The heart of Islamic Turkey

Islam in TurkeyIn response to tmatt's post that GetReligion should comment on more stories about non-Christians, a reader Liv submitted this New York Times piece on religious tensions in Turkey. I mention this because it is an example of a story unrelated to Christianity that has massive application to the largely Christian nation that is the United States of America. Here's the heart of the story, which has a news hook related to a 300,000-person(!) protest of the perceived rising role of Islam in Turkish society:

"We don't want to become another Iran, another Afghanistan," said Hanife Sahin, a retired nurse, stooping under the red tent formed by a Turkish flag that ran like a river over the crowd.

News reports said demonstrators numbered as many as 300,000, an unexpectedly high turnout for a gathering that was initially expected to draw only harder-line nationalists. The numbers underlined the deepening divide within Turkish society over the role of Islam in Turkey, a country whose very charter scrubbed the government clean of religion.

"Believe me, all of Turkey is here," said a 27-year-old market researcher, as teenage boys draped in Turkish flags jostled her.

But there are two Turkeys now. Turkish society is opening a lively, sometimes painful, debate on its past for the first time since 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stamped out public religion to create the Turkish state. That has divided society and focused attention on the contest over the presidency, which controls the military and is the country's most important post safeguarding secularism.

But there are two Turkeys now. Turkish society is opening a lively, sometimes painful, debate on its past for the first time since 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stamped out public religion to create the Turkish state. That has divided society and focused attention on the contest over the presidency, which controls the military and is the country's most important post safeguarding secularism.

My first question: What does it mean, theologically, to "become another Iran, another Afghanistan"? There's a lot that could be taken from that quote. And in that last paragraph: What does it mean, again theologically, to safeguard "secularism"? What does secularism mean in the Middle East and how does it compare to what Americans refer to as secularism? Who is it in America that wants to "safeguard secularism"?

The article is a vivid portrait of a country on the edge of the largely traditional Middle East and, for lack of a better word, secularist Europe. But what that exactly means plays out in the everyday lives of the country's citizens. Reporter Sabrina Tavernise found plenty of evidence, some of it anecdotal, that the state could be moving toward a more traditional Islamic society and government:

More women are wearing head scarves, said Ecem Karanfil, a 17-year-old in a T-shirt and jeans. "We want to feel comfortable dressing the way we want," she said.

Her friend said she sensed something suspicious in the attractive new design of religion textbooks being given out in their high school. "I am wondering why," she said, as a pretzel seller squeezed by, his wares stacked in a pyramid on his head.

A 65-year-old woman who had come from Izmir, a town in western Turkey, said she was annoyed at what she saw as the new state laxness allowing state workers to take time off for prayer on Fridays.

"I go to the post office on Friday, and I can't see a single person at their desk," she said, sounding indignant.

A small thing had caught Ms. Sahin's attention. A government official had recently suggested increasing the number of letters in the Turkish alphabet to 32 to allow the language to better accommodate Arabic sounds. "I've done pretty well with 29 so far," she said, smiling.

This is all good stuff, but what is being preached in mosques on Fridays? What are the words, the historical references and lessons? And what are the sources for this trend? What is fueling the fire?

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