It can break through in the darkest of moments and lift one’s spirit to tremendous heights. It can crash equally as fast leaving one in the deepest of despair. January has seen a continual shifting of political realities in the Middle East leading to greater despair. January has seen the inauguration of a new leader, Barack Obama, and a ray of hope for what seems to be the entire world. One should never doubt the impact the USA has on the rest of the world, whether it be for the positive or negative.
It can break through in the darkest of moments and lift one's spirit to tremendous heights. It can crash equally as fast leaving one in the deepest of despair. January has seen a continual shifting of political realities in the Middle East leading to greater despair. January has seen the inauguration of a new leader, Barack Obama, and a ray of hope for what seems to be the entire world. One should never doubt the impact the USA has on the rest of the world, whether it be for the positive or negative.
The Ottoman Empire at one point in its century's long history encompassed much of the Arab world to northern Africa. As Arab lands broke off from the Ottoman Empire with the help of Britain and France, enmity developed between the Turk and the Arab. Derogatory language in both Turkish and Arabic exist as well as not so flattering stereotypes, but this has been gradually changing. As a frequent traveler to Lebanon for meetings of the Near East School of Theology, I have noticed a gradual change in perceptions of Turkey. This has been encouraged by tourism and by television. Some Turkish TV shows are watched regularly in Syria and Lebanon. Tourism to Turkey has increased which has had an impact on people's viewpoints. In the latest Israeli incursion into Gaza, the Turkish government issued a strong condemnation of Israel. Turkey has tried to establish itself as an "honest broker" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict due to the fact that Turkey has had a fairly good relationship with Israel. Turkey had negotiated both economic and military ties with Israel. Israeli tourists have felt comfortable visiting Turkey. The Jewish minority in Turkey numbers approximately 27,000 people and traces its origins back over 500 years when the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jews escaping the inquisition in Spain in 1492. The Turkish Jewish minority have been prominent citizens of Turkey though they have faced the same problems other minorities in Turkey have periodically faced. As Turkey appears to be repositioning itself in the Middle East, the Jewish citizens of Turkey have felt the repercussions. Turkey's condemnation of Israel has pleased the Arab world but has caused an increase of anti-Semitism in Turkey over the past weeks, directed at both the local citizenry and Jewish tourists. This has not been a unique reaction in Turkey.
The Jewish community in Turkey has expressed concerns about the growing amount of hostility and threats that they are experiencing. They are citizens and want to feel safe in their own country. A recent article in the Turkish newspaper Radikal written by Leyla Navaro expressed her sadness and fear about being a Jew in Turkey. Ms Navaro is a psychologist and on the faculty of Bosphorus University. The article entitled "Being a Jew in Turkey: Loneliness of 500 years" questions whether Jews in Turkey are still considered guests even when for generations they have been an instrumental part of the local society and culture. The worse thing that can happen in this region is for political conflicts to morph into ethnic and religious conflicts. As the rhetoric in Turkey encourages solidarity with their fellow Muslims in Palestine, I cannot help but wonder about the Jews and Christians citizens of Turkey and the Christian Palestinians that also live in Gaza.
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish Muslim journalist, was commenting on the violence in the name of religion by both Muslims and Jews in a recent edition of the Turkish Daily News. He wrote, "In fact, both Islam and Judaism condemn and cherish human life. But the devil is in the details." He quoted G.K. Chesterton who said, "Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils. They differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." Akyol continues after this quote and writes, "As a Muslim, I don't find the killing of one single civilian excusable. Moderate Jews should do the same thing and denounce their co-religionists who practice or support the killing of innocents. They just shouldn't sit and watch those cruel fanatics hijack their religion of peace." If religion is to breed peace rather than increased hatred, more just solutions need to be found to major problems and not solutions that only generate more violence, hatred and distrust.
This past week has been the week of Christian unity. Services have been held all over Istanbul among the city's various Christian groups. Last night was the final service at a Catholic Armenian church and was to be attended by not only Christian leaders but by a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim cleric. What better symbol of peace than to attempt to work together and to pray together.
What has provided hope for millions of people worldwide is the change of leadership in the USA. Needless to say the Bush administration has not been well liked in this part of the world. There has been great anticipation with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The world has hope of a different America, an America that reaches out in humanity. After 9/11 the world was far more united in loss and outrage, for many nations of the world were present in those destroyed buildings on that terrible day. I still remember my Turkish dentist cry when he realized that his Greek friend's office was in WTC 2. But, somewhere after that we lost some of our humanity. Those who came to the region with genuine care and compassion became submerged in the image of the few who were murdering, torturing and raping. In trying to define our "evils" we excused the inexcusable. Rev Dr Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church - Disciples of Christ (one of the two denominations that support the work of our Common Global Ministry) preached at the prayer service the day after the inauguration. It is a wonderful sermon and I encourage you all to read it. (http://oikoumene.org/fileadmin/wcc-usa/files/2009/Obama_NPS_sermon_Watkins.pdf)
Dr Watkins' words sum up my feelings and hope for the future as a Christian and as a human being. In addressing Barack Obama and Joseph Bidden she says,
"Beyond this moment of high hopes, we need you to stay focused on our shared hopes, so that we can continue to hope, too. We will follow your lead. There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom: One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.
"There are two wolves struggling inside each of us," the old man said.
"One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self‐pity, fear . . .
"The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . ."
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: "Which wolf wins, Grandfather?"
His grandfather replied, "The one you feed."
There are crises banging on the door right now, pawing at us, and trying to draw us off our ethical center – crises that tempt us to feed the wolf of vengefulness and fear. We need you, Mr. President, to hold your ground. We need you, leaders of this nation, to stay centered on the values that have guided us in the past; values that empowered to move us through the perils of earlier times and can guide us now into a future of renewed promise. We need you to feed the good wolf within you, to listen to the better angels of your nature, and by your example encourage us to do the same."
Let us continue to pray for guidance and leadership of all of the world's leaders. Let us pray for the Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Middle East and for all of those who suffer. Let us pray for those who build bridges between peoples and not for those who blow them up. There are many who do want to reach out in all nations. May their hands find one another with the help and support of God.
Selam / Shalom / Peace be upon you
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.