I am as utterly revolted by ISIS and their grotesque acts as anybody I know, but while I share the sentiment that Western governments trying to negotiate directly with ISIS is no panacea for peace, equally I am deeply concerned by much of the public response is emotional and misdirected and will, I fear, exacerbate the situation. I am reminded of conversations I had in Turkey in early summer 2013.
This was during a trip with an interfaith group to Turkey in the early days of the horrors that continue in Syria. We spent two or three days in Mardin, a town twenty-five miles from the Syrian border whose central fort dates back 3,000 years. Our host there was Mehmet, a powerful and beautiful man of mixed Kurdish and Arabic roots. We visited the town, drank tea together, and got to know each other a little. Then he told us of his early life and the evolution of his beliefs.
Mehmet’s mother was an Arab and his father a Kurd; in his home Arabic and Kurdish were spoken but not Turkish, which meant that when he first went to school aged five he was already behind the children who had grown up speaking the national language, the language in which education was provided, and as he went through his school years he felt the gap growing rather than shrinking. In a country in which only the elite go to university, there is no room in higher education for people like him, for people from his background. So he turned to bitterness with, alienation from and anger at Turkey and the Turkish government.
By alanogy he told us a story. “Imagine,” he said, “living in a village and one night, completely unexpectedly, five or six heavily armed soldiers knock on your door. They tell you that they are fighting for you, that your cause is their cause, and they demand you let them in to spend the night. You know they are with the PPK, a terrorist organization, and they do not represent you. You have no sympathy for their cause, but what can you do? When this happened to your neighbor he said ‘no’ and the following night the men came back and burned his house down. So you let them in. They tell stories of terrible things the government do, and you don’t believe them. They tell you the government will take your home and you don’t believe them. They say the government wants to destroy you and you don’t believe them. But what can you do? You sit and listen and nod, and you feed them and give them food and beds for the night.
The following day they leave and you heave a sigh of relief, but the next night there is another knock on the door. You open it and see three heavily armed gendarmes who say they represent the government, they represent the people, they represent you. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘ did you let terrorists spent the night?’ You tell them what happened, that you had no choice, but they tell over your protestations they tell you to leave the village. You tell them your whole life is her, all your family and friends and possessions but they tell you to leave and go to the city. You tell them you have no skills for the city, that you don’t even speak Turkish but they still tell you to go. You tell them there is no future in the city for your children who do not even speak Turkish, but still they insist. And then they leave.
You know that if you stay they will come back to do terrible things to your family and burn your house down. So what are you to do?
Our host was asked if the gendarmes and the terrorists were working together and he said ‘Yes.’ He said that they both want to destroy the local Kurdish villages, for both believe they win that way; the gendarmes eliminate an unwanted minority and the PPK recruit supporters. He said that such displaced Kurds have great hatred for the government, and that the media coverage of this region of the country also causes much hatred of Kurds in general.
I see in the behavior of the PKK an analogy for the behavior of ISIS. I believe that part of the agenda of this horrific movement is to drive global hatred of all of Islam such that Muslims everywhere are ostracized. I believe that the interests of ISIS are best served by generating universal hatred of Islam and universally ostracizing all Muslims. In just the same way that the behavior of the PKK and the Turkish government drove swelling of the ranks of the PKK, so reacting in the way ISIS wants and ostracizing all Muslims, including the peaceful majority, will be to exacerbate the problems and to breed hate.
But there is more…
Mehmet said that at that time he spoke of he followed the teachings of his family and his village, that they said they were Muslim but they did not know the Qur’an. He said that when he met a man with true understanding and truly learned the Qur’an and the Way of Islam his life turned around. He realized that the true teaching of Islam is one of love and compassion, and he experienced the joy this brought into his life. He decided to commit himself to the path of love and compassion and dialog, and part of this commitment was to host groups such as ours.
A large part of this commitment is also offering free early school education to the poor children of Mardin so that they are not at such a disadvantage in the education system. At first it was hard to convince the local parents to send their children, but now that the first graduates have returned as doctors and lawyers and businessmen it is becoming easier. It was really important to me to see indications of teaching of Islam. Mehmet told us that the schools cater to all religions but with a majority Muslim population and such a poor popular understanding of Islam in the village populations, the primary purpose of the schools is to teach a proper understanding of Islam.
I understand and believe that the situation Mehmet describes of his childhood continues to be true in parts of the Middle East, and that policies that negatively impact such communities exacerbate the situation. The converse is that inclusive policies of love and education directed towards the majority Muslim population work in the opposite direction and work to ostracize the terrorists from the majority population.
That night Mehmet invited us to his house for dinner and we had an extraordinarily wonderful time, a time that I think I will look back to as a major turning point in my life. His siblings and mother and wife’s mother and their families were with us. We were welcomed like family with enormous warmth and love. The children – and there were many of them – joined us and served us tea and played with the gifts we had brought and learned origami. They swarmed our charismatic Baptist minister George and all friended him on facebook (he is going to learn Kurdish when he returns to Savannah so he can converse with them!). Our tour leader cried several times as he translated the conversations.
This was a time that does not lend itself well to description but it was among the most beautiful few hours of my life. I tear up now as I write that Mehmet’s wife said our coming to her home was the realization of a thirty year dream, that she would not ever have thought it possible. Later she asked what our greatest surprise was in coming to Turkey, and when I replied that “In a dream all things are a surprise, ” Mehmet said, “Then let’s not wake up.”
Earlier in the day Mehmet had told us that we should not judge each other to until we get to know each other. He said that there are three things we should practice. I can only remember two of them, but I think that is enough to sum up the message: we should love each other; and we should engage in dialog. He repeated this last many times. The Bishop in the Syrriac Church in Mardin had told us just that same morning when smiling about the tolerance between all the faiths in his city, “It is not the religion job to divide the people. It is not the religion job to use religion in the political life. It is the religion job that we must love each other. If a person says they are a Christian and they love God and hate their neighbor, they are a liar.” And as a Baptist minister said on our way back to the bus, “We Americans believe in doctrine and have incredibly complicated discussions; in Turkey they believe in origin, that we all come from the One God and are on this earth to know and love each other.” We have so much to learn, and we must surely begin by loving one another and having dialog.
It is my fervent hope that we will find a way to recognize this in the way we respond to the horrors of ISIS, and it is my aspiration to use my efforts to support this path forward. It is only by embracing mainstream Muslim as an ally in the war on terror and on ISIS that we can have any hope of success.
This post is drawn in large part from an original post on my previous blog over a year ago. It was edited for inclusion in The Straight Eightfold Path, which is available from Amazon – or by subscribing to this list (see below).
Subscribe to Join Me On An Interfaith Pilgrimage to receive a free copy of my latest book and to receive future posts DIRECT to your inbox.