DURING THE LAST FEW YEARS, I have become fascinated with race and identity, particularly how identities are constructed and sustained. It seems that these processes involve some sort of negotiation between the expectations and assumptions that a society brings to different identity markers, and the degree to which individuals either embrace or reject them. Individual identity formation happens, I think, when these two forces (society and the individual) collide.
My interest in identity is one of the major motivators of my trip to Turkey, as it will allow me to engage with and confront my own preconceptions about the Muslim world, and its preconceptions about America. This seems especially appropriate and timely, considering the degree to which our relation with Muslim nations plays into our international dialogue (consider, for example, President Obama’s April 2009 visit to Turkey, during which he said to the Turkish Grand National Assembly that “our [the United States] partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.” In a time when the West grapples with the problems of religious extremism and fundamentalism, two international conflicts in the Middle East, the travails of our previous president and his abominable foreign policy and politics of fear, and continued tension in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I believe it is critical to examine how Americans relate to the Muslim world, to build bridges of understanding, to avoid provincialism and ethnocentrism.
Unfortunately, I think many of us in the West have unfair prejudices toward people of Islamic faith. Further, I think that these prejudices actually exacerbate the horrors of religious extremism and further divide people across the globe. That is not to say, however, that I mean to be some sort of apologist for Islam; I happen to find many religions inherently divisive and generally restricting, if not oppressive. But I also recognize the destructiveness of essentialization and blanket mentality, which are often just as bad. I think what I am trying to get at here is the notion of intersectionality, the idea that the world is comprised of multifarious and multi-dimensional variables which contribute to identity (gender, race, class, religion, etc.), and that we must delicately navigate these variables in our assessment of the world. It is this idea which unlocks a more thorough perspective on the tricky issue of how I view Islam; on the one hand, I can criticize the oppressions it shares with many other religions, and on the other hand I can defend the millions of peaceful Muslims who suffer from the single-minded and absolutist mentality of hatred and misrepresentation held by some in the West.
This latter mentality, I must say, is one that I have tasted rather strongly in the past few months, as I have told people of my plans to study in Turkey. Many people have showered me in questions like Why do you want to study there?, and know-it-all comments like Don’t steal anything; they’ll shoot you over there for that!, Don’t become a Muslim!, and so on. Of course, these questions and comments demonstrate the great misunderstanding that some people in the West have for Turkey, particularly that 1) Turkey is a democratic constitutional republic with a strong secular tradition and tolerant laws, 2) it is a gem of international history and culture, containing in its borders more Greek and Roman ruins than either Greece or Italy, and 3) that Turkey is a founding member of NATO and has been an important United States ally for decades.
Now, I do not rattle off these comments to sound supercilious, and certainly not to claim that Turkey is some sort of standard of excellence for the world, but simply because I think it is important for people to know these things. Because I am interested in identity and how people confront difference, I like to interrogate the reactions that people have given me to my decision. The trend I noticed is that those people who gave a negative reaction seemed to possess the generalizing, blanket mentality I mentioned earlier. To those people, that is, the Middle East and Muslims represent a distinct Other, a unified Them to contrast the almighty Us, against which the virtues of the West are illuminated (you might wish to explore this idea further in Edward Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism). Under this mentality, all of the Middle East and all of Islam are equated with danger and fear. The trouble with this mentality is that it perpetuates patent untruths and raises the tensions between cultures, and gives (shoddy) justification to unjust enterprises like preemptive war and discrimination.
Of course, this mentality and distrust has been around for many years. For a particularly poignant example which links directly to Istanbul, let us consider Henry Otis Dwight’s ethnocentric assessment of the city in his rather xenophobic 1901 book, Constantinople and its Problems: its people, customs, religions, and progress. He writes, “Why are the positions of trust, and of manual skill and financial responsibility in a Mohammedan [Muslim] country not filled by Mohhammedans? Why is there an incompleteness in the Mohammedan’s equipment for life which is more notable than that of the Christian or Jew brought up under the same environment?” (50) Dwight also makes the claim that “…from the beginning of Turkish history very many of the greatest men of the Empire have been of Christian origin – men who took Mohammedan names and the Mohammedan religion as stepping stones to greatness” (50), and that “Rarely does a wealthy Turk venture to keep up an establishment without a Christian man to manage his accounts. A Mohammedan banking house is almost unthinkable” (50). I find these remarks absorbingly fascinating (if disheartening), as they are an earlier parallel of the distrust and marginalization of the Middle East which we see today.
All that being said, I have also received a number of very positive reactions, and many of those closest to me have been very encouraging. Additionally, I do not mean at all to suggest that everyone is ethnocentric or closed-minded; indeed, that would be an equally-dangerous generalization. Ultimately, my time in Turkey will provide a vast intellectual workspace for contemplating these issues, and I expect that experience to be rewarding. I apologize if this post is too long or circuitous, but I really wanted to put some thoughts down concerning these topics before I head east. Expect many more posts on this subject, especially once I arrive in Istanbul.