Manifestations of Islam: New Jersey, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East


Throughout the summers of my life as an adolescent Turkish-American in the 1990s I travelled to Turkey to visit relatives.  I spent most of this time in Ankara and Konya with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.  My relatives would extend the common Turkish hand of hospitality, going out of their way to take me places and cook up storms of delicious Turkish food.  Cousins similar in age to me were inculcated with this Turkish brand of hospitality from a young age and sought to emulate their elders.

As an adolescent I didn’t recognize how well they treated me as their guest, but in hindsight I now understand the difference it makes to grow up in America as opposed to Turkey.  For example, every child wants to ride shotgun in the car when an elder of the family says its time to go on an adventure somewhere.  In Turkey my cousins would always cede the front seat to me as a matter of the courtesy towards guests.  When those same cousins came to the United States in the summer, the fact that they were guests, let alone my guests, didn’t register in my head.  Upon hearing from our uncle that it was time to get loaded up in the car for an outing, I would attempt rushing past my cousins to secure the front seat.  This behavior was all too American in the eyes of my relatives and they didn’t hesitate to call me out on it.  One of my uncles, who had immigrated to the United States and had been living there since the 1970s, tried his best to teach me what it means to be Turkish.  He would say things like “you’re Turkish, you can’t be selfish”.  He was furious when he found out that I negotiated a price with my cousin to sell my Super Nintendo and some games to him: “He’s your cousin, you’re supposed to just give it to him”.

There are clearly differences between first generation Turkish-Americans like me, and members of my family who were born and raised in Turkey.  They immigrated to the United States, and perhaps their close identification with being Turkish continued to matter to them because they could see the differences between themselves and Americans in stark ways.  As the case of my uncle’s advice shows, they believed that those of us born in America should be taught the ways of the elders, derived from the traditions of Turkey.

I grew up in a part of New Jersey that has many Turkish Americans.  My parents didn’t raise my sister and I with religion.  No one I knew growing up prayed the five obligatory daily prayers that Islam prescribes.  Many of the Turks I know in this part of Jersey attend local mosques primarily on special occasions:  funerals and Ramadan nights for example.  There would be the occasional proclamations of an aunt or uncle that we are and should be proudly Muslim, along with the dire warnings that this or that action was against our religion.  My immediate circle of relatives had a decent knowledge of Islam, and on occasion told a story or provided an insight related to the religion.  Being identified as Muslim was definitely important for many people in my family and the wider Turkish-American community.  Some in the community probably felt that the less Islamic of us should change our ways and get with the program.

It’s not always easy to discern what influences in a society inform and shape people’s identity and culture most significantly.  In the case of being Turkish, Islam and being Muslim is inevitably part of the picture.  National, social, and political contexts shape how any given religion is incorporated into people’s lives, as I tried to demonstrate in the case of my upbringing in New Jersey.   

Getting curious about Islam

Regardless of how religious or not the members of the Turkish American community in NJ are, everyone co-exists without trying to pull others into their orbit of beliefs and lifestyle.  In my case the decision to learn more about Islam was due to self-reflection and a few experiences, which began in 2012 at the age of 32.

What drew me to Islam is what draws people to religion in general.  I’ve always been a philosophical person, and friends have known me as free-spirited and artistic person who has lived in multiple countries to learn foreign languages and cultures.  When I spent ten days at a Thai Buddhist meditation retreat in 2007, I felt a strong connection and affinity for the entire vibe of the place, the schedule of meditation, and the “simple living” lifestyle we were following.  I’ve always had a deep affinity for being out in nature, to tap the bliss that accompanies “being one” with it.  Then there are the metaphysical questions, the ones that religions have always sought to address: questions about the origins, purpose, and meaning of life, about what happens to us after death.  Islam is a deep enough tradition to provide one with plenty of food for thought in regards to these questions.  It also fit in well with my spiritual orientation overall.  

Of course with Islam also comes the prescribing of personal and societal ethics, as well a framework in which to bring order to one’s life:  perhaps at the time when I started learning more about Islam in 2012 I felt a need for some of this.  Prior to that time I had been hopping around for several years to live in one country after another, through programs like the Peace Corps and Fulbright.  I started to feel that I needed more grounding and stability in my life.  Fortunately the decision to commit myself to being a devout Muslim led me to find my wife, who converted to Islam before meeting me and was looking for a devout Muslim partner as well.  Our common identity and unified vision of life’s meaning and purpose has really helped the health of our marriage.

When my parents saw me making my religious turn they might have asked themselves whether their own guidance and parenting wasn’t enough, or whether I saw something wrong or missing in their upbringing because of a lack of religion in our family life.  I assuaged their concerns by saying that quite the contrary, they were exceptional parents.  Their reaction to my newfound and sudden religiosity is understandable and commonplace, when less devout people encounter more devout people in their midst:  there is a worry that religious folk look down at the non-religious, or somehow are being judgmental toward them.  Anyone who is judgmental in such a way has plenty of work to do towards improving the inner sanctum of his mind and heart.

The unfortunate prevalence of fundamentalism, terrorism, division and warfare among Muslims made it all the more worrisome for my parents that I got to learning about Islam.  They warned me not to “get too deep”.  They were more concerned about the implications it would have for my behavior, since they find some particular behavior in Muslim communities quite deplorable or hypocritical. From my mom infuriated that some Muslims refuse to shake hands with cousins of the opposite sex, to my dad appalled that Muslim men enjoy going to the beach swimming in shorts while their wives sit under the hot sun draped from head to toe in clothes, many of the grievances they have are on par with the typical criticisms of Islam that come out of Western societies.

For my parents the marker signifying my plunge into the dark side would be me espousing views or engaging in behavior that they find either really dumb or backward.  I’ve tried to quell their worries by saying that I take careful precaution not to draw closer into a mindset and way of life that resembles the more authoritarian, conservative, and fundamentalist strains of Islam.  My adoration for American values and principles certainly helps in preventing me from becoming one of those hardheaded Muslim fundamentalists.

My international travels also inspired me to investigate Islam, particularly when I was in Kosovo from 2010-12 through a State Department program to develop the educational capacities of various institutions.  Kosovo is a Muslim majority country.  I met people who kept up with their daily prayers and went dancing at nightclubs, though their behavior at these clubs was a lot more conservative than what happens in the clubs of Western Europe.  In Western Europe it’s common to see people who make each other’s acquaintance for the first time at the club to start dancing with one another.  In Kosovo I observed that people danced solely with the friends and family they attended the clubs with.  Albanians do an exceptional job of blending many cultural elements together: Western, Albanian, and Muslim.  They mix a kind of conservative/liberal cocktail that I find well balanced and worthy of emulation.

The way I saw Muslims practice Islam in Kosovo led me to study the Qur’an and to learn how to perform the Islamic form of prayer, called salah.  Unfortunately, Kosovo, like too many other countries, has been plagued by the specter of Islamic radicalism.  The New York Times has recently reported on the lengths to which countries like Saudi Arabia have been going to make Islam in Kosovo more to the liking of fundamentalists.  Among European countries it has sent the highest per capita ISIS members to fight in the Middle East.

During my stint in Kosovo I received the unfortunate news of an uncle’s death in the United States.  His body was transported to Turkey and I decided to go there to be with family and partake in his funeral activities.  This trip drew my curiosity towards exploring Islam as well, as I reflected on how religion consoles and unites people in the difficult times when death occurs.

My family had transported my uncle’s body from the United States to Turkey in an encased steel casket.  The funeral activities happened for one week in the village of Başüyük (near Konya), where he was born and grew up.  The night we arrived to this town we placed him in the mosque.  Muslims wrap the body of the deceased person in a white cloth.  The deceased is placed in a part of the mosque where people may gather around the body.  In this gathering we pray together, with an imam leading the prayers.

The next morning we placed the casket on a table near the garden of the home were he grew up.  We all took turns unscrewing the casket, took him out of it, and placed him on the table.  He stayed like this for the morning.  His family and friends from the town gathered around him and did different things.  Some of us stood in silence.  There was a constrained presence of grieving sounds.  Some of us approached his face and unraveled the cloth to look at him.  This was very painful for one person and she immediately put the cloth over his face.  One person looked into his face and said that he had never met my uncle.  He then proceeded to comment on my uncle’s facial features, and then said something proverbial about death.  When my aunt came up to my uncle her eyes sunk deeply into his covered face and she began to smile.  It looked as though she made a spiritual connection with him.

In the burial procession my uncle was placed outside of the mosque on a wooden board and wrapped in a heavy green cloth.  Many people were present.  An imam led prayers. Two long lines formed of people facing each other.  Our destination was the cemetery.  Standing in place, we passed my uncle from hand to hand. When the person passing him released his grip of the board’s handles, he moved to the front of the line to be ready to grip and pass my uncle once again.  After passing my uncle along like this for some time, each of the four people on both sides of the board began to walk and grip the board from the front, then proceeded to walk and grip from the two middle positions, and then walked and griped the end position. After each person released his grip at the end position he walked and rested for some time then returned to the front of the board to start the process again.  We carried my uncle in this way until we reached the place of his burial at the cemetery.

We when arrived at my uncle’s place of burial, his brother and two of his nephews stood in the ground where his burial place was and placed his body here by accepting him from people who handed his body to them from above ground.  I don’t remember exactly when I began to hear the imam’s voice, but at some point the vocalizations of his praying went from whispers to more audible pronouncements.  After we pulled his brother and two nephews above ground, all of us began taking turns to use shovels in order to cover the burial place with soil. Then a series of prayers commenced.  We exited the cemetery and gathered at home to have a meal together, which was provided for and organized by a friend of our family.

The next few days after the burial many guests visited our home to be with us and share their memories of my uncle.  Death is one of those life events that is mysterious, often unbearable:  just the kind of event that has been addressed throughout human history by spiritual sages and religious traditions.  The mystery of whether or not there is anything that follows death has compelled humans towards beliefs and narratives that bring us closer to the edge of the great unknown.

Islam and being Muslim in Turkey

Like in many countries around the world, Turkey has cultural and political differences among its’ populace due to differing views about the place religion should have in society, and the level of commitment and involvement people have with being Muslim. As the religious scholar Reza Aslan points out, it doesn’t matter how religious you perceive someone to be:  if someone decides to call him/herself a Christian, that person is Christian.  The same can be said of Muslims in Turkey. You’ll find someone who reads the Qur’an and prays five times everyday calling himself Muslim, as well as someone who doesn’t pray, doesn’t care to widen his knowledge of Islam, but wishes to call himself Muslim.  In the end what each person decides to call himself is up to him and should be respected by others. Unfortunately people are swayed by being more judgmental than we should be. 

Islam and being Muslim during the Ottoman era is clearly different to what it is now like in Turkey.  What it means to be Muslim for Turks took a significant turn when the republic of Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, decided to push secularism and democracy as foundations of the newfound republic. Many Turks cherish the fact that Turkey took this turn after World War I. Turkey is different from many other Muslim majority countries in that people can openly voice their criticism of Islam and/or religion in general without fear of the variety of reprisals that happen in other Muslim majority countries.

Part of Turkey’s turn toward secularism and democracy may in part have something to do with Turks’ views about and relations with Arabs that began to take shape and become entrenched after World War I. These views have been exceptionally elucidated by a piece in the New York Times from July 2016 entitled “The Erdogan Loyalists and Syrian refugees”. Here is an excerpt from the article.

“The newcomers [Syrian refugees in recent years] seem foreign to most Turks, but the two peoples have memories of an ancestral divorce: one hundred years ago, the Turks ruled the Arabs as part of the Ottoman Empire, and when the empire split up, Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, in part defined the new country in opposition to the Arab world. He famously regarded Arabs as beneath Turks, and Arabs probably felt little affection for the Turks’ enduring imperiousness.”

The AK party’s rise and consolidation of power in Turkey has no doubt caused consternation among the less/non religious, that Islam’s increasing influence in the social and political spheres has a corrosive effect on the ideals and institutions associated with secularism and democracy. There are outcries of displeasure and protest on social media whenever it is perceived that politicians are infusing and touting too much of Islamic ethics into Turkish society. I remember a few years ago how women in my family reacted when an AK party representative made a religiously inspired public statement, in which he said that Turkish women should mind how loudly they laugh in public. After the statement Facebook was flooded with images of women exuberantly laughing in public.

On the other hand there are many Turks who strive to be devout Muslims, looking to Islam to guide them through ethical choices and their way of life. This makes for considerable differences between them and the Turks who posted those photos of laughing women on Facebook. The more religious Turks have looked at the forces of secularism with derision and distrust. They think secularist forces in Turkey since the founding of the republic in 1924 have been aggressive and discriminatory towards the free and wide-ranging expression of religious belief and activity, especially in regards to the possibilities of Islam informing the ideas and projects of a political party. For a good number of them the reign of the AK party for at least the last decade has thankfully been of needed help to quell the tide of harsh secularity.

I’m inclined to think that certain aspects of Turkish secularity have been aggressive and unjust towards the flourishing of Islamic practice, as well as Islam’s influence on society. This probable fact, along with the fact that secularism and secular Turks have had more power and sway historically in Turkish society, may be why the AK party has enjoyed such a long reign and support as they have. Scholars have noted that secularism as it is in America is distinct from secularism as it is in France. Overall the US is a secular society that encourages and supports a profusion of different religious expressions and beliefs in public. France is quite the different story, and perhaps because Turkey has strived to emulate the French variant of secularism it is experiencing these enduring conflicts about religion and politics.

Islam and Muslims among Arabs

Islam and being Muslim in the Middle East is quite different to Islam and being Muslim in Eastern European countries like Kosovo and Turkey. For example, the Persian Gulf is home to the most conservative and austere forms of Islam in the world. Gulf citizens highly affiliate themselves with being Muslim. They see Islam as a primary source unto which societal values and norms should be based. For each of the five daily prayers you will find a considerable amount of men congregating and praying in mosques. I base these observations after having lived in the Sultanate of Oman since 2013, a country in the Gulf which contains the features described above, but is relatively more liberal than Saudi Arabia, which enforces austere adherence towards its’ brand of Islam in public.

In regards to the Arab world in general the first point to make is that many citizens of Arab countries, like Turks in Turkey, aren’t that religious. Many of them have striven for political and economic reform in their countries: the civil unrest of the Arab Spring brought that out as clear as day. This liberal, often irreligious and secular contingent of people in Arab countries face opposition from many staunch Muslim and authoritarian-minded folks who dwell in their midst. I often hear people of this ilk deride principles like freedom, human rights, and democracy, as if these ideas were a sham or undesirable because they clash with their own beliefs. Part of the anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment among some Arabs may have less to do with what values they actually hold, and more to do with historical conflicts between Arabs and the West.

There are obviously differences between Arab culture and Islam as it is in the Persian Gulf, and Arab culture and Islam as it is in other Arab countries. But there are cross-national influences that shape many Arabs’ mindsets worldwide. First among them is the pan-Arab awareness that Islam has been quite the strong force on this world ever since it started 1400 years ago. The ascendency of Islamic and Arab empires in history, and the civilizations and cultures that flourished along with them, is a primary wellspring unto which a sense of Arab and Muslim pride comes from.

More recent history is testament to a diminishing of that cherished legacy and status. Turks ruled Arab lands for hundreds of years, but that experience isn’t so sour in Arab minds because they share a common allegiance with the Turks to Islam, and other cultural similarities as well. As the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey, and Turks embraced a more secular and Western identity, there was unease among Arabs that Turks didn’t want to take Islam as seriously as they did before. This is why admiration for Tayyip Recep Erdogan is resoundingly high among Arabs. It’s not only Erdogan’s brand of an Islamic injection into Turkish society that pleases many of them. It’s also how his authoritarian tendencies parallel well with other authoritarian leaders that some Arabs revere.

Over the centuries, especially with events like the American and French Revolutions, and the prevalence of democratic norms in Western societies, many Westerners have become critical of one-man rule. Many Arabs still like it. But the popularity of a strongman leader who gets things done while protecting and uniting his people also has to do with the feeling that foreigners, in this case Westerners, have humiliated and defeated Arabs in recent history. Colonialism in places like Algeria by France, and the drawing of borders after World War I by Western powers in Arab lands, are the sources of this humiliation and defeat.

Leaders like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi represent a force of strong resistance to foreign powers, and act as upholders and preservers of what has made the Arab peoples so great throughout history. They protect Arabs from further humiliation and defeat while also exuding an aura of pan-Arab strength. But when I think about how much armed conflict, sectarian/tribal division, Islamic fundamentalism, and political/economic disarray continually plagues the Arab world, I hope that more of their citizens will critically reflect on what it is about their societies that keeps them under the heavy sway of these plagues.

One of the main issues that Arab (and other Muslim-majority countries) countries face is in regards to establishing and adhering to norms associated with the democratic discourse that takes place within civil and political society. People in the countries of the Arab Spring certainly fought for democracy, but in a country like Egypt, when it came time for engaging in the democratic process of electing new leaders, their was sufficient public support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and their success disappointed secularists and liberals to the extent that they looked to the military to take back the reigns of power in 2013. There is a sore lack of democracy in Egypt not because religiously inspired groups compete for political power, but because they and their opponents don’t compete, compromise, negotiate, or engage in discourse democratically. As the Middle East analyst William McCants poignantly points out, regardless of which political parties Egyptians support, each wants the other to be locked up or legally prohibited from spreading their ideas. McCants says that liberal reformers in Egypt are willing to overlook the excesses of leaders like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as long as they claim to promote Islamic reform and suppress Muslim activists and political parties. “This is not liberalism” McCants says, “this is intolerance dressed up as liberalism”.