My 6 months of traveling and speaking upon my return from Turkey has come to an end. It has been a phenomenal experience for me as I have been privileged to meet and interact with so many people within the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, throughout the country. It has also amazed me, as I reflect upon these past months, how therapeutic and integrative it has been for me personally, to have had the opportunity to think about and to tie together all of the experiences of my life up to the present. Turkey has been and will always be an integral part of who I am today. Turkey as a land bridge between Asia and Europe, geographically, historically, and culturally is a country that has had and will continue to have major significance.
I arrived back in the USA in August, just as the Islamic State was making its debut on the world stage with its savage atrocities. They have been in discriminatory in who they murder. With their fanaticism, apocalyptic vision, and strong self-identity, the Islamic State has attracted adherents and fighters from around the world. Most Muslims disavow their ideology yet some are reflecting upon how such a ruthless interpretation of their religion could ever have evolved. When trying to understand the Islamic State, a good comparison for Americans is to compare them to the Branch Davidians. They believe they are returning to a state of religious purity only the end times can produce. The Atlantic Monthly recently had an interesting article on the Islamic State. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
I often was asked why Turkey has not become a more active part of the coalition of over 60 nations involved in some way with the fight against the Islamic State (http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/meast/isis-coalition-nations/). It would seem logical given that most of the territory grabbed by the Islamic State is on the Turkish border. President Erdogan is perhaps overly confident and self-assured in his ability to curtail the threat that the Islamic State could pose to Turkey’s territory. He stated last fall that his reasons were: (1) if one terrorist group is eliminated another one will arise to take its place; (2) the real threat to the region is Asad’s regime in Syria; (3) peace will never come to the Middle East until there is justice for the Palestinians, (which should imply security for the Israelis once there is a just settlement, though Erdogan would never say this). I would include that a dialogue in the region must include Iran. Turkey may have hesitancies also because of its prolonged, mostly non-substantive, discussions with its own Kurdish population, who desire more autonomy and cultural freedom. The Kurds of northern Iraq and Syria have been active in the fight against the Islamic State, yet Turkey has been cautious in allowing its own Kurdish population to become involved in this fight, fearing a resulting regional independent Kurdistan.
The Middle East has so many layers of complexities in ethnicities, religions and histories, that a simplistic solution is impossible. Just as an internal dialogue among Muslims must occur, we must also be ever more attentive to our own relationship with Muslims and must avoid the rhetoric of “us versus them” that seems so prevalent in parts of our own media. We must also learn more about and take ownership of the historical interferences from western powers in the Middle East from the time of the Crusades, the effects of imperialism, and the continued manipulations that are done for the sake of resources, oil and military strategic positioning.
I have lived more than half my life as a Christian in a predominantly Muslim country. I never felt afraid and experienced compassion, hospitality, friendship and understanding from the people of Turkey, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish. I know that the Ministry of Presence, where we live in intentional and committed relationships with the people around us, is what God asks of each of us, no matter where we live. I have grown to value community because of my experience of it in Turkey. As we pray for the people of the world, let us pray for those in areas of conflict, asylum seekers and refugees, women who regularly experience violence, minorities who struggle for their existence, people who pursue freedom of expression and thought, and those who seek acknowledgment of past atrocities.
Lent and Easter have always had a profound significance for me. I remember once when a thoughtful Muslim asked me the following question: “Given that God is a compassionate and loving God, how could God ever have desired for a prophet to hang on a cross and experience such a painful and humiliating death?” I know that Jesus’ love and obedience could lead to no other outcome than this, his crucifixion and resurrection. This is the hope we have for all of humankind.
Selam / Shalom / Peace
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.