Rabbi Steven Morgen, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, June 13, 2009
A Rabbi, an Episcopal Priest, and a Muslim Imam get on a plane. And the pilot asks them “What’s this a joke?”
Actually, for me, it wasn’t a joke. It was one of the most exciting and meaningful adventures I have had. One month ago today, I boarded a plane to go on a journey to Turkey with an Episcopal Priest, five Muslims, seven other Christians, one agnostic African-American, and one other Jewish person. In all, there were 16 people in our group, including two Egyptians (a father and daughter), three Turkish Muslims, and a politician and Lieutenant Colonel in the Texas Army National Guard who had served in Afghanistan (Rick Noriega). Each one of us in the group, though, was committed to interfaith dialog, to promoting tolerance and understanding, and to bridging the gap between our cultures, our faiths, and our communities.
The trip was organized and sponsored by two organizations. One was Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, which does a lot of interfaith social service work in our city, is the largest provider of meals on wheels, is organizing faith-based communities to respond to catastrophic events like Hurricane Ike, and also promotes a variety of interfaith learning and dialoging opportunities. The other organization is the Institute for Interfaith Dialog, which is an organization of Turkish Muslims who are inspired by the teachings of a modernist Islamic scholar, philosopher and leader named Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is a prolific writer and thinker who is the spiritual leader of an Islamic movement dedicated to interfaith dialog, peaceful coexistence, and harmonizing Islamic teachings and law with science and modernity. He was born in Turkey in 1941, but moved to the United States in 1998, settling in Pennsylvania, where he has lived ever since. The movement has established hundreds of private schools all over the world. Of course there are many of these schools in Turkey, but also in other countries with Turkish populations, as well as in many Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Egypt, and even in the United States. In fact, there are Gulen schools here in Houston. The schools promote a high academic achievement in secular studies, and also teach humanist values and ethics.
Gulen’s interfaith outreach began with people of Abrahamic traditions – Christians and Jews. He has met with a chief rabbi of Israel, among other major Jewish figures, as well as the Pope and the Christian Orthodox Patriarch, among many other Christian leaders. Recently, the movement has expanded its scope of dialog to include also Buddhist and Hindu religions – something very remarkable in the Muslim world, since these religions have traditionally been held to be pagan beliefs, not having a covenant with God.
Gulen moved to the United States for medical reasons – he suffers from diabetes and complications of that disease – but within a couple of years of moving here, he was indicted for allegedly inciting his followers to overthrow the secular Turkish government. Video tapes of some of Gulen’s lectures and sermons seemed to indicate that his members should seek positions in the judiciary, military and other government offices and await a future time when they would exert their influence to overthrow the secular government. Gulen himself says that the tapes were doctored and that he should be judged by his actions which have been focused on tolerance, interfaith dialog and peaceful coexistence. The Turkish Court unanimously acquitted Gulen in 2006 and the Turkish Supreme Court has upheld that decision. (1)
One of the things I learned about Turkey, from reading the Turkish media during and after my visit, is that there are a number of conspiracy theories – and maybe even real conspiracies – that plague the country. There is currently a widespread investigation into another group of Turkish individuals who have also allegedly plotted to overthrow the government. This group is called the Ergenekon, and it is an extreme secular nationalist gang that is still being investigated and prosecuted. There are suspicions that this group may have been involved in doctoring the evidence against Gulen. At the same time, there are supporters of Turkish secularism that have come to believe that the current Ergenekon investigation is beginning to resemble the McCarthy hearings in the United States in the 1950’s. (2)
This is probably a good time for me to describe a little about Turkish democracy. In 1923, Mustafa Ataturk founded the modern Turkish government on a radical restructuring of Turkish culture. The Turkish language had been written with the Arabic alphabet, and Ataturk changed that to a Latin script. This immediately made the Turkish population largely illiterate, but also wrenched the culture out of the Arabic sphere of influence. The secular nature of the government was also more radical than here in the United States. For all you lawyers, I could explain it by saying they have a parallel to the “Establishment” clause of the First Amendment, but no parallel to the “Free Exercise” clause. Or, in plain English, the government strictly enforces a Separation of Church and State, but the individual does not necessarily have the right to exercise his or her religious freedoms.
Surprisingly, I learned from all the Muslims on our mission – the Egyptians as well as the Turks – that Muslims are generally more free to practice their faith in THIS country than in many “Muslim” countries – that is countries with a substantial Muslim majority. In some Muslim countries, a person of Islamic faith can observe the tradition as long as it is according to the official government approved standards. In Turkey, for instance, one of the most commonly discussed restrictions on Muslim expressions of faith is that women are not allowed to cover their hair in schools or if they are in positions of government. Here in the United States, Muslim women can cover their hair if they wish to do so without any government intervention.
While we were on the Mission, I pointed out that in the Jewish Orthodox tradition, married women are also supposed to cover their hair, and for similar reasons. It is consider an issue of modesty. While modern Orthodox Jewish women may simply wear a hat, and some do not cover their hair at all – considering it a matter of cultural custom not Jewish law – the more strict Orthodox women (like my cousin’s wife) feel obliged to completely cover their hair. And, for many of them, a wig does not count – she must use a scarf. The Muslim women on our mission used very colorful and decorative scarves to cover their hair. I would say it was almost like a “fashion accessory.” They were therefore able to observe the traditional Muslim ritual in a way that they were able to assert their individual identity.
We had many discussions on our trip about the relationship between Church and State, democracy and religion, and how to strike the balance between these two important pillars of modern society, culture and government. We often have issues about the conflict between these two poles here in the United States. Every year we hear Bill O’Reilly tell us on Fox News that there is a “War on Christmas” and many in the Evangelical Christian world complain about the “secular” nature of American society. And here we have a “Free Exercise clause.” The truth is that virtually no one in this country is prohibited from doing whatever they please in observance of their religion. But we also have religious fanatics, like the recent murderer of a doctor who performed abortions.
Israel, too, has issues with how to strike the balance between religion and democracy. Israel adopted the earlier British model allowing each religion to regulate life cycle events and religious worship, for instance. Thus, Muslim authorities control Muslim holy sites (including the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, by the way, which is also a holy site for Islam). They are free to worship as they wish in mosques. You hear the Moazin (the one who calls Muslims to the Mosque for prayer services) calling out over the Public Address system in many towns and villages in Israel, just as you do in Muslim countries. And they are more or less free to deliver sermons as they please, though sometimes these sermons have bordered on incitement against the government.
But the Jewish worship services, education, and life cycle events are rigidly controlled by an Orthodox monopoly. Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot officiate at weddings that will be recognized by the government. Conservative and Reform synagogues and rabbis are not supported by the government, as are the local Orthodox synagogues. The government “religious” schools for the Jewish population are all run by Orthodox authorities. Israeli Jews thus have a limited choice of sending their children to a “secular” public school or an Orthodox Jewish public school. It is no wonder that Reform and Conservative Judaism are struggling terribly in the Jewish State. They rely almost solely on contributions from American Jews like us for their support.
I point all of this out – at least for my talk today – solely as a point of reference with which to understand similar conflicts in Turkey – about the head scarf for women, for instance. I also pointed out, though, on our Mission, that this relates to why we Jews need so desperately to have a Jewish State.
In Turkey, despite the almost militant secularism, there are still countless Mosques, many of them absolutely gorgeous and stunning, everywhere you go. You see the ubiquitous minarets everywhere you turn. You hear the Moazin calling the faithful to worship virtually anywhere in the country. A large number of women wore head scarves in the streets – because even though you cannot do so as a government employee, you can do so as a private citizen. Of course a majority of women chose not to wear head scarves. But the point is that in Turkey – and in so many Muslim countries all over the Middle East – the culture is still innately Muslim, even in a secular country like Turkey.
In Europe, the culture is still innately Christian, even while it is extremely secular. The calendar of holidays are Christian, Churches are by far the most prominent places of worship, cultural references are still infused with Christian images and symbols.
We Jews also need a place, a country – just a small little one – that is primarily influenced by Jewish cultural and religious history, symbolism, and points of reference. And Israel, for us, is that place. That is where OUR history is found – in virtually every square meter of earth – if you dig far enough – you will find evidence of our ancestors. With the highest concentration of Jews on the planet, in a country where Hebrew is the predominant official language (Arabic and English are also official languages), where every university has a Judaic studies department, where the museums all contain at least sections devoted to Jewish history and/or culture, where the television and radio stations broadcast messages or interviews with rabbis or Jewish scholars on a regular basis, ISRAEL is a FOUNTAIN of Jewish culture and religious inspiration. For all its problems, it is still the only Jewish State we have.
We also discussed a number of political topics during our mission. We met with a member of the majority party in the Turkish parliament. Right now, as you may know, a religious party is the majority party. I know for those of you hearing about Turkey for the first time that’s a bit odd: a “religious” party in a “secular” government. Let’s just say that the party is more amenable to freedom of religious expression, but if it “crosses the line” (whatever the line might be – and I have no idea what that is) then – by design, the Turkish military is authorized to intervene and take over the government by a coup d’etat, and then to reassert a secular government. If that is bewildering, just be glad you live in America! The Turkish military is by design, then, the ultimate enforcer of a secular government.
Anyway, we had an opportunity to ask this member of the Turkish parliament some questions over lunch. I asked about the recent World Economic Forum event in Davos when the Prime Minister Erdogan walked out on Shimon Peres, the President of Israel(3), and about the recent joint military exercises between Turkey military and Syria’s military(4). Both of these events have been interpreted as a dramatic change in the historically cordial relations between Turkey and Israel. (Turkey, you should know was the first Muslim country to officially recognize Israel in 1949!) During the Gaza war, the anti-Israel rhetoric in Turkey was quite virulent (and it was echoed by Prime Minister Erdogan himself.(5)) For what it is worth, our Parliamentarian assured us that relations with Israel are still strong and friendly, however. And I have since read reports that would indicate that Erdogan may have recognized that he was at least excessive in his rhetoric. In response to a rise in anti-Semitism in Turkey in the past few months, following the Gaza war, he was widely reported as saying “Those who think to act against Jews will have to face me.”(6) Moreover, the truth is that Israel and Turkey have a very strong relationship based on mutual interests and concerns – not the least of which is Iran’s growing threat.
We also discussed the situation between Turkey and the Armenians. In 1915 during and shortly after World War I, it is reported that between 1- 1½ million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. The Turkish government has argued that this was part of the war, and that the Armenians had supported the Russian Army which was the primary and immediate threat to the Ottoman Empire during the war. The Armenians, and now several countries around the world, have recognized the massive killings as the first genocide. The Parliamentarian told us that the Turkish government is now opening up the historic archives in the hopes that historians will evaluate the evidence on both sides and determine what actually happened. And it is indeed true that the current Turkish government is working very hard to establish good relations with not only the Armenians but also with other bordering countries that have been traditionally cold or even hostile.
Which brings me to another important insight I learned on the trip: Turkey literally straddles the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In fact, the city of Istanbul itself sits partly in Europe and partly in Asia. Turkey, as an Islamic country that is also westernized and democratized, also straddles two cultures crucial to promoting tolerance and understanding in today’s world. It is no wonder that Fethullah Gulen’s ideology of interfaith dialog and peaceful coexistence arose in Turkey. In many ways, Turkey is a crucial country for those of us in the West to get to know better and to work with to promote peace and to control extremism.
I would like to share with you some of the wonderful places we saw on our trip. We saw several beautiful Byzantine Churches with their ornate iconic paintings and mosaics. We saw several beautiful mosques, including the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. (Of course, I had never heard of the famous “Blue Mosque” before our trip!) We saw several museums with archaeological artifacts of all the cultures that inhabited the area over the millennia. We traveled not only to Istanbul, but also to Ankara (the capital of Turkey) and to Urfa (a village on the eastern border near Syria) where Turkish legend says Abraham was born, and where Muslim tradition says he was thrown into a fiery furnace by the evil King Nimrod. (We have that story in our tradition in a Midrash. It is not found in the Bible, so our Christian travelers had never heard of it before.) We visited Ephesus, a town that the Christian Evangelist Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, and where Christian tradition says Jesus’ mother Mary lived with the evangelist John after Jesus’ death. And we saw the ruins of an ancient and magnificent synagogue in Sardis, which was a major metropolitan city in the 3-5th centuries. (7) This synagogue is amazing for a number of reasons, including its size (huge!), its location (right in the middle of the city, near the public cultural center), and the inscriptions on its mosaic tile floors which describe non-Jewish contributors to the congregation, people who are called “God-fearers.” This synagogue calls into serious question the widely held assumption that during the Byzantine Era, when the Roman Empire was Christian, Jewish communities were subdued and isolated. This archaeological site was a sort of monument to interfaith dialog and coexistence that our mission was all about.
There were plenty of shopping opportunities: Oriental carpets, copper, silver and leather goods, jewelry, hookah pipes, and all kinds of arts and crafts. (I bought candy and nuts.)
We visited the homes of members of the Gulen movement in many of the places we visited, and were treated to delicious and extravagant lunches and dinners. These folks are very committed to the ideals of the movement and contribute significant funds toward the Gulen schools and other institutions. They were all gracious and welcoming hosts. I wore my kippah everywhere I went and I never saw any sign of distrust or hesitation. After each meal we exchanged gifts with our hosts. The night we spent in Urfa we were treated to an amazing performance of a Turkish musical group that included an acrobatic drum player. Several of us got up to dance with him – much like we do here at Friday Night Alive!
In short the trip was spectacular in the sites we saw and the people we met. And it was intense – in a good way – in our discussions of faith and respect for differences in our beliefs. We addressed frankly and openly many of these differences, but also shared some surprising similarities between our faith traditions.
I shared with my friends on the mission the metaphor I have often used to describe our differences in faith traditions. Religion, I believe is like a telescope that we use to try and see or understand God, the Holy One who created us. It is a lens with which to try and comprehend what our role is in God’s creation. Each religion is like a different telescope, but I believe we are all pointing our telescopes at the same “object.” We are all trying to “see” the same thing, but we use a different instrument to do so. For me, the Jewish telescope provides the best instrument for me to study and learn about God and God’s creation. But I recognize that there are other telescopes that other people use, and use effectively.
The point is, rather than argue about which telescope to use, we should work together to do what we all agree our Creator wants us to do: promote love and understanding, tolerance and respect, faith and spirituality, peace and good will.
So, there was a Priest, an Imam, and a Rabbi walking down the street. They discuss together the various traditions and beliefs of their different religions. Each leaves with a greater respect for the other and a deeper understanding of the world.
And that’s not a joke! That’s a prayer.
(1) For information about the Gulen Movement on the internet, see generally the following:
The best, overall and balanced article on the movement, in my opinion, is by Bill Park, “The Fethullah Gulen Movement” published in the Middles East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 3 - September 2008, and on their web site at http://www.meriajournal.com/en/asp/journal/2008/december/park/index.asp#bio
See, also, Alexandra Hudson, “Turkish Islamic Preacher – Threat or Benefactor?” May 14, 2008, http://uk.reuters.com/article/featuresNews/idUKL0939033920080514?sp=true; Bulent Aras and Omer Caha, “Fethullah Gulen and His Liberal ‘Turkish Islam’ Movement,” MERIA, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2000, (though written when the video tapes of Gulen I just described were first released and before the trial began, the article does address the issue in its preliminary state at the time.) http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/meria/journal/2000/issue4/jv4n4a4.html; and “Meet Fethullah Gulen, the World’s Top Public Intellectual,” and interview of Gulen in Foreign Policy, December 2008, found at their web site http://www.foreignpolicy.com.
The Movement has its own web site which provides a wealth of articles and information about the movement, its goals, its philosophy and Gulen’s teachings at http://www.fethullahgulen.org/ . The following articles found there are of a general nature and explain the movement and Gulen’s philosopy (obviously from the perspective of those who are favorable to the movement)
Mohammed Cetin, “The Gulen Movement: Its Nature and Identity” October 25, 2007, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/conference-papers/302-contributions-of-the-gulen-movement/2468-the-gulen-movement-its-nature-and-identity.html; Bekim Agai, “Discursive and Organizational Strategies of the Gulen Movement” July 8, 2008, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/conference-papers/294-the-fethullah-gulen-movement-i/2132-discursive-and-organizational-strategies-of-the-gulen-movement.html; and Greg Barton, “Progressive Islamic Thought, Civil Society and the Gulen Movement in the National Context: Parallels With Indonesia” November 12, 2005, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/conference-papers/294-the-fethullah-gulen-movement-i/2198-progressive-islamic-thought-civil-society-and-the-gulen-movement-in-the-national-context-parallels-with-indonesia.html
Critics of Gulen and the Movement include:
Jane’s report “Gulen Movement: Turkey’s Third Power” at http://www.janes.com/news/security/jiaa/jiaa090210_1_n.shtml. But in response to this article, see: İhsan Yılmaz, “Jane’s Gulen Movement Analysis: An Orientalist Misreading (1)” http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3205-janes-gulen-movement-analysis-an-orientalist-misreading-1.html and Part (2) of same at http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3206-janes-guelen-movement-analysis-an-orientalist-misreading-2.html
Rachel Sharon-Krespin “Fethullah Gülen's Grand Ambition Turkey's Islamist Danger” Middle East Quarterly, January 12, 2009, http://www.meforum.org/2045/fethullah-gulens-grand-ambition; but in response to this article, see: Greg Barton, “A Response to Rachel Sharon-Krespin's 'Fethullah Gülen's Grand Ambition: Turkey's Islamist Danger' (1)” Today’s Zaman, February 10, 2009, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3207-a-response-to-rachel-sharon-krespins-fethullah-gulens-grand-ambition-turkeys-islamist-danger-l.html and Part (2) of same at http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3208-a-response-to-rachel-sharon-krespins-fethullah-gulens-grand-ambition-turkeys-islamist-danger-2.html
(2)See, Mustafa Akyol, “The Plot Against Turkey,” Newsweek, July 21, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/id/145817 Bill Park, “Turkey’s Deep State: Ergenekon and the Threat to Democratisation in the Republic,” The RUSI Journal, Volume 153, Issue 5 October 2008 , http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a906014445~db=all~jumptype=rss; and Soner Cagaptay “Behind Turkey’s Witch Hunt,” Newsweek, May 16, 2009, and responses to this article from Gulen newspaper Today’s Zaman: TAHA KIVANÇ “Not Ignorance But Deliberate Distortion,” May 20, 2009, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3295-not-ignorance-but-deliberate-distortion.html; and Mehmet Kalyoncu “Soner Çağaptay's Fight Against Turkey” May 18, 2009, http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3293-soner-caaptays-fight-against-turkey.html
(3)See, for example, Katrin Bennhold, “Leaders of Turkey and Israel Clash at Davos Panel” New York Times, January 29, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/world/europe/30clash.html; and for further analysis of this event, see Michael Reynolds, “Behind the Blow Out at Davos” MESH, February 2, 2009, http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2009/02/behind-the-blow-out-at-davos/, and Gil Feiler and Edo Harel, “The Political Logic of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's Attacks on Israel”, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 65, February 4, 2009, http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/perspectives65.html
(4)See, for example, Reuters article published in Haaretz, April 27, 2009, “Barak: Joint Turkey-Syria military drill 'very troubling' for Israel” at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1081469.html
(6)Posted response to Soner Cagaptay, In the name of Islam: a liberal appeal, supra, 03 Apr 2009 at 9:41 am 2 by Alvin H. Rosenfeld. http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2009/03/in-the-name-of-islam-a-liberal-appeal/#comment-1964
(7)See, eg., “The Ancient Synagogue of Sardis” at Beth Hatefutsoth web site http://18.104.22.168/Communities/Synagogue/Sardis.asp