St. Thomas Perspectives Abroad: Turkey

By , Grace Vo  |  Thursday, January 17, 2013 11:36 AM

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“Merhaba” (hello) from Turkey!

On New Year’s Eve, our class began a journey to learn about Islam with our theology professor Adil Ozdemir, his daughter Halise and our tour guide Namik. We have stayed in multiple hotels and visited Istanbul, Sivas, Kayseri, Cappadocia, Pamukkale and are currently in Izmir. In a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, there’s no better place to learn about the Turkish culture and the Islamic religion.

Everyday there is something to do, places to see and a myriad of things to learn. Experiences like cruising on a boat on the Bosphorus Strait, eating baklava, sipping Turkish tea, seeing the Roman Empire of Ephesus, visiting historical madrasas (educational institutions) and mosques help me pick up a lot about the history and Turkish culture.

The course focuses on many aspects of Islam, starting from the very beginning which dates back to the Prophet Muhammad around 600 A.D., all the way to the present. Islam is an Arabic term that means “submission,” which is derived from a word meaning “peace.” The religion therefore endorses harmony, unity and a submission to God.

An unforgettable moment so far was when we attended a “Jumu’ah,” which is Friday prayer at the Izmir mosque. Unfortunately, we arrived late to the prayer, and there was no room for us in the mosque. It was incredible to see how full it was for prayer. You don’t see that in the U.S. often.

After the prayer, our group was invited to a religious conference talk. It is typical for a group of men or women to get together after Friday’s prayer (women get together on Saturday afternoon) to discuss the Quran. We felt welcomed and loved as they preached for the spiritual unity that their religion promotes, while calling us their brothers and sisters. It didn’t matter what gender, race or religion we were.

My Turkey experiences have made me realize that we have held several mistaken stereotypes of Muslims in the U.S. Ever since the attacks of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, some people associate Muslims with “terrorism.”

One stereotype is that Islam is a religion that preaches violence and war, and that Muslims are violent extremists. This is not true, as from reading excerpts from the Quran and meeting the followers of Islam, I can see that it is a religion that promotes peace and charity.

Another misconception I’ve heard is that Islam oppresses Muslim women. What I’ve learned is that the Quran promotes equality for both men and women, and it does not ask for anything that would become an overbearing burden. The headscarf, or “hijab,” women wear is a dedication to abstain from the pleasure of physical appearances. Its purpose is to help others focus on their personalities and minds.

The study abroad program has exceeded my expectations, and I am very grateful for this incredible opportunity. This is what I really enjoy about studying theology and religion: understanding why people believe the things they do and observing how much faith revolves around an individual’s life.

Grace Vo can be reached at

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