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August 18, 2006

Turkey: Land of Mystics

Roy Meachum

Capodicia, Turkey - My new friend was adamant. No, no, you don't understand, he said. The Arabs don't like us because we are a "land of mystics." I suggested in an earlier column from here that maybe it had to do with the fact Turks in the Ottoman Empire once ruled Arabs.

But Arab reaction to a land of mystics, that I can understand.

The invitation to tour Turkey came from an organization of Sufis: they are the mystical branch of Islam. They are very big on music and poetry. The famous Whirling Dervishes are, in a real sense, their advertisement of themselves, as Walt Whitman said.

They practice kindness not war. And they have been very kind to our small group rounded out by a couple that sponsors peace events and a pair of Jesuit priests. As a practicing journalist, engaged in making a mundane living, I'm the odd man out.

I want to make clear that I'm not entirely objective on the subject of Sufism. I admired the first advocate I met of this gentle form of a religion much blamed in these times for advocating bloodshed and other violence. My Egyptian friend earned his daily coffee by owning a silver shop in Cairo's great Khan el-Khalili, the largest bazaar in the city.

True Sufis may not even serve in the armed forces; I don't know. Some I've met strike me as very resolute, as human beings and Muslims. Without violating their principles, they do what they "gotta" do. After all, there are Quakers who take up arms in times of national emergency. And the Society of Friends may be the closest Christianity gets to this mystical branch of Islam.

And there may be the rub.

In Arab nations, Sufis are little more than a statistical minority, at least as far as I can figure out. No one walks around with a sign plastered on the forehead advertising their beliefs, after all. But I have been led to believe traditional Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, have enough to do: praying five times a day and keeping up other religious obligations. The faith mandates charity: there is not choice. Either share with others, or don't go parading and boasting around Mecca. Wherever.

Sufis are willing to take the extra step, and that's why I'm counted among their admirers, sweeping aside our common interests in poetry and such. My new Turkish friend said in a matter of fact voice: of course, he was a Sufi.

And this is another difference about Turkey.

Sufis have not been burned at the stake, as far as I know, in other parts of the Muslim world. But here they're accepted completely for who they are. And that's very good. For the past week, we've been introduced to schools and hospitals run by the organization that follows the tradition of Jalal Al Din Rumi.

If his name means nothing to you, then you don't own one of his books of poetry: a quarter million Americans do. His volumes of verse led the best-seller list recently. He lived in the 13th century. Those facts are not as important as the way he spoke of love and loneliness and true completion.

Aside from the Rumi organization, I know little about Sufism in Turkey, but fully understand why the adherents would have a rough go elsewhere. Saudi Arabia advocates religious fundamentalism, enforced by special police. Most other neighboring nations are ruled by tyrants: Egypt leads the list.

And tyrants and dictators want nothing to do with anyone or any idea they can't control completely.

Sufism cannot be tucked away in a bottle or jail cell. Its followers can. But they're no fun to the average jailhouse bully. Some of them actually relish pain, as a way of getting closer to the One God, they call Allah. The silversmith in Cairo had all his teeth pulled, I'm told, in order to transcend his love of great quantities of food.

Strangely enough, promulgating a form of extremism, Sufis are deeply connected with the outfits in Islam that preach the sacrifice of life for the greater good. They cannot be found among the ranks of the suicide bombers, but can admire those who give up their lives for what they believe is the greater good of their fellow man. It is an idea that grates on Western nerves and consciences.

But we are creatures of a civilization known to vilify Quakers for their "thee" and "thou" ways, ignoring the great good they're contributed to humanity.

Like their "Friendly" counterparts, Sufis are guided not by men but principles. And that could leave their fellow Muslims scratching their heads and your neighborhood Joe to switch on the television sports.

But if our government can ever get a hold on the Middle East, people must make themselves aware of what is a frequently tedious and occasionally frightening region on this earth.

Our children's lives are at stake.

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