Merry Christmas to all

I wrote this back at the end of 2013 – but I can’t think of much to add, so I’m recycling it:

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.

For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to have given give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!

White-Christmas

Not much of that white stuff in my home town – or Jesus’s for that matter.

Of course, it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.

I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.

Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.

night before xmas

With thanks to America and the Coca Cola Company

Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.

So, there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.

Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named.

wildhuntsman

Well, Woden did have the long white beard

So, what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.

Of course, such uniformity is impossible.  “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from days when ‘queer’ had another meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion were evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.

Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:

  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of ’Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops.

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennium history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.

Mevlana's tomb Konya-1

Mevlana’s tomb in Konya, Turkey

So, party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.

Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings, we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’

17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, to be precise, it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent, given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire with its lunar-based calendar. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (‘Wedding’ in a transcendental sense). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.

At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:

Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.

Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.

Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.

Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.

Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.

Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.

Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.

 

In generosity and helping others, be like a river.

In compassion and grace, be like the sun.

In concealing other’s faults, be like the night.

In anger and irritability, be like death.

In modesty and humility be like the earth

In tolerance, be like the sea.

Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

 

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In remembrance of Rumi: Şeb-i Arus 17 December

konya

Mevlevi ceremony in Konya

Şeb-I Arus translates literally as “Wedding Night”, but in fact was the date that the renowned Sufi mystic, Celaleddin Mevlana Rumi, passed away. In keeping with his transcendental philosophy, Mevlana Rumi saw his death as the merging of his spirit with the Divinity, hence a “wedding”, and not an event to be mourned.

I’m passing on some extra information from several sources:

The Istanbul Guide:

“He is the most-read poet in the United States and possibly the best-known Islamic figure after Muhammad. His philosophy of divine love has inspired countless artists, musicians, and writers. He created the iconic symbol of Turkey, the sema ritual often known as the “whirling dervishes.” The man referred to is of course Rumi, whose full name was Mevlânâ Celâleddîn-î Rûmî. His death 742 years ago is commemorated every year on December 17.  

Every year on December 17, people flock to Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya to pay their respects and experience a powerful ceremony of remembrance.”

The official Mevlana website:

rumiWho is Mevlana?  Hz. Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi is the great Anatolian mystic, poet and the father of the Mevlevi Order. He is known as Hz. Mevlana in the East and as Rumi in the West. At birth, his family named him Muhammed, though he came to be nicknamed Celaleddin. As for “Mevlana”, it connotes to “our master”, while “Rumi” relates to “the land of Rum” or “Anatolia”, where he lived. In his lifetime, he was also referred to as “Hudavendigar”, meaning “distinguished leader”, whereas his present internationally renowned title “Mevlana” was very seldom used.

Hz. Mevlana was born on 30 September 1207 in the city of Balkh, Horasan, which at the time was inhabited by Turkish tribes; (Balkh, today, remains within the boundaries of Afghanistan). His mother Mümine was the daughter of Rükneddin, the “emir” (sovereign ruler) of Balkh and his father, Bahaeddin Veled, was “Sultanu-l ulema”(chief scholar). Their clash of opinion with Fahreddin-i Razi, one of his contemporary mystics, along with the probability of a Mongol invasion urged him to desert his hometown accompanied by his entire family. Their migration, via Baghdad, Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Malatya, Erzincan, and Karaman, ended up, on 3 May 1228, in Konya upon the invitation of Alaeddin Keykubad, the Seljuk Emperor.

As Mevlana began attending his father’s lessons at a very early age, he pursued the divine truth and secrets. He acquired Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and common Greek as well as Classical Greek. He studied the other religions along with Islam. From history to medicine, he received his initial education from his father and then from Seyyid Burhaneddin Tirmizi and other top scholars of the time. Later on, he himself, in turn, taught hundreds of students in Madrassahs (theological universities).

Turkey Travel Centre

Rumi and the Annual Whirling Dervish Festival in Konya

“From the 10th of December to the 17th, thousands of people will descend on the Turkish city of Konya. Hotel accommodation will be fully booked up and any latecomers that do find spare rooms will have to pay heavily to secure them. Konya is bracing itself for one of the most important events of the year and that is the annual celebration of Rumi and the whirling dervishes’ festival.

For many, this is a journey to commemorate the death of a poet and his works that continue to penetrate everyday society.

Who was Rumi?

MevlanaRumi was born on the edge of the Persian Empire, in the city of Balkh which is now part of Afghanistan. In 1273, he died in the Turkish city of Konya. Despite his departure from this earth over 700 years ago, his poems and quotes are still widely read today by millions of people all over the globe.

Rumi Poems and Quotes

The work of Rumi is extensive and often called words of wisdom by modern day artists and authors. His words spoke about every aspect of life but mainly focused on love and inner peace.

Famous quotes include

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”

“Come, come, whoever you are. Heathen, fire-worshipper, idolater, it doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

What is his significance to the west?

Despite his origins in the east, Rumi is widely known in western countries. He was the bestselling poet in America for a number of years and his poems have been globally translated into many languages.

As a practicing Sufi, his beliefs lay in a branch of Islam yet his followers include Christians and Jews along with Muslims. He did what many others have tried to do and failed miserably at. He connected people of different religions and it all began with his words.

Read any poem or quote, and there is no bias against cultures. There is no preference of one race against another. Muslims are not favored over Christians or Jews.

He found a way to communicate with the world without excluding one single person, hence his popularity in the west.”

Visit these sites for more information:

https://www.everfest.com/fest300

https://www.everfest.com/e/mevlana-anma-torenleri-konya-turkey

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/dec/18/whirling-dervishes-at-the-rumi-festival-in-konya-a-photo-essay

Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

42 magic cube

42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

channel 42

Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

don't be sad

Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

sema 2

Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.

ney

Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

opening doors

If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 

Tören

Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

The Magic of Forty-two – Konya and Keyrings, Carpets, Christmas and Yellow Canaries

I worked at a boarding school in New Zealand years ago, and one of my more cynical teaching colleagues told me, one day, when I was complaining about the difficulty of gaining access to some room, I forget exactly where . . .  ‘Locks are to keep the teachers out,’ he said. It’s a variation on the theme: ‘Keys are for honest people’.
Well, I guess, at least by that definition, I am an honest person, because I always seem to have bunches of them. The drawers in my desk are full of keys whose purpose I have long since forgotten but am afraid to throw out because I am sure that, a week after I do, I will remember what crucial lock they would have opened.
These days I try to be more systematic, and as an aid to memory, I am attracted to gizmos that will allow me, at a glance, to identify the purpose of a particular bunch of keys. One of the things I love about the Turkish language is that it has a word for these things. ‘Anahtar’is Turkish for ‘key’ and ‘anahtarlık’ is one of those decorative thingos to which you attach a bunch of keys, allowing you to immediately understand that they are yours, and that they open the doors at your workplace, or home, the car, or whatever. ‘Keyring’ doesn’t really do justice to the concept, does it?
Incidentally, the Turkish language is full of these marvellous words, which you don’t really appreciate the lack of until you return to English and find that you just can’t say what you wanted to say any more. ‘Kaçıncı?’ is another one. It means ‘How manyth?’ As in ‘JFK, ABD’nin kaçıncı cumhurbaşkanıydı?’ ‘JFK was the how manyth president of the USA?’In case you were wondering, he was the 35th, which for some reason, Americans seem to find important. A residual hankering after dynastic imperial grandeur perhaps.
As usual, I am digressing. What I wanted to tell you was that, as a result of moving to rental accommodation in consequence of our house being in line for demolition for the purposes of urban renewal, I acquired another bunch of keys. Scanning the display of key whatsits in our local locksmith’s, I was attracted to a bronze doodah in the shape of the numeral ‘42’. What could I do? I had to buy it – and of course I intend to tell you why.
Pretty much everyone knows that a cult developed around the number 42 after it featured in a memorable episode in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Adams, along with Spike Milligan, was, of course, one of the two great geniuses of the 20th century. In this particular episode, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built ‘Deep Thought’, the second greatest computer in the universe of time and space. They then tasked it with producing the ultimate ANSWER, to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, it was a tricky question, requiring a good deal of deep thought, but the mega-computer finally came up with the answer (after 7.5 million years of calculation) which was . . . forty-two.
Another thing I love about living in Turkey is that my shoe size, which for the previous 30 years I had thought was 8, in fact turned out to be 42 – a much more emotionally satisfying number, at least for a male of the species. ‘42 also happens to be the year in the 19th century when two ships, the ‘Jane Gifford’ and the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, arrived under sail in the embryonic British colony of Auckland, New Zealand, disgorging immigrants from the old country, among whom were George and Eliza Scott, my paternal great-great-great grandparents.
All very interesting, you say, but what about that key doohickey? What do Turks care about your shoe size, ancestry, even Douglas Adams, great as he was? And you are absolutely right – they don’t give a dingo’s kidney. Something that is very important to them, however, is the fact that their country is divided into 81 administrative districts, known as ‘İl’. For a long time the list was alphabetical, beginning with Adana as number 1 and progressing to Zonguldak at number 67. Sad to say, the best-devised human systems are prone to decay, and there are now a further fourteen ils, no’s 68 to 81, upsetting the satisfying logic of the original list.
An important aspect of this system is that the number plates of cars in Turkey all begin with the digits of the il in which they were registered. Residents of other cities can immediately recognize and resent a driver from Istanbul by his or her distinctive ‘34’ number plate. Another beauty of the system is that it allows Istanbul drivers to immediately identify an out-of-towner and add an extra personal touch to their abuse of his (or her) driving incompetence. 
But getting back to my key whatchamacallit, ‘42’ is in fact the il number of Konya, an Anatolian city located exactly where it should be, right there between 41 Kocaeli and 43 Kütahya. Which reminds be of another episode from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ featuring an extra-terrestrial being known as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – but I refuse to be diverted!
One of the reasons it is difficult for those of us from the ‘New World’ to understand what goes on in the ‘Old’ is that it is just so damn old! Konya itself is believed to have been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE, although excavations at a nearby site known as Catal Höyük have revealed a Neolithic proto-city dating back to 7,500 BCE. Konya (or Iconium) was incorporated into the Hittite Empire around 1500 BCE, and subsequently taken over successively by Phrygians, Cimmerians and Persians before Alexander the Great came hurtling through on his mission of world domination in 333 BCE. Kings of Pergamum ruled Iconium during the Hellenistic period until it passed into the hands of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE. It gets a mention in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have stirred up some trouble among the locals with their preaching. A certain Tertius of Iconium was, they say, the original scribe who recorded Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for posterity. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the city came under repeated attack by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th – 9th centuries and was razed on more than one occasion.
Seljuk Turks began seizing control of Anatolia after defeating the Byzantine Graeco-Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 CE. The resulting Seljuk Empire or Sultanate ruled much of Anatolia as far as the Mediterranean Sea and almost to the Aegean. Around 1100 CE the Sultan Kılıçarslan established his capital at Konya. Defeating him and his Islamic Empire was one of the main objects of the First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1096 – although, perhaps ironically, it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who finally put an end to the Seljuks.
One of Konya’s contributions to Western civilization was a particularly fine type of hand-woven carpet, of which the 13th century explorer Marco Polo is reputed to have said they were the most beautiful in the world. Certainly they were much sought after by the wealthiest European families, and featured in the art of several painters, most notably Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Konya is also the place where the iconic Turkish folk philosopher, Nasrettin Hodja breathed his last, and where Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current government, his first. These days, however, the city is probably most renowned as the last resting place of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, founder of the Mevlana sect of Islam. Rumi, as he is known in the West, was a 13th century Sufi mystic whose followers are sometimes called Whirling Dervishes, and who was, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular poet in America in 2007’. As everywhere in Turkey, when you visit Konya, there are special mealsthat should be eaten: okra soup and etli ekmek, for example – the latter a kind of elongated pizza featuring the meat of local lamb.
Well, enough of Konya. Though you might wonder whether it acquired the number 42 purely because of its place in an alphabetical sequence, or if there were mystical mathematical forces at work. For sure there’s something going on with that ‘42’ business. Experts in number theory tell me that it is, in fact, a primary pseudo-perfect number, which may be significant, given that such numbers apparently satisfy the Egyptian fraction equation, whatever that may be. We in New Zealand remember 1642 as the year a Dutch mariner by the name of Abel Janszoon Tasman got himself lost in the South Pacific Ocean and stumbled upon our South Island in the false impression that it was part of South America. Apparently the local Maoris killed and ate a few of his sailors, which perhaps deterred his countrymen from returning – that and the fact that they would have been unlikely to find it by following his directions.
A century earlier, in 1542, our Scottish ancestors crowned a new queen, Mary I, who, I gather, was only six days old at the time, which may have been a bad move in view of how things subsequently turned out for Bonnie Scotland. 1742 was the birth year of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, sometimes referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’. In spite (or possibly because) of his opposition to the abolition of slavery, Dundas gained some popularity in the land of his birth, helping to establish the New Town of Edinburgh and commemorated by a 46 metre neo-classical column in the main square. According to his Wikipedia entry, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money – though it seems he was acquitted, whether from innocence, good luck or a good lawyer is not made clear.
The original Tweety Bird, 1942
And what of more recent times? Well, the following have nothing to do with Scotland, Konya or Douglas Adams, but I can tell you, for instance, that, in 1942, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Trinidadwas severely damaged by a salvo of its own torpedoes and soon after scuttled by her own crew. 1942 was also the year when Bing Crosby recorded ‘White Christmas’, that schmaltzy Irving Berlin song said to be the biggest-selling single of all time. ‘Der Bingo’, as he is referred to in the Andrews Sisters’ song ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, nudged out the Pope and the favourite baseball player of the day in 1948 to top the poll for ‘most admired man alive’ – one assumes the poll was conducted in the USA. His own family seem to have been less admiring – eldest son Gary having published a book in which he portrayed his father as ‘cruel, cold, remote and both physically and psychologically abusive.’ The Wikipedia entry reports that two of Bingo’s other sons committed suicide.
To end on a happier note, 1942 saw the first appearance of Tweety Pie, the yellow canary bird featured in Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoons. Tweety (or Sweety), another icon of US culture, is indelibly etched in the childhood memories of generations of kids with his most famous line, ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat!’

So there you have it . . . Do numbers have a special significance or life of their own? Undoubtedly many people believe they do. Most of us, if pressed, will admit to having a number we consider to be personally ‘lucky’. Results of a poll published the other day in The Guardian announced that seven is the world’s favourite number. Well, seven is a factor of 42, but I’m sticking with the larger multiple. It seems to me to encapsulate much of the true meaning of life – if we only knew what the question was!

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.
For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!
Of course it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.
I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.
Norse god Odin
painted by Georg von Rosen
Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red and white have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.
Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.
So there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.
Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named (coincidentally Christmas day this year, so you may want to mention him in your prayers).
So what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.
Of course, it is impossible.  “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from before ‘queer’ took on its current meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion are evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.
Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:
  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of  ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops. 

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennia history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.
So party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13thcentury Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.
Tomb of Mevlana Rumi, Konya, Turkey
Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’
17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, truth to tell it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (hence ‘Wedding’). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.
At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:
Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.
Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.
Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.
Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.
Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.
Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.
Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.
In generosity and helping others be like a river.
In compassion and grace be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults be like the night.
In anger and irritability be like death.
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance be like the sea.
Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

Alevis in Turkey – Is reconciliation possible?

The English word Turkey (with a capital ‘T’) comes from the Turkish word ‘Türkiye’ which means land of the Turks. It was not used by the Ottomans to describe their empire – but by Europeans to identify the Ottomans as ‘other’, to demonise, perhaps, and belittle a feared foe. The term really had no validity until 1923 when an indigenous army defeated an invading force from the Greek mainland, liberating the Anatolian heartland and the imperial capital Istanbul from foreign occupation.
Map of Turkey showing areas of
concentrated Alevi populations
The victorious leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk), and his team, set about creating a new nation state from the ashes of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Without repeating details covered elsewhere, it is important to understand that the dissolution of that empire had been assisted by military defeats at the hands of foreign neighbours and nationalist liberation movements from within over the previous two centuries or more.
Building a new nation state required a philosophy and identity which citizens could relate to and fight for – the result was Turkish nationalism and the Republic of Turkey, not necessarily in that order. The pillars of that national identity were the Muslim religion, the Turkish language and Turkish ethnicity, meaning a connection to the tribes that had poured out of Central Asia for centuries before the Ottomans hammered the last nail into the Byzantine Graeco-Roman coffin by conquering Constantinople in 1453.
The Muslim character of the new state was confirmed by an obligatory population exchange at the conclusion of the Independence War in 1923. Orthodox Christians, who were believed to have supported the Greek invasion, were dispatched to the Greek mainland, their places taken by Muslims sent in the opposite direction. Armenian Christians had already mostly been seen off in events I have also discussed elsewhere. Right from the very beginning, then, there was an uncomfortable disjunction inherent in the establishment of the new state: secularism was one of Atatürk’s six founding principles, yet religion was a major determinant in the composition of Turkey’s population.
Turkey is not alone in its discomfort, of course. The partition of British India after independence was won in 1947 involved a vast movement of population whereby Hindus from the newly created Pakistan were exchanged for Muslims from the new Union of India. Religion, language and ethnic origin may be powerful forces to be harnessed by ambitious political leaders seeking to foster unity and create a national identity. The melting pot of history, however, has produced a mix of humanity in which purity in any of those factors is, at best, elusive – and so it is in the Republic of Turkey, despite the best efforts of Kemalist law-makers to legislate for ‘Turkishness’.
In spite of the post-independence population exchange, modern India has almost as many followers of Islam as does Pakistan. Only one other country, Indonesia, has more Muslims. Similarly, many Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christians continued to live in Turkey, especially Istanbul, though admittedly numbers declined as a result of international incidents, particularly involving next-door-neighbour, Greece. Members of the Jewish community have long made their homes in this part of the world, their numbers increased by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. The republican state continued to grant them freedom of religion, language, education, culture and economic life.
So, it is evident that the Muslim pillar of Turkishness was flexible enough to include some Jews and Christians, and this was done openly. More problematic, however, has been the inclusion of other larger groups within the population who, while coming within the broad category of Muslim, have not been able to fit comfortably into the Turkish national identity.
The most obvious group in this context is the Kurdishpeople. I don’t intend to get embroiled in a discussion of this issue here, but suffice it to say that, in spite of their Islamic faith, Kurds in Turkey speak an Indo-European language totally unrelated to Ural-Altaic Turkish, and are ethnically quite distinct. Also among the native Muslim population are small communities of Arabic, Laz, Zaza and Romani speakers, not to mention later refugee groups from the Balkan and Caucasus regions, many of whom retain their own languages and cultural traditions.
These communities undoubtedly have issues with the concept of Turkishness that presupposes ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and those issues bind them together within their own groups. There is, however, another significant demographic, numbering, depending on whose estimate you take, somewhere between ten and twenty-five million, or fourteen to thirty-three percent of Turkey’s population. These are the people known as Alevi, and the huge disparity between the upper and the lower figure perhaps sounds a warning that something mysterious is, or has been going on.
One interesting feature of Alevismis that it is to be found in both Turkish and Kurdish communities – it cuts across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Perhaps that is not so surprising, because Alevism is a religious faith. However, when it comes to describing the characteristics of that faith, the waters become muddy. A word often associated with Alevism is heterodox (the opposite of orthodox), meaning that its tenets, beliefs and rituals are difficult to pin down. This is probably because it has never been the established religion of any state or empire. Having no central authority to demand conformity, Alevis have a certain freedom to follow their own tastes and inclinations. On the other hand, another word that recurs in discussions of Alevism is endogamous, which means that there is social pressure to marry within the faith. In other words, you and I may have difficulty grasping the concept, but Alevis themselves are quite confident in their own identity.
OK, enough preamble. Let’s make some effort to understand what makes them special. Some sources insist that Alevism is a sub-branch of Shia Islam – a potential problem in Turkey where the majority follow the state-approved Sunni path. Other sources insist, however, that the most important influence is pre-Islamic folk religions such as the shamanism of the original Turkish tribes. It seems, in fact, that both arguments are probably true, which is why some suggest that Alevism is actually the true spirit of Turkish Islam.
If you have been following events in Syria, and making some attempt to understand what’s going on there, you have probably heard that one reason Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have widespread support is, he belongs to the minority Alawi sect. Some sources will tell you that ‘Alevi’ is the Turkish form of the Arabic ‘Alawi’ – but beware! There are apparently crucial differences, and Alevism seems to be a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon – this despite the fact that many Kurds adhere.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at those elements outlined above. First up, most of us are aware that there are two main sub-divisions of the Islamic faith: Sunni and Shia. As with the big divisions of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), it is easy to see the differences now, in ritual practices and sacred architecture. It is more difficult to understand how the original divergences came about, even for members of the group – and as for explaining to outsiders . . . Try it some time! So it is with the Muslim religion.
When the Prophet, God’s messenger Muhammed, died in 632 CE, he unfortunately did not leave instructions as to who would succeed him in the leadership role. Some of his followers believed that it should stay in the family, and opted for Ali, cousin of the late departed and sufficiently esteemed by him to have married Muhammed’s daughter. Others, however, held that only a democratic election could produce the most capable leader, and they duly followed that procedure, opting for Muawiyah, a gentleman with some reputation for military prowess.
Without going into too much detail, in 680 there was an event known to history as the Battle of Karbala, when descendants of Muawiyah (led by his son Yazid) defeated and killed Ali’s son Hussein and most of his family and supporters. One result was the establishment of the Umayyad (Sunni) dynasty, who went on to build an enormous empire covering most of the Middle East, North Africa and into Spain, thereby earning the right to insist on their particular brand of orthodoxy. The Shia group, on the other hand, were effectively disempowered and dispersed, existing happily enough, perhaps, in their own small isolated endogamous communities, developing their own rituals and traditions – until the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1501, which controlled an empire that included all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Safavid Iran was one of the Islamic “gunpowder empires”, along with its neighbours, the Ottoman and Mughal empires.’ The Safavids, in their wisdom, opted for Shia Islam, thereby establishing that sect’s first major power base – and inevitably coming into conflict with their neighbourly brethren in gunpowder, the Ottomans.
Well, we can assume that, as is the nature of state-sponsored religions, Safavid Shi’ism took on characteristics of dogma and orthodoxy. At the same time, as conflict grew between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, it would be understandable if the Iranians looked for support amongst their Shia brethren within the Ottoman domains. Those brethren, however, as a result of centuries of heterodoxy, had evolved into Alevis. No doubt some of their number would have seen allying themselves with a powerful big brother as a way of escaping orthodox Sunni hegemony. Probably most of them would have been just as happy to get on with their lives without becoming involved in international politics. Unfortunately for the silent majority, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known in English as Selim the Grim, on his way to the eastern frontier with an army to fight the Safavids, had his minions draw up a list of Shia Alevis (referred to as Kizilbash) of whom 40,000 are said to have been rounded up and slaughtered.
To sum up the Islamic position, then, Alevis are Muslim but not necessarily Turkish (although they live in modern Turkey); Muslim but definitely not Sunni Muslim; of Shia origin but definitely not orthodox Shi’ites. Some characteristics of the Alevi belief system are as follows:
  • Freedom of belief and worship. Heterodoxy lies at the core of Alevism. They reject the orthodoxy of rituals and practices enforced by state-sponsored religion. In a sense, Alevis are true democrats – but their free spirits have made them, in the eyes of some, dangerous rebels.
  • Following logically from the previous point, Alevis do not accept the requirement to pray five times daily, and do not involve themselves in the culture of the mosque. Grand architecture is not required (cf. Methodism) for the communal service of worship known as cem(jem) or cemevi. Unlike orthodox Islam, services involve music, ritual dance and discussion.
  • An eclectic philosophy and system of worship which seem to include elements of folk religion, and even, perhaps, Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. The use of fire, for example, in some rituals, seems evocative of the ancient Persian religion.
  • The concept of a spiritual path to be followed, requiring the guidance of a dede (teacher or mentor). The path has a sequence of four ‘gates’ to be passed through, of which the lowest is religious law. In this, Alevism bears the mark of Sufism, ‘an inner, mystical dimension of Islam’ which emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was extremely influential in creating the so-called Islamic Golden Age from the 13th to the 16thcenturies. In the West we know of Sufism particularly through the writings of the 13th century mystic, Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi. Alevis tend to follow the path of a contemporary, Haji Bektash Veli. There were numerous Sufi sects in Anatolia, but these came under pressure in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, and were finally banned altogether by the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Well, I hope I have covered some of the most important aspects here. If you want a detailed explanation of Alevi beliefs and practices, you will need to look elsewhere. My reason for putting finger to keyboard on this particular subject is the appearance of a democratisation package of proposed law reform prepared by the Turkish government. The package apparently contains provisions such as: cemevis will be given the status of “beliefs and cultural center,” and in addition, the expenses of cemevis such as electricity and water bills will be covered by the state, while dedes (Alevi religious leaders) will be paid a salary by the state.’ The move is part of a wider programme initiated by Turkey’s AK Party government aimed at broadening the scope of democracy in Turkey to include groups such as Kurds and Alevis who have hitherto felt marginalized by the state’s insistence on the concept of Turkishness discussed earlier.
Undoubtedly, it is time for Turkey to move on from the rigid nationalism that characterized the formative years of the Republic. There are good signs. There is now a more natural acceptance of the place of the Ottoman Empire in Turkish history. It is now possible to utter the words Kurdishand Alevi in polite conversation without warning fingers being raised to lips and fearful glances directed around the room. The civilian government is in the process of assigning a more conventional role to the nation’s armed forces where, one hopes, they will be less likely to stage military takeovers.
Nevertheless, the burden of history and misunderstanding is great. Hardline Kemalists find it difficult to imagine a world where headscarves and other symbols of religion are seen outside the mosque, and the army does not step in when the ballot box seems not to have produced a desirable government. Alevis, even more so, have centuries of oppression to exorcise from their minds before they can truly believe that reconciliation means more than enforced assimilation. The 7thcentury Battle of Karbala still figures in their worldview, as does the 1514 massacre by Selim the Grim – which is why there was such an angry reaction to the proposed name for the new Bosporus Bridge. The recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials have suggested that conspirators in the so-called ‘deep state’ have planned and even carried out violent attacks on prominent Alevi citizens in order to fan the flames of sectarian hatred. Whether or not that is true, there are certainly more recent events, such as the 1993 Sivas hotel fire which contribute to a siege mentality among Alevis. Adding to the mix, the AK Party government of Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is portrayed as representing conservative Sunni İslam – and they themselves undoubtedly contribute to this perception.
Clearly, there is work to be done. Nationalist and sectarian hatred are the enemies of democracy and freedom. Ignorance and fear fuel the fire and unscrupulous seekers of power and wealth fan the flames. The spiritual path of Alevism leads towards the perfect human being, ‘defined in practical terms, as one who is in full moral control of his or her hands, tongue and loins (eline diline beline sahip); treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar); and serves the interests of others. One who has achieved this kind of enlightenment is also called eren or munavver.’[1]
Not easy to do, but it sounds like a worthy goal.
____________________________________________

With thanks to Zeynep and Ender for sharing their knowledge. Any errors, however, are my responsibility.


[1]  Wikipedia – the bold words are Turkish

Who’s Going to Rule the World? Fethullah Gülen?

For much of my longish life I have been hearing tales, historical, contemporary and fictional, about the latest megalomaniac individual or evil empire determined to rule the world. Traditionally the contenders have based their claims on the possession of some kind of superior weapons technology – but times have changed. We are well into the post-modern era, and most predictions of earlier ages about what the world would be like in the year 1984 or 2000 seem naïve and laughable to us now. It is pretty clear that the task of ruling the world has moved way beyond the power of one individual (if that was ever a realistic possibility). The vast military resources of the one remaining global super-power have proved insufficient to rebuild even minor third world states in the US’s own image. So now we have nothing to worry about, right? We can get on with the job of lighting up our own small corners with iPhone 4s and Galaxy SIIIs without fear of global annihilation.

Uh-uh, sorry folks. I’ve got bad news. There’s a new battle shaping up, and it’s about the enemies within.

One reason I enjoy living in Turkey is that I don’t feel so much like crying when I read the local news. Back in New Zealand, before heading to work, I used to listen to a morning roundup on the radio of what ‘they’ were doing to my beautiful country. I confess, there was a time back then when the idea of joining some revolutionary band of bomb-throwing anarchists began to have some appeal. Now, however, from a distance of some 17,000 kilometres, I find I can read news of events in the Land of the Long White Cloud with more objectivity, and the tears don’t flow as once they did.

Let me give you an example of the madness, though, from my own field of professional interest. The National (read Tory) Government in New Zealand, in its 2012 budget, announced its intention to save $43 million by putting the lid on teacher recruitment. The inevitable result of this, of course, would be a steady increase in class sizes in schools around the country. Luckily, the government has a select band of tame ‘education experts’ who can be called upon to explain why this won’t be a bad thing. One of these, a Professor John Hattie, has apparently conducted research showing that class sizes are not a major factor in student learning. As far as I can learn, Professor Hattie’s research has not involved any actual time spent teaching actual kids in actual classrooms – he has been an ivory tower academic since 1975. Not sure I would take my car to be repaired by an ‘automotive expert’ with no hands-on experience, regardless of how many years he’d been studying the theory, but that’s just me.
Well, there are experts and consultants, it seems, and you can count on these guys to back each other up. One of the latter, a Dr John Langley, was quoted as saying, “If I had a choice of putting my child into a class with a poor teacher with twenty kids or into a class of thirty kids with a good teacher I’d go for the latter. It’s as simple as that.” Reassuring to know the government has access to people with such incisive problem-solving ability, and New Zealand taxpayers can feel satisfied that Dr John well deserves his no doubt generous consultancy fee.

These days New Zealand has a system of proportional system for electing representatives to its legislative assembly. The system was instituted in 1996 in response to overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the old first-past-the-post, two-party system such as exists in the UK and the US. Unfortunately post-modernism has insinuated its way in here too. The several small parties that manage to win the occasional seat in the legislature are run mostly by fringe lunatic refugees from the far right or left of the two main parties. The main role of these minor participants seems to be putting forward outrageous proposals which the government can proceed to implement in slightly modified form after the initial public anger has died down.


One of the more fanatical of these minor political groupings is a coterie of doctrinaire libertarians known by the acronym ACT, arguing with religious fervour for deregulation, privatisation, flexible labour markets and reduced taxes for the wealthy. And one of the more significant achievements of these neo-liberal economic geniuses has been the move to privatisation of the prison system. A recent editorial in the New Zealand Herald observed that, ‘Something is clearly awry when a Government proclaims the economic benefits of a new prison’.  Nevertheless, Auckland’s oldest prison has already been outsourced to private management, and a newly built facility soon will be. The group to which the NZ Government is entrusting the care and security of its criminals is a multi-national outfit name of Serco – which a Guardian journalist has described as ‘. . . probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.’  OK, come on, you may say. Leave aside your left-wing socialist prejudices and tell us how they are doing. Well, a recent report on the first eight months of Serco’s management produced the following findings:


‘ . . .  as well as two prisoners being wrongfully released, the British firm had failed to meet 40% of its performance targets and was fined $150,000 after a prisoner escaped.
Targets for random drug testing and prisoner management plans were also not reached.
Annually, Serco can earn up to approximately $3 million in incentive payments, but instead it is having to pay for under-performing.
On top of the $150,000 fine it got after prisoner A. F. escaped, it was fined $25,000 for accidently releasing an inmate early and $50,000 for failing to file progress reports.
Another $25,000 fine is pending for releasing another prisoner early.’

In spite of these criticisms, the government is standing by its decision. Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said ‘ . . . there needs to be some improvement, but she also described it as a “bedding in” period for Serco’.

Well, once you have accepted handing over prisons to the private sector you have pretty much overcome, or chosen to ignore, all the arguments that can be mustered against privatization. So it is hardly surprising to see the free-marketeers turning their attention to schools and teachers. Unfortunately, private sector education has been around for a long time, and has often been associated with elitism, poor teaching, violence, and dubious educational standards. But even supposing they do find a good establishment, the wealthy resent having to fork out high tuition fees in addition to paying taxes, some of which are used to finance state-sector schools. So, our privateers have come up with a system which allows organisations to receive government funding for a school, while at the same time getting a special deal allowing them to avoid much of the normal regulation and overseeing. It’s called the Charter School system.

However, again unfortunately, there seem to be glitches in the system. In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University in the US, produced a report stating that ‘17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools; 46% showed no difference from public schools; and 37% were significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts’.

Fethullah Gülen

Now, if you have read this far, you may be wondering what all this has to do with my topic, which, you will remember, was ‘Who’s going to rule the world?’ But I assure you, I hadn’t forgotten. I want to redirect your attention to those figures in the CREDO report, and in particular, the 17% of charter schools [reporting] academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools. A Turkish colleague of mine recently sent me the link to a ‘60 Minutes’ documentary looking into the connection between some very successful charter schools in Texas, and a certain reclusive expatriate Turkish citizen by the name of Fethullah Gülen.

I watched the documentary with interest, because I have been hearing this gentleman’s name in Turkey for some years, generally spoken in tones of fear and loathing that suggest some kind of hybrid monster cloned from the DNA of L Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Attila the Hun and the Ayatollah Khomeini. I was hoping for some conclusive evidence of evil-doing, since I was assured that Americans were now seeing Fethullah Hodja in his true colours. The programme, then, I have to say, turned out to be something of a let-down. The presenter, a long-serving correspondent for CBS with a big reputation as an investigative tele-journalist, visited schools supposedly associated with the Gülen ‘movement’, and tracked the elderly Hodja to his secluded residence in the Poconos, a mountainous region in north-eastern Pennsylvania.


She and her camera crew spoke to school administrators and students. As far as I could see, they learned that:
  • The school administrators are normal-looking, secular and articulate.
  • The students are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids who love their school.
  • The schools are among the most highly rated in the country in terms of academic success.
  • There is a waiting list for entry exceeding the total capacity of the schools.
  • There is no religious education taking place, and certainly no observable Islamic character.
  • Curriculum focus is on mathematics and science.


They were unable to interview the Hodja himself since, apparently, he has been ill for some months and rarely appears in public. His representative assured the interviewer that he takes no direct interest in the running of the schools. The most sinister information emerging from the programme was the presenter’s comment that some people in Turkey believe Gülen and his ‘movement’ have a ‘secret agenda’ though the details weren’t made clear – one assumes that’s because otherwise it wouldn’t be secret.

Undoubtedly the activities of the ‘Gülen movement’ are beginning to arouse interest beyond the shores of the Hodja’s native Turkey – however there seems to be some debate about the nature of these activities.

My Apple Desktop Dictionary defines a movement as: ‘a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas: the labor movement’, or the cubist movement.
Merriam-Webster Online suggests: ‘a series of organized activities working toward an objective; also: an organized effort to promote or attain an end, eg the civil rights movement’.

Two questions seem to arise here: Does a ‘movement’ require a leader in the sense of a person who takes responsibility for organizing and coordinating its activities? And, is a ‘movement’ good or bad, according to the definition?

Addressing the first question, it seems to me that the key factor in a movement is a concept or philosophy, rather than a ‘leader’ in the normal sense of the word – a concept such as: that labour needs to organize to counteract the power of employers; that human beings deserve equal rights before the law regardless of race; the use of ‘multiple perspective and complex planar faceting for expressive effect’ in a work of art. Participants latch on to an idea formulated by an initiator or trend-setter and the movement takes on a life of its own which may be quite independent of that person. Subsequently leaders may emerge but again, the movement continues or dies out more or less regardless of the existence or activities of those persons. Think of Martin Luther King or Pablo Picasso. As for the second question, in general, movements tend to be, to a greater or lesser extent, revolutionary, in the sense that they are usually a reaction to the prevailing status quo, and their appeal is that they offer some kind of new approach to what is perceived to be an existing problem. I guess they will ultimately be judged according to which side of the fence the judge is sitting on – or alternatively, by their results. ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Luke: 6, 43) has always seemed to me a good criterion to use in evaluating any group or individual.

So let’s get back to the Gülen Movement. First of all there is an official website. You won’t find the ‘hidden agenda’ of course, because that would, of necessity, be hidden. But you will find a very fascinating and comprehensive source of information about the man, his beliefs and goals. According to the brief bio, he ‘is an authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology. Fethullah Gülen promotes cooperation of civilizations toward a peaceful world, as opposed to a clash’. On this website you will find poetry and articles about education, the rights of women, the link between virtue and happiness . . . and other interesting topics too numerous to mention. You will find that Gülen cites as a source of his inspiration the 13th century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, renowned for his inclusive philosophy of love and peace. 

Wikipedia will tell you, not surprisingly, that the Gülen Movement is inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Hodja. A key concept is the Turkish word Hizmet, meaning service, which connotes using your talents for the common good without looking for personal reward. On the other hand, Gülen does not discourage followers from making money through business – merely encourages them to use some of their energies to help the less fortunate. 

A recent Time magazine article  wrote about a meeting with members of the Gülen Movement in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır. In an economically disadvantaged region of the country with a large Kurdish population, local businessmen have been raising money for the foundation of elementary schools and public reading rooms. While the article does say that many Turks view the Gulen Movement with suspicion’, on the face of it, you’d have to think that the fruits of its efforts seem quite positive, even laudable.

According to another website called Gülen Inspired Schools’,  there are over a thousand such schools around the world, including 130 in the United States. Independent audits suggest that these schools produce excellent academic results, ranking them among the most successful in their respective countries. Interestingly, administrators deny any control by the Hodja, or a central body associated with him, unlike, say, Catholic Church-run schools. Investigators have found no evidence of religious teaching, Islamic or otherwise. On the contrary, Gülen has been quoted as saying, “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God,” and the common thread running through the schools seems to be a curriculum focusing on these modern subjects.

Sounds ok, on the whole, what do you think? Still, I have to confess I found one or two negatives in my searchings. An article in the New York Times in 2006  reported that some of those Texas schools had been allegedly giving construction contracts and making other favourable deals with firms ‘connected to’ the Gülen movement. More seriously, Mr Gülen himself was apparently put on trial in 1999 for ‘attempting to overthrow the government.’ Still, when you consider that the present Prime Minister of Turkey served prison time in those days for a similar offence, you’d have to think that the legal criteria must have been somewhat more stringent than we would expect in the US or New Zealand. In his younger days, the Hodja also apparently fell foul of the military authorities after the 1971 coup in Turkey, being arrested, tried and convicted. Not surprising, then, that he chooses to reside in the USA – although Turkish courts did clear him of all wrong-doing in 2008.

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your patience in reading so far. I’m not here to be an apologist for Fethullah Gülen or any political or religious ideology. I merely want to outline the philosophies and fruits of two movements, and ask you to consider who you would prefer to see ruling the world.

God or Mammon?

On the one hand, let me present bottom-line accounting, out-of-control free-market capitalism, as championed by Wall Street bankers, multi-national corporations and the so-called mainstream media. Key elements of this ideology are: privatisation of state-owned enterprises, belt-tightening (especially for the middle and lower socio-economic classes), welfare cutbacks, labour-market flexibility and outsourcing of manufacturing to countries with lower wage costs. MBA management courses churn out white-colour clones who can manage any enterprise, without needing to know anything about the activity of the industry they are managing. Governments are hijacked by corporate and financial interests with no personal morality or patriotism whatsoever, whose only belief is in the power of money to buy whatever they want, and a philosophy, if you can call it that, based on a firm sense of personal entitlement to rape the planet of its resources and exploit its people wherever they may be. Reduced taxes for the wealthy are an important tool in economic management. Why should the tax-payer pay for schools, hospitals, post offices, railways, electricity supply, relief for the the unemployed and disadvantaged? The tax-payer’s money is needed to bail out the banks when they have finished milking ma and pa small investors, superannuation funds, poor borrowers – and there’s no one else in the capitalist system to defraud.


On the other hand, let’s postulate a group of people with a personal morality based on religious beliefs, and a philosophy founded on a concept of altruistic service to the community. A group of people who operate without the need for a centralised bureaucratic structure, their operations inspired by a teacher with a vision of a better world and directed by their own confidence in the truth of his message. A group of people who, in spite of their lofty ideals, do not divorce themselves from the real world, but rather work within it, using their knowledge, skills and resources to provide educational opportunities and support to young people in their communities.

In the end, I guess, life choices are never so simple. I don’t imagine you will get the opportunity to cast a vote directly for one or the other. But I like the sound of this:

Along the winding road to The Truth
A hero, all selfishness banished,
The key to the mystery of creation in his heart,
Weaves his way through time to reach his goal.

Moving ever upwards he breathes the air of eternity;
He has met with Khidr: he knows the way.
And to fellow wayfarers he gives the good news of dawn;
A message of hope in a night of choking darkness.

In his hands burns a torch; he spreads light everywhere
And he brightens the Way for all who would follow;
His ascent radiates peace and serenity;
His amber fragrance permeates every atom of creation.

Wherever he treads finds life and becomes green:
The hills and valleys, plains and mountains are all dressed in color:
And on every breeze is borne the perfume of spring;
Blossoms appear, flowers burst into life, trees are quickened.

His mind nurtured ever by eternity,
And everlasting melody flows from his lips:
All he sees is the richly colored tapestry of life to come,
The belief in which is part of his every being.