As an American who had a wonderful two-year adventure exploring Turkey and teaching English in a "conservative Muslim city" from 2009-2011, I am saddened by news of an attempted military coup and crackdown on dissent by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
My wife, teenage son and I fell in love with the people of Turkey, in part because we experienced their open-hearted generosity and hospitality, and in part because we saw Turkey as a bridge between East and West that was becoming a model for Islamic democracy.
My wife and I were teaching in Kayseri, in central Anatolia near the fairy chimneys and moon-pocked landscapes of Cappadocia, when Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed in 2011. That incident was the talk of the town, but we did not hear a single expression of support or sympathy for Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Indeed, whenever students asked me about 9/11/01, it was with a tone of empathy and sympathy. The class would grow quiet and solemn. "We are so sad about it," I remember one student saying.
It's hard to imagine that the overwhelming majority of Turks, even in relatively conservative places like Kayseri, have any sympathy at all for the Islamic State. My guess is that the open-hearted generosity and hospitality of the Turkish people remains -- it is their identity, spirit and character. As one Turk explained to me, part of the Muslim tradition is to welcome visitors or strangers as "angels unaware." You could arrive in Turkish villages and be offered an inexpensive place to stay, drinks, snacks, a meal, or even a car for 24 hours. In our travels around the country, this was not an infrequent occurrence.
Whereas Italians (in Rome or Naples) would demand 20 euro for a few minutes of directions, Turks would take us by the arm, escort us to our locations, spend half an hour with us, and refuse to take any money whatsoever.
But some things in Turkey have clearly changed since my family left in 2011. A flood of 2.7 million Syrian refugees surely over-burdens or drains the hospitality of even the most well-intentioned Turks, and taxes the economic system. An atmosphere of political suspicion and religious infighting has spread. In 2015, several businessmen and leaders of an educational institution my wife and I worked for were jailed because of their ties to the moderate Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Erdogan charges with inspiring the coup attempt. They were later released, but the government's message of intimidation was clear.
The Gulen-movement-owned newspaper, Zaman, and its English language counterpart, which I freelanced for, were shut down in March, 2016, because Erdogan did not like its critical stance nor their ties to Gulen. The editor fled to Brussels. Journalists have been routinely jailed for coverage critical of Erdogan. Freedom of the press and democratic opposition seems endangered.
Gulen, based in rural Pennsylvania, says he opposed the coup, though he told the New York Times he could not guarantee that some of his supporters did not participate in it.
I taught English to a number of Gulen followers, and some of my colleagues were fans of his work as well. I found them to be very rational, reasonable, educated people who were hungry for a moderate interpretation of Islam for the modern world. They were middle class or wealthy, members of the local establishment, not radical at all. I read a couple of his books, and found them to be articulate statements of a peaceful Islam, universal religious tolerance and opposition to violence.
Gulen did inspire a devoted following who created an international network of private schools and non-profit institutions. I worked at one of these schools in Kayseri, teaching English, and noted the deep dedication of the teachers and the strong sense of community they developed with students and parents. Gulen's followers were strong supporters of Erdogan when he was first elected, but Erdogan came to see the Gulen movement as a threat to his power, real or imagined.
In American society, social movements, causes, interest groups, and opposition political parties are part of a strong civil society, working both in partnership and in loyal opposition to government, and serving as a watchdog for the people. But in Turkey, the military served the role of secular watchdog. Four successful military coups since 1960 and the fifth unsuccessful coup in 2016 have stunted the development of interest groups, opposition parties, and a watchdog tradition. In Turkey, opposition to policies are too often equated with disloyalty to the state. Indeed Erdogan does not seem inclined to share power, and is now purging the government of anyone even remotely tied to Gulen or remotely suspected of disloyalty.
I still have American, Turkish and Turkish-American friends in Kayseri who say they remain happy there, even after the coup attempt. They are enjoying the establishment of a non-denominational Christian church, and volunteering to assist Syrian refugees. Their kids are happy in local schools.
Even so, I think back to what I wrote between 2009 and 2011 and wonder, skeptically, if life is still the same or if something important has been lost with the latest coup attempt and Erdogan's insecure quest for seemingly absolute power:
Before Lucia and I moved to Kayseri, Turkey, we were warned by a number of Americans familiar with the city that "it's so conservative." We'd find few people speaking English, we were told, and most women would be dressed in head scarves, unwilling to speak to or sit near American men. In my mind's eye, I imagined Kayseri citizens dressed in black-and-white, walking with their head downs, in a city reminiscent of America in the 1930s. I imagined I'd see men in long beards and black gowns, wearing fezes and eating yogurt. I suspected the citizens of Kayseri would be fearful of foreigners, especially Americans, and that I might be fearful of them. How many Muslim extremists who would bomb our apartment might be in their midst? If all I knew about the Muslim world was shaped by Fox News, my gut reaction to living among them would certainly be fear. We as a family could be quite isolated, except within the university community we were affiliated with.
My imaginings were way off the mark. It has been a delight to discover such a modern, bustling, friendly boom town as Kayseri, the metro area of which has grown to more than one million people. The shopping districts appear to be thriving, with three big malls as modern as anything you'd find in America. Two of them show first-run Western movies (sometimes in English, sometimes dubbed, sometimes with subtitles.) The public transportation system -- buses and above-ground metro trains -- is cheap, efficient, modern and even high-tech.
We've run into such friendly people so generous and eager to help, and to speak English. Yes, their English is limited, and our Turkish is far more limited. I seriously doubt Americans in general extend themselves to foreigners who don't speak English the way the Turks in this so-called "conservative" city have extended themselves to us.
Turks seem to have less need for physical distance from each other compared to Americans. Men will often stand very close to other men when they are eager to know more about you. Men routinely touch Alex, 12, on the head, pat him on the back and tussle his hair.
On first meeting, Turks will ask us for our email address or phone number, with a desire to keep in touch, learn or practice English from us, and even invite us over for dinner. A Turkish professor declared, "My son will become your son's best friend." On second meeting, a 30-year-old and his girl friend in our apartment complex invited Alex to go out to dinner with them because they wanted to practice English with him and they love kids. After Alex left with them, we had second thoughts. Our American imaginations ran wild. "What the heck have we done? We really don't know them." But it turned out fine. Turkish culture, on the surface at least, is far more trusting.
At a restaurant near our home, the nephew of the owner, who spent three weeks in Los Angeles and is studying for the TOEFL exam, immediately took us under his wing. We told him we were looking for a dry cleaner, so he offered to drive us to his dry cleaner in his car. He also offered to take Alex to play soccer. "If you teach me English, I will teach you Turkish," he said.
I don't call that reserved or "conservative."
I guess "conservative" means that most people are religious, observant Muslims, a bit conformist, and maybe the nightlife is limited. I had heard that men aren't supposed to share seats with women on the bus (men give up their seats to women, and are supposed to stand up rather than sit next to women.) However, friendly, smiling women dressed to the nines and not wearing head scarves did sit next to me, and I met women in head scarfs who were very friendly with us as a family, laughing with us about our struggles to communicate. Women at the university did not generally wear head scarfs. Only a few did.
Turks were fascinated by Americans -- not suspicious or afraid of us at all. Yes, they did stare at us, out of curiosity because they see so few Americans. And if you say you're a teacher, that is a passport to instant respect....
Like Living in a Time Warp: America in the 1950s
Lucia and I have both observed independently that we feel that in Kayseri, we have traveled back in time, to a simpler place of our childhood memories -- in her case, Indianapolis; in my case, the tiny town of Wagram, North Carolina, population 500. Here, we find a strong sense of a tight-knit community, everybody seems to knows everybody's business, nearly everyone goes to worship, and nearly everyone is religious, a believer or pretends to be religious. Except the religion, of course, is Islam, not Christianity.
The traditional family seems to be the dominant cultural aspiration for everyone, and almost no cultural awareness of diversity in that realm -- no multiple marriages, no blended families, no homosexuality, on the surface at least. Most women and men expect to marry in their early to mid-20s. There are very low rates of divorce. Women function primarily as housewives, mothers, volunteers in the schools, and caregivers to elderly parents (who live with them). Some housewives even become obsessed with afternoon soap operas, just like the stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s.
Turks have a strong sense of patriotism, nationalism and militarism -- every Turkish male must serve in the military, even if only for six months. I've heard a number of students, teachers and young professionals question this requirement -- they say it's disruptive to their family and professional lives, and their military commitment is often make-work, of highly questionable value to their country. Yet most accept their obligations to serve as their patriotic duty. It is a bond that all men share, and encourages men to maintain macho identities, unlike America, where traditionalists assert that men who don't serve in the military have been "feminized." Compulsory military service ended for Americans in the early 1970s.
Families, mosques, private charities and the wealthy feel some religious obligation to take care of the poor, given that the social safety net of government benefits barely allows for anything better than subsistence survival, if that. As far as I know, you don't hear many complaints among Turks about "welfare chiselors" or drug addicts on welfare.
To tradition-minded Turks, television, movies (particularly American movies), and the Internet should be used only in moderation. American mass media, they fear, is too frequently an assault on traditional values, exposing children to nihilistic humor, narcissism, impulsivity, irresponsibility and unrestrained anger, too much sex, drugs, heavy metal music, rap, and rock and roll.
In Kayseri, there isn't much cultural, religious or ethnic diversity. It is like America before the civil rights movement, before the women's movement, before women rose up en masse to express their desire to become serious professionals in the workplace, before the sexual revolution, before the rise of religious skepticism if not agnosticism and atheism, definitely before the rise of multiculturalism or thousands of advocacy groups and cause-related marketing in America.
Turkey is also like America before the rise of an environmental ethic. I can remember as a six-year-old thinking nothing of tossing trash out the car window. I didn't become environmentally conscious until later, after the first Earth Day in 1970. Likewise, I was shocked to see Turkish students and TEACHERS toss trash out a car window, throw wrappers or bottles on the street, and to see fields littered with trash. One of my students tossed a wrinkled paper airplane out the classroom window. I told him that in America, he'd get a $50 fine for doing that. His Turkish teacher made him go fetch it and put it in the trash. Turkey, I hope is beginning to develop an environmental ethic.
For America, there is no going back to the lifestyles and innocence of the 1950s. The genie is out of the bottle. It will be interesting to see whether Turkey becomes more like America. When I read about the protests and unrest in Gezi Park, Istanbul, and other cities in 2013, my immediate thought was that Turkey is now undergoing what America went through in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A clash of cultures. "Question authority."
Certainly, Turkey seemed in 2009-10-11 to aspire to more democracy, more respect for cultural differences and more individual freedoms, and that could unleash the kind of cultural revolution that America went through in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet Turks seem to value their collective consciousness more than Americans do, so I doubt we'll see the kind of fast-paced cultural change and rise of individualism that America experienced.
Since I wrote that, I observe that Erdogan's crackdown is attempting to suppress what America went through in the 1960s and 1970s. If the nearly three million Syrian refugees become permanent residents or citizens, Turkey could change forever, with far more Arab influences. So that if I ever return to Kayseri, I might not recognize it.