Safe and welcome as an American in Istanbul
Euphrates' Redding Chapter co-leader, Paul Gans, was vacationing in Turkey with family and friends and had flown out of the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul less than 48 hours before the terrorist attack that left over 40 people dead. He shares his impressions of his visit in this blog.My first thought when I heard about the attack on the airport was sadness... sadness for the loss of life, of course, but also sadness for the reinforced Western perception that Turkey isn't safe. It is! In fact, I had been very impressed by security at the airport and all over Istanbul; it was vigilant, but not oppressive. I felt like they had gotten it exactly right. And yet, in spite of their precautions, they were attacked anyway. I wanted to cry out, "They're trying so hard. They're doing so well. Give 'em a break!" I felt safe the whole time in Turkey and yet I knew this incident will give people an excuse not to go there, impoverishing themselves via "opportunity loss" and the many Turks who rely on tourism for their livelihoods.Security aside, Istanbul is working hard to appeal to visitors. Upon driving into the city for the first time, I was struck by the work done by the government to create a favorable impression. A veritable forest of trees have been planted on both sides of the freeway. In a couple of decades, it will be like driving through the Avenue of the Giants. Additionally, freeway cuts are landscaped with neatly mowed lawns and beautiful flowers in exquisite designs. No donkeys. No dust. So much for Third World squalor!Approaching downtown you find a clean, bustling city, beautiful and huge. (If you rate cities by the populations in their city limits rather than in their metropolitan areas, Istanbul at 14 million is the seventh largest in the world.) The Bosphorus Strait – the narrow body of water separating Europe from Asia – is a marvel. One hundred percent of traffic between the Black Sea and the outside world must pass through this strait, creating a chokepoint that has figured prominently in world history. The strait appears to be easily swimmable, but there are currents that complicate the issue. The Black Sea is higher and less saline than the Aegean. Consequently a swift surface current flows south (out of the Black Sea), while below the surface, a denser, saltier current flows north. Add the 24/7 bustle of ship traffic, and swimming the strait began to look like a bad idea.It's clear that Istanbul is a predominantly Muslim city. Five times a day minarets all over town issue their calls to prayer at ear-splitting volumes. Banners proclaim the holy month of Ramadan, and most of the locals seem to observe the holiday, fasting from sunrise to sunset every day for a month. Each evening at sunset, it was fascinating to see the city come alive with whole families out very late eating, walking the streets and sitting in cafes. Istanbul may be Muslim, but, thanks to Ataturk, since the mid 1920’s Turkey has been resolutely secular. In 1924 Ataturk abolished Sharia courts and, with this proclamation, "The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past," he also abolished the caliphate! (A caliphate vests supreme political power with the church hierarchy. ISIS has declared itself a caliphate.) Ataturk also encouraged people to wear western style clothing, even to the point of banning fezzes! Women were emancipated with equal civil and political rights, and they were encouraged to dress like their western counterparts. Ataturk also scrapped the Arabic style of writing. The Turkish language would henceforth be written with Latin letters, left to right. He also expunged a host of Arabic and Persian words that had entered the lexicon, replacing them with words of Turkish origin. Hundreds of new schools were built, and education was free and compulsory. George Washington aside, I wonder if a political leader has ever done as much for his country.I would be remiss not to comment on the many extraordinary sights there are to see in Istanbul. Like everywhere, its present has been shaped by its past, but Istanbul's past is amazing. In 330 AD Constantine designated Istanbul (nee Constantinople) as capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It continued as head of the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when the Ottomans replaced Christianity with Islam. The famous Hagia Sophia serves a useful historical template for all of Istanbul. This magnificent cathedral was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537! For nearly 900 years It served as one of the most important churches in Christendom, but one of the first acts of the Ottoman Mehmet II was to convert it into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk secularized the edifice and made it a museum, which it remains today.
Unfortunately, I think this pro-Western zeitgeist is something we Westerners are largely unaware of. I was astonished at the affection rained down on us. Unfeigned smiles, shouts of "I love America!", people wanting to speak English, to find out where we lived, to tell us about their relative who lived in the U.S., to ask about the Golden State Warriors or Donald Trump. One of our party became ill, and a Turk left work and escorted him to a pharmacy. Like prom queens, we may be unaware of all this adulation, but it's not lost on the rest of the Muslim world. It is a source of deep rancor within ISIS, and it is one reason for the many terrorist attacks inflicted on Turkey. I would like to see us embrace Turkey as a model for what the Muslim world could become. We should consider the $3 billion a year we send to Israel and start giving much-needed support to Turkey. In the meantime you can all do your part by going there!