Identity crisis

“Turks are not Arabs!”

Even those who know the difference are questioning their identities

Yoray Liberman/The New York Times

At a New York cocktail reception, a man walked up to my Turkish friend and me and started talking about how much he admires Arab women. Apparently believing that he was flattering us both, he went on and on, extolling the ideal combination of strength, feistiness and beauty he saw as characteristic of Arab womanhood. My Turkish friend and I listened for a while, knowing that he viewed us as somehow the same, though I am an Arab and she is a Turk. To him, we were both Muslims and thus indistinguishable. In fact, however, our ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities play very important roles in our lives beyond our religion. After the man had rambled for a while with the kindest of intentions, my friend interrupted him: “Turks are not Arabs!” We all laughed together as he tried to correct his generalization of the two cultures and eventually escaped from our company.

Recently, spending extended periods in Istanbul to prepare for a new media project on women in the Middle East and North Africa, I find myself viewing his misconception through a different lens. Indeed, Turks are not Arabs, but the tension this distinction raises, considering the overlap in religious identity, holds political significance beyond a good laugh at a cocktail party. The friction between Arabs and Turks has, in fact, now become headline news in the region.

Historically speaking, the Arab view of Turks is paradoxical: on the one hand Turks are seen as the colonizers of the Arab world during the Ottoman era from 1517 to 1918. On the other hand, there is a curiosity and mystique surrounding Turkey, its being the Muslim society most strongly identified with modernization and Westernization (a process that started with Ataturk’s efforts, beginning in 1920, to create a secular nation state).

The tension between admiration and resentment is something seen amongst Arabs since my childhood in Iraq. And some Turks do look down on Arab countries as their former colonies. But the linguistic and religious ties between the cultures are not easily severed. The language of the Quran is Arabic, and Muslim Turks find themselves hearing it over loudspeakers throughout the day as the call to prayer is issued in that language. Even in contemporary Istanbul, the religion, the Quran, the prayers, and all of the rituals are very much based in Arabic language and, by extension, the Arabic world.

Today, this dissonance is manifesting itself in political terms. The Turkish leadership, it is said, is trying to position itself as an arbiter of the fights within Islam, factionalism that goes beyond Sunni and Shia to different brands of fundamentalism, conservatism, reform, and moderation. On a daily basis, Arab and Turkish leaders exchange attacks, as the Arabs ask the Turkish leadership not to interfere in Arab politics—so much so that Turkey’s reputation is changing amongst mainstream Arabs from that of a modern state to that of a state that is supporting ISIS and its trail of carnage in countries like Iraq and Syria.

How is all of this experienced on a very personal level for someone like me, who has lived half of my life in Iraq and the other half in the U.S., and who now goes back to the region to work with Arab and Muslim women? It is, in short, disorienting.

A city like Istanbul is indeed very modern. Things that are taboo in the Arab world—public expressions of affection between women and men, short skirts and sleeveless shirts that show women’s skin—are the norm in Istanbul. Yet it is equally normal to see women in headscarves, and families in public who are as conservative in their behavior as the majority in the Arab world. (I am generalizing based on my street observations). Such diversity is beautiful in many ways, especially when it also includes Christian and Jewish populations. In Istanbul alone there are 3,200 mosques, 400 Churches and 10 Synagogues. A street scene that includes people from different religions on one corner is a very typical image in Istanbul. What has surprised me most as an Iraqi Arab Muslim is the extent to which religion is part of life even within the most secular class in Turkey.

The new norm in Istanbul

A snapshot of a wedding party in Instanbul Zainab Salbi passed by last weekend. She points out that the bride is wearing a strapless dress and her friends are wearing headscarves, an illustration of the new cultural norm in Istanbul.

I always thought that secularism in Turkey meant a complete rejection of religion. Wrong! It is in secular homes that I found myself going back to traditions, prayers, and ceremonies that I grew up with in Iraq, and that I had not experienced since I left there 25 years ago. It is in Istanbul that I found myself in the midst of Quranic prayer assemblies, or Sufi mystical gatherings, or discussions on how both religion and a modern sense of identity can coexist. I began to see a way to integrate my identity as a women’s rights activist with my identity as an Arab and a Muslim who loves God.

Turks are finding a new space to reconcile secularist values and religious beliefs, modernity and faith, and a new place for the country within the Muslim world. Arabs are wrestling with the same challenge, a struggle that is revealed in the personal lives of individuals and in the headlines. Turks are not Arabs. But at the moment, all Muslims I encounter are questioning their identities as regards Islam, even at Turkish cocktail parties, where everyone knows the difference between Arabs and Turks.


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