Our early fall trip to Istanbul, Turkey, for a few days of rest and relaxation provided a nice change of scenery and a break from the regular routine. As always, there were plentiful opportunities for people-watching, and I tried to keep my cultural sensitivity eyes and ears wide open.
Since our hotel was just minutes from the famous Blue Mosque and 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 much of 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 A.D. Its proximity to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque makes it a prized spot for Ramadan fast-breaking.
The mosque was originally constructed to demonstrate the superiority of Islam in general and, most especially, over the Hagia Sophia – the historic church that became a mosque and that 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 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!”
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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 offer an opportunity to underwrite intergenerational family solidarity, reinforced by a generic, non-specific, national religiosity. In Ramadan 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 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 that 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 feast 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 United 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.