I came away from Turkey in 1999 with mixed feelings. At that time I don’t think I was mentally ready as a Muslim to see so many people with Muslim backgrounds drinking, clubbing and in open disdain for religion and I was horrified and when I went to the masjid and saw strange practices I was also frustrated.
Everywhere I went in Istanbul there were Turkish flags (and I’m an American and have never seen so many flags) and portraits of Kemal Ataturk and I found the cult worship of Ataturk and the Turkish state to be silly. This belief was reinforced when I would be invited to drink tea with people and they would go on and on about Turkish history, how great Turks are and how Ataturk is almost a deity and after a while I got bored with that.
In America all the Turks I knew were Salafis or Turkish Islamic Nationalists who practiced traditional Sufism and they had created the image in my mind that there was a great Islamic revival getting ready to happen in Turkey and the Turkish people were finally getting ready to reject the state oppression of religious peoples by the Turkish state. I even got the chance to meet Merve Kavakci the Turkish Muslim woman who was elected to the parliament but not allowed to take her seat because she refused to take off her hijab.
When I got to Istanbul I found that most people were generally hostile to Merve and many called her names I would not repeat and many more openly referred to themselves as atheists or as only being from Muslim families. It seemed to me that much of Turkish society was post-Islam and some were even hostile to Islam.
My last night in Istanbul opened my mind to a little more of a nuanced version of Turks. I was invited by some Brits staying at my hotel to go out with them to a club and I really didn’t want to but had become friendly with one of the guys and I wanted to talk to him some more and so I went. The club was the same as any club anywhere else; loud music, horny guys looking stupid and looking for sex, and a mix of women trying to play hard to get but basically there for the same reason as the guys. However, even at this nightclub there were Turkish flags everywhere, and a group of Turks broke into some patriotic dance and started waving the Turkish flag and yelling chants. This is something that I cant imagine happening anywhere in most of Europe or North America. Then, after this, a Brazilian belly dancer comes out ( perhaps because the Turks like to play with “others” and keep their own girls pure) and this woman, who had to be one of the best looking women I have ever seen in my life, heads straight for me, and what do I do? I turn my back to her. I was in the middle of making dawah to this guy and the last thing he needed to see was me lusting over this dancer. Later that night I would wonder into a religious neighborhood and meet traditional Muslims who were in many ways unlike the devout of the Arab World I had just left.
In conversations with Turks I found that most I met were very nationalistic, disliked Arabs, disliked
Israel despite the position of the government, and were proud of their history. As this was during the beginning of the Russian invasion of Chechnya I also found a lot of support for the Chechen people.
As I traveled from one end of Turkey to another I found that while the major cities of Turkey are on par with many European cities, and exceed most in terms of history and culture, much of the rest of the country was poor, underdeveloped and in a state equivalent to much of the Middle-east. This, coupled with the fact of empty mosques, left me with a bad image of Turkey in my mind.
If I went to Turkey today I would probably have a different reaction. Many, if not most, Turks are secular and will openly tell you they don’t pray and are not religious, but at least their honest, because in the Arab World, even the non-observant are required to give some hollow lip-service to the deen.
Turkey is not as modern and developed as some claim; but Turks are timelier then most in the region (including Israelis) and the streets of the cities are clean and the public buildings are kept to Western standards unlike the rubbish-lined streets of much of the Muslim World. I would also be less hostile to the traditional Sufism practiced by many Turks.
At that time Turkey was just a place to pass through; but if I go back to visit I will go because I want to be there and learn more. I am interested in the new rise of nationalism In Turkey and its connection with Islam as Turkish nationalism has traditionally been in opposition to Islam. The condition of religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey is of interest to me and most of all I am curious to talk to Turks and see how they feel about joining the European Union as it seems many have woken up and saw that they will never be accepted by Europe so they might as well create their own destiny. Also, I will explore the question of the Armenians of Turkey and their history and my research to his point told me there was a mass killing of Armenians but it was not a genocide.
Turkey may not be an Islamic utopia; but I see signs of Turkey developing into the most mature of all Muslim nations in dealing with the modern world.