THE BLOG
08/21/2015 08:09 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2016

Report from Turkey: Enjoying the Med Beaches While the Rest of the Mid East Burns

The picture in the Middle East these days is not good. The hybrid terrorist-army known as ISIS has conquered an area in Syria and Iraq that is larger than Britain and have taken the eight million people suffering in their proto-state/"Caliphate" back to the Middle Ages. Over 200,000 people have died in the Sunni vs. Shiite civil war in Syria which has sent millions of refugees fleeing to neighboring Turkey (as well as several suicide bombers who have wreaked havoc in southern Turkey in recent weeks). The ISIS terrorism has spread farther afield to Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia, to the bloody civil war in Yemen, to Egypt, and to Libya where local affiliates of ISIS have filmed themselves beheading Christians on two occasions. Turkey recently joined the war on ISIS as a result of the terror bombings and has for the first time allowed US fighter bombers to fly against ISIS from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

For this reason, when I told my friends that I was going to Turkey for my annual visit to my in-laws, they were understandably worried. They know my father-in-law Kemal's family hails from the ancient mountain town of Mardin near the Syrian border that is home to a large population of Kurds who are currently waging war against the Turkish state. Fortunately, my in-laws, Kemal and his wife Feruzan, moved a few years ago to the western coastal town of Cesme (pronounced Chesme), which is located on Turkey's famed Mavi Sahil (Blue Coast). There one finds an entirely different world to that found in the "Wild East" of Turkey near Syria and Iraq. Considering the field research trips I have taken in the past to warzones in Islamic Eurasia, from Kosovo to Kashmir, I almost felt guilty traveling to the peaceful Blue Coast of Turkey to visit my wife Feyza's family.

But I need not have felt guilty, for this coastal area that borders Greece is as representative of Turkey (a secularized democracy that is a member of NATO and is seeking to join the European Union) as the areas along the war torn Syrian border. A brief description of the culture I am currently experiencing here on the sandy beaches of Turkey's Mediterranean coast offers up a rare picture of normality, and even fun, in a Middle East that is engulfed in warfare and terrorism.

The town my in-laws live in is Cesme and it is one of the many gems of Turkey's famed Blue Coast. It has been a tourist destination for decades due to its vast expanses of sandy beaches, outdoor tavernas and sea-food restaurants, quaint old city dominated by an Ottoman castle, cobblestone streets and mosque, and its access to nearby Greek islands. The only "invasion" I have encountered here on my visit is local kids who enjoy sneaking across the harbor at night on boats and jet skis to plant Turkish flags on the beaches of the nearby Greek island of Chios (speaking of the Turks' Greek rivals, whatever you do, don't call a Greek Salad by that name here, its always a "Shepherd Salad").

As for any outward manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism, they are limited to the hyper rare "burqini" (a full female body suit/swim suit that covers even the hair, similar to a wetsuit) that I have seen some conservative Muslim women wear on occasion. These devout women, who doubtless suffer in the hot Med sun, are pitied by the hordes of bikini clad Turkish women who dominate the beaches and tan themselves on deck chairs while drinking alcohol served by ever present waiters (alcohol is banned in Islam and no Muslim conservative would dare to drink it).

The main symbol one finds here in this realm of fun-loving Sybarites is not that of militant Islam, but of secularism. Namely, ever-present images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular Republic of Turkey who banned headscarves in public places, changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin, and essentially de-Islamized Turkey. Ataturk's ubiquitous image is found on flags, tattoos (of which there are more here than at a Red Hot Chili Pepper's concert in the US), calendars, banners etc. It is a defiant message to Turkey's recently elected, religiously-conservative government which has tried to roll back some of Ataturk's previous liberal secularism (it has for instance banned wearing revealing tights by ballet dancers, begun to allow women to wear headscarves in schools and public spaces, banned drinking alcohol near mosques etc).

One of my Turkish friends, Feridun, sat down with me over fried calamari, grilled fish and local Efes beers the other day and held up the Turkish liberal secularists' struggle against "creeping Islamization" as a mirror to the culture war in America. He did so by saying "In America your fundamentalists are trying to take away women's access to birth control and deny gays the right to marry. Here they are trying to deny us beers and bikinis!" He also compared the Bible belt in southern American states to the "Quran belt" in eastern Turkey, where one still finds an ancient way of life that revolves around the village mosque, not the local bar.

Regardless of how apt the comparison is to the US, certainly Cesme and its raki-drinking sun-worshippers (raki is the national liquor of Turkey that is similar to the Greek drink Ouzo) have as little in common with the "Quran belt" in the east as South Beach, Miami has to the Bible belt in the US. The moral of the story I guess is that one size does not fit all when it comes to the Middle East (and we should also look under our own roof before calling on Muslim nations to confront their fundamentalists). For every jihadist beheading someone, one finds millions of people in this vast, diverse region who are just trying to go about their daily lives.

And on the sun-baked coasts of Turkey that means eating the prized local dish known as mediye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice and seasoned with pepper and lemon), drinking copious amounts of Efes, Ouzo and other alcohol that would elicit a public whipping in ISIS's shariah law state, swimming in revealing swim suits that would get one arrested in the strict Wahhabi theocracy of Saudi Arabia, and forgetting the wars that roil other, less civilized parts of the Middle East.

Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime based on his four summers of fieldwork in Afghanistan.