I was in Istanbul and Anatolia (Asian Turkey) the last week of May. The call to prayer five times a day was a constant reminder of why I undertook the journey. “Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar.” “Allah is Great, Allah is Great. … Hasten to the prayer. Hasten to the prayer.”
At first, the pervasive call to prayer seemed intrusive, but after a few days, as I entered into the rhythm of the day and became better acquainted with the Muslim faith and the gracious, hospitable Turkish people, I found the chant soothing and prayerful.
I was fortunate to be among 12 religious leaders, Christians, Jews and Muslims, from Seattle who journeyed for 10 days on an intercultural, interfaith immersion trip, sponsored and paid for by the local Acacia Foundation.
We uniformly agreed that the Islamic faith in Turkey was vital, liberating and integral to modern Turkey. It’s a contrast to the rest of the Middle East, especially those countries where the fundamentalist version, Wahhabism, arising out of Saudi Arabia, dominates. True Muslims believe in peace and justice, not in terror.
I was in Turkey once before, in 1972, on a biblical tour, following the footsteps of St. Paul. At that time, agriculture in some remote regions of Central Anatolia depended on oxen, donkeys and horse-drawn carts. We frequently saw nomads lumbering along on camels. I recall seeing an ox latched to a center pole, walking in a circle, and stomping the grain to break the seed head from the straw. In another locale, I saw a farmer tossing the straw into the wind so that it blew to the outer circle, leaving only the grain in the center. I was in a time warp. It could just as well have been A.D. 172 as 1972.
Thirty-six years later, modern Turkey is booming. Building cranes are more pervasive than those in downtown Seattle. The new wealth of the Anatolian Tiger animates education, reforestation of the land, modern highways and vigorous trade.
In Istanbul, we visited a new university campus of 8,000 students, which sprang up only 14 years ago. It offers a choice between all classes in English or all classes in Turkish. Interestingly, its tuition is $10,000 a year for Turks and $5,000 for international students. The differential reveals Turkey’s keen interest in becoming a center of global exchange and understanding.
We saw a few beggars in Istanbul, but the homeless, if they exist, were not visible to us. Our Turkish hosts, most of whom had completed college degrees in the U.S., said, “Tight family ties and the Muslim faith mean that no one is left out. We don’t have homeless like Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle would have.” The Prophet Muhammad said, “One who sleeps while their neighbor is hungry is not one of us.”
Though Turkey is a constitutionally secular society, it supports the Muslim faith by building mosques and paying the salaries of the Imams. Out of a total population of 70 million, it has only 100,000 Christians and 25,000 Jews. (MORE)
The Rev. Patrick Howell, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry at Seattle University.