I first came to Istanbul, Turkey in 1966. I thought I was incredibly cool to go by myself to a place as exotic as Turkey. My first big shock was being awakened about dawn by a loud voice from the nearby mosque calling faithful Muslims to prayer. Maybe Turks think church bells are disorienting, but the muezzin certainly make it impossible for me to go back to sleep.
Despite the fact that I love Istanbul, I did not return there until shortly after 2000. This is doubly odd because as a medieval historian, I lectured a lot about the Byzantine Empire (Byzantium was the Greek name of the city before Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, rebuilt and renamed it in the 4th century). However since that return, I have been in Istanbul about seven times, and I write this while listening from my hotel to the muezzin in the Blue Mosque.
I have had to change travel plans more than once because of violence in this city. In 2004, a conference was canceled after some journalists were killed. Just last year, I planned to take two grandsons here, but the failed coup against President Erdogan made it too risky to take teenagers there.
So after five years away, I arrived for a brief stay in which I primarily visited my favorite places, starting with the Hagia Sofia, the cathedral, built in the 6th century that became a mosque in 1453 and a museum in the 20th century. It is my favorite building in the world.
Turkey is much in the news lately. It appears that President Trump admires and gets along with President Erdogan, a man who has transformed Turkey from a democracy into an autocratic state.
When President Erdogan was recently in Washington, Mr. Trump said nice things about him, although he mispronounced his name. “Erdogan” is pronounced “Erdowan,” but Mr. Trump pronounced the “g” as a “g,” I’ll bet a lot of Turkish lire that staff briefed the President on how to pronounce the name of his guest.
Authoritarianism is just one newsworthy story from Turkey. There are terrorist acts fairly often and a rebellion by ethnic Kurds in the southeastern part of Turkey. President Trump has made Turkey nervous by arming the Kurds in neighboring Syria.
Turkey, beginning with President Ataturk establishing a republic in 1923 following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, became, at least by Muslim standards, a secular state. However, President Erdogan is seeking to re-Islamize the country. It is hard to know exactly what that means since Turkey has been for a long time more than 98 percent Muslim. But with regard to education, Mr Erdogan is promoting a more religious agenda in the nation’s schools.
After walking around the city today, I began to realize that many more women are wearing headscarves than I have ever seen. I sat in the ancient hippodrome (horse race track) that is now a park and decided to take a survey of headscarves and even the full burkas being worn. In previous trips to Istanbul, I only saw burkas in neighborhoods of recent arrivals from the countryside. Istanbul was too “sophisticated” and “modern” for such traditional garb. Now burkas appear to be the dress of about 5 percent to 10 percent of Turkish women I observed. This is hardly a scientific survey, in part because one cannot see the faces of the women and because it is often hard to figure out who is Turkish and who is not. The fact that Istanbul is flooded with Chinese, Japanese and Russian tourists made my job somewhat easier.
But I was astounded that perhaps half the Turkish women I observed wore headscarves, some with western clothing and others with more traditional Turkish dress. One young woman had a baseball cap over her headscarf!
Women of all ages wear headscarves at about the same rate, suggesting that many women who did not wear them only a few years ago have begun to do so. And if anything, there are more young women than older women with headscarves. It was hard to tell at what age women begin to wear them now, but my best guess is that it begins during adolescence.
Turkey is an ally of the United States and European Union in fighting Islamic extremism, and it is also our old NATO ally from the era of the Cold War when it was invaluable in controlling what did and did not get into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea (check a map and think USSR). In fact, when Mr. Erdogan became prime minister, his party ran on a platform of westernization and the desire to enter the EU. Now, Mr. Erdogan has abandoned Europe to a large extent, and certainly Turkey today would not be voted into the EU.
Turkey is the second largest Muslim nation in the Middle East, and it should be unnerving for us that Turkey’s president has essentially become a dictator and that Turkey is backing away from its position as the most successful secular Muslim state. The latter is for me symbolized by a return to more conservative dress by Turkey’s women.
Of course, Turkey and its people make their own choices, and it is not the West’s job to tell them how to behave or how to pray. But there is reason to be concerned about our old ally. Mr. Trump’s admiration for President Erdogan is not particularly helpful. We should be encouraging cooperation from and pluralism in Turkey.
Bill Cook is a distinguished teaching professor and emeritus professor of history at SUNY Geneseo. He has been a member of the Geneseo faculty since 1970. His research areas of interest include medieval and Renaissance Europe and church history.
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