Turkey is secular, but really now…

I am not an expert on Turkey and I know that. However, I have been to Istanbul twice and, on one occasion, had a chance to talk to some pretty well informed people — Muslims and Christians — about the situation there.

Here is what I heard, basically. Turkey retains its pride in its secular approach to life and government. However, the overwhelming reality is that more traditional forms of Islam are growing in influence and power. This creates tensions which are easy to see. Enter “Turkey” and “headscarf” into Google and see for yourself.

So the secularism is on the surface and, from time to time, this leads to trouble with religious minorities that struggle in what is actually an overwhelmingly Muslim culture, with its own unique history. Ask the Armenians. Ask the Eastern Orthodox bishops associated with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Tensions also exist with other minorities who clash with the cultural norms.

This brings us to a Washington Post story that ran the other day under this headline: “Dissident Iranians find refuge in Turkey.” While the story deals with several issues that are driving people out of Iran and into Turkey, the emphasis is on the plight of Iranian gays and lesbians and, to a lesser degree, feminists. Here is a sample passage:

Clutching his cellphone, his main link to the country he fled to escape arrest late last year, Hamid Safari walked past storefronts in the southern Turkish city of Isparta. Alternately playing back downloaded images of Iranian street protests and songs by Madonna and Beyonce, he ignored the curious stares of passing Turks. His long, flowing hair and well-groomed eyebrows are telltale signs of gay men in Iran.

“I try to blend in,” said Safari, 25. “But there is only so much I can do to avoid notice.”

One of 1,356 Iranian refugees who have fled into Turkey since June, Safari is seeking asylum overseas. Some have paid smugglers $1,500 or more to spirit them out of Iran; others risk arrest and deportation by attempting to cross directly into Western Europe. Still others, like Safari, arrive at the Turkish border and hope for the best — Turkey is one of the few nations not to require an entry visa for Iranian citizens.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, oppression of gays has intensified, according to human rights groups. Many gay refugees here, including several who have been lashed by authorities for their sexuality, said they never labored under the illusion that Ahmadinejad’s rivals would support their cause. But they saw a change in leadership as part of a longer-term solution.

Some basic questions come to mind, start with this rather simple one: What was the basis of the persecution in Islamic Iran and how is that linked to the tensions — even if they are milder — in “secular” Turkey?

Clearly there is more to this than religion, but it is hard to imagine that religion plays no role in this story.

So, here is what you do. Take this Post report and put it in the word processor of your choice. Here is what happened when I did this.

Search for “Sharia” — no results found.

Search for “Islam” — no results found.

Search for “Muslim” — no results found.

I would have thought that religion played a role in this story, after discussing some of these issues with people on the ground in Istanbul. I guess I was wrong. I guess I was seeing a ghost or, even, more than one.

PHOTO: The poster was produced by Mike Tidmas, a gay artist in Amsterdam as part of a campaign against Iran’s crackdown on gays.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    And, of course, to include/contrast the Shi’a and Sunni views on the GLBT community is too much to ask.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Right. We’re starting at the point where we have to say the issue matters at all, in terms of doctrinal content and then its impact on the larger culture.

    Good point.

  • dalea

    I used ‘Gay’ and ‘Turkey’. The first link explained:

    The age of consent in Turkey is 18. There are no articles on homosexuality in the law but vague references to public morals and public order. The police has the legal right to take anyone who looks suspicious to the police station for interrogation. The general crime level in big cities is among the lowest in Europe. Nine milliion tourists are expected to visit the country in 1996.

    and this for context:

    Homosexuality was a rooted tradition in the era of Ottoman Empire which lasted more than five centuries. It is known that some of the sultans had homosexual affairs and public Turkish baths (hammams) were the common meeting place among men. There were poets and musicians who were known to be homosexual. These traditions lost their power with the westernization of Turkey which came with the establishment of the Republic in 1923. But there is a general acceptance towards effeminate male entertainers. For example the most famous Turkish classical singer Zeki Muren is a latent, extremely flamboyant gay person, and has been so since 1950′s or Bülent Ersoy, who is a very popular and has multi-million selling albums although being a transexual.Turkey has a macho culture, and this is reflected in gay attitudes: Traditionally, gays are divided into the active (laco) and the passive (lubunya). However a more recent and a more westernized culture is beginning to gain ground where no categorization is felt necessary.



    Modern Turkey is sourced back to a distinct year, 1923, when the charismatic and powerful military leader Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ (center. in photo) declared the country to be an independent country. He led his troops to victory against the occupying Europeans. Within ten years Ataturk had infused his lethargic agrarian homeland with progressive modern ideas, values and standards.

    Women were given education and the right to vote, the fez hat was outlawed, and the old Arabic alphabet was swept out and replaced with the Latin alphabet (used in most the western languages). Respect for ‘humanism’ and individual differences was prized along with a regard for advanced science and technology.

    It was Ataturk who was mostly responsible for separating Islam and state in Turkey. In doing so he softened the suffocating religious pale over legal and state affairs. Indirectly, it also lifted a curse over homosexual truth. By dissolving the fierce authority of Islam, same-sex desire became a cultural and secular consideration, not a religious matter. Rule of law replaced inconsistently administered moral religious codes–and that has made all the difference for the (slow and gradual) emergence of today’s lesbigay community.

    Not that Turkey has become a Holland of the south. Being gay here is still a shadow identity. But in recent generations, building on Ataturk’s original humanism, there’s been a persistent gay subculture making its voice heard. Mainstream culture is slowly realizing that gay men are not necessarily effeminate outcasts; many high positions in society, commerce, politics and media are competently occupied by gays and lesbians without their being overtly identified.

  • str


    “And, of course, to include/contrast the Shi’a and Sunni views on the GLBT community is too much to ask.”

    Are there?

    And if there are, why restrict this to a simplifying dichotomy when there are various schools of Sunni Islam and very many, disparata Shiite groups?

    Or did you merely ask that the Muslim view on homosexuality should be included?

  • Jerry


    There are many ‘fatwas’ on the subject including one in Iran that being transgender is OK. But you’re right about the disparate and conflicting opinions. In this case, though, I think the majority religious views in Iran and Turkey should have been mentioned.