Reading Ramadan in Istanbul

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles, Islamophobia

This year in Istanbul, the flags on Republic Day seemed extra large. It wasn’t a special anniversary year. Turkey was celebrating its 86th year as a modern secular state. Nevertheless, the sheer number of flags – 60,000 hanging from government buildings, draped across skyscrapers, dominating squares – was unprecedented. The display of 48,000 fireworks over the Bosphorus also seemed a bit over the top. It was as if the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), because of its “Islamist” reputation among detractors at home and abroad, was making a compensatory effort to prove its republican bona fides.

Meanwhile, in the memento shops in Istanbul, you can buy a 3-D portrait of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, in a dapper Western suit and fingering, of all things, prayer beads. This is a rather unusual image of the man who banned the caliphate, replaced Islamic law with a new European-style system, got rid of the Islamic calendar, and had his own highly ambivalent relationship to religion. But just as the ruling party wraps itself in the republican flag, the father of modern Turkey can reveal his Muslim roots. For many decades in Turkey, the whites (secularists) and the blacks (Islamists) have fought a pitched battle that has had all the polarizing elements of a cold war. Today, however, some interesting shades of gray are emerging.

One of the best guides to this new Turkey is not Turkish at all. He’s Swiss. In the same way that Azar Nafisi used Vladimir Nabokov to map Iran’s ideological terrain in her bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, I have found Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan’s new book, What I Believe, an ideal touchstone for what’s going on in Turkey today. Ramadan is the controversial but impassioned spokesman for Western Islam. The West, he argues, must come to terms with its Muslim citizens and its own Islamic history. Muslims who live in Europe are not “other” but, rather, authentically European: “Millions of them are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, while the media and the public seem obsessed with suspecting a problem inherent in Islam because of a few literalists or extremists.” Western Muslims, he writes, should also reject “minority citizenship” and become visibly engaged in building more pluralistic societies.

Ramadan focuses on Muslims who were born in or recently arrived to Europe. Interestingly, he doesn’t discuss European Muslims of much longer standing, such as those that live in Bosnia, Albania, and elsewhere in the Balkans. And, except for an aside on why the European Union should apply the same membership requirements to Ankara as it did to Sophia and Bucharest, he barely mentions Turkey either.

It’s a shame, since what’s happening in Turkey today reinforces many of his most salient points. Ramadan’s critique of dogmatic secularists who see a “return of religion” through such backdoor issues as the right of women to wear a headscarf in French schools aptly captures the fears of an influential segment of Turkish society. Under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, currently in its second term and with a larger popular mandate after the 2007 elections, Islam is considerably more public in Turkey. The calls to prayer, now electrified, are much louder. There are more women wearing headscarves (though not yet at university, since the constitutional court in June 2008 overturned a parliamentary law repealing the ban). In some places in the country, it is more difficult to buy alcohol.

At the same time, Turkey has become more officially tolerant, for instance toward the Kurdish minority. There is a new 24-hour Kurdish-language TV program, and new faculty at Mardin Artaklu University will teach Kurdish. The government has begun to accept back Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq, as well as a handful of Kurdish guerrillas (PKK), with the expectation that many more will follow in the next months as Ankara negotiates a deal with the Kurdish part of Iraq and the PKK insurgency finally peters out. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has signed a landmark set of preliminary protocols with Armenia. The Turkish government has also been conciliatory on Cyprus, hoping for a deal if not by the end of 2009 then definitely by next year.

Once an island in a sea of enemies, Turkey has adopted a new foreign policy based on “zero problems” with neighbors. And since these external enemies have usually corresponded to enemies within, the new foreign policy both heralds and encourages a greater commitment to pluralism at home.

Not everything is sweetness and light in Turkey, of course. Those who visit only Istanbul will see Turkish cosmopolitanism as it has existed since the Byzantine era (though with considerably less ethnic diversity). In central Anatolia, however, the conservative core of support for the ruling party, the Islamic revival has a different character. According to research by Turkish political scientist Binnaz Toprak, Muslim perceptions of discrimination in Turkey declined dramatically between 1999 and 2006. But her most recent research suggests that discrimination and intolerance against non-Muslims (as well as Muslims like Alevis) have been increasing in central Anatolia.

These anecdotes of discrimination are disturbing, of course. Some of it is no doubt payback for all the years of anti-Muslim intolerance. But turnaround is not fair play for a society struggling to create a new kind of pluralism that respects Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Against this intolerant Islam, Tariq Ramadan asserts a religion that respects the dignity of all human beings. He doesn’t propose a new Islam, but rather “to reconnect Islam with its original dynamism, creativity, and confidence.” There is a whiff here of what I would call “golden age fundamentalism” – that somehow the original Islam (or Christianity or Judaism for that matter) was made of superior stuff. I have strong doubts. But whatever its relation to some spurious “original” religion, a new Islam is certainly emerging in the world – in the theological circles in which Ramadan travels, in Muslim communities in the West, and certainly inside Turkey.

Five years ago, the future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, argued that “Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent. Its culture gives it a common identity. In this sense, Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe.” As such, Turkey should aspire to lead the Muslim nations, Ratzinger continued, rather than seek membership in the European Union. Many Europeans, from French president Nicholas Sarkozy on down, still subscribe to this binary opposition that casts Turkey in the unfortunate role of “permanent opposition” to Europe.

But as Ramadan points out, them is us. Turkey contains much that is European just as Europe contains much that is Islamic. New forms of identity – Ataturk with prayer beads, the AKP wrapped in a republican flag – are emerging in Turkey that transcend the old black-white divide. Similarly, Tariq Ramadan represents a new kind of European that transcends Christian insider and Muslim outsider. The next step is obvious. When Turkey joins the European Union, Europe will create the new “we” that Ramadan urges. This is the worst nightmare of fundamentalists of all persuasions. But it also the best hope for our blinkered, divided world.

New Indian Identities

The greater prominence of Islam in public life is not only a phenomenon in Turkey. Consider the evolution of Bollywood films. For years, many of the great Muslim stars of the Indian movie industry in Bombay (now Mumbai) adopted Hindu screen names to get around anti-Muslim sentiment. Today, not only do Muslims go by their real names in Bollywood pictures, but the films themselves are beginning to address themes of religious tolerance.

“While Bollywood films have traditionally focused on themes of nationalism, Hindu mythology, and peasant and working-class life, recent films are increasingly addressing issues of communal violence and religious intolerance,” Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Noor Iqbal writes in Bollywood Gets Political, her contribution to our South Asia focus. “Such topics barely surfaced in popular cinema of the preceding decades. But in the last 10 years, Indian films have begun to explore harsher realities and confront their audiences with tougher questions. They have played a diplomatic role as well, mediating relations between India and Pakistan outside of the political realm.”

The Raqs Media Collective, a group of artists in the Indian city of Delhi, has been hard at work interrogating Indian national identity. “Nation-states seem either too large or too small a frame to allow a real and concrete sense of engagement with the issues of our times, be they economic realities or ecological issues like global warming (for which they are too small), or the day-to-day arrangements of people’s lives (for which they tend to be much too large),” Raqs told FPIF contributor Niels van Tomme in Activist Listeners. “They are the blunt instruments of realpolitik, but come laden with a sense of historically ordained arbitrariness and abstraction that makes it impossible to conceive of them as organically evolved entities. The ‘origin myths’ of national culture are usually conceived by dominant classes as ways to cover up the artifice of nation-building.”

Also in our South Asia focus this week, FPIF contributor Mark Sedra advocates a new political strategy for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. His five-point plan begins with resolving the current electoral crisis in the country. “Whatever the result of the runoff election, and Karzai will most likely prevail, the winning candidate should be urged to form an inclusive national unity government,” Sedra writes in Setting Out the Conditions for “Success” in Afghanistan. “This will help to minimize the chance of more lasting political fissures within Afghanistan. If such tensions assume an ethnic or factional tone, with much of the country already voting along ethnic lines, the potentiality for conflict increases.”

How to Deal with Tehran

Last month, high-level negotiators from the United States and Iran met for the first time in 30 years. There seems to be some cautious movement forward on resolving the nuclear impasse. In our latest strategic dialogue, FPIF contributor Bernd Kaussler urges caution given the crackdown in Tehran against the political opposition.

“It’s tempting to interpret the U.S.-Iranian détente as means for Iran to coat itself with legitimacy after a bloody summer and ongoing state-sponsored violence against its own people,” Kaussler writes in From Geneva with Love: Breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian Relations? “The United States and the EU must push for the reestablishment of a country mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur at the Human Rights Council. Meanwhile, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention must be allowed into Iran to probe the extent of political violence and torture. Political prisoners must be released immediately. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief must also assess the appalling human rights situation of the Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, who are subject to repression under Ahmadinejad. Sadly, such demands and actions are unlikely to materialize, for they are likely to irritate Iranians, potentially breaking up negotiations.”

On the other side of the dialogue, FPIF contributor Duran Parsi identifies significant changes in Iran’s foreign and domestic policy since the elections. “Instead of the doom-and-gloom sensationalism flooding Western media about Iran focusing only on the oppression of the people, more emphasis should be placed on the successes of the opposition movement,” he writes in Rethinking Iran. “Mussavi’s movement has achieved real success in the tangible altering of Iran’s nuclear policy, heightened efforts at economic stabilization, and a toned-down foreign policy. If Khatami and Mussavi can find reasons to smile, perhaps we should begin to rethink our characterization of Iran and find more positive ways to support the movement towards change.”

The Obama administration’s reappointment in June of Farrah Pandith as special representative to the Muslim world does not bode well for relations with Iran or other Muslim countries. “Pandith’s work on the “War of Ideas” under the Bush administration seems to clash with the Obama administration’s vision of conducting public diplomacy and cultural engagement,” writes FPIF contributor Anne Hagood in Engaging with the Muslim World Will Require More Than a Special Representative. “The very term ‘War of Ideas’ has now become an anathema to this current administration. Could her appointment reflect internal disagreements at State Department between pro-Obama and pro-Clinton factions? Or could this also be a further example that the United States fails to understand the very population its foreign policy is targeting, a problem that has plagued the previous administration?”

Free Trade, State Secrets

Although it has not distanced itself sufficiently from the Bush administration on a number of civil liberty issues, the Obama team seems to be getting one thing right: state secrets. The early signs were not good. The administration initially indicted it would follow the Bush policy on invoking national security interests to prevent the release of information in court cases. Then, in September, the president announced a new state secrets policy that imposes important new limitations on executive branch power.

“These self-imposed limitations on executive power are unprecedented in the state secrets arena, and their announcement in a publicly released memo engenders confidence that they will be followed,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Pallitto in Obama and State Secrets. “To the same end, the administration had already released several torture-related memos earlier in the year, claiming that their release was required by the ‘rule of law.’”

The Obama administration also reversed the Bush policy on missile defense in Europe by cancelling the long-range interceptor bases planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. FPIF contributor Gabriella Campos talks with Kingston Reif, deputy director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, about Obama’s proposed alternative to focus on small- and medium-range missiles. “Here you have the Obama administration proposing a system that is actually directed at the existing threat, is far more technically mature, is much more adaptive and comprehensive, and is scheduled to be put in place much sooner,” Reif says in Changes in the Missile Defense Program. “If you are a supporter of a missile defense system that will actually protect Europe, then you should be a supporter of the Obama administration’s approach.”

In the trade arena, the Obama administration hasn’t yet broken with the Bush/Clinton approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement. “Obama has backpedaled from his campaign commitments to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) so that it would emphasize fair trade, workers’ rights, and limits to investors’ privileges,” writes FPIF contributor Manuel Pérez-Rocha in More than Backpedaling on NAFTA. “Instead, the government is still expanding the accord to remove even more checks and balances on the exchange of capital, services, and goods.”

Meanwhile, the civic group La Mesa Nacional Frente a La Minería Metálica en El Salvador has successfully blocked the mining permits of corporations that have devastated the environment and livelihoods of many communities in El Salvador. Representatives of La Mesa recently came to Washington, DC to receive the Institute for Policy Studies’ Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. “Amidst their success and fight against mining in their small, over-populated country, La Mesa members have received violent threats against their lives in order to stop their activism,” writes Gabriela Campos in The Struggle against Free Trade Continues. “In fact, a leading La Mesa member, Marcelo Rivera, was found tortured and murdered after his disappearance. Furthermore, during a House of Representatives hearing on October 15th Francisco Pineda, a member of La Mesa, said that one of his farm assistants was offered $2,000 dollars if they agreed to poison Pineda’s food.”

FPIF, November 3, 2009

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