Turkey is secular, but really now...

I am not an expert on Turkey and I know that. However, I have been to Istanbul twice and, on one occasion, had a chance to talk to some pretty well informed people -- Muslims and Christians -- about the situation there. Here is what I heard, basically. Turkey retains its pride in its secular approach to life and government. However, the overwhelming reality is that more traditional forms of Islam are growing in influence and power. This creates tensions which are easy to see. Enter "Turkey" and "headscarf" into Google and see for yourself.

So the secularism is on the surface and, from time to time, this leads to trouble with religious minorities that struggle in what is actually an overwhelmingly Muslim culture, with its own unique history. Ask the Armenians. Ask the Eastern Orthodox bishops associated with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Tensions also exist with other minorities who clash with the cultural norms.

This brings us to a Washington Post story that ran the other day under this headline: "Dissident Iranians find refuge in Turkey." While the story deals with several issues that are driving people out of Iran and into Turkey, the emphasis is on the plight of Iranian gays and lesbians and, to a lesser degree, feminists. Here is a sample passage:

Clutching his cellphone, his main link to the country he fled to escape arrest late last year, Hamid Safari walked past storefronts in the southern Turkish city of Isparta. Alternately playing back downloaded images of Iranian street protests and songs by Madonna and Beyonce, he ignored the curious stares of passing Turks. His long, flowing hair and well-groomed eyebrows are telltale signs of gay men in Iran.

"I try to blend in," said Safari, 25. "But there is only so much I can do to avoid notice."

One of 1,356 Iranian refugees who have fled into Turkey since June, Safari is seeking asylum overseas. Some have paid smugglers $1,500 or more to spirit them out of Iran; others risk arrest and deportation by attempting to cross directly into Western Europe. Still others, like Safari, arrive at the Turkish border and hope for the best -- Turkey is one of the few nations not to require an entry visa for Iranian citizens.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, oppression of gays has intensified, according to human rights groups. Many gay refugees here, including several who have been lashed by authorities for their sexuality, said they never labored under the illusion that Ahmadinejad's rivals would support their cause. But they saw a change in leadership as part of a longer-term solution.

Some basic questions come to mind, start with this rather simple one: What was the basis of the persecution in Islamic Iran and how is that linked to the tensions -- even if they are milder -- in "secular" Turkey?

Clearly there is more to this than religion, but it is hard to imagine that religion plays no role in this story.

So, here is what you do. Take this Post report and put it in the word processor of your choice. Here is what happened when I did this.

Search for "Sharia" -- no results found.

Search for "Islam" -- no results found.

Search for "Muslim" -- no results found.

I would have thought that religion played a role in this story, after discussing some of these issues with people on the ground in Istanbul. I guess I was wrong. I guess I was seeing a ghost or, even, more than one.

PHOTO: The poster was produced by Mike Tidmas, a gay artist in Amsterdam as part of a campaign against Iran's crackdown on gays.

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