April 09, 2006

Sean's Take on Turkey

My friend Sean LaFreniere was partly the subject of my last post and he left a long reponse in the comments section, answering me as well as some critics.

Hey everyone, as the subject of this post I thought it might be time for a comment...

First, I'm not nearly as much of a "babe-in-the-woods" as Michael makes me out to be, but for dramatic effect I am happy to let that go.

I asked about alcohol as in "do you have a full bar?" as opposed to just beer and wine. I was not shocked to find alcohol in Istanbul, but I was a bit surprised to find it in the boonies way outside of town.

I didn't bolt from the transsexual hookers in prude fear, but in the realization that they were shoe-horning us in, literally, in preparation to slam us with a bar bill that we could not afford. I played up the, "oh, my, look at the time" gag as a way to give Mike an excuse to leave (since he was buying the drinks).

And Mike might want to clarify that we grew up in small-town Salem, Oregon and our friends in Portland include a large portion of this group as well. Portland is indeed one of the most educated and literate big cities in America (look up the stats on your own). We have more book stores and higher library use per capita than any other major city and a larger than average portion of new immigrants have advanced degrees. However, book smarts are no substitute for travel, and that was the point of Mike's post [in the comments section - MJT] and with which I strongly agree.

I studied European and Mid East history and religion as an undergrad and have been to Europe a few times before now. However, living for an extended term in Europe has been an eye-opener and visiting the Mid East for my first time blew my mind, so to speak.

I worked with Muslims in Portland and studied the Koran even before 9-11. I have a particular interest in Middle East history and culture... in fact I was one of the first people Mike ever met to begin discussing the Mid East.

I know that Istanbul was a world-class city, I also know that there is a vast difference between the rural and urban portions of any country, and I expected Turkey to compare well (as a prospective EU member and one of the WWI powers) with Europe... However, I was STILL surprised, as Mike notes, at how "normal" western Turkey was (the eastern half is an entirely different matter).

I commute through the largest Muslim neighborhood in Copenhagen right now. I see women in veils and even burkas daily. I also eat more shwarma than is probably good for my health. And my architecture project this term was to design a Muslim neighborhood in CPH, complete with a mosque and a souk. So I was very interested in visiting a Mid East country (and I wanted to see Michael) and Istanbul was within my budget for airfare.

What I was most surprised by was that W. Turkey is less conservative than Muslim Copenhagen. I was also humorously surprised that Tuborg (Danish beer) is perhaps the most common brand in Turkey (given the Danish cartoon controversy). I also laughed to see a post-card from Anatolia showing a woman in a skimpy thong on the beach. I expected Turkey to be modern, but not quite this liberal.

One of my realizations this year is that Scandinavia, which boasts of less than 10% church attendance, is much MORE religious than we Americans are led to believe. This Easter weekend the streets of were rolled up and put in storage. Everything was quiet and churches were busy (ok, they often lure Danes inside with coffee and music, but heh).

Meanwhile, I was rather surprised to see the call of muezzins mostly ignored in even rural Turkey. I was also a bit surprised at how rare veils and head scarves were. And Mike understated the sexy dress and dancing in the Istanbul disco and we found the same in mid sized towns as well. It seems that maybe the polls and surveys paint them as more observant than they really are?

So, that is my thought of the week... Europe may be under-reporting their religiosity, while the Mid East may be over-reporting theirs.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 9, 2006 03:55 PM

Good post. That's an excellent and important point about the religiosity of Turks in Turkey vs. those in Europe. It's no secret that immigrants, out of insecurity or whatever, will often grasp hold of whatever makes them different. In Boston you used to see Irish immigrants who were ten times more nationalistic than anyone you would meet in Dublin. My cousin has good friends - a muslim couple from Cameroon who were pretty secular people at home in Africa, but after a year in the US the stress of adapting to a foreign culture turned the wife into a very devout muslim. Now they're back in Cameroon and I think the religious fervor has started to subside again. There are a lot of us who always felt the greatest danger to the US comes from European muslims, not Middle Eastern muslims. Look at the 9/11 group. They didn't just fly in from Afghanistan - it was their time in the West that seems to have made them into fanatics. Europe's inability to integrate these immigrants seems to create a feeling of humiliation which is a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.

I'm not sure I buy that religion in Europe is underreported. I think it is true that Europeans are far more traditional than Americans, and obeying religious customs still has a lot of meaning to them even if they no longer believe n the divinity of Christ. But my impression is that fewer Europeans are really believers in the way many American Christians are.

Posted by: vanya at April 9, 2006 08:08 PM

Vanya, I would agree with you. American Christians seem like hardcore believers and due to their relative isolation can be a bit strident in conversation.

However, I am living with a Christian family in Copenhagen. I said Christian rather than Lutheran (the official state faith) and I mean it in the same way as in America. They are members of a healthy sized church group and go to services, well, religiously. ;)

Also, every Danish citizen pays a tax to support the Lutheran church (unless they go through a lot of red tape to renounce participation). We would never tolerate this in the US.

The royal family goes to church and follows all the customs of Christianing, and Baptism, and everything else. As do most politicians. US politicians including Carter and Clinton all go through the very same motions.

I have toured many churches in Scandinanvia now, as an architect student, and have found them all to be used regularly (we had to work around several Baptisms). Also, new churches are built all the time. While in my home state churches are being closed for lack of attendence.

And this is in the "aetheist" north. I also know from first hand experience that France and Italy (and Spain and Poland) are still quite Catholic, follow all the holidays, etc.

I guess I would put it this way, lack of regular church attendence does not make one any less "religious". Nor does regular mosque attendence make you a fanatic. As you noted, culture is as much a part of the religion equation as any sincere belief.

Speaking of which I had an aethesit rabbi as a religious studies prof in college, so did Mike in the midwest. I also know of non-believing Irish Catholic priests.

But what I meant to say was that when asked by a caller from Gallup "Do you attend church regularly" or "Do you consider yourself a true-believer" a Scandinavian may be automatically and proudly answering "Of course not" and then grab their hat and head to the Christianing of their nephew.

Meanwhile, when a pollster from Al Jaseeria asks a Mid Easterner if they regularly attend mosque they may be getting an automatic (fear driven, peer pressure driven) response of "Of course yes" even while the muezzins call goes unanswered in the background. Does that make sense?

Posted by: sean at April 10, 2006 06:18 AM

These posts are great. So much fun to read. I was a little irked at the whole 'stupid, ignorant American' meme. I don't think it matters what country you're writing about, if someone has never been there it is amazing to hear all the differences and similarities to your own country.

I've traveled to Japan and China. The funnest thing we did (okay, maybe not the funnest, but it was up there) was to go to a Dominoes pizza place. As if we couldn't do that in the states. We took pictures of the McDonalds as if we don't have one on every street corner here. I'm sure if I traveled to the Middle East I'd be shocked at how "normal" it is and that it isn't just one bombing after another. But I'd also probably be surprised at how "normal" a lot of countries are.

Anyway, I'm thrilled with reading all these great posts. Keep it up!!!

Posted by: Megs at April 10, 2006 07:27 PM
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