I question what I know about Islam – and what I, and my family, experience about Islam. And this will be a long-haul question, I’m quite sure…
What I have come to realize about myself in the context of my cross-cultural relationship, is that there are things about Islam and Muslim culture in Turkey that are difficult for me to accept. They are difficult to accept as they do not conform to the beliefs (fantasies?) and experiences I have in my marriage and in my extended Turkish family. Once such thing is the relationship between Islam, passages in the Qu’ran and violence, specifically the way the latter two are used by, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Iraq.
After years of cultural sensitivity training based on, for example, abstract Islamic concepts versus lived realities, I was conditioned to expect that my Turkish boyfriend – now husband – would have good things to say about Islam and that I would accept that. Now it appears that I am a hopelessly idealistic and naïve person. In fact, I think if the shoe were on the other foot, I would call myself out as a maker of limited and simplistic assumptions. It’s never that simple. Truth be told, I don’t want it to be true that Islam is not a religion of peace – because *in part* I feel protective of what others might think about my husband and extended family. So, the Karagöz puppets have been stirring my mental pot over the last few days, and the puppets have stepped in to help me think through it all, to make sense of it a bit.
Last night, M. and I read the paper in the breezeway at sunset. Usually, the breezeway on this hot, sun-baked island is a place of respite. And perhaps we need to keep it as such, and not read the newspaper over there, just leave it as a place of peace. However, as I was reading the Hurriyet Daily News, Hacivad Bey, the learned Sufi elder puppet, pointed me to an article about how the AK Partisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to take control of tenure, research priorities and governance of all private, yes that’s right, private, universities in Turkey. As an academic, this is an atrocious recommendation that I find shocking and horrific. Nothing like ISIL, but horrific nonetheless. Such is the slippery slope of reading and discussing the newspaper.
As M. listened to my description of the central points in the article, he snorted “it is shocking – he has moved from being de-centralist, to a dictator. Really, he wants to control everything! I think he has gone over the edge. Sometimes it feels like we are heading to the worst of Soviet-style rule….” And then, after a pregnant pause, he softly asked me, “L., do you think Turkey could ever be an Iran or Afghanistan?” On the suggestion of Perihan Hanım, my fairy godmother puppet, I let the question hang in the air a bit. Touching his hand, I said, “I don’t think an Afghanistan, canım (dear), but maybe something more like Iran.” We sat quietly, noticing the breeze.
M. sighed as he rested the paper on his lap, ready now for another round of discussion. His tone tense, even anguished, he began to remark on the horrific violence being carried out in the name of Islam worldwide. From his perch on my left shoulder, Karagöz, ever the trickster of a marital moment ruiner, began to rub his hands together with glee. “This, he said, “well, THIS could lead to a good and SPARKY argument! Just what I like the BEST!” M. recounted the newspapers’ stories about bodies being chopped up and hearts being cut out in Central Africa, ISIL’s dictates about the role of women in their regime – and even Islamic extremist activists trying to discourage women from bathing in lakes or sea in the religiously conservative Sakarya district near Istanbul. “Sometimes,” M. said wistfully, “it seems that Muslims are making the most trouble in the world.” Shaking Perihan Hanım’s calming influence loose, I countered with “Well, geez, what about Mexico and all the drug-related deaths and kidnappings? Columbia? Central America and the gangs imported from the United States?”
Seeing pain and even fear in M.’s eyes now, I stayed quiet as he waived his hand as if to brush my suggestion away, “but that is economic, class-based, this is about religion at the core.” Although I was not sure I agreed with him, and despite the fact that I believe religion and socioeconomic status class matters can and do intersect, I stayed silent. I have begun to learn, after 10 years in this relationship, that there are times to listen and ponder what one’s spouse says, as conversations can go on for years (if not decades (Inşallah!), so why rush into it now when the topic is sensitive!). Perihan Hanım made a notation in the form of a check mark in her notebook (she keeps score of when I can temper my stubborn need to argue every single point, no matter the topic, in favor of maintaining some level of peace).
Things settled down a bit as we went into the village for our nightly Internet dosage, not to mention our addiction to ada cayı (an herbal, citrusy tea). We even splurged on a dessert of sakızlı muhallebi (mastic pudding with pistachio dust) *and* sakızlı kurabiye (mastic cookies) for dessert. But then Karagöz seemed to take the proverbial wheel once more as we were driving home from the village later that night. Karagöz began to giggle – with a distinctly evil undertone – as once again, M. recounted some of what he had read in the evening news. He highlighted the response of one commentator to an article in which the notion of Islam as a religion of peace was questioned rather heartily. Celebi, the modern maven puppet pointed out “such is the wonderful capacity of this Internet thingy for spurring debate, in written form, underneath newspaper e-articles.”
My ears perked up – as did my marital sense that trouble might as well. But for once, the ever-increasing influence of Perihan Hanim (perhaps manifested in the form of our couples therapist’s teachings), I began to make the argument I usually make with American Christians or Jewish people who counter the claim that Islam is a religion of peace. “Well, canım, everything exists on a spectrum, that’s what I feel. ISIL is just one side of the spectrum. I believe most people are weighted on the other side in the everyday practice of Islam.”
Yehuda Rebbe, ever the wise one, pulled me aside just then, suggesting that I take a moment to consider where my strong feelings on this matter emanated from. “You, M’lady, were raised in a Christian family, albeit a Unitarian Universalist one. And you should tell your readers, those unfamiliar with that section of Protestantism, that “UUs” are very left-leaning and draw on *all* religious text in seeking truths about the world.” And it is true, raised as a politically-aware UU, Sunday mornings at church often included sermons inclusive of both the bible and the Qu’ran…not to mention Hindu and Buddhist texts as well as thoughts from a range of ancient and modern philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche.
Although exposed to some Islamic thinking as a youth, I didn’t think about it very deeply. I was given ample enough opportunity to explore the Qu’ranic passages in sermons and in Sunday school, when we compared aspects of the Bible and the Qu’ran and the conclusion of peace as the “red thread” in that religion made sense to me. But this was all “book learnin’” and devoid of the lived reality of Islam in different cultural contexts.
Not able to stay out of a potential sparking spot, Karagöz burst in. “What?” Karagöz said haughtily, “Well! You *were* a young and impressionable schoolgirl – and those were decontextualized discussions. Have you forgotten that you were not taught about how Mohamed took on a 15 year old wife- something your husband always refers to as child sexual abuse? You didn’t learn about THAT in Sunday school, did you! And don’t even start to make an argument about historical relativism, which is sacrilege as a feminist!”
So, let’s think about what was going on while I was a schoolgirl of the 1970s and 1980s. As the oil crisis unfolded in the 1970s, as American hostages were taken by Islamic militants in Iran in the 1980s and as Iranian refugees in my own school talked about many things – including having to start wearing the veil – I held on to my convictions about Islam as an essentially peaceful religion. I was also heavily influenced by Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s writings on the empowering aspects of Islam for women – and on Islamic feminism. “How,” I remember wondering, “Could Islam be all bad?” So, I held on to the idea that Islam was a religion of peace.
But here I was in 2014, in the car with my husband, a man whose identity card reads “Muslim” because placing “atheist” on the card would “give him trouble,” as he puts it. And I felt unsettled. Maybe I need to yank the wool off from over my eyes – well wait – my husband is about to do that for me: “Well what about the point that if Islam is a religion of peace, how is it that Mohamed’s sword, one of which sits in Topkapı Palace, was used to kill infidels in the many wars he fought in. How can a prophet have a sword, how can a prophet kill people? How can anyone, but anyone, say this is a religion of peace?” And I was stumped, I have read the passages about killing infidels, but have somehow explained this away as a product of history – much as we don’t take all of the Bible’s teachings literally anymore. Without my English language Qu’ran on hand, I don’t have the capacity to turn to scholarship to resolve this debate for myself- and I think I have become smart enough to realize that even that would not suffice.
Perihan Hanim stepped in to my view again at this point, reminding me to calm any upsurge of ire, and remember the context in which my husband understands Islam. M., who recounts that he wished to see and feel God as a child, was let down then, when he could not feel what others purported to feel. While his paternal Grandmother said her prayers at most every namaz (call-to-prayer by the muezzin), she was the only one in the family to do so. Nobody in the family visited a mosque unless someone died. And, when they did, M. reports, they felt distinctly like fish out of water. And with the horrors of Iran in the 1970s one country away from him, M. decided then and there that Islam was not a good thing – especially when mixed with nationalism. This notion is one of his most firmly held beliefs (and, I would argue, fears). However, unlike others I have met in his family and circle of friends, he has retained the ability to hold respect for others’ religious beliefs in Islam or any religion – regardless. Clearly, M. is the product of a wholly secular upbringing during the 1950s and 1960s during which Social Democrats were in power, and religion was truly separated from the state. Of course he sees Islam in a darker light.
Yehuda Rebbe, no stranger to arguments about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not, joins Perihan Hanım now, to soothe my ruffled feathers for the night. “M’lady, as the ISIL points its efforts north towards our part of the Levant, I suspect this is a discussion that will intensify, and hopefully deepen. As your university’s Indian Philosophies professor taught you, living with duality is one of the most central essences of life’s challenges. Remember that, and keep thinking, and listening, and learning. For what else is there to do?”
“Well, fooey!” Karagöz snorted, “that’s not nearly as much fun as the arguments we normally make these two have!”