- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Watching Pope Benedict XVI touring Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Haghia Sofia museum last week, I wished his visit to those grandiose monuments of Christianity and Islam had been marked by the sound of ringing bells and the azan simultaneously.

The pope’s visit underscored some of the most fundamental issues that form the complex relationship between religion and culture in Turkey, between Christianity and Islam in general, and between modern secularism and religious fundamentalism in the world at large.

With respect to Turkey, Pinar Bilgin, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has an exceptionally wise take: “Current debates on religious freedom for minorities in Turkey have very little to do with religion but much to do with politics and insecurity,” she told me. “Turkish citizens take pride in their multicultural and multi-religious Ottoman background and would in principle back enhancing freedoms for everyone. Yet each time the issue of enhancing the freedom of religious minorities is brought up, what many in Turkey hear is not ‘religious freedom’ but ‘external intervention.’ …What colors current debates is not the issue of rights and freedoms, tolerance and multiculturalism and inter-faith dialogue, but fears and insecurities of many in Turkey whose understanding of contemporary issues remains captive to particular remembrances of what happened a century ago.”

While the pope surprised Turks by saying he supports — albeit weakly — their country’s membership in the European Union, his repeated calls for greater freedoms for Turkey’s small Christian community illustrate the difficulty of starting a real dialogue. In a September speech, Pope Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who accused Islam of embracing violence: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope attempted to heal the breach last week by praying in the Blue Mosque — an act which should speak more strongly than a verbal apology, but does not necessarily reach out to the broader non-Turkish Muslim population.

From a distance it looks as though Turkish Christians are pushing for church services. Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently came back from Turkey, where some Christians told him that they worshiped undisturbed. “It is a lot different than China, where the government is always monitoring church services. I was favorably impressed with the attempts that have been made.”

The different interpretations of history, however, have not changed. When Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul in the 15th century, Haghia Sophia became a mosque — he was sending a message that a new leader was in control. But because church and state were not different, that act was political, not religious. The Christian emperor, however, did not want to accept the defeat at the hands of a Muslim emperor, which started the never-ending arguments about the “clash of civilizations.”

In politics, dirty tricks, lies and corruption have always been fair game for both sides. Now the question is whether the pope is willing to address both sides’ mistakes — or will he perpetuate the blame game?

For many Turks, the history of their Ottoman ancestors does not cause an exceptional suspicion toward a Christian world. The Arab Sunnis of the larger Middle East were not loyal to the Ottomans, as well. Arabs were not satisfied with their status in the Ottoman Empire. They questioned the authority of the Caliphate; they challenged him with different schools of interpretations of religious texts — like the Wahhabis. Some moderate Muslims blame the debates about the founding principles of the Turkish Republic — like abolishing the Caliphate and choosing secularism — for the failures of the Islamic world. Many Turks feel cut off from Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics. Therefore, secularism becomes an inevitable part of the debate.

The strict secular nature of the Turkish government makes it unpalatable to both Europe and the Muslim Middle East. Unfortunately, the Turks failed to bring Ataturk’s vision to fruition. They chose to fight radical interpretations of Islamic texts by banning religion, when they should have encouraged an enlightened interpretation of the ancient texts and incorporated that interpretation into modern life. They should have taught those texts in universities, urging students to learn them not by rote but to understand them in a modern context.

We all believe that the problem is not the Koran itself but in how radicals are interpreting and practicing its teachings. Refusing to address the real issue does not serve people’s well-being, unity and peace. Turkish officials’ approach to the pope’s visit showed once more how they run from their own responsibilities in addressing real problems, just as much as it showed the pope’s continued reliance on the blame game.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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