College students tend to flock to Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul for the relatively inexpensive rents — and it’s situated perfectly, with frequently running ferries to the European side of the city. In this conservative neighborhood, religious devotion is evident in the number of women covering with elegant headscarves. It was the perfect place and time, during the month of Ramadan, to explore the religious identity among young people in a city known for its secularism. Once young people are out on their own, their devotion to Allah has little to do with how they were raised at home, and everything to do with how they see themselves fitting in the world.
Young Adults Search for Religious and Secular Identities
After they move out, some young adults raised in conservative religious homes break with tradition. Others use independence to create their own religious lifestyles, and to figure out where faith fits in.
BY JENNIE BUTLER (story and photos) and AYESHA RIZVI (video)
It is 8:30 p.m. and the setting sun hovers above the Bosphorus, illuminating minarets across Üsküdar’s hillside. Firaz Batur’s mother carefully lays out a meal she’s worked for hours to prepare. Batur and his roommates sit and watch as she sets out a bowl of curry soup for each person with ample amounts of rice and lamb stuffed peppers, sheep’s milk yogurt, and fire roasted bread.
It is the first evening of Ramadan and five guests sit around a cotton tablecloth spread on the bedroom floor. They await the call to prayer at 8:45 p.m., which signals the beginning of Iftar, the breaking of the fast. The melodic call echoes through the room and when complete the group begins eating.
A view of the sunset from Serdar Erdem and Firaz Batur’s apartment, their home-away-from-home while they attend Bahçeşehir University.
The residents of this apartment are all students under 23 and are living independently from their families in this socially conservative Istanbul neighborhood. Batur, Serdar Erdem, Bora Karaman and two other roommates are eager to eat the spread, but not everyone at the Iftar has been fasting.
For Erdem, who did not fast, Iftar is an opportunity to bond with family and friends. For Karaman and the other roommates, the breaking of this fast is part of a spiritual connection to their faith in Allah. Erdem and Karaman, both Bahçeşehir University students, have each chosen a different spiritual path as they find their way in the world. Ayesha Rizvi reveals some of these tensions in her documentary,”Taking on Change: A New Islamic Generation in Istanbul”:
For some young adults, independence has become a point of departure, a crossroads in their faith as they break from traditions cultivated in religious, conservative homes. For others, this independence is a chance to create their own religious lifestyle and find out where faith fits in their identity.
Prayer rugs are available for visitors in the courtyard of the Hesna Hatun Mosque in Üsküdar.
In Istanbul, this contrasting approach to Islam is emblematic of a country trying to find its religious identity. Turkey has been a secular nation since 1923. However, in recent events, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has attempted to reaffirm Turkey as a nation under Islam. The AKP’s recent public policies, which coincide with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s religious beliefs, have sparked resistance from both religious and secular Turks. People from both groups believe that religion and politics should remain separate and that strict overarching Islamic policies will not work for Turkey’s diverse population.
Turkey’s struggle to establish its religious identity resonates with Erdem. He was raised in a Kurdish family following Islamic traditions in his hometown of Diyarbakır, a predominantly Kurdish city in eastern Turkey. Despite his family’s pressure to follow their faith, Erdem could never identify with Islam. His secularism was reinforced when he moved away from his family to attend college in Istanbul. Rather take a religious direction, Erdem followed the liberal political path many Kurds took, standing up against AKP’s crimes against Kurdish population.
“I did not create my identity through religion’s rules.” Erdem says. “I was never religious before, which is why moving away from my family did not affect my identity.”
Still, Erdem sits to enjoy Iftar with his religious roommates and friends from university.
Men perform the Muslim ritual of washing the hands and face before beginning prayer at the Hesna Hatun Mosque in Üsküdar.
Karaman and the others chose to continue identifying as Muslim after they became independent. Karaman’s family exposed him to Islam’s beliefs and traditions as a child, but he was only going through the motions of a religious life. His upbringing paved the way for him to discover Islam as an adult.
“When I was a boy, I discovered Islam from observing my family and society,” Karaman explains. “When I grew up I discovered Islam from reading books.”
Karaman and Erdem agree that Islam is a lifestyle choice, and that religion does not affect their social lives. It is a segment of a deeper self that cannot be dictated by family pressure or government policies.
“Religion is not something your family can explain,” Karaman says. “Your family can show you the way of Islam, but you will discover it yourself. You must find Islam inside yourself.”
Karaman’s attitude towards faith is common among young adults in Istanbul. Many young people regard Islam as an element of their greater identity, rather than a set of rules and traditions that dictate their lives. This is why many Muslims do not, or only partially, participate in Islamic traditions like attending Friday prayer, or observing Ramadan. Some only fast for Ramadan when they are with their families.
Batur, who is only fasting during his mother’s weekend visit, says that young people are thinking about religion differently because Turkey’s Islamic government is becoming more powerful. AKP is the most powerful political party in Turkey’s history. Batur explains that since AKP blurred the line that separated faith and politics, many believe religion should be designated for personal and family life, not politics. They see AKP’s religious push as an abuse to create a new Eastern identity for Turkey.
“Everybody has begun to practice religion in their own way,” Erdem says. “Since AKP has used religion to govern, people believe Islam has no purity anymore.”