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Turkey’s Muslim identity attracts Mideast spotlight

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–In the aftermath of November’s terrorist bombings in Istanbul, Turkey’s search for a modern national identity has attained high-stakes urgency.

Most eyes remain on Iraq, just to the south, where, despite Saddam Hussein’s capture Dec. 13, the battle for control continues. But where Turkey goes, much of the Muslim world might one day follow — politically and spiritually.

As in recent Al Qaeda-related attacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the Istanbul bombers struck at “soft targets” connected in some way to the United States, its military allies or Israel. In this case, they hit two Jewish synagogues, a British-owned bank and the British Consulate. Also, as in the other attacks, many of the victims left dead or bleeding on the streets of Istanbul were local Muslim bystanders. Such indiscriminate brutality has caused widespread public anger and revulsion.

How Turks respond is crucial, because another target of the bombings appears to be modern Turkey itself.

The ancient cultural crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey was the heart of the Ottoman Empire, crown of Islam’s golden age of conquest. Istanbul was its capital. The empire lasted more than six centuries, and at its zenith stretched from the gates of Vienna to the southern tip of Arabia.

Turkey remains overwhelmingly Muslim, but its government and military have been solidly secular for generations. Its politics and economy are increasingly democratic and Western-oriented. It is a member of NATO and has been seeking entry into the European Union for years. More than 60 percent of its 71 million people are under the age of 30 — and more interested in making a good living than returning to the ways of traditional Islam.

Those factors — and the government’s reluctant support for the U.S.-led Iraq invasion, despite opposition from the Turkish public — have incurred the wrath of Islamic extremists. Post-bombing investigation and arrests by Turkish authorities so far indicate the bombers were Turks tied to or inspired by Al Qaeda and its tentacles in the region.

“Obviously someone is mad at Turkey and is trying to hurt them because of Turkey’s importance as a hub for East and West,” says a Christian observer who lives in Istanbul. Muslim militants “don’t want a moderate voice that is pro-democracy and pro-Western, yet Islamic. They don’t want Turkey there as model of how it could work. So several things are converging on that real estate, which happens to be the same real estate where [the Apostle] Paul did his ministry.”

If turning Turkey away from the West is the goal of the terrorists, their methods seem to be backfiring — at least so far.

“The militants know Turkey’s strategic importance, so they’re trying to use the tactic of fear,” reports another Christian observer in Turkey. “But for the most part it’s causing disgust versus fear. It’s causing people to question their imams as they try to discover what the Koran teaches. It’s another nail in the coffin of disillusionment with what is true Islam. They’re asking, ‘Is this what we want to adhere to?’ A lot of local papers are saying, ‘This is not Islam. This is not who we are.’ They’re running toward secularism and materialism here in Turkey.”

Another significant public shift may have occurred after the synagogue bombings: The Jewish victims were embraced and mourned as native Turks, not as outsiders or “foreigners” in Turkey.

“The Turkish media really picked up on the fact that these are Turks who embraced Judaism, not minority groups,” the observer notes. “They put Turkish flags on these Jewish coffins. That is a huge change in terms of identity: You can be a Turk and you can be something else. They are saying this [terrorism] is against Turks, whether you choose to believe Christianity or you choose to believe Islam or anything else. A Turk is a Turk.”

The consequences of such a shift, if it lasts, are potentially enormous for the small but growing body of Turkish Christians. They live in a culture that has long taken for granted that “to be a Turk is to be Muslim.” It’s easier for Muslims to decide to follow Christ in urban Turkey than in some other parts of the Muslim world, but “easier” is a relative term. Conversion often brings rejection by family members, educational and employment discrimination, harassment and threats.

Still, the number of evangelical Turkish believers has grown to about 3,000 — up from a little more than 2,000 last year. The number of small groups gathering to worship also is expanding. “Something’s happening spiritually,” the observer says.

Another Christian, who walked by the British Consulate in Istanbul only a few days before it was bombed Nov. 20, admitted it would “be easy to become paralyzed by fear of what might happen — what cost or pain or suffering we might bear — if we continue to proclaim Good News here.”

But he sees the growth in believers and worship groups pointing “toward a time when the church will begin to spontaneously expand here … catapulted forward by the indisputable witness of the transformed lives of new disciples of Jesus and new churches.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: IN THE BALANCE and TURKEY’S TRANSITION.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges