Once the home of the great Ottoman Empire and center of the Old World, Turkey is reemerging on the world stage as a regional power. Interestingly this natural bridge between Europe and the Middle East is a secular democracy with a population that’s 99.8% Muslim. Turkey has been experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts, getting reacquainted with its Ottoman and Muslim roots after decades of “Westernization” while simultaneously vying for acceptance into the European Union. Turkey has also been an extremely important strategic ally for the U.S., even as it improves its own relations in the Arab world.
Over the course of the next two weeks I will explore what makes Turkey thrive in the face of the turmoil just beyond its borders. There is civil unrest in the South and East where it borders Syria, Iraq and Iran and economic unrest in the West where it borders Greece, yet Istanbul is said to be the new Paris of night life and fashion. Sure it doesn’t hurt that the median age is 10 years younger than the U.S. (14 younger than French Women) but thats true across the Middle East. It reminds me of a great observation Winston Churchill made of Russia in 1939 “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Turkey may be an enigma but I expect to find young Turks do not feel any contradiction between pushing for more European economic partnerships and rekindling of cultural ties to the Middle East. It may be simple for recent Turkish generations to see how Islam can coexist alongside democratic political institutions and a capitalistic economy, but many here in the U.S. and Texas have not been sold. Earlier this year a New York Times article exposed connections between Harmony Charter Schools in Texas, the Turkish contractors building them and the Gülen movement. There were even “suggestions” the schools might be actively involved in the advancement of Islam and Turkish culture. Several related articles have made their way to Texas headlines including an Austin American-Statesman piece on legislators’ trips to Turkey (like the one I am taking) sponsored in part by pro-Turkish interest groups that seek to promote cultural and economic trade between Texas and Turkey. One group specifically implicated is the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians. I have visited the Turquoise Center in Houston and immediately I understood the source of the controversy. As you can see clearly from the picture below the architecture is contemporary but unmistakably Eastern and once inside you are fully immersed in gold, marble and towering arches.
The center represents Turkish and Central Asian (many former Soviet) nations. The TCAE’s website proudly displays pictures and articles of its visits with high ranking officials from Texas Governor Rick Perry to U.S. Senator Harry Reid.
Its states its mission as:
To promote the cultural, educational, academic, business, social and arts relations and to organize events and activities to bring together the American and Turkish, Turkic and Eurasian communities within the US.
It also acknowledges the trips:
The following specific objectives for the trips are:
- To introduce and provide broad exposure to the country’s cultural, political, economic, and social issues
- To gain an understanding of topics including national security, foreign policy, trade, economic development & finance, remarkable achievements of the civil society, religious diversity and minority rights
- To promote mutual understanding through dialogue and discussion among the American participants and the local authorities / civil society
My concern is the shadowy picture being painted of a subversive foreign culture coming to America and indoctrinating it with Islam. There seems to be no real evidence of religion being taught in these schools, yet ironically the typical charter school proponent tends to believe we need more “God” and “prayer” in schools. For more on that you can read a piece by conservative William F. Buckley or listen to this story on NPR.
There is also an unquestionable movement of the religious right in America, particularly in Texas, to dissolve the idea of a constitutional separation of church and state. This all leads me to believe that there are strong undercurrents of islamophobia just below the surface. Now, imagine reading this infographic or any of the same articles and replacing every reference to “Gülen followers” with “Christians” and “Turkish” with “German” and its just business as usual in America.
The following excerpt is from the Statesman article. Conservative Texas Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville was asked why he did not except the invitation to Turkey:
“After I researched it, I’m not interested,” he said of the council’s invitation to visit Turkey.
As for the Harmony Schools, Miller said, “Apparently it’s (involved in) indoctrination of Islam.”
Although Turkey is a moderate Muslim nation, Miller said: “That just means they’re nonviolent. They won’t cut off your head.”
This type of dismissal and mischaracterization of foreign cultures is exactly why we need more of our leaders to recognize benefits, exchange ideas and seize on opportunities provided by cultural exchanges in this country and abroad. While America is at its own economic and cultural crossroads I hope this experience sheds light on the greater potential we have in working together- because at the end of the day whether in the Old World or the New World we all share the common problems of the modern world.
Listening to the Turkish National Anthem reenforced my perceptions of the delicate balance of influence that must exist within Turkish self-identity. Beginning with a grand entrance it looks East, marches West and ends in a Major key. “Freedom is the right of my nation who worships God and seeks what is right.” – Turkish National Anthem (English)
Clinton Speaks on Fetullah Gülen