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The Transformation of The Turkish Muslim Mind

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] VIENNA – The Austrian capital has stunning buildings, impressive museums and delicious schnitzels. But, besides all that, what really brought me here for a short visit is the booming community of Turkish students who have found not just good education but also religious freedom in this far-away land. In more descriptive terms, I came to Vienna to speak at WONDER, a society founded by a group of Turkish students who moved here to study at Austrian universities. All of them were either girls who wore the Islamic headscarf or young men who graduated from Turkey’s religious (“imam-hatip”) high schools. They were all outcasts of the “post-modern coup” of the late 1990s, during which the ultra-secular generals tightened Turkey’s decades-old secular apartheid. The doors of Turkish universities, in other words, were simply shut to these conservative youngsters. Way to the West In fact, the veiled girls were given a choice: They either would take their headscarves off and then be admitted to universities, or keep it and forget about education. But some rather found a third way, which the Turkish generals probably did not foresee: education in the West. Austria became a preferred destination, because it was relatively cheaper and closer to Turkey. At first, in 2000, only a dozen girls came – some from Istanbul, others from less fancy cities of Anatolia. First they were hesitant about “the country of the unbelievers,” and the treatment they would face there. But soon they realized that liberal country of the “unbelievers” was more respectful to their faith than the illiberal regime in their homeland. “I was worried about how the Austrians would see me with my headscarf,” says Hatice, 25, one of the earliest Turkish students who came to Vienna. “But I faced no discrimination.” She rather recalls how she was positively surprised when a teacher at Vienna university complimented her for the nice color and the fit of her headscarf. “In Turkey, teachers used looked down upon me as a bigot,” she says. “This was the first time I heard something nice about the way I looked.” Hatice is now at master’s program in computer technology and she has ambitious dreams about her future career. But the five years she has spent there taught her things other than just science. “In this society people just live the way they choose and respect others’ differences,” she says, admiringly. “This is a lesson we Turks need.” I ask her about the freedom of non-Muslims in a Muslim country. Should the Christian missionaries, for example, have the right to evangelize in Turkey? “Of course,” she replies. “There are 17 mosques right now in Vienna; if we can spread Islam here, they should be able to spread Christianity there as well.” She then tells me how she convinced her more conservative mother on this issue: “When the Sümela monastery in Trabzon was reopened last summer, my mom did not like it. But I explained her that we Muslims should support the freedom of all for the sake of justice,” she said. Muhammed, 24, another Turkish student in Vienna, and is also sensitive about justice. He is a graduate of the religious schools that have been denied equal access to Turkish universities. That experience with injustice seems to have given him an egalitarian vision, for now he defends “the rights of all groups in society.” That’s why, he says, he invited me here to speak on the Kurdish issue. “I want my friends to get that the authoritarian state which suppressed us also did the same thing to the Kurds or the Armenians.” Raising self-criticism Muhammed is also critical on his own tradition. “The Kemalists have certainly been intolerant toward us,” he says. “But we must admit that we have not been tolerant either.” He is highly critical of the “imam-hatip” school that he graduated from, accusing it of “a dogmatic and oppressive approach.” He also thinks that Muslims need to develop a “more individualistic culture, based on questioning, not obeying.” I really saw the seeds of that culture among these young Turkish Muslims in Vienna. WONDER, which they organized thanks to charitable support, has been the home for more than 1,200 students, most of whom had transformative experiences in this foreign country. They are still quite religious, and fairly conservative. But they have become much more liberal-minded than their parents, and even most secular Turks, whose nationalism can reach extreme heights. And this story, I think, is one of the examples of a striking phenomenon: the engagement of Turkish Muslims in globalization. This already was evident in the economic globalism of our “Muslim bourgeoisie.” It was also evident in the hundreds of schools that the religious followers of Fethullah Gülen, a popular Muslim leader, have opened all around the world. And it is now also evident in the stories of pious Turkish students who discovered freedom in the universities of Europe or America. I see this trend as an unintended consequence of Turkey’s tyrannical secularism. One can, perhaps, even see it as a confirmation of an old Islamic word of wisdom: “Within every wickedness, there is also some goodness.”
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