the piles and sings, ‘zardi-ye-man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man,’ the special song means ‘my yellowness is yours, your redness is mine.’ Iranians believe, people give pain and negativities to the fire, and receive the warmth, the health and strength from the fire.”
The traditional haft-seen table is an important part of Nowruz celebrations. Iranians prepare these settings in their homes by gathering seven items that start with the letter “s,” which have positive meanings: the spice sumac for sunrise, seeb (apples) for beauty, and sir (garlic) for health, among others.
Goldfish also make an appearance on the haft-seen table. They are symbols of new life and the end of the astral year associated with the zodiac sign Pisces. They are sold in markets along with other Nowruz accoutrements.
Sabzeh is sprouted wheat grass, symbolizing rebirth and renewal of nature. On the thirteenth day of the celebration, it is customary to throw these sprouts away into running water, as the sabzeh is thought to collect negativity and illness in the household while it grew there. This purging represents purification and new beginnings.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Turkey is most definitely on our brains. As it turns out, we’ll be making a production trip in June (yay!) and so the extensive planning begins. What to do, what to do! No sooner did we find out than our old friend and former guest Omid Safi posted this magnificent photograph on his Facebook page along with this waxing caption:
“Inside sacred sites like this, I know it’s true that ‘God is beautiful, and loves beauty.’ The imaginative Muslim architects who designed it emulated Christian Byzantine masters, and strived to create a space that would stand free from columns. The “opening” that was created inside, the Christians and the Muslims agreed together, was to be filled by the very presence of God. By God, they succeeded.”
If you have suggestions on stories we might cover that fit our mission or voices that you think we ought to expose to a North American audience, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. Enjoy the view!