memories of repression among many proud, nationalistic Turks.
Another traditional symbol of Turkey, the white-robed Whirling Dervishes and their 700-year-old mystical Sufi brand of Islam, conjure up different responses, evoking a confused mix of suspicion and admiration.
Welcome to Turkey, physically split between Europe and Asia by the Bosphorus Strait which now hosts expensive real estate along its shores amid seafood restaurants, a modern art museum, and lovingly restored mansions.
This East-meets-West crossroads hopes to join the European Union. Turkey’s new generation is becoming increasingly hip and globalized. Islam competes to survive. Young foreign tourists boast to awe-struck Turks about beer bongs and Western girls, but someone discreetly clicks off the radio’s rock music when the neighborhood mosque’s muezzin calls faithful Muslims to prayer via minaret-mounted electric loudspeakers.
The Ottoman Empire and its ruling, turbaned, Muslim sultans are frequently condemned as exploitative oppressors, defeated by independence fighters led by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk who created modern Turkey in 1923.
Ataturk’s secularist cultural revolution banned the fez, the Whirling Dervishes, and other behavior he perceived as Islamic fundamentalism, backward rituals, and other hurdles to liberation. Today, belly-dancers and less risqué entertainers add "Ottoman cuisine" to their live shows, to attract tourists.
Hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops include the title "sultan" in their name to create a bit of exoticism. But a simmering bloody struggle, between Islamists and secularists, vexes Turkish society and often kills people on both sides.
Perceived as pro-Western by Muslim militants, and definitely not wearing fezzes, Turkey’s minority Christians seem often in the crossfire– especially in areas far removed from major cities such as Istanbul. "We need peace more than anything at the moment and prayers," said Isa Dogdu, a theological teacher at the Syrian Orthodox Church in the medieval city of Midyat, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) north of Silopi a border town near Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
His church is the main denomination of local Christians, also known as ‘Syriac people,’ a reference to the dialect they speak. It has close ties with roughly 750,000 fellow believers across the border in Iraq who mainly belong to the Assyrian Church of the East with its spiritual centre in Nineveh, now Mosul, where the Bible says Prophet Jonah brought the message of repentance.
They speak Syriac, based on the Aramaic language which Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken. But it’s not a tradition that has been welcomed by Islamic groups fighting against what they see as the growing influence of "Christian" America and "secularism" in the region.
In the last decade up to 30 Christians, including some women and children, were murdered in Turkey’s border region, local Christians told BosNewsLife. Other families have been threatened by a variety of Islamic groups, including the radical ‘PKK’-group that is fighting for an independent Kurdistan in Turkey and Northern Iraq, BosNewsLife established.
In addition Christians have been threatened and attacked by the militant Hizbullah organization, which fought the PKK, as well as village guards and Turkish security forces.
"Christian families stood often accused of aiding the PKK by providing shelter and food to them. But they had no other choice, as these PKK fighters also threatened them. It was a no-win situation," said a source requesting anonymity. The Turkish authorities have promised to improve religious and human rights as they prepare to negotiate the country’s efforts to join the EU within the next few years.
Amid the religious violence, courts rejecting Islamic extremism, barred women wearing Muslim headscarves in public schools and government offices. Surprisingly, the fez is now legal, but the fuss continues over this hat, which is apparently despised by most Turks.
"During the Ottoman Empire, the fez was worn by fundamentalist Muslims who were against democracy and Turkey as a republic," said businessman Mehmet Dasdeler in an interview in Goreme, in the heart of Turkey, 750 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.
"In 1925, Ataturk made a decree for people not to wear a fez. He changed our habits. Ataturk made all sorts of modern reforms," Dasdeler said. But the arrival of capitalism changed attititudes, especially in well-known tourist areas, he suggested.
"In the last three or four years, money has changed people’s ideals," and new fezzes — made of cheap, bright-red velveteen — are popular souvenirs on sale throughout Turkey for about five US dollars.
An old, genuine, dark maroon fez, with a worn inner leather headband and three tiny air holes on top, could be purchased for about 50 US dollars in a Goreme antique shop. "No one is wearing a fez in all of Turkey. It has become stupid, silly. It’s like an old memory," Dasdeler said.
Rasheed, an office worker in Istanbul’s old Sultan Ahmet neighborhood, agreed. "You see the fez worn in some restaurants or places for tourists. But if you ask Turks, some are very sensitive about it, because they think the West looks at Turkey as an old country, where people still wear the fez and who are not modern," Rasheed said.
"Actually, I don’t like it when someone asks me about the fez. Turkey is not like that anymore," Rasheed said, becoming annoyed. "During the Ottomans, the fez was mostly for people in the big cities who worked in the government, or the rich people," Rasheed’s office colleague, Hassan, chimed in.
On trendy Akbiyik Street, Fez Travel uses the hat as its logo, plastered on tour buses and brochures. "It is an easy symbol for tourists to recognize, and easy to say ‘fez,’ but actually it is still a problem for Turkey because of this whole thing about how the West looks at us, and how the European Union doesn’t want us to join," Hassan added.
"We also don’t understand why today in Hollywood, when you make a movie, you still show the people wearing a fez." Cemeteries at some mosques display old tombstones topped by a chiseled fez, identifying the deceased as member of the Ottoman elite. Whirling Dervishes suffered a different fate.
After Ataturk died in 1938, Turkey allowed public performances accompanied by music, including by the fabled Galata Mevlevi group. Most Dervishes are men. Women may whirl, but usually in a separate room. Twirling individually while circling in a room — representing planets revolving while orbiting the sun — Dervishes imagine a rapturous unity with Allah.
Poetry by 13th century Sufi mystic Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who founded the Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes in central Turkey, is surprisingly popular among Americans and other foreigners enthralled by Rumi’s words of love.
Rumi’s major work, The Masnavi, also describes ancient "tyrannical" Jewish kings exterminating Christians, and the Almighty punishing "evil" Jews. Counter-clockwise whirling dissolves the ego and creates "an intoxication of the soul…mercy, offering consolation to those under tyranny," Rumi’s Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes said in a written statement before a performance in Istanbul.
A Dervish’s extremely tall, conical, honey-colored, wool or camel-hair fez, "symbolizes a tombstone of the ego," the Mevlevis said. A discarded black cloak represents the ego’s "tomb." The billowing white robe is the ego’s "shroud." "Be like me and know. Whether in light or darkness, until you have been like this, you can’t completely know love," the Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes said.
Osama bin Laden and his fellow Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Muslims condemn Sufis as liberal, pacifist deviant Muslims. "I have some Turkish friends who are Whirling Dervishes, but they are doing it in performances for money. I don’t know anyone doing it to get clean inside. They are just doing it as a job," said Dasdeler.
"There are not many Sufis in Turkey. There are more Sufis in America. Those [Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervish] guys in Istanbul are real. They are Sufis. "But when you become a Sufi, you have to give up your business and be clean about everything. You don’t work for money, you work for God [Allah]." (BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos in Midyat and Silopi contributed to the story.)
(Award-winning reporter, photojournalist and author Richard S. Ehrlich has covered Asia for 27 years for a variety of media, including as staff correspondent for United Press International from 1978 to 1984, based in Hong Kong and New Delhi. He also co-authored the non-fiction best seller "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" — Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. The book, reviewed by Time magazine and other leading publications, looks beyond the red light of Thailand’s nightlife, and gives a rare insight in the often tragic and difficult relationships between prostitutes and their clients. Ehrlich, who was born in the US and is currently based in Bangkok, received the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Foreign Correspondent’s Award in 1978. He speaks some Mandarin, Hindustani, Urdu, Thai, Spanish and French. Ehrlich can be reached for assignments and/or more information via website: http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent/news.html )