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An American Muslim in Istanbul
May 1, 2008

Like so many American Muslims, Istanbul too stands at the crossroads of East and West. My trip to Turkey was never intended to be a spiritual journey; but it began as a gathering of the riches of my past, and ended with the integration of my heart and soul. How could I have known this trip would change my life forever, or that the discovery of grace and harmony awaited me in Istanbul?

I could claim that I did not want to go just because of my fear of flying, but I must confess that when I was first offered to join a trip to Turkey, I was filled with trepidation. The source of my misgivings was actually a stereotype I was harboring-I thought of the Turks as an unbeatable and ferocious military power. While growing up in Boston as a second-generation Lebanese, I heard stories about the “old country” all my life. As one story goes, it was the “Turks” who caused my maternal grandfather to leave his beloved Mount Lebanon and immigrate to America. That was in 1913, when it was common for Turkish soldiers to swoop down on villages in Syria, round up the young men, and consign them to distant shores to quash uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. None of them ever returned. So, at the age of twenty-two, having no heart to shoot anyone and dodging the violence he found so odious, my grandfather headed for America. On my father’s side of the family, I had an uncle called “Turk.” Family folklore had it that Uncle Turk earned his lifelong sobriquet because of the mayhem he committed on the football field at Colby College about sixty years ago. Another thing that made a lasting impression on me was a popular song that came out in the 1950s:

So take me back to Constantinople

No, you can't go back to Constantinople

Been a long time gone, Constantinople

Why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks

This song reinforced the image I had of the Turks-that their military prowess was something people wrote songs about.

My interest in Turkish politics was piqued more recently when concerns were raised about the strength and resolve of its secular government. I decided that on my trip I would try to learn more about the situation, in particular, the relationship between secularism, religion, and the headscarf.

The first time I studied Islamic history was at Harvard in a postgraduate course. I remembered the lesson on Constantinople, the brightest jewel in the crown of the Byzantine Empire. Its conquest had eluded the Muslim emirs for seven centuries, until it fell at the hands of the Ottoman Sultans, renowned for their military expertise.

Ironically, I was drawn to the military museum in Istanbul, and it was an amazing experience because the walls seemed to reverberate with the pride of past accomplishments. What fascinated me was the detailed story of the conquest of Constantinople and the life-size figures on display. There was the conqueror, Mehmet, sitting straight and tall on a white stallion, and beside him, standing with a cane was an old man with a long white beard-Mehmet’s spiritual advisor Aksemseddin. In 1453, the conquest had rocked the world. Mehmet was just twenty-one years old at the time. At Harvard, I had never learned anything about Mehmet having a spiritual advisor, although I had asked my professor many times, without ever receiving a satisfactory answer, what the role of religion was in the Ottoman Empire, especially for the Turks.

In the twenty-first century, the role of religion is the subject of much debate. In Turkey, a great deal of discussion has arisen over the law that forbids women from wearing a headscarf on government property (such as the military museum) or at government-run universities. The law is based on Turkey’s eighty-year history of maintaining the separation of church and state. For a foreigner like myself, it was strange to witness college girls who would stand outside the university gates to take the headscarf off before entering (or risk being thrown out of school), and then stand outside the gates to put it back on when they were leaving.

Although I cannot speak with any authority on the political situation in Turkey, I had first-hand experience with the law. Driving into the museum parking lot, a young man in a military uniform stopped our car, lowered his head, and leaned into the window. Pointing to me in the back seat, he said in Turkish, “That headscarf has to come off!” My gracious Turkish hosts had fully prepared me for this moment. However, it struck me for the first time that Turkey was facing an enormous challenge: to reconcile secularism and religious freedom; something we take for granted in America.

Secularists might say that to speak of religious freedom in Turkey is to be totally nave, but as a student of Turkish history, I am not that nave. I understand the threat to secular society presented by the radical Islamists, but who are the “radical Islamists” in Turkey? Surely, not every religious person wants to overthrow the government? To find clarification on the matter, the news stories I had read were totally inadequate. So, after being introduced to some career-minded college girls who wore the headscarf, I decided to ask them informally for their political and religious views.

Of Turkish history, I knew that in the past few decades there has been a movement among the younger generations to embrace Islam and more young women now wear the headscarf. As sociologists know, with most social movements, whatever has been repressed eventually rises up in society. The religious revival in Turkey could be a response to the secularizing reforms, but there are global factors to consider as well.

I asked the college girls what kind of state they hoped for. Their answer was unequivocal and unanimous. They did not want to live in a society where they had no freedom or equal rights. They vehemently rejected the fundamentalism, that is, the kind of tribal mentality that creates a society bereft of the basic values of Islam, such as peace, justice, compassion, and equality for all human beings; and places greater value on violence, oppression, and punishment. They railed against associating Islam with rigid ideologies and tyrants. The college girls I surveyed indicated no desire for a state religion. They wanted to participate and contribute to a modern society where everyone was free to work and practice their religion.

I understand that some sections in Muslim societies are unable or unwilling to modernize their societies, but such things take time. I discovered that Turkey is really at the vanguard of modernity in the Muslim world, and that Turkish scholars have already conceived of a true representation of Islam. I was introduced to the writings of one of the contemporary Turkish religious thinkers, Fethullah Gulen, who has described the essence of religious practice in these words: “Loving and respecting humanity merely because they are human is an expression of love and respect for the Almighty Creator.” Whether secular or religious, I could think of no better ethos for Muslims to follow.

On my last day in Istanbul, I stood on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. The chilly winds and watery vistas reminded me of San Francisco Bay. In my view too was the bridge that connects two continents, Europe and Asia. In this and in other indescribable ways, Turkey combined the best of both worlds, where humanistic values and modern Islamic thought can coexist. To me, it felt natural to stand astride the two worlds, to inhabit both, or perhaps neither.

Mary Lahaj has a master’s degree from the Hartford Seminary in Islamic Studies and Christian/Muslim Relations. She is currently the first Muslim woman chaplain at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in their residency program and also works as the Muslim Advisor for the Groton School. In 2005, she received the Promoting Peace Through Dialogue Award, awarded to her by the Boston Dialogue Foundation.


  1. In fact in Turkey the state controls the practice of Islam through the Religious Affairs Directorate. For example, all imams are obliged to read the same sermon (khutba) at Friday prayer, the sermon being provided by the directorate. (Ed.)