True religion in Turkey and elsewhere

We live in a godless world, and that’s a fact. Now whether it’s because God is actually dead, as Friedrich Nietsche asserted, or because He has just given up on the human race and planet Earth, and taken His attentions elsewhere, I can’t say, but it must be one or the other. How did I come to this conclusion? I did what people usually do in this post-modern world when faced with a difficult question or an existential dilemma . . . I did a Google search. I keyed in ‘true religion’, and I want to share my findings with you. I must admit, I didn’t check out all 226,000,000 results, but of the thirty-three on the first three pages, twenty-six were links to a brand of jeans. Sure, seven of them would take you to sites with a more spiritual content, but four of those were on page three – and I’m not sure how many Google-searchers get even that far.

There it is – Search over!

Well, Nietzsche published his famous statement in 1882, so I can’t claim to have made an astonishing new discovery. Nevertheless, as with all complex ideas, one can read and intellectually engage with it, but not immediately experience or internalise its full import. Many years ago, as a student in a senior English literature class, I remember our professor asking how many of us had read the Bible. Few hands were raised, and certainly not mine. ‘Then how,’ asked the professor, ‘can you presume to study English literature when you haven’t read its single most important influence for most of the centuries of its development?’  

Later, as a teacher of literature myself, I would sometimes need to explain to my students a reference in a text we were studying. It shocked me a little to find how few students in a New Zealand high school had even second-hand knowledge of the best-known biblical stories. Interestingly, those who did were more likely to be of Maori or Polynesian, than European descent. The quotation is variously attributed to Jomo Kenyatta and Bishop Desmond Tutu, but it applies equally to New Zealand: ‘When the whitemen came, we (Maori, African, Native American . . .) had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed, and when we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
I have written elsewhere of how coming to Turkey gave me new insights into the influence of politics and government on the development of the ‘belief’ systems of Christianity. At the same time, I found myself looking with new eyes on the Muslim religion which was now all around me. Like Western visitors before me, I was fascinated by the call to prayer, emanating eerily from the minaret of my local mosque. As a child of the 60s, I turned to Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, for information. Not every Turk can tell you what the holy gentleman is saying, so, for those needing assistance, this is it:
(4x) Allāhu Akbar                                                 God is [the] greatest.
(2x) Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah                     I bear witness that there is no deity except God.
(2x) Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan-Rasulullah     I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
(2x) Hayya ‘ala s-salah                                          Come to prayer
(2x) Hayya ‘ala ‘l-falah                                           Come to success.
(2x) Allāhu akbar                                                  God is great
La ilaha illa-Allah                                                  There is no deity except God
It’s Arabic, of course, which bears a similar relationship to Turkish as does Latin to English – that is, it is the traditional language of religion and higher learning. To correct a misunderstanding in the minds of many Westerners, the word Allah is the Arabic for God, preceded by the definite article al-, and not the name of some pagan deity entirely unrelated to the focus of Christian worship. In the Muslim religion, Christians (and Jews) are ‘People of the Book’, part of the same great monotheistic tradition, and therefore brothers (and sisters) or at least cousins in religion.
Now no doubt some of you are thinking – this guy has been in Turkey so long, and seems so sympathetic, he’s probably become a Muslim himself. But no. In the first place, I incline to the Mahatma Gandhi, Donovan school of thought. I’m equally Buddhist, Baptist, Jew and Muslim, and equally none of them. And in the second place, I have an aversion to pain, and a strong attachment to that intimate part of my anatomy the removal of which seems to be regarded by institutional Islam as an important component of true belief. This, then, brings me back to the problem I experienced above with my search for true religion.
Check all the sources you like, you’ll find that religion is a difficult concept to tie down. The 19th century German philologist Max Müller wrote that the original meaning of the Latin word religio,from which our word religion is derived, was ‘reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things’. In other words, it was a personal business, a feeble attempt by human beings to deal with the metaphysical, existential problems that most of us encounter in the course of a lifetime. This denotation of religion you will still find in modern dictionaries. However, it is the conflict between this and the other meaning of the word that causes most of our difficulties. The other meaning of course, is an ‘institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’. It was institutional religion which persecuted Christians in Roman times, and which, when its turn came, used the tools of the Inquisition to torture and murder. It was institutional religion which Karl Marx called ‘the opium of the people’ for its power to induce acceptance of oppression instead of revolt.
Well, the struggle goes on, not only between religions, but within them as well. I have no intention of examining the struggle between Christendom and Islam. Enough nonsense has been written elsewhere, based seemingly on the assumptions that such a thing as Christendom still exists, and that Islam has some kind of unified integrity. Similarly, the tension within Christianity between the individual search for spiritual truth and the need of the institution to control by the imposition of doctrinal and ritual uniformity are well documented. What I want to look at is the situation in contemporary Turkey where the forces of secular modernity are supposedly in conflict with the AK Party government, whose secret agenda is said to aim at returning the country to the Shariah rule of orthodox Islam.
The personification of secular modernity in Turkey is the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who inspired and united nationalist forces, building a nation from the ashes of the moribund Ottoman Empire. One of the six principles on which he established the new state was the separation of church (mosque) and government. He saw religion as an anchor holding back his people from taking their place among the world’s modern states. To break the stranglehold of religion, he banned traditional forms of clothing (such as the fez), replaced the Arabic alphabet with a customised Latin-based one, outlawed the mystical dervish sects which constituted a serious threat to his programme of reform, and mandated the use of the Turkish language in place of Arabic in religious services – including the call to prayer. For eighteen years from 1932, the words heard from minarets in Turkey were these:
Tanrı uludur
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm
Tanrı’dan başka yoktur tapacak.
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm;
Tanrı’nın elçisidir Muhammed.
Haydin namaza, haydin felaha,
Namaz uykudan hayırlıdır.
Well, there’s something about the vernacular that appeals to populist philosophies, yet is anathema to organised religion. One could probably trace a correlation between the availability of the Christian Bible in English and other native tongues, and the long slow decline in religious observance in those countries. Probably Atatürk knew this. Surprisingly, then, it was the Democratic Party government of Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, that reinstituted the use of Arabic in Turkish mosques, among other Islam-friendly moves. Menderes epitomises for me some of the contradictions that perplex the foreigner in Turkey. He oversaw a period of rapid economic growth and Westernisation, while making major concessions to his majority Muslim electorate. He achieved a kind of superman reputation in his lifetime as a consequence of surviving a plane crash that killed most of his fellow passengers, yet ended his life on the gallows, hanged by the perpetrators of a military coup that seized power in Turkey in 1960.
Menderes was later exonerated, and his reputation restored to the extent that his name is honoured today in boulevards, airports and prestigious state high schools throughout the land. But the fact remains that he undoubtedly began the process of undoing Atatürk’s secularising reforms which has continued under subsequent regimes. Many of those secular Turks mentioned above, who maintain that the AK Party government has a secret Islamic agenda, see signs of this in PM Erdogan’s moves to pull the teeth of the Turkish military. In Turkey, the army has been seen by ‘secularists’ as having an almost sacred role to ensure the sanctity of the secular state, to the extent that they have applauded the generals when they have staged coups to overturn democratically elected governments.
Somewhat ironically, then, the last such military regime, which seized power in 1981, was also happy to make major concessions to the Muslim electorate, appealing to religion and extreme nationalism in order to suppress left-wing dissent. When the generals stepped back and handed power over to a civil administration, their choice for Prime Minister was Turgut Özal, formerly MP for an overtly Islamic party. Again, somewhat ironically, the Prime Mister deposed by the coups of 1970 and 1981 was a certain Süleyman Demirel, who later returned to office and installed a puppet PM in his place, before having himself appointed President of the Republic. In spite of this, when I first came to Turkey in the mid-1990s, Demirel too seemed to have restored his reputation and become a pillar of Kemalist secularism.
In another strange mating of secularism and religiosity, Demirel’s female successor Tansu Çiller, at the time a great symbol of Turkish progressiveness, formed a coalition with the Islamist Party of the day, allowing Necmettin Erbakan to become the republic’s first openly Islamic Prime Minister. Erbakan’s tenure was short-lived, however, and he was politely urged to stand down by the generals, in what has become known as Turkey’s ‘post-modern’ coup of 1997.
Returning then to our consideration of religion above, it’s hard to see much ‘reverence for God or the gods, or careful pondering of divine things’ in all these political machinations.  There is ample evidence in Turkey’s recent history that secular politicians and even the military guardians of secular Kemalism have been only too ready to play the religion card when it suited their purposes. So it does seem a little hypocritical now for the same people, and/or their followers to ride the high horse and attack PM Erdogan and his government for introducing relatively innocuous reforms such as allowing women wearing headscarves to study at university.
I do feel that a country such as Turkey, which struggles with serious inequalities of wealth distribution, could leave the building of mosques and the payment of religious leaders to local congregations and independent organisations. But funding of these by the state is not an innovation of the present government, and even the secular opposition are not interested in making such change an election issue. At the same time I have some sympathy for those who wish to see minarets continue as a feature of the modern Turkish skyline. I remember another of my professors drawing attention to an engraving of 17th century London, in which church spires were the prominent architectural feature. His point, as I recall, was that a comparison with the same view today might suggest something about modern-day priorities.
Of course, the problem is vastly more complicated, and I have no wish to oversimplify. Those 17th century London churches were representative of a religious establishment inextricably bound up with the government and the ruling elite of the day, and not necessarily a sign that their builders had any great interest in a search for spiritual truth. And I have similar misgivings when the muezzin of our local mosque wakes me around 5.30 these summer mornings with six minutes and 30 seconds of Arabic amplified by modern electronics and broadcast through loudspeakers attached to the highest point of his minaret. Perhaps he is genuine as he intones that extra line inserted into the morning edhan: ‘As-salatu khayrun min an-nawm’ (praying is better than sleeping)– but I would credit him with more sincerity if I knew he had actually climbed the spiral staircase to the lofty balcony, and used the unassisted decibels that God had given him.
Well, I don’t know if I have helped any of you here in your search for true religion. If the search comes to nothing, we can at least take consolation from the fact that globalisation is bringing our disparate institutional religions closer together. Witness the Shard Tower, recently opened in London, and now the highest building in Europe, financed, apparently by the Royal family of Qatar. And if you want a quick personal solution, get yourself a pair of those jeans.


4 thoughts on “True religion in Turkey and elsewhere

  1. And don't forget the taoist Alan. The broad minded see the truth in different religions, the narrow minded only see the differences.


  2. My true religion is kindness – it’s a hard one but the practice of kindness teaches me a lot about what it means to be human. Religion on its own is fine but when you mix it with ignorance it becomes lethal and dangerous. I loved this part – “I would credit him with more sincerity if I knew he had actually climbed the spiral staircase to the lofty balcony, and used the unassisted decibels that God had given him.” I do love the stereo effect you get when the different mosques are off on their timing. Magical indeed but only because it doesn’t affect my life any further. 🙂

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