Drawing the LineMargaret Ernst BMC ’11 | March 8, 2010
I get a variety of reactions at home in the U.S. when I say I’m a religion major.
Sometimes people are excited. Sometimes they’re confused. Some have offered practical advice: “Of course! You could be a tour guide at the Vatican.”
The responses have been just as diverse on this trip. Turkish politics is vastly about religion and we were warned that conversations about Kemalism or Islamism can become highly charged, so almost every time I’ve shared my major, I’ve braced myself. Will they think I’m a fanatic, I wonder? Or that I’m not into democracy?
But at least in university settings, twenty-something’s must be twenty-something’s everywhere.
“I have no interest in religion, but I should probably learn about it,” Firat, one of our consistent traveling companions from Vocaliz told me. ”Do you study all religions?” asked a choir member from METU, trying to clarify.
I’ve found some students to be concerned that Turkey’s current government could be posing a deep threat to its secular status. But because modern America has seen a debate along similar lines since the Scopes Monkey trial, many American students I meet are just as suspicious when I tell them my major as students here are curious.
I’ve read that with Iran and Syria next door, seriously religious governments feel very real for Turks—a lot more real than “Inherit the Wind” for Americans. The Ottoman Empire, in which Islam was the state religion, was a lot more recent than religious intolerance in Puritan Massachusetts.
There are two very different grains against which the sacred/secular debate seems to work in Turkey and at home. So what I’ve found to be different are not what the Turkish students I’ve met imply about what it means to be religious, but rather what it means to be secular in Turkey.
You can gauge it from walking down the university halls. Headscarves have been illegal in public institutions, including universities, since Atatürk’s proclamation that Turkey was a secular state in 1924. In 2008 Parliament revoked the ban, only to be annulled by the courts a few months later. So METU and Anadolu University, where we gave concerts this week, remain places where Islam is invisible. In the U.S., it feels like there is a much larger space between “public institution” and private sphere that I would have never noticed had I not realized what distinguishes the two in Turkey.
America’s secularists are very unlike Atatürk. They speak against Genesis in textbooks and God on the dollar bill; Atatürk undid an entire religious past in a year, or at least tried to. Considering just how different our experiences have been with religion in the past century, it’s not surprising the places over which Americans squabble about religion are very different from the loci of those battles in Turkey.
In the States, a public figure’s body is a space for debate about where to draw the line between church and state. People worried about extremism could balk if they saw a cross or a hijab on the presidential candidate. The institutions up for debate are civic things and symbols. The stone Bible in Alabama’s courthouse. The National Anthem, the dollar bill. More ambiguously, abortion battles rage with the line in clear sight. But moreover, the iconographic side of secularists’ war in the United States takes place around icons that are decidedly more governmental than a university classroom.
Atatürk’s confident, half-squinting face is indeed everywhere here. The flags and ceiling-to-floor photos express a different kind of nationalism than America’s and a different kind of secularism, both growing from two very different histories. In his book about Turkish modernity “Crescent and Star”, Stephen Kinzer wrote that though Islam was discouraged by state for years in Turkey, the cult of Atatürk, especially visually, has cultivated enough materials and doctrines to make it feel like a religion itself.
As we put it in our discussion this morning on the carpet of our hotel’s conference room, Turkey simply defies categorization.
I may not have seen headscarves at METU or Anadolu, but as I sit in my hotel bed I’ve just heard the call to prayer issued after three beeps over a loud speaker. It’s a nudging, surreal reminder that I’m visiting a historically Muslim country for the very first time, and that this entrancing song-chant floats over 100,000 sleeping people in Eskişehir, where tomorrow we will leave for another city that will be woken up by it too.