Our early fall trip to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days of R&R provided a nice change of scenery and a break from the regular routine. As always, there were plenteous opportunities for people-watching and I tried to keep my cultural sensitivity eyes and ears open. Since our hotel was just minutes from the famous Blue Mosque and since we were in this predominantly Muslim city during Ramadan, I felt especially privileged. Each evening, as practicing Muslims were preparing to break their Ramadan fast, Janice and I were able to walk through Constantine’s famous Hippodrome area and experience, first-hand, this venerable religious custom.
The Hippodrome is no longer the center of public chariot racing which once attracted up to 100,000 spectators; many locals are oblivious to the reality that 30,000 died on these grounds in five days of urban warfare during the “Nika” (“Victory”) riots between the Green and Blue factions in 532 AD. Its proximity to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque makes it a prized spot for Ramadan fast-breaking; so it was quite congested every time we were there.
A family representative would arrive in the afternoon to stake out a picnic table or a smooth spot on the grass, so that relatives could celebrate together in close proximity to the imposing 17th century structure. The mosque was originally constructed to demonstrate the superiority of Islam in general and, most especially, over the Agia Sophia - the historic church, become mosque which, in the modern, secular Turkish state, is now a museum of history.
As sunset approached, the place grew more crowded. Bands played, TV crews reported from the scene and local political movements were omnipresent. Sidewalk vendors revved-up both the volume and the intensity of their sales pitches, especially since, by custom, hungrier-than-usual children are allowed to eat early. The call to prayer signaled the beginning of the feast for the adults. Although I did not understand the language, it was clear that, from a functional equivalent standpoint, the voice over the public address system was saying “dig-in!”
With the American civil religious custom of Thanksgiving soon to appear and another kind of turkey destined to occupy the center stage of many an American imagination, I found some interesting comparisons. Both feasts serve as an opportunity for the underwriting of intergenerational family solidarity, reinforced by a generic, non-specific, national religiosity. In Ramadan fast-breaking and Thanksgiving, participants are called to step aside from routine priorities and sit with family around a meal. In the end, each provides, both literally and figuratively, the warm feelings of a full belly and the comforting, ethnocentric sense that one’s ways and those of one’s culture are superior to all others. Both feasts follow predictable and well-understood patterns, passed down over hundreds of years. In both cases, the ultimate, potentially powerful and influential voice of personal faith is all too easily made subservient to a penultimate patriotism and a nationalism that, by its very definition, flies in the face of a supreme devotion to the Almighty.
Both Ramadan and Thanksgiving, in their cultural expressions, are easy venues for use by radical extremist nationalists. They are perfect opportunities for those intent on revisiting, if not rewriting, history. They can quickly be subverted by the not-so-subtle “selling” of a version of generic, theocratic patriotism which substitutes timeless, religious, idealistic means for pragmatic, contemporary, political ends. I can only wonder if many cultural Muslims at Ramadan, like many cultural Christians at Thanksgiving, leave the table with a smug sense of both their own piety and the superior virtue of their own, largely unexamined way of life.
With so much hate talk poisoning the environment these days coming from both radical, civil religionists in the States and extremist Muslims elsewhere, we might do well to recognize some of the essential weaknesses and strong similarities between the two faiths, as expressed in these feasts. After the turkey and before the football and the nap, maybe we should add a little reflection on the side.