Thoughts on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey

This Thanksgiving we took a much overdue trip to Istanbul, Turkey and I feel compelled to write about what I saw. It was interesting to try and convince my grandsons that the “Turkey” we were visiting was not the same turkey they were consuming!
We had chosen a place to stay at random and it was a pleasant surprise that it turned out to be in the Old City walking distance from The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
Having come from Canada, it was a balm to our ears to hear the Azaan (call to prayer) and we traipsed off in search of the Mosque. We had to walk through the Bazaar and it was interesting to note that not everyone rushed off to pray. Those who wished to worship, did so quietly and others stayed on the sides respectfully while those who were not in the Mosque went about their business. There was no feeling of being compelled to pray and it was a new sensation for those of us who have seen the likes of Saudi Arabia where you are beaten into submission. It also makes sense of the Quranic line “there is no compulsion in religion.”
Next day we had breakfast in the hotel which by the way, served soup, salad and cheeses that kept us going all day on one meal. We met a tourist from Sweden who liked to start and end his day with local Turkish beer. Then I noticed that the corner convenience store also sold beer and raki. So it was – belly dance and beer exist side by side with Mosques and Minarets. The person who comes of the Mosque and the person who comes out of the bar meet but do not collide in the public square. Religiosity is a buzz in the background, not in your face, with no one telling you what to do or not to do – yet. You can’t tell by looking at anyone where they are from as heels and hijab, short skirts and shalwars, beards and buzz cuts mix and mingle with ease.
People were happy and friendly, especially to Pakistanis which is a pleasant surprise. I kept refreshed on fresh pomegranate juice which gave energy for the whole day. Topped up with Turkish coffee, Turkish food, Turkish delight and Turkish tea – we were in culinary heaven.  There are beautiful public squares with benches, everyone is kid-friendly and while it was cold for others, coming from Canada all we could say was what’s cold eh?
There was a framed photo of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk in the hotel lobby and the young people who ran the hotel called themselves proud ‘secular’ turks. The word secular came up many times during our stay. Our young guide who took us to the Mosque of Ayub Ansari and other sites, mentioned time and again that Turkey is secular. It was also fascinating to note that none of the Mosques are lit up or heavily decorated – the old architecture from the time of the Ottomans has been kept as close to the original as possible with no ostentatious additions.
There is a strong Sufi influence even though Sufism also went underground during Ataturk’s reformation towards secularism but there are enough people who follow the Tareeqas to make it a reality. I think it’s due to the Sufi influence that there is a softness among Turkish Muslims which was inspiring.
However all is not what it seems on the surface. When the rallies started at Taksim square, people thought this was another incident like Tahrir Square in Egypt. Through conversations with Turks both within and outside Turkey, my understanding is that this was different. First of all Turkey is economically stable and you can see this is Istanbul so the grumblings of economically deprived masses is not the case.
Secondly they have had years of being secular and the push back, especially by young Turks was against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on forcing Islam into the public square. At first he made subtle moves like putting a ban on stewardesses wearing red lipstick on Turkish Airlines – the response was not so subtle. Every stewardess regardless of age wore bright red lipstick – I like that! I believe the ban was lifted.
But in September this year two dramatic announcements by Erdogan sent shivers down the spines of many of the country’s secularists. Erdogan annulled a decades-long ban on wearing headscarves in public institutions and ended the daily reciting of the pledge of allegiance in primary schools.
These moves have the potential to alienate Turkey’s minority non-Muslim communities. Turkish researcher Halil M. Karaveli, claimed in a New York Times op-ed that far from helping Turkey’s minority, Erdogan was increasingly playing with sectarian fire. Already from 13 Synagogues, there are now only 3 left.
“Erdogan is turning Turkey into a powder keg in an attempt to shore up his own political base,” Karaveli wrote. “He is intentionally activating the longstanding fault lines separating religious and secular Turks — and most dangerously the divide between the country’s Sunni majority and its Alevi minority. If he continues to do so, Turkish democracy itself could become a casualty of his confrontational policies.”
More recently there was a petition to turn Hagia Sophia into a Mosque and this has many Turks in a dither.
So Turkish youth come out regularly to Taksim Square to protest what they call Erdogan’s dictatorship and intrusion into their private lives such as restrictions on personal freedoms; the non-availability of alcohol after 10 pm; the ban on public displays of affection and the “advice” from Erdogan for Turkish women to have “at least three children.” These young Turks want “freedom” and will continue to lobby for their right to have these freedoms in a secular Turkey.