Islam in the Mainstream

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A Muslim seeking a place to pray in just about any Hilton in Turkey has but to ask and a prayer rug and an empty room will be provided. But when the chain opened a hotel in Konya last summer, it decided to go one better. It added something no other Turkish Hilton has: a small room where the devout can wash and pray. "Here, in this city, it seemed much more sensitive," said Emrullah Akcakaya, the hotel's director of sales.With its robust, pious middle class, Konya is Turkey's heartland for religious politics, a movement which, should Turks vote as expected, will find voice when the Justice and Development (AK) party sweeps the polls in the country's parliamentary elections. Once a popular stop on pilgrimages to Mecca, the city provided a power base for AK's predecessor, the Welfare Party of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who sought to move his country towards countries like Iran and Libya until the military ousted him in 1997. If Turkey has a mainstream fundamentalist streak, it would be bound to show up here.

The AK's popularity polls project it will receive as much as 30% of the vote, half again that of their nearest rival has spread ripples of worry through Turkey's secular establishment and the international markets. In Konya, they do even better, attracting 45% of the city's residents, according to a recent study conducted by Birol Akgun, a professor of International Relations at Konya's Selcuk University. But Akgun's survey also suggests that Konyans might not be as reactionary as they are painted to be. The AK has struggled to rid itself of its religious reputation. It has denied that Islam is central to its platform, proclaimed itself pro-Europe and sought to attract candidates from the center left. Meanwhile, Erbakan's new party stuck to his hard-line principles and polled at 4%.

To Konyans, as to other conservative Turks, the AK promises them access to the mainstream, from which they feel excluded by the country's ferociously secular policies; especially galling are regulations prohibiting government workers and university students from wearing Muslim headscarves. "They want to be accepted, but accepted with their own culture and values," Akgun says. In exchange, perhaps, there is little support for laws banning drinking or mandating prayer. Though devout, few Konyans wish to see their conservative beliefs imposed on others.

This philosophy is evident in their ancient city center where women are as likely as not to leave their heads uncovered. Mosques, large and small, are not hard to find, but neither are restaurants where one can sit and enjoy a beer. At night, discos and bars cater to the university and business crowds. Konya, it seems, is less fundamentalist than it once was. The city has undergone something of an industrial boom in recent years, and the increased prosperity has brought a scattering of immigrants. Konyan businesses have shifted their focuses, says Ahmet Sekeroglu, chairman of the Konya Chamber of Commerce. Ten years ago, factories here produced for domestic, Middle Eastern and West African markets. Now they export almost exclusively to Europe.

To be sure, Konya remains very conservative. Even the young and liberal, while wishing their city would accelerate its secularization, attend Friday prayers, moderate their drinking and fast during Ramadan. But Konya is foremost a city, a place that caters to all tastes and welcomes a certain degree of European influence. At the Selcuk University Medical School, Nedim Savaci, 42, a plastic surgeon, says he performs on average two nose jobs and one breast augmentation every week. The majority of his patients are women who wear the head scarf. "Especially today, everybody wants beautiful looks," he says.

Nor have the unisex spas at the Hilton or the German tourists who sometimes swim topless in the pool prompted any outcry. And when it comes to the prayer room, the hotel apparently need not have bothered. Though it counts many locals as patrons, most days the only ones using the room are the cleaners. They fill their mop bucket in the marble basins meant for ablutions. "Since we opened in May, the prayer room has been used by four or five guests," Akcakaya says. "But the bar is always full."