Islam in Istanbul

One of my first impressions of Istanbul was that there are a ton of mosques – really, really beautiful mosques. In general religious architecture has never really impressed me. I know there are people who get very excited about churches and like, their architectural features, but I have never been one of them. I’ve noticed that tourists in some of the places I’ve been to – Munich and Georgia, for instance – seem to really want to go look at churches. Lots of churches. I have never really been on board with that, but I guess it couldn’t hurt.

I had never actually seen a Turkish mosque, though. I had a very vague idea of what a mosque might look like – which, it turns out, is probably because there’s no one prototype for mosque design – but I had absolutely no clue about Ottoman architecture. I don’t know what specifically it is, but Ottoman mosque design just appeals to me immensely. The dome, the proportions of the building, the minarets… and in a lot of ways the buildings seemed appropriate to the general topography of Istanbul itself, like the architecture matched the landscape.

I have to confess to a certain distaste of most explicitly religious things, but for some reason the Turkish mosques seemed immune. When we visited the Blue Mosque, I was duly annoyed at the whole women’s dress code… and yet when I went to actually look out at the prayer area, it felt, somehow… peaceful, and important… like the people who designed this mosque got it right, like they figured out how to make sacred spaces, how to build something that could approach the serenity and magnificence of the natural world. It felt like swimming in the ocean, or staring out across a valley.

Yeah, if I were religious I’d make a better pagan than monotheist.

And then there were the calls to prayer. When I was downtown, the noise was like a blast that hit me from behind as I was walking up the street, and my hosts and I took shelter in a Kahve Dünyası for some iced Turkish coffee – which was fabulous and full of chocolate and better than anything I’ve ever had at Starbucks. But when you’re in the suburbs – when I was out in Zekeriyakoy, for instance – the call to prayer sounds like this faraway exotic music. It’s actually kind of nice.


So those experiences add up to my realization that I’d never really been to a Muslim city before. I hadn’t really expected to notice that Istanbul was a Muslim city, given the Turkish government’s long quest to secularize the country. Like, when I saw people walking around covered, that was very much in line with my expectations, because people do that in New York too. But Turkey has done things like ban certain religious wear in certain public places (there was a big controversy over banning veils or headscarves in publicly funded universities which ended up being a battleground issue in the constant fight between Kemalists and Islamists, more on that later).

And so I guess I didn’t expect these overt manifestations – things that would remind me of religion five times a day, for example. I guess I expected religion to play less of a part in Turkish daily experience than it clearly does. And sure, Turkish people (at least, the non-religious ones) seem to just tune it out and go on about their day. It just makes me wonder how often I would be reminded of Christianity if I had grown up in a non-Christian culture and then moved to a place like New York City. For me Christianity is background noise – it almost seems like a natural part of my surroundings, and so I can just tune it out – but of course it’s not natural, and to other societies it’s markedly different from the norm.

It didn’t bother me, though. I have nothing against Islam in particular (just, as I said, a general distaste for religion and theism) but normally I would expect that something like five daily calls to prayer blared at top volume across the countryside would get under my skin pretty quickly. But it didn’t.


Once, there was this guy, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He basically decided what the Turkish government and civil society would be like for the rest of time, by fiat, and set it up so that his will would be done on down through the ages. He’s like the Hari Seldon of Turkey. Since Seldon Ataturk died, there’s been a sort of identity crisis every decade or so in which forces in Turkey try to move the country away from Ataturk’s vision and other forces stifle their efforts in some highly undemocratic manner.

Along came the AKP – the “Justice and Development Party.” This party is the latest incarnation of the country’s Islamist movement, which had previously been banned from government every time it formed a party. The AKP keeps its Islamism very covert and moderate to avoid being ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court, or being arrested by the Turkish military – the two most powerful bastions of Kemalism, or the adherence to Ataturk’s ideology. The AKP also managed to rule competently and do a lot of great stuff, and have been handily winning elections since early last decade.

People in Turkey are concerned. Some worry that the AKP is secretly trying to recommission Turkey as a Muslim, rather than secular, state. The party has been making moves to democratize the Constitutional Court and weaken the role of the military in Turkish politics, and the more popular the AKP grows the more likely it is to succeed. Another concern is that the military may not go quietly, and Turkey could have a civil war or a coup d’etat on its hands. I have heard rumors that the AKP has established a new secret police organization tasked at fighting terrorism that is in fact covertly Islamist and is aimed at supplanting the military and establishing a religious, pro-regime fighting force.

My perspective on Islamism in Turkey is that I think Turkey can survive it. The AKP is pro-Western, has instituted liberal economic reforms and made Turkey a growing power in the region and the world. The Turkish economy is not in the precarious position that the US or EU are in. As long as Turkey remains democratic – and I think the Turks are now used to democracy enough not to want to give it up so easily – I doubt that the AKP will institute Sharia law or take up a fundamentalist Wahhabist-style form of Islam. I don’t think Islam is any less compatible with modern liberal democracy than Christianity is.


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One Response to Islam in Istanbul

  1. anosmagazine says:

    “As long as Turkey remains democratic – and I think the Turks are now used to democracy enough not to want to give it up so easily – I doubt that the AKP will institute Sharia law or take up a fundamentalist Wahhabist-style form of Islam.”- I really hope it will be as u wrote it, but after talking to some locals, who call themselves as minorities in terms of being modern, liberal, etc, and also from my own experience after living here for 3 weeks (one week left ahead-still not enough to have a very good understanding of Turkey), but I do think Islam is getting stronger here.
    very nice post!


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