December 2, 2004
At a conference in Ankara, Turkey, I observed many signs of convergence between
the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East that counterbalance Samuel Huntington's
"clash of civilizations" and the current events that seem to support
his thesis. And the convergence is not just based on corporate "globalization,"
but also on deeper currents at work that might actually bring peace.
The conference, sponsored by the Turkish Bureau of Religious Affairs, discussed the topic of religious broadcasting. Speaker after speaker lamented inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims in the U.S. media. My own talk took a different tack, detailing the way religion blurred with politics in the 2004 U.S. presidential party conventions. But we all struggled with how to communicate the core commitments of people of faith in winsome ways, without having them subsumed by either state or market values.
The Muslim scholars who spoke, including both academicians and journalists, were consistently self-critical. Vusala Guluzade described the status of religious broadcasting in Azerbaijan as at the "crawling stage." Ahmet Onay, the organizer of the conference, lamented low ratings for religious broadcasts among youthful viewers in Turkey. Even Iranian Seyyed Hassan Hosseini concluded that didactic religious broadcasting was pretty useless, and the best shows were those in which faith appeared "indirectly."
What I found most fascinating though was a prospect touched on by many speakers: that religious broadcasting might promote peace. Surely, this seems far off, as the best-known examples of religious broadcasting are the nationalist Pentecostalism of Pat Robertson on CBN, and the sectarian Wahhabism of Osama bin Laden on Al Jazeera. But not one speaker -- and there were dozens from the Muslim world -- came close to either extreme. They were thoughtful, earnest, and dedicated to communicating an accurate image of Islam, in ways that promote civil society through aesthetically pleasing forms. Turkey's national television network, which controls sixteen channels, seems particularly poised to meet this challenge.
While there, I visited two sacred places in Ankara that, between them, convey Turkey's peace-building potential in religious broadcasting, and how practitioners in the U.S. might address a similar problem. The first was Anitkabir, the massive mausoleum to Ataturk that stands on Ankara's highest hill. It is a testimony to Turkey's commitment to secular government. It is also surrounded by a vibrant commercial-residential neighborhood, whose cafes were full even in the midst of the Ramadan afternoon. The second sacred place, Kocatepe mosque, is flanked by a huge Muslim bookstore, which was packed on a Friday night, and a shopping mall, also bustling with activity, that has commodities like televisions, perfumes, clothing, and computers. I felt very much at home with the tension between the two sacred sites, and the tension with the marketplace.
In only a few weeks, the European Union (EU) will determine whether or not to extend membership to Turkey. Welcoming Turkey into the EU would be an extraordinarily wise move that could transform the entire region. EU membership would bring stability and legitimacy to Turkey's eighty-year experiment of bridging Islam with progressive politics and religious freedom. With such stability, Turkey might become a key broker in many volatile areas, and its broadcast media could create convergences between Muslim nations and the West. Surely, this is a more promising approach to growing democracy in the Middle East than America's ill-planned war on Iraq. Thankfully, and to his credit, President Bush has gone on record in support of EU membership for Turkey.
In the U.S., we face a similar tension between fervent religious faith, progressive politics, market values, and religious freedom. I suspect it will be up to the media to keep that tension alive -- without ceding to one extreme or another, without demonizing or stereotyping either secular or sacred rites, and by negotiating with market forces throughout.
Religion has been all over the broadcast media in the past few years, as Sightings has documented. Whether media producers feel responsible for representing religion in a way that promotes peace is, perhaps, a question we ought to be asking of them.
What has become clear, though, is that Huntington's clash need not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, even in light of Iraq and the recent presidential election. And neither does it seem inevitable that corporate control is the only way global cultures might converge.
My experience in Turkey suggests that there might be a third way -- bring people together in the interests of peace through fervent faith, progressive politics, religious freedom, and aesthetic integrity.
Jon Pahl teaches at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. His latest book is Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place.