Pamuk on Religion and the Secular Elite

My first trip to a mosque helped confirm my prejudices about religion in general and Islam in particular. It was almost by chance: One afternoon when there was no one home, Esma Hanım took me off to the mosque without asking anyone’s permission; she was not so much burning with a need to worship as tired of being inside. At Teşvikiye Mosque we found a crowd of twenty or thirty people—mostly owners of the small shops in the back streets or maids, cooks, and janitors who worked for the rich families of Nişantaşı; as they gathered on the carpets, they looked less like a congregation of worshipers than a group of friends who had gathered to exchange notes. As they waited for the prayer time, they gossiped with one another in whispers. As I wandered among them during prayers, running off to the far corners of the mosque to play my games, none of them stopped to scold; instead, they smiled at me in the same sweet way most adults smiled at me when I was a young child. Religion may have been the province of the poor, but now I saw that—contrary to the caricatures in newspapers and my republican household—religious people were harmless.

Nevertheless, I was given to understand by the high-handed ridicule directed at them in the Pamuk Apartments that their good-hearted purity carried a price. It was making the dream of a modern, prosperous, westernized Turkey more difficult to achieve. As westernized, positivist property owners, we had the right to govern over these semiliterates, and we had an interest in preventing their getting too attached to their supersititions—not just because it suited us privately but because our country’s future depended on it. If my grandmother discovered that an electrician had gone off to pray, even I could tell that her sharp comment had less to do with the small repair job he had left unfinished than with the “traditions and practices” that were impeding “our national progress.”

The staunch disciples of Atatürk who dominated the press, their caricatures of black-scarved women and bearded reactionaries fingering prayer beads, the school ceremonies in honor of the Martyrs of the Republican Revolution—all reminded me that the nation-state belonged more to us than to the religious poor, whose devotion was dragging the rest of us down with them. But feeling at one with the mathematics and engineering fanatics in our own household, I would tell myself that our mastery did not depend on our wealth but on our modern western outlook. And so I looked down on families that were as rich as we were but not as western. Such distinctions became less tenable later on, when Turkey’s democracy had matured somewhat and rich provincials began flocking to Istanbul to present themselves to “society”; by then my father’s and my uncle’s business failures had taken their toll, subjecting us to the indignity of being outclassed by people who had no taste for secularism and no understanding of western culture. If enlightenment entitled us to riches and privilege, how were we to explain these pious parvenus? (At the time I knew nothing about the refinements of Sufism or the Mevlana or the great Persian heritage.) For all I knew, the new class denounced as “rich peasants” by the political left held views no different from those of our chauffeurs and cooks. If Istanbul’s westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion. But if I dwell any longer on military coups and political Islam (which has much less to do with Islam than is commonly thought), I risk destroying the hidden symmetry of this book.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 181-183

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