Israel Report

January 2002         

Don't Call Them Arabs

Ramadan in Istanbul

By Barbara Lerner, a writer, psychologist, and attorney in Chicago.
January 30, 2002
Who are these "Muslim allies" our State Department keeps talking about? Do we have any, in any fundamental, shared-values sense? Millions of Americans saw the Arab street explode with joy on September 11. Millions more read excerpts from the government-controlled press in allegedly friendly Arab countries, all spitting out the same blame-the-West conspiracy theories — we "had it coming," "the CIA did it," "the Jews did it." Most of us drew the obvious conclusion: that "Arab ally" is, at best, an oxymoron. And beyond the Arab world, what? Leaders of Pakistan and Indonesia seem less Janus-faced than those in Arab lands, but American flags burned in their streets too after we struck back in Afghanistan. So it's tempting for Americans to think that "Arab allies" and "Muslim allies" aren't really all that different, and to want to put quote-marks around both.

Is that unfair when it comes to Turkey — a Muslim nation of 66 million? From a distance, Turkey looks like a Muslim ally for whom no quote-marks are needed. That, at any rate, is what the record suggests, and I tried to believe it. But doubts kept creeping in. Sure, Turkey is a member of NATO; yes, Turkey was with us in the Gulf War; okay, we couldn't have done what we've done in Iraq, then and since, without the use of her air base at Incirlik. All that speaks well for the Turkish government, and for the mighty Turkish military that keeps the Turkish government on the secular path laid out, 75 years ago, by Ataturk. But what, really, does it tell us about the attitudes and feelings of ordinary Turks? About the values on display in the Turkish street? After Sept. 11 I checked and rechecked the wire services, but couldn't find a single report of Turks dancing in streets when the World Trade Towers came crashing down. I did, finally, find one report of a demonstration against our bombing campaign in Afghanistan, but it was orderly and small — hundreds, not thousands — and no flags were burnt. Still, I wasn't convinced. Was the Turkish street really sickened by the attack on America? Was the press just not paying attention? Or did they look, but see nothing, because Turks were too afraid of their own government to express their hatred of us openly, the way so many other Muslims did?

I couldn't be sure, so I decided to subject Turkey to my own test. It's the Flo-Jay tough-times tourism test, and what it measures is whether a vulnerable American proxy can feel perfectly safe and comfortable in that country — not just in ordinary times, but in tough ones, when the economy is tanking, the population is hurting, and Muslim religious feeling is running high because it's a holy month. Flo-Jays are frail little old Jewish-American ladies, and they make ideal testers because they're twofers-plus, representing both the great Satan, America, and the little one, Israel — as well as women. My own demographics are right for the job, and in November, the timing seemed right too: Turkey was struggling with a 70 percent rise in inflation and a 70 percent drop in tourism. So I packed up my tennis shoes and flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines during Ramadan. And — to make the test a tough one — for a Flo-Jay — I decided to spend my time there without coming within spitting distance of a luxury hotel or guided tour.

Timid soul that I am, I wouldn't think of trying this test in an Arab land in the wake of Sept. 11, but from my armchair at home, a visit to Turkey seemed like a reasonably prudent move — not just because the Turkish government is on our side, but because there are two great differences between Turks and Arabs, one religious, the other historical. And, from a theoretical perspective, I thought those differences ought to have a positive impact on the Turkish street.

Take religion. Unlike their Muslim brothers elsewhere, mainstream Turkish Muslims never relied on the Koran alone, or on interpretations of it by imams — past or present. Turks have a long history of incorporating local tradition into their religious practices, and local tradition in Turkey is light years from Wahhabi austerity or Shiite fanaticism. Take music, for instance, and dancing: Anathema to so many Muslims elsewhere, they have always been an integral part of Muslim life in Turkey, and that struck me as a hopeful sign.

Turkish history is different too, because the Turkish response to the decline of Islamic civilization and the rise of the Christian West was the polar opposite of the Arabic one. In the 1920s, when Turkey's long, slow decline hit bottom, the heirs of the once-mighty Ottoman empire made a decision that set them apart. Despite being besieged on all sides by Western nations intent, not just on stripping them of their empire, but on carving up what was left of their ancestral homeland too, the Turks decided that Western infidels were not their main problem, and that the decadence, corruption, and backwardness of their own society was. Taking this insight to its logical conclusion, Turks realized that what their country needed was sweeping reform, not festering rage or sour revenge. Led by the mighty Ataturk, they deposed their last sultan, rallied their army to repel the British at Gallipoli, and then took a series of bold, rapid steps, intended to transform Turkey from a dying empire into a modern republic. Their goal was to cast their lot with the West and become a part of it, without losing their Muslim identity — to preserve the best from their past, import the best the West had to offer, integrate the two into a unique, Turkish brand of modernity, and then dump everything that didn't fit, as unceremoniously as Istanbul dumps its garbage into the Bosporus.

Very nice, on paper, but did it work? Does it still? Can a Flo-Jay feel it, in the Turkish street?

Believe it; you can, at least in Istanbul, a city of 13 million. At first, it seems fairly intimidating, because it's such a huge, sprawling,_and hilly place, but people in the street were sweetly helpful. Shawl-wrapped or bare-headed, they went far out of their way-to help a bare-headed, pantsuited stranger find hers in a city that outgrew all of its maps centuries ago. That, at any rate, was my experience — not just in tourist centers like Sultanahmet or modern, commercial areas like Beyoglu, but in neighborhoods like Balat and Fener too, working-class residential neighborhoods all the guidebooks had described as strongholds of a rising Muslim conservatism. Tired of walking the streets? Stop for lunch. The special, fast-breaker lentil soup is a terrific restorative — chicken soup on steroids — and in Istanbul restaurants, fasting waiters cheerfully serve it to non-fasting fellow Turks and tourists alike.

Still, I was nervous, entering my first mosque right after lunch, because it was Friday, and the noon prayers were just ending. All over the Muslim world, that's the time when infidels are least welcome. But my fears were groundless — the faithful couldn't have been nicer. The fun really began, however, when the sun went down. Istanbul's Muslims don't just quietly break their fasts at home. Whole families spill out into the streets to celebrate in ways that turn this ancient crossroads city into a party town. And what a party it is. Street musicians play, balloons fly, colored lights twinkle, and people of all ages sing and sway and laugh and dance. There's cotton candy for the kids too — sold in front of Constantine's pillar, no less. Best of all, these are parties anyone can join; indeed, if you walk alone past one of these Ramadan celebrations at night, you're hard-pressed not to. Strangers welcome you, offer you tea and fruit punch, and urge you to try a few of the inexhaustible variety of appetizers Turks call mezes. No wonder Osama bin Laden calls them "the infidel Turks." Most of them answer the meuzzins call, five times a day, just as he does, but this is not his father's brand of Islam.

Okay, then, the Islam of the Turks really is different, at least in Istanbul. But what about their worldview? To test that out, I asked many Turks from different walks of life what they saw as the cause of their current troubles. Why was their economy in such terrible shape? Why was a single American dollar worth such a mind-boggling number of Turkish lira? Every one I asked gave me the same answer: "It's because our political system is so corrupt, and our politicians are so incompetent. Honest Turks won't run for office; it would ruin their reputations. They stay in the private sector or become professional soldiers — the army is our pride and joy, the guardian of Ataturk's legacy, but our political system is a disaster." And though I tried hard to push beyond this, I couldn't get a single Turk to pin the blame on outsiders. Tales of American imperialist plots and Zionist conspiracies just don't fly here. Indeed, they give Turks the giggles — because all Turks know why their country's economy is such a mess and will say so, plainly, to anyone who asks. Ordinary Turks display the same refreshing honesty about their own failings. A twentysomething lung surgeon I met was typical in this respect. On learning I was a psychologist, she told me that her aggressiveness was scaring off all the men she knew, and asked if I thought it was genetic. I said I thought it probably had more to do with the fact that female surgeons are still pretty rare in Turkey — maybe she had had to develop a certain aggressiveness to buck the trend. "Oh no," she laughed merrily: "I was hyper-aggressive as a toddler too."

Still, I worried that my view of Turkey and the Turks might be too sanguine. So I sought out Turkish Jews and quizzed them at length about the difficulties they face, living in an overwhelmingly Muslim country — but again I came up empty. Like their Muslim counterparts, Turkish Jews weren't shy about spelling out their country's faults — their diagnosis was, in fact, exactly the same: Most of our politicians are bums. But they all insisted that they had no special problems as Jews, because there was no anti-Semitism in Turkey. "Sure," they acknowledged, "there were instances of discrimination in the past, notably, the special taxes that wiped out so much Jewish wealth in Turkey in the 1940s — but those taxes were imposed on all Turkish minorities, wiping out Greeks and Armenians too, in a perfectly even-handed way. And since then, we've had no problems here that other Turks don't share." "Well," I said, "there was that incident in 1984 when terrorists burst into Istanbul's Neva Shalom synagogue and mowed down 22 worshippers." "Yes," my informants said, "but those men spoke Arabic, not Turkish."

Well and good. But the clincher, for me, was finding the ubiquitous Turkish protective symbol — the blue, black, and white evil eye — on the ribbons that bound the little boxes of sweets given out to guests at the Bar Mitzvah ceremony I witnessed at Neva Shalom. The idea behind the symbol is one that all the Turks I met subscribed to: The way to protect yourself from evil is not to hide from it, but to look straight into its unblinking eye, recognize it for what it is — in yourself and in others — and deal with it up front. That's a quintessentially Turkish idea, and it's a far cry from the kind of blameless-hopeless-helpless victim mentality that is so all-pervasive in the Arab world, and so beloved by our liberal elites at home.

It is, instead, so close to the traditional American spirit of plain-spoken honesty and sturdy self-reliance that it gives me great faith that Turkish-American friendship will survive all tests, because it is based on shared fundamental values.

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