‘Ekmek var mı?’ It’s the title of the first unit in my old Turkish language course book, ‘Teach Yourself Turkish’. ‘Have you got any bread?’ It’s a useful structure to learn when you’re living in, or even just on holiday in a non-English-speaking country. ‘Have you got bottled water? Camera batteries? Have you got any of those little masculine or feminine essentials I am desperately in need of?’
As usual at this time of year, we are in Bodrum for our summer vacation. Bodrum is a popular getaway spot, not only for urban Turks, but also for foreigners, particularly English, who in recent years, attracted by the climate and tempting property prices, have purchased holiday houses in the area. My morning exercise is a cycle ride to the local village to buy simits for breakfast and a newspaper. The other day I was in the bakery and the baker was patiently trying to serve the gentleman in front of me who clearly knew not a word of Turkish. ‘Have you got bread?’ He was asking, in his distinctive north country accent, and the transaction continued with sign language and the baker’s limited stock of English.
My next stop was the hardware store down the road. As I was leaving, another customer entered, and I caught the beginnings of the conversation. ‘I need a pump.’ ‘Ok, but today is Sunday.’ ‘Yes, but I’m flying home tomorrow.’ The last I heard was the hardware guy getting on the telephone to a plumber trying to organise something for this foreigner who was totally dependent on his goodwill and knowledge of English.
‘So what?’ you’re saying. ‘You want to sell your product, you do what you gotta do. The customer is always right.’ But let’s just reverse the situation. A guy from Turkey goes into a shop in England, the USA or New Zealand. He can’t speak a word of English (not a single word, not even please or thank you!) but he’s got a problem, or he wants to buy a few things. How much sympathy or assistance would he get? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think, not much.
Now I don’t know much about those guys, the baker and the hardware store guy – but I suspect they are good Muslims, because in Turkey people of that class usually are. They go to the mosque to pray at least every Friday, and probably more often. They very likely fast during the month of Ramadan. They take seriously the Prophet’s requirement to show hospitality to strangers, and feel uncomfortable if they can’t give a positive response to the question, ‘What have you done for God today?’ People like this make up a large proportion of Turkey’s population, and when they cast their vote in elections, they naturally want it going to someone they feel is sympathetic to their particular world-view.
Not everyone in Turkey feels that way, however. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is almost as strong among secular middle class Turks as it is in the United States – and perhaps with more reason, considering the nearer proximity of scary neigbours given to stoning adulterers, denying a drivers’ license to women, and publicly whipping citizens for drinking a beer or other alcoholic beverage.
I have been hearing, since first coming to this country, that some of these neighbours, resentful of Turkey’s secular democracy, channel a portion of their petro-dollar wealth into undermining that hated system by, for example, paying Turkish women to wear head-scarves and even to cover themselves from head to toe in that particularly unattractive black garment that Turks call çarşaf or sheet. It may indeed be so. Despite the fact that their ruling classes love to holiday in the liberal atmosphere of Turkey’s classy urban streets and beach resorts, those Arab elites do not show much sympathy for the aspirations of their own people to greater social freedom.
Nevertheless, they are Muslims, when all’s said and done, and we might expect them to show more tangible support for Islamic brothers and sisters in other neighbouring states when the opportunity arose. The media in Western nations was greatly excited when the so-called Arab Spring that blossomed in 2011 seemed about to bring secular populist governments to power in the benighted lands of Islamic oppression. The excitement turned to dismay, however, as grass roots movements seemed in danger of installing Muslim Brotherhoods in place of previous dictatorships, particularly in Egypt, one of the larger, more powerful countries in the region.
Well, you can understand that. Western Christendom has had a fear of, and antipathy towards Islam since conquering Muslim armies spread through North Africa and into Spain from the 8th and 9th centuries. When Muslim Turkish tribes entered the region at the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE and began pushing back the boundaries of the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, the Pope in Rome felt obliged to unleash legions of crusading knights to combat them. As the Ottoman Empire grew in the Eastern Mediterranean and assumed leadership of the Islamic world, it required a determined union of previously quarrelling Christian kings and princes to turn them back from further encroachment. More recently, there’s been the business with al Qaeda and New York’s World Trade Centre, so it’s not surprising that the Muslim religion and its followers tend to get a bad press in the West.
However, I confess to some confusion when I read in my newspaper yesterday that the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were providing a $12 billion aid package to the newly installed regime in Egypt – the one taking over after the Egyptian military overthrew the supposedly Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi. According to an Associated Press correspondent reported on Yahoo News, ‘The Saudi king praised the military's move, and Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote in a commentary posted on Foreign Policy's website that "the rejection by Egyptians of their Islamist government marks a turning point — not only for that country, but for the entire Middle East." ‘
So now I’m totally confused. The West supports democracy in the Middle East region (and everywhere else, of course) as long as it doesn’t throw up elected governments sympathetic to the aims and aspirations of the predominantly Muslim populations. In that case, they prefer to support military dictatorships – which have a tendency to get out of control and start oppressing their people and attracting unwelcome attention from Western civil rights organisations, which then pressure their own governments to intervene.
Arab states with autocratic governments oppress their people with draconian shariah laws involving public floggings, executions and amputation of body parts, but are on the whole supported by Western states whose economies depend on their oil and natural gas, and their readiness to purchase military hardware.
Arab states with autocratic governments rule their people by means of hard-line Islamic clerics and shariah law, and are accused of funding groups aiming to undermine the secular integrity of democratic neighbours (especially Turkey). On the other hand, when a military dictatorship with close ties to the United States and Israel is overthrown by a popular uprising, and the people show a willingness to elect a government with Muslim sympathies, they give no support. On the contrary, they provide financial aid to ensure the success of a regime imposed by another military coup.
Make what you will of that! And when you’ve finished, answer the following questions:
Who loves who?
Who hates what?
Who are the real Muslims?