Posted Jun. 21, 2014 @ 6:00 pm
How many of you knew that Rockford is home to a small but vibrant community of Turkish immigrants?I didn’t, either, until about a year ago, when members of the Turkish American Society of Rockford reached out to the Register Star to tell their story. That first meeting led to some meals together and discussions that culminated in an invitation to visit Turkey, which is why later this week, I’ll be joining a handful of others from the Rockford region on a study tour to the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Izmir.The trip is sponsored by the Niagara Foundation, based in Chicago, which promotes civic dialogue across national and religious boundaries. I’ll be blogging from Turkey at rrstar.com beginning June 30.Other members of the Rockford travel party are the Rev. Jane Eesley, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church on Alpine Road; Kris Kieper, who heads the YWCA; and Kristina Rueber, executive director of the Golden Apple Foundation. We’ll be joined by Kenneth Hunter, principal of Prosser Career Academy in Chicago, and Celal Evliyaoglu, the cheerful and very energetic man who runs the Turkish American Society of Rockford.Most of the 35 or so Turkish families in Rockford are refugees from former Soviet republics, where they were persecuted and from which they eventually were expelled. Other families came here to pursue professional opportunities.So why Turkey and why now?The trip came about because the Turkish residents of northern Illinois, and their partners at the Niagara Foundation, are eager to share knowledge of their culture, history and Islamic faith. Once in the country, we’ll have the opportunity to talk to and learn from Turkish scholars and journalists, among others.Mehmet Dik, chairman of the math, computer science and physics programs at Rockford University and a native of southern Turkey, said misconceptions about his homeland are widespread.“Turkey is not an Arabic country, first of all,” said Dik, who, along with his wife, is heavily involved in the TASR. “It’s a Muslim country but not an Arab country.”Indeed, Turkey is a natural bridge between Europe and Asia and Christianity and Islam, with a rich history of religious diversity and tolerance.That makes it a near-perfect place to learn about Islam as the faith actually is practiced by the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — as opposed to the cartoonish image spread by some in the American political class and as counterpoint to the fearsome image projected by fundamentalist terrorists.It’s essential for 21st-century Americans generally, and Christians and Jews in particular, to gain an understanding of Muslim beliefs, practices and culture, for reasons both poetic and prosaic.
At its highest level, an understanding of other faiths is essential to bridging gaps of all kinds.To borrow from my late friend Jim Veninga, a scholar of religion and former administrator in the University of Wisconsin system, there’s no better way to humanize someone else than to realize that you both share an experience of the sacred.The practical reason for developing a better understanding of Islam is simple: In much of the United States, including Illinois and large sections of the Midwest, Muslims constitute the second-largest religious body after Christians. We need to know our neighbors.So what should American visitors to Turkey expect?“Hospitality,” Dik said. “That’s something you have to experience. The common tradition in Turkey is once you’re in someone’s house, you’re part of the family.”Mark Baldwin is executive editor of the Rockford Register Star. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkFBaldwin.