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Constable's Notebook - November 2008

Last year representatives with the Institute of Interfaith Dialog asked my wife and me if we would be interested in visiting Turkey. Like most Americans, we knew little about Turkish history, culture or government. We knew that Turkey is predominantly a Muslim country located in an unstable part of the world. We understood that Turkey is a close American ally but so is Saudi Arabia. We asked the usual questions. Is it safe? What would the accommodations be like? How would Americans be treated in that part of the world? We spoke to others who had made the trip including Mayor Will Wynn, Sheriff Greg Hamilton and Representative Elliott Naishtat and concluded that an opportunity to get to know and understand a very different culture should not be missed.

Our group included State Representatives Valinda Bolton and Donna Howard, their husbands, one other couple and our two Turkish-American guides. We visited six cities on two continents in 10 days. The hotels were top-notch; the food (mostly Mediterranean fare) was delicious and plentiful; and the numerous historical sites we saw dated back as far back as 5000 BC and the people we visited warmly welcomed us into their homes and respected our nationality and our various religious preferences. We met with law enforcement and elected officials, business leaders, academics, and journalists. The people we visited with knew far more about the United States than we did about Turkey and were intensely curious about our lives and what we thought about various U.S. policies and about Turkey.

Turkey is the size of Texas with a population of about 71 million people and is 99% Muslim. Until about 20 years ago Turkey, while not an ally of the former Soviet Union, was a Communist nation where religious expression was, to say the least, discouraged. Interestingly Turkey while a nation of religious people, is a secular nation that actually prohibits religious expression in many public places. I came away with the belief that their experience as an officially non-religious nation under Communism and their fear of a rise of religious extremists contributed to laws that include some religious repression. Following the downfall of the Soviet Empire, Turkey began to move towards democracy but it still remains a crime to criticize the military. When we questioned the limits on free speech we were gently reminded that Turkish democracy is only 20 years old and that it took the United States more than 150 years to grant freedoms to women and minorities.

Turkish citizens living in America founded the Institute of Interfaith Dialog. They saw, in a post 9-11 world, a need for people from different countries and cultures to better understand each other in order to dispel misperceptions and stereotypes that often lead to misunderstandings and armed conflict between peoples and nations. Just as there are various denominations of Christianity and Judaism, some more legitimate or extreme than others, all Muslims cannot be painted with one broad brush. A central tenet of the Turkish people, of our hosts and the Institute is that “Muslims cannot be terrorists and terrorists cannot be Muslims.” The Turkish people we spoke to all condemned the terrorist attacks in the strongest terms and are staunch American allies in the war on terror.

More information about the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue and Turkish culture can be found at www.Interfaithdialogue.org and a good Austin American Statesman article about our trip can be accessed at www.Constable5.com. Click on In the News and open “Austin Area Officials Visit Turkey - October 12, 2008.”



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