In May 2007, I received an invitation from the Rumi Forum, to spend one week in Turkey between the 7th and 14th of August. Within one week I acquired new solid friendships with a number of respected colleagues who came from different academic locations in the United States. Their religious beliefs and world perspectives were also diverse. Nonetheless, it was not difficult to find a common ground with them and to build a common language, whose vocabulary centered upon the terminology of peace and tolerance. Bringing people from various backgrounds together is undoubtedly a remarkable success that has to be attributed to the Rumi Forum; a foundation I knew about through a prominent Middle East historian at Georgetown University, who herself joined that marvelous excursion.
This terrific trip offered me an opportunity to reexamine a number of prior images I had in mind about Turkey. These images were the result of three previous visits I paid to this beautiful country in 1993, 1994, and 1998 respectively. Although I was not totally alien to Turkey, I felt myself standing in a qualitatively different place when I arrived in Istanbul International Airport in the morning of August the 7th. The expansion and excellent maintenance of the airport facilities were in and of themselves introductory signs of the improvement Turkey has made between 1998 and 2007.
Unlike my three preceding visits, which were limited to the charming city of Istanbul, the 2007 trip took me to unexplored Turkish sites of attraction in Bursa, Manisa, Izmir, Kayseri , Cappadocia, and Ephesus. The trip’s schedule was full of events and activities. It challenged me personally where I was driven to examine my ability to stand long hours of traveling and to check how much I could trust my legs when walking for long time was necessary. Although I went in this trip wearing a neck brace due to cervical desk problems, I succeeded both in covering long distances on roads in that grayish white minibus, and in walking uninterruptedly for miles. Not only this but I was encouraged at some point to enter into a race against Dr. Yurtsever when the visiting group arrived in Fatih University in Istanbul. While I lost the race to him, I have won the sincere brotherhood and the true friendship of a man of an excellent caliber. The awesome scenes all over the place, and the interesting dialogues I had with my newly acquired friends made time pass quite quickly.
As a social science scholar, I used to make observations wherever I go. In this particular trip, I made cross-time comparisons between Turkey of 2007 and that of 1998. In 1998, for example, I was very much confused with the use of the Turkish currency (the old Lira). It was easy back then to become a millionaire in few seconds and to become bankrupt again after few seconds. In 2007, the calculation was far more simple thanks to the insertion of the new Turkish Lira. In addition, I noticed an improvement in the environment. Between 1998 and 2007, Istanbul, for example, has had more cars and less pollution. To me this is quite an achievement. Living standards also seemed to rise. This is proven by world economic indices as well as by personal observation. To cite just one example, the conditions of the vehicles running in streets in 2007 were better off than those I observed in 1998. This indicates that the purchasing power of the Turks has made some good progress.
As a visitor with a Middle Eastern background, the most attracting aspect in Turkey was and still is its ability and desire to synthesize between Islam and Secularism. The task has never been easy or problem-free, but the people of Turkey are carrying it out peacefully and responsibly. No matter how troubled it is, I do find in the coexistence between state and religion in Turkey a great lesson from which the Arab Middle East could learn. While Turkish secularism prevents religious fanaticism from having roots in a core part of the Eurasian heartland, the average Turk’s adherence to Islamic values precludes secularism from turning Turkey into an alien state in a region known for its respect of Islamic traditions.
I was very much affected by the cordiality and hospitality of the Turkish people everywhere I went. Even in a metropolitan city like Istanbul, people were keen to meet you with a smile and offer you good part of their limited time. At the institutes we have visited, fellows of the 2007 trip were treated very much cordially and their questions were answered candidly. Turkish cordiality was shown on all participants in the few kilograms each one has added to his or her weight by the end of the trip. The Turkish kebab and dolma were particularly irresistible.
In Turkey you always face the difficulty of choosing one particular place that you could say you have liked the most. The Ottoman heritage, especially in Istanbul, has given me a great sense of historical richness. The modern and perfectly equipped schools, so called “Gulen Schools“, established by the Fethullah Gulen movement in cities like Bursa and Istanbul illustrated to me the social responsibility of capital as well as the positive contribution civil society organizations could offer to advance the cause of development. At a very personal level, I was impressed the most by Cappadocia, particularly with its historical underground city. Eighty five meters below the earth’s surface, I was able to deeply understand how fear has been driving people since immemorial to launch projects that seek protection from danger.
All in all, I have found Turkey a country of great potential. It enjoys a strategic location, it has rich and vivid culture, it possesses a growing sense of entrepreneurship, and above all it is an inspiring source for answers to many mind-boggling questions to the people of the orient.