Turkey at the Crossroads The Long Path to 'Avrupa'

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Part 3: 'Islamic Calvanism'


A bright yellow scrubbing machine moves back and forth across the sand-colored travertine tiles. The parade grounds in front of Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara, with a capacity of 15,000, must sparkle before soldiers, politicians and diplomats arrive. Today, a delegation from India is here to pay its respects to Atatürk, the father of the Turkish nation, who died in 1938.

The site, known as Anitkabir in Turkish, is large enough to encompass a small city. The remains of the man who invented modern Turkey have been buried here since Nov. 10, 1953. No official visitor to the Turkish capital can avoid a visit to the memorial. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Turkey in August, he traveled to Istanbul and not Ankara, to avoid having to bow in front of Atatürk's mausoleum. Throughout his lifetime, the legendary Turkish leader had nothing but contempt for Islam. He is said to have referred to the religion of Muhammad as "the absurd religious doctrine of an amoral Bedouin."

The veneration of Atatürk knows no limits in Anitkabir, which receives a constant flow of visitors from all over Turkey: men in dark suits and others in shorts, bent-over peasant women, chic urbanites who have flung a shiny "turban" over their heads and necks as a sign of their piety, and young girls in midriff-exposing tops.

The exhibit is a bizarre mixture of cult altar and Disneyland. It includes wax figures of Atatürk in formal dress and Atatürk at this desk, his complete wardrobe, from his military uniform to his gray silk pajamas, his revolver, cigarette holders, perfume flasks, hairbrushes and "Fox," his stuffed hunting dog. War panoramas with life-sized figures recreate scenes from the battles that made him a legendary figure when he was a general. The sound track blaring from the loudspeakers includes death cries and warlike chants.

The sarcophagus is at the center of the memorial, but the 40-ton block of stone is merely a solid piece of marble.

Atatürk lies buried in a crypt that is closed to the public. A camera transmits a live image from the interior of the octagonal burial chamber onto a flat-screen monitor. An information panel states that the body of this outspoken critic of religion was embalmed according to Islamic ritual and wrapped in sheets of cloth. The red marble coffin is pointed toward the Kaaba in Mecca.

Mecca lies thousands of kilometers southeast of Ankara in Saudi Arabia, and yet the dead man's entire life was oriented toward the West.

Aladdin Boulevard is a tidy street that passes through the center of Konya. The city in the Anatolian highlands was once the seat of the Seljuks, a Turkic people who began the conquest of Asia Minor in the Middle Ages. Today it is a stronghold for Islamic parties. In a recent election, more than 70 percent of the city's voters voted for Prime Minister Erdogan's AKP. Konya is nicknamed the "green capital" of Turkey, green being the color of Islam.

But while Konya's past mayors supported gender separation on public transportation and a total ban on alcohol within city limits, nowadays women with and without headscarves stroll in front of the stone Iplikçi Mosque, young couples walk hand-in-hand and roadside signs advertise shops licensed to sell beer, wine and Raki, the anise-based national brandy.

Akif Emre, a journalist with the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak (also known as afak), believes, paradoxically, that Erdogan's AKP has a moderating influence. "There is a shift in mentality," he says. "Conservative people are in the process of developing a secular lifestyle."

Vedat Yöndem, a representative of the Konya Chamber of Commerce and Industry, sits in his freshly mowed front yard, extolls similar views. "In the past, we only paid attention to ourselves, but today we look to the rest of the world. We have become more open-minded." This sentiment is supported by the experience of many small and mid-sized business owners in Anatolia, who have created their own economic miracle and now play a self-confident role in a globalized world, conducting trade with the EU, Africa and China.

Turkish industry and agriculture were dependent on the government in Ankara for decades. The country was run in a centralized way and kept isolated from the outside world. But then, in the wake of energetic reforms introduced under Prime Minister Turgut Özal, thousands of new businesses sprang up in the 1990s.

Almost overnight, sleepy provincial cities like Konya, Kayseri and Gaziantep mutated into "Anatolian tigers," suddenly proud of their mushrooming industrial zones and gleaming office towers. There is such a strong, symbiotic relationship here between business and religion that sociologists see "Islamic Calvinism" at work.

But the ordinary people have remained deeply pious. For centuries, pilgrims have been converging on Konya to visit the sarcophagus of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, the great Muslim poet and mystic, and the founder of the Dervish order. Many treat the path to the grave of the master as a minor pilgrimage, even though Islam in fact forbids the worship of holy men.

"This house is the Kaaba of lovers. The immature are made adults here." These words, written in the Persian language, are inscribed above the "Gate of the Dervishes." In the 13th century, Mevlana taught the virtues of love and tolerance, as well as humility and modesty. To break the power of the religious order, Kemal Atatürk had Mevlana's monastery turned into a museum in 1926.

The faithful fold their hands together in front of Mevlana's stone sarcophagus. Others snap a photo with their mobile phones and keep going. Thick panels of glass protect the relics, which were once owned by the brotherhood and now belong to the state. They include a golden casket containing a strand of hair from the prophet's beard and a tiny, ornately decorated Koran. There is also an even smaller Koran, "written with the eyelashes of a beautiful woman, completed after 16 years, at which point the woman became blind," a winking guide explains.

It was not until 1954 that the Turkish government allowed the Dervishes to dance again. Even today the Sufis are not permitted to mark the anniversary of Mevlana's death in their house of worship, the "tarikat evi," but only in a public gymnasium.

For Vedat Yöndem, the businessman, this is yet another example of Kemalist distrust. "But we will not be able to separate ourselves from our roots," he says, with great confidence. "No one can force us to do that."

With additional reporting by Daniel Steinvorth. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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