In May 2006 I was one of twelve Americans — assorted Christians and an “unaffiliated” couple — who visited Turkey at the invitation of a group of Turkish Muslims who now live and work in the United States.* Accompanied by host-guides we journeyed through Western Turkey, taking in historical and Biblical sites and, in the interest of expanding mutual understanding and appreciation, meeting with business people, students and educators, writers, media people, religious leaders, and Turkish families. What a trip! Turkey, most scholars agree, is the world’s largest open-air museum, and the Turks are a warm, hospitable people who welcome guests with great generosity. With a population reported to be 99.1% Muslim and a secular government dedicated to the separation of mosque and state, Turkey is an ideal place to explore interfaith, intercultural understanding.
*This venture was entirely underwritten by business people in Turkey and volunteers with Global Cultural Connections in Southern California and the Acacia Foundation in the Seattle area. These sister organizations have a worthy ultimate aim: world peace through peaceful means. More about Global Cultural Connections can be found at www.gccfoundation.com.
The itinerary gave our group every reason to anticipate an interesting and very busy ten days, beginning with extensive sightseeing and visits in Istanbul, the only city that sits astride two continents, Europe and Asia. Over the centuries it has been the chief city of three major empires: the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. Ottoman sultans expended tremendous effort to preserve the architectural gems of the city, and still today significant historical and architectural monuments of Rome and Byzantium stand next to the very best works of the Islamic age and the modern edifices of Turkey’s contemporary secular state.
Our first day in Istanbul began with a meeting with Monsignor Georges Marovitch, Vatican representative in Turkey. The reception given to us and our Muslim guides was genuinely warm and the mutual respect and friendship was obvious. The visit brought to mind words spoken a few years earlier by the Minister of Culture for Turkey, Istemihan Talay, during a tribute to the late Pope John XXIII who, prior to becoming Pope, served as the Vatican’s representative in Turkey for ten years. A strong bond developed between him and the Turkish people which carried on after he became Pope. In his tribute Mr. Talay remarked, “What a joy it is to be able to meet, respecting our different creeds, to try and create a world of love and set an example for mankind!” In our meeting we found that same joyful respect, a joy which prevailed throughout our entire stay in Turkey.
Istanbul presented us with no end of memories to savor. One incident particularly touched my heart. One afternoon while we were visiting a beautiful park atop one of Istanbul’s seven hills, a group of picnicking women and children, seeing that we were foreigners, spontaneously came over, embraced us warmly, and invited us to share their desserts.
It is said that wherever there is a patch of grass in Istanbul, you will find Turks picnicking on it. These gracious Turks shared their fare with us. (Photo courtesy of Rev. Ginny Wagener)
Memorable too were delicious dinners and thoughtful conversation with Turkish families in their homes, and tea at the headquarters of the Journalists and Writers Foundation. This organization hosts a think-tank known as the Abant Platform, composed of Turkish academicians and other intellectuals who meet annually to tackle the country’s most complicated problems. These meetings offer Turkey’s thinkers from the left, right, or outside of the spectrum, a forum for free study of ideas. Bravely selected topics and impressive participant profiles assure that their declarations are received with great interest. Recognizing that problems of people today have human-spiritual dimensions rather than simply economic and material aspects, members of the Journalists and Writers Foundation facilitate an Intercultural Dialogue Platform bringing together leaders of various monotheistic faiths.
After three whirlwind days in Istanbul, we flew to Izmir and embarked on a bus excursion through middle Turkey. Journeying in ancient Biblical lands where much Christian history took place would be significant to any Christian. But to visit such places in the company of exceedingly gracious hosts, all devout Muslims with a loving respect for our shared Christian heritage, enhanced the intensely spiritual dimension of the experience. Imagine walking the streets of Ephesus, sitting in the amphitheater where Paul preached in the first century CE. I recalled Paul’s letter to the Ephesians written while he was imprisoned in Rome: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”; “Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love . . .” (Eph 4:1-3, 5:1, 2). How meaningful it was for Christians to experience that ancient exhortation graciously fulfilled by our Muslim hosts! Before returning to Istanbul, we took in many other sites, including Konya, home of the Mevlana Museum, the Whirling Dervishes, and the tomb of the revered Sufi mystic, Rumi.
A particularly enlightening aspect of our experience is an awareness of the world-class schools established through the encouragement of a dedicated Muslim educator, M. Fethullah Gulen. Turkish Islamic scholar, prolific writer, and poet, he is Honorary President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation. A humble man with considerable spiritual charisma, his particular aim has been to urge the younger generation to harmonize intellectual enlightenment with wise spirituality and a caring, humane activism. He envisions a 21st century in which we shall see the birth of a spiritual dynamic that will revitalize long-dormant moral values and bring about an age of tolerance, understanding, and international cooperation that will ultimately lead to intercultural dialogue and a sharing of values.
Academicians as well as the general Turkish public have been so moved by Mr. Gulen’s teachings that they have established, in Turkey and abroad, highly successful private schools based upon his principles. The schools serve a pluralistic student base and, rather than providing a curriculum with explicitly Islamic content, seek to communicate universal values such as honesty, hard work, harmony, and conscientious service. The strength of their programs in the sciences, informatics, and languages is shown in the accomplishments of their students in academic olympiads and by the success of many graduates in institutes of higher learning, often in the United States. We were impressed with the bright, enthusiastic youngsters we met at Gulen schools in Turkey, as well as with the caliber of the teachers, the dedication of the parents, and the generosity of the sponsors who voluntarily fund the schools.
In Turkey I experienced a peace that is regrettably very rare, a peace that is certainly beyond my usual understanding. That Western media associate so much negativity with Islam these days troubles me considerably, for my personal experience with Muslims and Islam over the years has been only uplifting. Muslim friends tell me that the word Islam in Arabic means submission and peace, and that a Muslim is one who accepts the supreme power of God. They tell me a true Muslim strives to practice the code of ethics governed by love and compassion for all God’s creatures with the intention of creating justice and harmony. Love and compassion, justice and harmony — in a word, peace.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians from his prison cell in Rome: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent and praiseworthy, think about such things . . . and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:8-9). For ten wonderful days in May I enjoyed such excellent and praiseworthy things and I found peace — thanks be to God and to my lovely Muslim friends and benefactors! Peace be with them! Insha’a-Allah!
(From Sunrise magazine, Winter 2007; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)