The ratio of women in headscarves and those in apparent ‘western’ attire must be 3:1 in Turkey. Despite their outward ‘differences’, there seemed to be no disdain. The religious tolerance was obvious and gratifying.
I was sitting on a bench in Istanbul staring at the crowded bazaar encircling the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. Scores of families were out shopping, eating and paying homage to one of Prophet’s (PBUH) companions, Abu Ayyub al Ansari.
Some people were there just to visit the bazaars and enjoy the delicious, albeit the same kind of, food the abundant restaurants had to offer. Others, the more religious, prayed at the mosque and recited Fateha at the tomb.
Turkey is divided between the religious and the non-religious – Erdogan’s politics and the secular military. The world witnessed the unrest within the country in the shape of protests and demonstrations at Taksim Square last year. People believed that his government had ‘hijacked’ or ‘encroached upon’ secular Turkey. But Erdogan kept winning the support of people, and the protests subsided.
However, the most important lesson learnt was that the country and its people moved on. There is a clear divide, but it was only translated in politics – not culture and society.
The government did not begin a crackdown or institutionally marginalise the ‘secular’ minded, avoiding a direct clash with the military and a stratum of society.
Yes, the country is not perfect; there are issues of rights abuses vis-à-vis the Kurds, there is muzzling of the press and they have had the same people in power for over a decade.
Nevertheless, its differences and shortcomings have not stopped the country from functioning. The protests never stopped Istanbul from functioning.
The bustling metropolis is safe, tourist-friendly; it has vast open public spaces plus an efficient public transport system. It is also squeaky clean.
It appears that the dissimilarities of Istanbul are a weakness but also shows the city’s as well as the country’s strength. There are social and cultural cleavages, but the institutions have been strong enough to bear jolts and assimilate the differences for decades.
The religious/non-religious divide is present but one side does not persecute the other. There is no hate literature or derision of any sorts, despite underlying tensions. And that is how Turkey will always be, I hope.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2014.
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