The French historian Ernest Renan was right to claim that “Islam was born in the full light of history,” as such, all Muslims know that the Prophet Mohamed wore expensive perfume, was immaculately clean, chose his clothing stylishly, and was fond of his Roman cloak. That would equate to Italian fashion today. He was a modern man, a classy merchant.
Anybody who doubts Muslim contribution to beauty and art should pause for thought: Have you seen the turquoise interior decoration of the Seljuks? Or the complicated fountains and door frames of the Mamlukes? Or the calligraphy and architecture of the Ottoman and Safavid empires? Or the Moghuls who bequeathed to us the Taj Mahal? I could go on and on. But the question is why aren’t we producing people who can create such civilizations again? Why do we have to be proud only of our past, and not our present?
Western civilizations look down on Muslim geographies today. I hate to confess but this is an elephant in the room that needs to be set free. It’s not because of our political choices. There is no inherent conflict between the American dream and the principles of Islam. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not contrary to what people want to experience in the Muslim world. We, the people of Turkey for example have been witnessing a booming economy, progress in human rights, and development in ensuring a fair judiciary. Turkey is no longer perceived in the world as a country characterized by unresolved murders and torture. So we have come to a point where European protestors pour out on the streets in London, Athens, Madrid, Rome, and Bucharest because of unemployment, economical breakdown, and their counterparts in the Arab countries risk their lives in the protests for democratic elections, ending of dictatorships and some basic human rights. Turkish protestors, on the other hand start complaining about 13 trees, which were replaced in one of the 480 parks of Istanbul. The environment is an issue of concern among citizens of advanced democracies. There is a good reason why most Somalians are not among the best known tree-huggers. When your pockets are full, when you have freedom, you start thinking about the environment. That is a very good indication of economic prosperity.
It’s human nature to keep asking for improvements in our daily lives and so we keep asking for more. Eleven years after the AK Party came to power, there is still restlessness in Turkish society. The restlessness is no longer about our pockets or our hearts and minds that are free; it’s about what the eye sees. Or does not see. Turkish people have no intention of going back to the Ottoman times but we do ask for the exquisite artistic features of the culture and the refined manners of the palace to reflect on the society and in the behavior and appearance of our politicians a little more. Turkish people appreciate Ataturk, an Ottoman general not only because he had been the commander-in-chief in the independence wars of Turkey, but also because of his impeccable clothing style, table manners and his polite speech. He represents a class in Turkish society to which all Turks look up.
Not a single foreign visitor comes to our region and leaves without observing its marvelous culture of unrivaled hospitality, the genuine warmth of its people and some of the best food the world can offerCeylan Ozbudak
As all Muslims know, the famous hadith “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty” (Innallaha jameel, wa yuhibbul jamal). We are created in a way to appreciate beauty, a part in our souls, which we undermine very often. Muslims need to get beyond thinking every beautiful thing is unlawful or forbidden. In the Quran Allah says: “They will ask you what is halal for them. Say: ‘All good things are halal for you’” (Surat Al-Ma’ida/4). We, as the people of Middle East, still have pristine faith and noble traditions. Not a single foreign visitor comes to our region and leaves without observing its marvelous culture of unrivaled hospitality, the genuine warmth of its people and some of the best food the world can offer. The trick is, not to make the world regret sitting at that dinner table with us. I am sorry to say but reports about certain Arab presidents and their table manners leave a lot to be desired. Our posh protestors don’t look down on our politicians because they are not successful enough in economics or in handling their administration, but because they are simply not sophisticated enough to meet the needs of the protestors’ refined eyes. Can we hate our White Turks for this? Yes and no. Yes, because this government has been an excellent example of good governance, and complaining all this work should be done by refined gentlemen sounds like an ungrateful population. And no, because our definition of advanced democracy and renaissance includes fine taste and liberal arts too. These are small things but small things can ruin a whole set of fulfilling service to this country. At this point, you can see many Turks are fond of good manners like the British, enjoy fine clothes like the Italians and care for art like the Spanish, and admire Americans for their…ok maybe not the Americans.
A love of art and culture
Turks are drawn to Rome and Prague for art and culture. They remind us of our Ottoman past, which was a sophisticated culture. You can see many Turks voting for the main opposition center left party only because their members seem to meet the minimum expectation of refinement, even though they could never win an election alone since 1946. Wolves can come in sheep’s clothing. In Turkey, we prefer our political wolves to be in tailored suits. Even in the most complicated days of the Istanbul protests, a pianist could soothe down an angry crowd with his grand piano in the middle of the riots. The evening passed without any major incident. Some protesters even had time for a game of football in the square. How sweet. Our government took a very sensitive step forward to renew the famous Gezi park for the Turkish youth and they came up with adding 200 more trees to the same park. Adding 200 trees to a park doesn’t seem to make anyone happy. We are not squirrels. In the last decade, Istanbulers moved in a direction where they ask for artistic sculptures, fountains, fancy lighting and pools in parks.
Sitting down with society
So far, the AK Party government proved on many points that they do not look down on Turkish people, they can sit down with the villagers and eat together, even the prime minister kissed the hands of people who tried to kiss his hand saying he is a servant of the country. Now is the time to prove they can sit down and eat with the posh society and aristocrats of European culture. Like many Germans, the Turkish center-right proved to be functional technocrats. They look like mechanical deliverers. But if we want to talk about art and finesse, you cannot go to them. We are talking about a party, which responds to the public demands and starts building a new opera house in Ankara, builds new roads to the opera house and easier transportation. But when will we see any of them enjoying a sonnet in that building or attend a theatre performance, or go to a concert, or comment about a painting?
Muslim nations are not being despised by many Western countries because we all failed in politics or economics. We are looked down upon because we are not equals in art and civilization as we were before. We were the cradle of civilization when Europe was in the dark ages. We do not produce artists or thinkers any more. We produce doctors and engineers in abundance, which is a positive point for Muslims too. But having a degree in engineering doesn’t make you presentable per say, you need other soft skills of class and communication. We need to be the perfect examples of civilization, beauties, quality, art and architecture. Functional steel towers do not represent finesse in architecture. We are Muslims. Our Holy Book, the Quran gives the examples of beauties like glistening pearls and corals. Our hadith explaining Paradise talks about crystal houses hanging in the air. Our culture produced the most beautiful prose, architecture, calligraphy, music and food. We may choose to believe this or not, but the lack of beauty to move a human soul is making the people restless inside and outside the Muslim world.
Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak