Turkish Delight

Posted on July 24, 2013

By Raleigh Bailey

Many people know of Turkish delight only as a delicious confection made in Turkey. However, I want to share another Turkish delight based on two weeks I spent there in early July as part of a cultural exchange program for North Carolinians organized by Turkish immigrants in our state.

Ten of us, mostly academics, were given the opportunity to see service projects and schools, meet with families as their guests for meals, and visit important historical and cultural sites in Turkey. The UNCG representatives on this trip included Dean Karen Wixson of the School of Education at UNCG and myself. An earlier exchange group this summer included Dr. Cathryne Schmitz, chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at UNCG. A total of three groups went from North Carolina this summer. Several other states had groups visiting as well, organized by Turkish immigrants in their states.

I had hoped and planned to also go to the Turkey/Syria border and had requested permission through UNHCR and ICMC to visit refugee camps. However, both agencies told me that they were unable to secure permission for my travel there. Turkey is restricting access to the area due to the highly political nature of the camps, as well as some security issues.

A highlight of the trip for all of us was the overwhelming hospitality of families we met, both there and here. These meetings typically involved long, exquisite dinner gatherings in people’s homes where we were treated to traditional Turkish cuisine, many cups of tea, sweets — including Turkish delight — and shared about ourselves and our families. The North Carolina nonprofit that organized the trip is called “The Divan Center.” The name alludes to the divan, or couch, a place where friends sit and converse.

This cultural exchange movement, motivated by the concepts of service, education, and community building, is called Hizmet in Turkish. It translates to something like “service for others,” but it seems to mean much more. It is based on a concept in Islam that we don’t hear about much in the Western press. It talks about Islam as a peace movement, serving others and building bridges between cultures, tribes, religions, and nations, and recognizing that all are children of God. Serving others is our intended destiny. Hizmet regards meeting with people from different backgrounds, getting to know one another, and recognizing our commonalities as a path to solving many of the world’s problems.  It comes out of the ancient Sufi movement in Islam, often linked with the 13th-century poet and mystic Mevlana Rumi. Though he was born in Afghanistan, his family moved to what is now called Turkey, and he is buried there. Our delegation visited the Rumi museum while there.

Hizmet is also a loosely-organized civic engagement and volunteerism movement where people meet in neighborhoods and towns sometimes several times a month for reading and support groups and for undertaking service projects. They are best known for their high-quality college preparatory educational institutions for students who might not have access to a quality education in the private sector, as well as for their private hospitals and service projects. All projects are developed and maintained through private donations. We visited several private schools organized through the Hizmet movement as well as a couple of universities. I also learned that there are now over 250 Hizmet-sponsored educational institutions in countries around the globe where Turkish people have emigrated. They specialize in science and technology as well as English-language instruction and what we might call “value-centered education.”

Some of the motivation for the Hizmet movement comes from an Islamic scholar and former imam (Islamic prayer leader) named Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, now in his early seventies, is recognized by many as a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King-type figure, inspiring Turkish society to serve others. The movement has attracted millions of followers in Turkey and elsewhere. Rooted in Islamic scholarship and the educational ideals of the Ottoman Empire, he frames contemporary social issues in light of Islamic ideals and need for education and science to advance society. The movement does not proselytize and is explicitly opposed to violence. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Gülen posted a full page advertisement in the New York Times, stating that Islam is opposed to violence and those who engage in violence are not true Muslims. Gülen, who is now in poor health, lives in Pennsylvania, where he has access to advanced health care.

An examination of the movement by sociologist Dr. Helen Rose Ebaugh at the University of Houston reports that the Hizmet movement encourages followers to commit at least 10% of their income and time to community service1. Based on an empirical study, she reported that most followers contribute more than that and meet multiple times a month in their community support groups. She sees Turkey as playing a pivotal role in progressive Islam, with its unique geographical position connecting Asia and Europe and its rich cultural and educational tradition developed during the Ottoman Empire.

Our trip took us to several historical sites dating back to the ancient Hittites, through the ancient Greek world, the Roman Empire; the Ottoman Empire, which included parts of Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, and modern, secular Turkey which emerged in the 20th century. We visited ancient Hittite cave-based community sites, the Greek city of Ephesus, Orthodox monasteries, a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and many mosques, in addition to contemporary homes, schools, and service projects.

Turkey has experienced major economic and educational gains in the 20th century as a democratic republic. The demonstrations which have been going on there in the last month were described by people I talked with as expressions of a growing democracy. The Hizmet movement does not take political positions, usually striving to find common ground.  However, I sensed sympathy for the demonstrators amongst most people I met, both within and outside the movement.  The current prime minister has had popular support as a person seeking to rebalance the secular movement in Turkey, though he is facing major criticism now. Turkish secularism, unlike that of the US, has not promoted religious tolerance; it has repressed religious expression. Many religious activities, regardless of affiliation, were outlawed until the last decade.

A primary example has to do with the traditional head scarf worn by most women and encouraged in Islam. The previous government outlawed the head scarf being worn in public institutions or schools because it symbolized oppression of women. However, a slight majority of women prefer to wear head scarves, and a study showed that a vast majority of people now think that it should be allowed. The wearing of head scarves was recently legalized, a change supported by the current prime minister. However, he is now falling out of favor because of other, more authoritarian decisions that the new democracy does not support. The recent demonstrations grew out of resentment of the government’s decision to bulldoze trees in a public park in Istanbul and replace them with buildings.  That became a symbol of more general dissatisfaction.

I was surprised to see no homeless people — homelessness is apparently very rare in Turkey — and I saw very little in the way of low-income housing. After a devastating earthquake in Turkey a little over a decade ago, much of the housing has been rebuilt into high-rise apartments that are designed to resist earthquakes. One morning, in the city of Ismir, we were told we would pay an early morning visit to a women’s center. I thought that this would be our opportunity to see a service project for low-income families. The women’s center was on the fifth-floor walkup of an old run-down apartment building.  When we arrived, we discovered that some of the women had been there since before dawn preparing a large breakfast for us, their guests. It turned out the service project we were to learn about was their fund-raising initiative to support a feeding program for families in Somalia and a school in Rwanda. They also knitted mittens for poor children in their neighborhood and organized community celebrations there. The center has a 12-member steering committee and about 500 women who participate in their neighborhood initiatives. Everyone serves others.

North Carolina has three main clusters of Turkish immigrants who participate in the Hizmet movement through the NC Divan Center. They are clustered in the Triangle, the Triad, and the greater Charlotte area. Many participants are graduates of the Hizmet-sponsored private schools in Turkey. Of those whom I have met, many have come here for graduate school, for university teaching and research, or for work in computer-related fields. These groups meet regularly for mutual support and discussion groups. The Triangle group has its own meeting space in Cary.  Their projects include educational programs for the larger communities. (I had the opportunity to be a speaker for the Triad-area group last year, talking about immigrants in North Carolina. Cathryne Schmitz spoke with the Triad group this year about women’s issues and the women’s movement.) Other North Carolina projects include many community education and cultural programs, meetings with legislators, community dinners, fund raising for projects, such as support for Hurricane Sandy victims; support for private schools, distribution of food for refugee families (in cooperation with CNNC), and many more.

This special version of Turkish delight is now available in North Carolina!

  1. Ebaugh, Helen Rose. The Gülen Movement. New York: Springer, 2010.
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