Turkey's tightrope walk

Posted: November 20, 2003

After learning about the suicide bombings at two synagogues, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel, in Istanbul on Saturday, I had a terrible sense of dj vu. I began sending e-mails seeking answers to two questions: Had any friends or acquaintances been hurt or killed? Luckily, no. And second, who were the bombers?

Istanbul, and by extension Turkey, has become my second home. I know Istanbul's streets and neighborhoods as well as the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. And because I know people of many faiths - Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, devout and moderate Muslims - I have put great hope in Turkey as an example to the West that there is a bright future for a predominantly Muslim country with a secular constitution.

I've traveled in every region of Turkey from the Aegean Sea to the borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria. This fall in the Kackar Mountains in northeastern Turkey, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with a group of Israeli college students on fall break, while the Muslim owner of the pension brought apples from his larder and honey for us to share after the ritual prayer.

In the course of writing a book about Turkey's history, I've been blessed with the help of Jewish and Muslim friends who have enlightened me about how deep Jewish roots go in Turkey. After all, it is at Mt. Ararat, on the eastern border near Iran, that Noah reputedly landed with his ark. And at the Aegean port city of Izmir, Jewish settlements date back to the 2nd century B.C.

In most of the Islamic world, politics is religion, and radical Islamic groups resent Turkey's strong ties to secular governments in Israel and the West. It's not surprising, therefore, to learn that the attacks have been linked to al-Qaeda, or that the car used for the bombing came from the town of Bingol in Turkey's southeast, where a large Kurdish population has been disenfranchised for years, and Muslim fundamentalism is growing.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has had an impact on the southeast, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have their source at the northernmost boundaries of Mesopotamia. This includes the Kurdish area of eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq, where borders are permeable.

The Turkish government and its citizens have a difficult task: To integrate the religiously oriented conservative ideology in the economically downtrodden east with a progressive Western-mindedness among Turks in the west of the country. As one of my Turkish friends said, "The war in Iraq has brought the hornets out of the nest, and [those of a conservative ideology] don't want to see Turkey succeed as a Western-style republic."

Miles away physically and psychologically from Bingol, Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, and Neve Shalom synagogue nestles into the community of Galata on the European side of the Bosphorus overlooking the splendid Golden Horn. Within the neighborhood is an Ashkenazi synagogue, a Jewish school, and adding to the diversity, a Dervish Hane, where the Mevlevi Dervishes, followers of the poet Rumi, dance their mysterious whirling dance.

Neve Shalom, built in 1951, is one of Istanbul's largest synagogues and sits among apartment buildings and the general bustle of small businesses and families taking care of their daily errands. Jews have worshipped in the neighborhood for more than 500 years.

In front of Neve Shalom, whose name means Oasis of Peace, a crater deep as a person is tall blocks the entrance.

"They killed Muslims as well as Jews," said one injured man. "And for what?"

Suicide bombs know no religion, but terrorist groups know exactly what they're doing, and how to use religion to destabilize a country. It is my hope that Turkey, a country I have come to love, will know what to do as well.

Joy Stocke is editor-in-chief of the Bucks County Writer and is finishing a book about her journeys in Turkey.

Contact Joy Stocke at stockeyoung@comcast.net.

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