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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 16:52 GMT
Turkish journey: Islamic Citadel
The BBC's Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life on a trip across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open membership talks.

He sent the second of a series of reports from Konya.


"Why are you so interested in religion?" a municipal official asked me halfway through my stop in Konya. I was, rather unnaturally for a broadcast journalist, struck dumb for a moment.

Konya
Milk and warm water with honey is handed out on the night of Kadir
Why was I so interested in religion? So interested, in fact, that I'd come to Konya simply because it is known - or was known - as the "Citadel of Islam" and the home of Green (that is, Islamic Green) business.

But why am I so interested in religion in Turkey? It is overwhelmingly Muslim, but after a while you're tempted to say "big deal".

But that's not the view from London, where editors decide on what the story is; or in Paris, where the prime minister worries about the "river of Islam" sullying secular Europe if Turkey joins the EU; or in Brussels or Berlin or Vienna.

Islam is the story as far as the above are concerned.

When European politicians agonise over "cultural differences" or "societal makeup" they are not talking about the Turkish predilection for kebabs or for taking football far, far too seriously, they are talking about Islam and what it might mean for the Christian club that is the EU to have 70 million Muslims asking for the right to use the facilities.

Despite the fact that the tag "Citadel of Islam" is a little out of date, Konya is the right place to come to see something of that difference.

Nearly everyone here scoffs at the idea that this is a stronghold of conservative Islam anymore. Whilst there are far more women covering their heads in public than in a western Turkish city, you'll probably find a higher proportion as you go further east.

In the minutes before the start of iftar, a silence of sorts falls upon the city; there is a focus to people's thoughts
The presence of 75,000 university students has changed the city, as has the steady growth of the business community; it is more open, more liberal.

Konya is a fine looking place; clean, well planned, with wide roads, wide pavement, well built if rather nondescript apartment blocks and even bicycle racks. Bicycle racks! In Turkey?

There a fair amount of civic pride; posters around the city remind residents - also known as voters - of the achievements of the Mayor. The editor of the city's newspaper says that 99% of those who come to work in Konya decide to stay in the city.

The same municipal official who asked me about my religious nosiness told me that the city has the second largest roundabout in the world. I tried to restrain my excitement.

Men and women sit separately as they wait to break their fast
Away from the world of road traffic management, it becomes pretty clear that Konya is a more devout city than most. As the day drew to a close the pace of the traffic picked up as people piled into their cars to get home to break the Ramadan fast with their families.

In restaurants, people sat and eyed the food in front of them waiting for the signal that they could start eating. A long queue formed outside a municipal tent where people go either to have a meal that they could not afford, or simply to enjoy "iftar" with others.

In the minutes before the start of iftar, a silence of sorts falls upon the city; there is a focus to people's thoughts, and, as a firework signals that the time for the fast has finished, there is a sense of oneness, of community, that is of its own. This is part of the "difference" of Islam.

Maybe I've gone native but it doesn't seem like such a bad thing. Of course, in nearly all the restaurants and cafes men and women eat separately; that bit of Islam doesn't sit so happily with my moist-eyed liberal values.

No mourning

I came to Konya on the night of Kadir, the holiest in the month of Ramadan. The city's main mosque was overflowing, men standing, kneeling and prostrating themselves in prayer on the mosque's balconies and its lawn.

Milk, and warm water thick with honey, is handed out around the city. The museum of Mevlana, the 13th century philosopher and mystic of Islam whose followers are known as the whirling dervishes and who lived and died in Konya, is thrown open to the public for free.

Evening on the streets during Kadir has a carnival atmosphere
There is a carnival atmosphere; around the museum a crush of people mill around, waiting to get in. The air is thick with the smell of popcorn and the sound of hawkers selling everything from backscratchers to freshly baked simit, the national bread snack.

The next morning I wait for another unifying moment. At 0905 in the morning on 10 November, 1938 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, died in Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosphorous in Istanbul.

Across the country every year flags are lowered; the newspaper's front pages are dominated by his portrait; the country's leaders gather at his mausoleum in Ankara. In the cities of Izmir and Ankara traffic comes to halt; people stand in silence for a minute as low sirens wail.

In Konya the traffic rumbles on; there is a ceremony with civic leaders; but the people of the city seem to care little about the anniversary. An almost inaudible siren is ignored.

Konya may no longer be the citadel of Islam. But its residents do not appear to mourn - or even notice - the passing of the man who abolished the Islamic Caliphate and declared Turkey a secular Republic.





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