Events in Muslim World Trigger an Old Memory
Muslim countries are much in the news lately. I’ve lived in only one of them in my long and checkered life, and it didn’t exactly count.
It was 1961, I was 19 years old (do the math), and I didn’t know jack about international affairs or world religions.
All I knew was that when I graduated as a Russian linguist from the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., they informed me that I was being shipped to a top-secret place called TUSLOG Det 4.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that TUSLOG stood for “Turkish-U.S. Logistics” and that I was going to spend the next 13 months living on what was officially described as a “hardship post” near the ancient coastal town of Sinop, directly across the Black Sea from the Soviet Crimea.
Sinop turned out to be a wonderfully picturesque place. The heart of the city still had the remnants of a Roman wall around it, and the countryside looked biblical. There was a Cold War on, and we worked three shifts in a heavily guarded hilltop building bristling with then-sophisticated antennae. You can use your imagination as to what we were doing in there.
As to my initial comment that Turkey “didn’t exactly count” as a Muslim (or Moslem, as we spelled it then) country: The charismatic ruler Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, who had run the country until a generation or so earlier, had done his damnedest to secularize the place and turn it toward the West. He banned fezzes on men and veils on women, adopted a Latin alphabet, and decreed that Turkey thenceforth was to be considered part of Europe, not Asia. (I never quite bought that. Look at the map.)
Anyway, it didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Or, in my case, small-town Missouri.
I particularly remember an orientation we received upon arrival, in which a sergeant warned us to keep our Christianity strictly to ourselves. He also advised that if we happened to be walking along the street in Sinop and a Turkish woman should fall on her face in the mud, we were to keep on walking without even looking at her, never mind stopping to help. To do otherwise would risk having one’s throat cut by the husband whose property she was.
I’m sure many Turks resented our Ugly American presence. But they tolerated it because they hated the Russians even more. It had something to do with that Crimean War unpleasantness of the previous century, not to mention other ancient grievances.
Once I took a stack of old American magazines down to a Russian merchant acquaintance in town. Leafing through a copy of Life, he came upon a full-page photo of Nikita Khrushchev, which he ripped out, wadded up, spat on and threw on the floor.
We generally got along fine with the Turkish men who manned our mess hall and cleaned our barracks. But halfway through my stint there, one of our fellow soldiers did or said something to cause a grave religious insult to a Turkish man. An angry crowd gathered at the gate to the post, and the offending American, afraid for his life, had to be sneaked out in a mail bag in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck.
Things clearly haven’t changed much in all the years since — especially in less moderate Muslim countries than Turkey. I find the current news from “modern” Islamic lands — mostly along the rim of North Africa — terribly disturbing, discouraging and disgusting.
In the wake of the “Arab spring” — which so far isn’t looking a heck of a lot different from winter — we like to believe we’re over there fostering the growth of democracy, a form of self-rule that supposedly includes some modicum of freedom of expression and toleration of other cultures.
Yet let some freelance, loner idiot across the ocean in America make some crude anti-Islamic “movie” trailer, which our government deplores, and you touch off murderously primitive tribal attitudes that still fester there just beneath the surface: My tribe has been offended, so somebody in your tribe has to die.
I know, I know. The people climbing embassy fences and burning down consulates and killing innocent Americans — and turning their weapons on their U.S. trainers — probably don’t represent a majority of the people in those lands.
Still, part of me cries out: The Cold War is over. Why don’t we just shut down and come home and let those benighted people in that part of the world stew in their own radical juices?
Oh, yeah. I forgot. We’re too addicted to their oil.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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