Relics & Renovations

One of the reasons KtB has seemed dead these past few months is that we (some of us, anyway) were off on a lengthy Near Eastern adventure. We spent much of the trip in Istanbul, light-headed with nargila smoke and ears-ruptured by over-exposure to roving bands of Ottoman Army reenactors:

Turkey at the time was bracing itself for the election that finally found resolution yesterday. The New York Times coverage of the outcome (“Turk With Islamic Ties Is Elected President”) is a good reminder of all the ways it’s easy to get fumbled up when talking about religion, secularism, and other words with meanings that are hard to pin down.

The defeat of so called “secular” forces by “religious” ones would seem by the usual use of the words to be very bad news indeed. Yet Turkey’s secularism has long been as religious in its own way as the Islamic elements the secular establishment so fears. After all, this is a country whose supposedly secular fealty to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk surpasses even American genuflections to the Founding Fathers. It is illegal to defame Ataturk, for example, and every year on his birthday, the country stops. No matter where Turks find themselves, they take a moment to go out and make a tremendous noise. Truck horns blare, car horns bleat, ships on the Bosphorus blow their stacks. Maybe this is not religion in the usual sense, but there is certainly something very religious about it.

We had gone to Istanbul to see the relics of the prophet Muhammad in the state-run museum, the Topkapi Palace. We’d heard that it was a very strange scene: the relics were said to be gathered in a shabby room in the back corner of the museum for the casual perusal of tourists. The only nod to their religious importance was as an old imam sitting in the corner, reciting the Quran all day while Americans in flip-flops snapped his picture and squinted at the displayed teeth and whiskers of the Prophet.

We’d gone to have a look at all of this: the odd juxtaposition of devotion and tourism; the inevitable entwining of the political and the spiritual, despite the muscular secularism of the state; and, most of all, the peculiar place of the religious past in a country struggling to make sense of its religious present.

When we found the relic room, we were disappointed to see its entrance blocked. Tacked to the plywood divider that kept hidden all we’d come to see, there was a sign in Turkish and English: “Closed for Renovations.”