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My father experienced his first religious doubts at the age of twelve, when he discovered Bergson and Comte in an Adana bookstore, and read that religion was part of a primitive and pre-scientific state of civilization; he has been an atheist since his teens. Her father, one of the civil engineers who helped to modernize Anatolia, was politically a staunch secularist and privately a devout Muslim (though not a proponent of head scarves, which nobody in the family wore).In grade school, my mother read what the Koran said about skeptics—that God would close their eyes and ears—and got so depressed that she didn’t get out of bed for two days. by hundreds of thousands of Turkish secularists was motivated in part by a “fear” of the life styles of their more religious compatriots—by “snobbish” complaints that “religious Turks were uneducated and poor” and that “their pesky prayer rugs got underfoot in hospital halls.” It’s difficult to imagine the reporting in an equally condescending manner about the élitism of Americans who oppose the Christian right.
But she would get even more annoyed than my father did when she thought that people were invoking God to do their jobs for them—for example, when she saw a bus with a sticker saying “Allah Protect Us.” Both my parents always told me that, in order to be a good person, it was neither necessary nor desirable to believe in God; it was more noble and efficient to do good for disinterested reasons, without thoughts of Heaven. They thought it had been unsustainable for Turkey to repress and deny its religion for so long—that the people had finally spoken out.
Nothing in the milieu where I grew up, in New Jersey in the eighties and early nineties, contradicted the idea I formed of religion as something unnecessary, unscientific, provincial—essentially, uncool. Its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been the head of state since 2003, after the A. Many spoke warmly of the anthropologist Jenny White, an important scholar of modern Turkey whose book “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks” characterizes the pro-Atatürk Kemalist culture as one of “militarism, hostility, suspicion, and authoritarianism” rooted in “blood-based Turkish ethnicity.” Muslim nationalism, by contrast, has sought to replace “historically embattled Republican borders” with “more flexible Ottoman imperial boundaries” and to “privilege Muslim identity and culture over race.” In the A. P.-sympathetic world view, the Ottomans, whom Kemalists had blamed for selling Turkey to the British, enjoyed a vogue as models of enlightened Muslim multiculturalism. To me, as to most Americans, it seemed a tiny bit weird that nearly every public building in Turkey had a picture of Atatürk on the wall.
There was a new dichotomy I had never heard of before: the “white Turks” (Westernized secular élites in Istanbul and Ankara) versus the “black Turks” (the pious Muslim middle and lower-middle classes of Anatolia).
The black Turks were the underdogs, while the white Turks were the racists who despised them.
For a long time, I thought there was an immutable link between coolness and positivism. Then came identity politics and, in Turkey, the rise of the Justice and Development Party (A. I could see that every slight to Kemalism was a knife in my parents’ hearts. I also knew that, in order for the Turkish Republic to succeed, millions of people had been obliged to change their language, their clothes, and their way of life, all at once, because Atatürk said so.
I knew that people who had been perceived as threats to the state—religious leaders, Marxists, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians—were deported, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.
At the time, my grandparents were either very young or not yet born.
Only my mother’s father was old enough to remember throwing his fez in the air on the Sultan’s birthday. They met in Turkey’s top medical school, moved to America in the nineteen-seventies, and became researchers and professors.
Her parents told her that God was more merciful than she thought, and that people who did good would go to Heaven on the Day of Judgment, regardless of what they believed. The Western view of Erdoğan eventually soured, especially after the Gezi protests of 2013; he was criticized for alleged corruption and for increasingly authoritarian tactics toward journalists and opposition parties.