A unique brand of Islam

Today, Elif cut tinsel for our friend Jeff at Telli Baba’s grave. The “Telli Baba” tomb is set on the very edge of the water, and the shrine is very popular: visiting it is thought to be especially helpful to women who wish for a husband. The supplicant leaves a strand of tinsel on the holy man’s tomb (the entire place is covered), taking a second strand away with her. When her wish is granted, she uses that second strand to wrap the flower on her wedding dress (she also wears a red belt around her gown because she’s losing her virginity, but that’s another matter). After the wedding, she gives away tinsels, or money to buy tinsel, and returns to the shrine to give thanks, pray for Telli Baba, and to leave her strand of tinsel on his tomb. On regular wedding days, there are lines of cars waiting to get a turn to visit the shrine. We went today for Jeff, because he had introduced the two of us seven years ago, when he was perhaps interested in dating Elif, and we felt we were indebted to him to the tune of Turkish wife. Elif cut the tinsel at a medium length, meaning that we wished for Jeff to be married soon, but not too soon for his own good.

This strange tradition is an odd offshoot of Turkey’s unique brand of Islam. In fact, Turkey regulates its national religion heavily, with a branch of government set up to monitor the Imams’ sermons and forbidding profiteering off of people’s superstions (such as Imams who charge people to work magic by blowing on their stomachs). The government also manages Aya Sophia and the Dervishes and make it difficult for some Christian missionaries. But they allow some weird traditions to continue, and they constantly struggle to keep Islam out of government. The problem is that what’s OK and what’s not OK is a gray area. One guy got a year in jail for selling underwear with a picture of Jesus Christ on it with the caption V.I.P. (Very Important Prophet) – you can’t make fun of a prophet it Turkey. But it was permitted for the Turkish Wheel of Fortune TV game show to feature a group circumcision of some of the poor members of the studio audience – including two of the contestants, who resumed playing the game after getting circumcised!

Most Turks are religious but still want to preserve a separation of “church” and state. When Erbakan’s Islamic government came to power in 1995, it had less than 1/4 of the vote (it was a multiparty election), and it was more of a protest vote against the corrupt Ciller and Yilmaz administrations. The debate over allowing headscarves in the schools shows a wariness about Islam encroaching too much into Turkish public life. (Not all headscarves are alike; some are a village custom; some are worn by the religious; and some are worn by wealthy urbanites who wear them as a form of protest and as a show of support for Islamic fundamentalism. When you’ve lived there a few months, you start to be able to discriminate what kind of headscarf you’re dealing with.)

Of course, the most important direct consequence of instituting Sharia law is not the headscarves, it’s not whether women can drive etc., it’s not even the radical structuring of the judicial and legislative systems, but it’s the abolition of alcohol, a substance much prized here, and the display of the flesh, which thrills and horrifies Turks as much as it does Americans. Turkey enjoys a healthier attitude toward sex than other Islamic countries. Its newspapers have more nudity than the British tabloids. Attitudes toward homosexuality are also surprising. While you wouldn’t want to be overtly gay on the streets of this macho country, on TV, two of the biggest Turkish pop stars are transvestites; many, many celebrities are what unenlightened Americans would call “flaming homos,” and videos of male pop stars, even heterosexual ones, have closeups on their abs and crotch like it’s a Britney Spears video. That said, Turks seem rather sexually confused. Men visit transvestite prostitutes in inordinate numbers; average women get fondled on public transportation all the time; women walk down the streets of Suadiye showing more cleavage than on Venice Beach and wearing see-through pants and thong (or no!) underwear – while others wear burkas in Fatih; we get an alarming amount of spam from www.turkerotica.com, but much of it is of the “barely legal” variety; family members commit “honor killings” of rape victims as much as rapists. Mebruke, the gynecologist hospital owner who oversaw my tonsillectomy, has to sew up women’s hymens all the time to establish their virginity come wedding night – she once had to repair damage to a woman and counsel a couple, who were repeatedly attempting intercourse through the urethra and not the vagina.

However strong Islam becomes in Turkey at any given time, one thing the large majority of Turks agree on is that they want their Islam to be their own. Unlike those who feel that Islamics are Arabs, whether they’re from Kenya or Turkey, Turks feel more of a kinship with other Turkic nations and generally do not feel at all Arabic. The calls-to-prayer are sung in Turkish, not Arabic. In addition, most mainstream Turks have no particular fondness for Saudi Arabia. Last week it was announced that the Saudis are destroying the last Turkish castle remaining there (they’ve already destroyed every other Turkish archeological ruin) to make way for a hotel. The castle is gorgeous and today it’s scheduled to be gone. Turkish TV stations are comparing the Saudis to the Taliban and the ruins to the Buddhist statues the Taliban destroyed.

Two months ago, Chechen terrorists took over the Marmara Cafe (my favorite dolce-vita place to have cappuccino and fabulous desserts and chocolate truffles and watch the theater actors and opera and movie stars do the same). They took hostages in the upstairs ballroom, and once they reached the entrance of hotel, they shot holes in the ceiling. The newspapers reported that the policemen who arrested them said, “Brother, don’t do that, that’s not a right thing to do in a country that helps your people so much.” The general take is extreme wariness of violence in the name of Islam.

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