Reading Ramadan in Istanbul

This year in Istanbul, the flags on Republic Day seemed extra large. It wasn't a special anniversary year. Turkey was celebrating its 86th year as a modern secular state. Nevertheless, the sheer number of flags - 60,000 hanging from government buildings, draped across skyscrapers, dominating squares - was unprecedented. The display of 48,000 fireworks over the Bosphorus also seemed a bit over the top. It was as if the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), because of its "Islamist" reputation among detractors at home and abroad, was making a compensatory effort to prove its republican bona fides.

Meanwhile, in the memento shops in Istanbul, you can buy a 3-D portrait of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founding father, in a dapper Western suit and fingering, of all things, prayer beads. This is a rather unusual image of the man who banned the caliphate, replaced Islamic law with a new European-style system, got rid of the Islamic calendar, and had his own highly ambivalent relationship to religion. But just as the ruling party wraps itself in the republican flag, the father of modern Turkey can reveal his Muslim roots. For many decades in Turkey, the whites (secularists) and the blacks (Islamists) have fought a pitched battle that has had all the polarizing elements of a cold war. Today, however, some interesting shades of gray are emerging.

One of the best guides to this new Turkey is not Turkish at all. He's Swiss. In the same way that Azar Nafisi used Vladimir Nabokov to map Iran's ideological terrain in her bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, I have found Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan's new book, What I Believe, an ideal touchstone for what's going on in Turkey today. Ramadan is the controversial but impassioned spokesman for Western Islam. The West, he argues, must come to terms with its Muslim citizens and its own Islamic history. Muslims who live in Europe are not "other" but, rather, authentically European: "Millions of them are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, while the media and the public seem obsessed with suspecting a problem inherent in Islam because of a few literalists or extremists." Western Muslims, he writes, should also reject "minority citizenship" and become visibly engaged in building more pluralistic societies.

Ramadan focuses on Muslims who were born in or recently arrived to Europe. Interestingly, he doesn't discuss European Muslims of much longer standing, such as those that live in Bosnia, Albania, and elsewhere in the Balkans. And, except for an aside on why the European Union should apply the same membership requirements to Ankara as it did to Sophia and Bucharest, he barely mentions Turkey either.

It's a shame, since what's happening in Turkey today reinforces many of his most salient points. Ramadan's critique of dogmatic secularists who see a "return of religion" through such backdoor issues as the right of women to wear a headscarf in French schools aptly captures the fears of an influential segment of Turkish society. Under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, currently in its second term and with a larger popular mandate after the 2007 elections, Islam is considerably more public in Turkey. The calls to prayer, now electrified, are much louder. There are more women wearing headscarves (though not yet at university, since the constitutional court in June 2008 overturned a parliamentary law repealing the ban). In some places in the country, it is more difficult to buy alcohol.

At the same time, Turkey has become more officially tolerant, for instance toward the Kurdish minority. There is a new 24-hour Kurdish-language TV program, and new faculty at Mardin Artaklu University will teach Kurdish. The government has begun to accept back Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq, as well as a handful of Kurdish guerrillas (PKK), with the expectation that many more will follow in the next months as Ankara negotiates a deal with the Kurdish part of Iraq and the PKK insurgency finally peters out. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has signed a landmark set of preliminary protocols with Armenia. The Turkish government has also been conciliatory on Cyprus, hoping for a deal if not by the end of 2009 then definitely by next year.

Once an island in a sea of enemies, Turkey has adopted a new foreign policy based on "zero problems" with neighbors. And since these external enemies have usually corresponded to enemies within, the new foreign policy both heralds and encourages a greater commitment to pluralism at home.

Not everything is sweetness and light in Turkey, of course. Those who visit only Istanbul will see Turkish cosmopolitanism as it has existed since the Byzantine era (though with considerably less ethnic diversity). In central Anatolia, however, the conservative core of support for the ruling party, the Islamic revival has a different character. According to research by Turkish political scientist Binnaz Toprak, Muslim perceptions of discrimination in Turkey declined dramatically between 1999 and 2006. But her most recent research suggests that discrimination and intolerance against non-Muslims (as well as Muslims like Alevis) have been increasing in central Anatolia.

These anecdotes of discrimination are disturbing, of course. Some of it is no doubt payback for all the years of anti-Muslim intolerance. But turnaround is not fair play for a society struggling to create a new kind of pluralism that respects Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Against this intolerant Islam, Tariq Ramadan asserts a religion that respects the dignity of all human beings. He doesn't propose a new Islam, but rather "to reconnect Islam with its original dynamism, creativity, and confidence." There is a whiff here of what I would call "golden age fundamentalism" - that somehow the original Islam (or Christianity or Judaism for that matter) was made of superior stuff. I have strong doubts. But whatever its relation to some spurious "original" religion, a new Islam is certainly emerging in the world - in the theological circles in which Ramadan travels, in Muslim communities in the West, and certainly inside Turkey.

Five years ago, the future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, argued that "Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent. Its culture gives it a common identity. In this sense, Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe." As such, Turkey should aspire to lead the Muslim nations, Ratzinger continued, rather than seek membership in the European Union. Many Europeans, from French president Nicholas Sarkozy on down, still subscribe to this binary opposition that casts Turkey in the unfortunate role of "permanent opposition" to Europe.

But as Ramadan points out, them is us. Turkey contains much that is European just as Europe contains much that is Islamic. New forms of identity - Ataturk with prayer beads, the AKP wrapped in a republican flag - are emerging in Turkey that transcend the old black-white divide. Similarly, Tariq Ramadan represents a new kind of European that transcends Christian insider and Muslim outsider. The next step is obvious. When Turkey joins the European Union, Europe will create the new "we" that Ramadan urges. This is the worst nightmare of fundamentalists of all persuasions. But it also the best hope for our blinkered, divided world.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.