here & there:

In Turkey, religious and secular living side by side

posted by Grace Yukich

In many large cities around the world, religious people and secular people tend to live in separate neighborhoods. This has often been the case in Istanbul, where religious and secular differences frequently correspond to differences in class. But in the neighborhood of Fatih, Muslim and secular Turks are living together, though not without conflict. In The Los Angeles Times, Borzou Daragahi writes:

The subtle struggle plays out in how one presents oneself: in the cut of an outfit, the length of a woman’s skirt, the growth of stubble on a man’s face. It is felt in the duration of a stare at a scantily clad or heavily covered-up woman, or the rumble of an imam’s voice on the mosque loudspeaker as he recites a particularly moralistic passage from the Koran.

Muslim residents feel discriminated against by secular Turks, arguing that the “open” don’t want to be seen with the “closed.” On the other side, secular Turks, particularly women, feel harassed by many Muslim residents, who constantly tell them to “cover up” on the streets.

Considering some of the stories Daraghi tells, one wonders anew how people with such differences find ways to compromise with one another. Each group would arguably be happier in a more homogeneous neighborhood where no such compromise is necessary—where secular women can be free from harassment, and where Muslims can feel as though they are not being judged. But here they are together, all the same, trying to find a way to coexist. That is heartening.

Still, it raises questions about who is really doing the compromising in situations such as these. In cases where secular women’s civil rights and religious rights to free expression are in conflict, whose rights should be privileged and why? Daraghi writes, “But what is unmistakable is a cultural chauvinism that is clearly practiced by the Islamists, one that frightens and angers many secular Turks who are worried that their cultural identity is being worn away.” Is this an example of cultural chauvinism, one that should be prohibited in order to protect the rights of secular Turks? Has Turkish secularism also been culturally chauvinistic in the past, convinced of its cultural superiority and discriminatory to Muslims in its midst?

Long-standing divisions can be troublesome, but the anecdote at the end of Daraghi’s article points to opportunities for building a pluralist society in a post-secular Turkey—the image of two young girls, best friends, one Muslim and one secular, walking down the streets of Fatih arm in arm. Perhaps living in close proximity to each other will cultivate relationships like these, fostering mutual understanding and respect.

Read more of Daragahi’s article here.

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