Two Different Worlds?

by Ahu Latifoglu

As an eighteen-year-old exchange student, I have been observing and learning about the American culture in the past ten months. Having some close American friends in Turkey, I had some ideas about American culture before I arrived here. However, throughout my stay in the USA, I have constantly been in the process of learning something new. Being enrolled in a Chicago public high school, my observations are mostly based on the people I have had a chance to interact with. I'd like to make it clear that what I have observed may not be true of all Americans; similarly my thoughts or feelings are not necessarily representative of all Turks, Muslims, exchange students, and so forth.

One of the things my friends and host family discuss the most is religion. I am a Muslim and am now living in a mostly Christian environment. I feel that I have learned quite a lot about Christianity by attending the church services in the local area. I feel that some people do not know much about Islam. One of the things most people do not realize is that it is a fairly new religion. It started and spread around the world in the seventh century. Muslims believe in the presence of one supreme creator, Allah. The prophet of this religion is Hz, Mohammed. One of the most important aspects of Islam is that it recognizes all the prophets and Holy Books before the Kuran, the Holy Book of Islam. The idea of an eternal life after death in Heaven or Hell are common points between Islam and Christianity.

I think that the practical applications of Islam are also very interesting. This religion gives a lot of importance to cleanness. The washing of the body five times a day before praying is one of the fundamental applications of Islam. As in other religions, peace, brotherhood, and sharing are strongly stressed points. The religious celebrations and the month of fasting or Ramadan are based on sharing and getting together. Fasting from sunrise to sunset is practiced both to train the body and also to understand what it feels like to live without food. Helping the poor, homeless, lonely, and troubled are other points emphasized in the Muslim religion. Sharing a certain part of the income and some of the food with the poor during certain times is another important application.

What I feel as a Muslim about the Muslim-Christian wars, like the Crusades, is another question I am asked. I think that what I know about this subject is the same as what most teenagers my age know about it.

The Crusades are taught to all high school students during history classes. As a rule of the Turkish Ministry of Education, all high school students at the same level use the same book. This is what we are taught in general: The Crusades started when European countries realized that the Eastern countries were getting ahead in wealth and social issues. The strong trade market, the fast industrialization process, and high levels of living were things European civilizations did not have at that time. In order to catch up with or slow down the Muslim countries, the European countries decided to attack them. However, they were well aware of the fact that one country was not strong enough to fight against these strong countries.

The idea of getting the armies of Europe together was brought up. Since the relationships among those countries were not very strong, political leaders decided to use religion as a binding force against these mostly Muslim countries. Under the force of the powerful churches and religious leaders, the European armies were organized as one attacking force. These armies derived their name from the crucifixes displayed on their clothing, horses, and so forth. The main theme used in bringing these thousands of men together was saving the Holy Land. Although the region of the Holy Land seemed to be the main concern, other places, including [then Christian] Constantinople, were attacked. The Christians were not as successful as they wished to be in these wars. However, as a result of these long confrontations with other nations, they were motivated to travel more and to discover new lands.

I feel that the cultural differences resulting from religion are very difficult to sum up in a short article, or in a few hours. I am still learning a lot every day here in the United States and hope that I am able to make some things clear to my host family and also to my friends. Both the Muslim and Christian worlds have a lot to offer to each other and to learn from each other.

Ahu Latifoglu is a free-lance interpreter living in Istanbul, Turkey.

See all articles by Ahu Latifoglu