A poster at Jihad Watch recently informed us: “I’ve been living in Istanbul for five years…openly as a Christian and American. No problems yet…”
The poster is not taking in the real situation. If Turkey permits him to live “openly as a Christian and American,” that does not mean much about Islam. For Turkey is the one Muslim country that experienced, ever since 1924, the effects of a systematic and even ruthless attempt by Kemal Ataturk to constrain the political and social power of Islam. If there is a large class of secular Turks, that is due to Kemalism. If there are women who dress like Western women, who work in all kinds of jobs, who have the freedoms of Western women, that has nothing to do with Islam.
It is, rather, the result of constraints put on Islam. It is despite Islam. About one-quarter of the Turkish population — not all but almost all of it to be found in Istanbul (go out into the countryside, travel around Turkey) and in Ankara, and in a handful of places full of Western tourists and catering to their trade — can be said to be “secularist.” Yet this is after 80 years of every conceivable act undertaken to constrain Islam. And still, Islam is always and everywhere pushing back, always and everywhere a persistent threat to Kemalism. Read about the threats to Turkish secularists in the universities and the alarm expressed by some rectors at well-known centers of secularism. If all this is so, and it is, then the problem in Turkey remains, and will remain, Islam.
The same poster wrote somewhat solipsistically of his own freedom to be openly (good god, he is certainly grateful for small things) as a “Christian” and an “American.” Well, ask your most advanced and tolerant Turkish friends if the Turkish government might at long last allow the Hagia Sophia to be re-used as a site for Christian religious ceremonies. That is the kind of question that any Westerner would naturally, in his innocence, ask. And we of course cannot conceive of why that should not be possible, given that back in the early 1930s Ataturk managed to stop having the Hagia Sophia used as a mosque, as it had been since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It is a scene of Muslim triumphalism (crosses ripped off walls, vandalism everywhere) even today — with the Green Banner of Islam waving its Qur’anic declaration so that no one gets the wrong idea. Go ahead, ask the question. They will look at you as if you are crazy.
And talk, not “openly” but secretly, with Christians who remain, the 1% of the population that is all that is left of the once-lively Christian population of Turkey, a city which in 1914 had a population in Constantinople that was 50% non-Muslim. Where did they all go? And why? What happened to all those Armenians, those Greeks, those Jews?
And when you talk about practicing your faith “openly” and in the same breath, of your being “openly” an American, are you talking about Taksim, and Istiqlal Caddesi, and a few other parts of Istanbul, or all of Istanbul, all of its quarters, including the heavily Islamic ones? And are you talking about the rest of Turkey? Have you not noticed more hijabs in evidence? Not noticed that box-office success that depicted American soldiers in Iraq as “Nazis” and a “Jewish-American” doctor as a Mengele-like harvester of organs for resale, from prisoners “murdered” at Abu Ghraib? Did you notice when a leading Turkish parliamentarian described American soldiers as “worse than Nazis”? What about that best-seller in Turkey, Mein Kampf? Do you read and speak Turkish? (The Tomer schools are ready to receive you). On what basis do you conclude that Turks themselves can openly practice Christianity?
I can’t forget the look of worry in the eyes of two Turkish government workers, who spoke to me in lowered voices, as they confided that they were “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and had come from a meeting. They looked around to make sure that no other Turks could be listening in. Their fear was no different from that I observed years before, when visiting the then-Soviet Union, among those trying to talk to a friendly foreigner.
Of course you can live “openly” — in some places –as a “Christian and American.” The reason you can live, without any problem as a “Christian” is because you are an “American.” And the same of course is true for those who are “Jewish” and “American” and who in some quasi-official capacity can, for a specific purpose, be tolerated — just for that purpose — in Muslim countries: not because there is real toleration of Jews, but because they are “Americans” and that changes everything. Mike Wallace can interview Ahmadinejad without worry in Iran; Henry Kissinger can travel to Saudi Arabia; Paul Wolfowitz can be the American Ambassador to Indonesia or Dan Kurtzer to Egypt. But do you think that if they were not Americans, and powerful members of the media or of the American government, they would be tolerated for one minute? Of course you don’t.
Do you think Christian missionaries have full freedom in Turkey, do you think, despite the laws, that citizens of Turkey would feel completely free to leave Islam and become Christians without fear of social ostracism, loss of jobs, and so on? Do you?
Look more closely beneath the surface of Turkish life, and spend time, say, in one of the vast markets, where you may still find an Armenian silversmith or two. Go to those cafes and bookstores along Istiqlal Caddesi, and find out more about the problems of being “openly” a Christian, if one doesn’t have that blue passport of the United States of America in one’s breast pocket, or safe-deposit box back at the hotel or apartment. And ask yourself again: how did Constantinople, which in 1914 had a population that was 50% non-Muslim, come now to be Istanbul, with a population less than 1% non-Muslim?
And the situation is still worse outside Istanbul, where there are practically no non-Muslims to be found. Why? What happened?