Fort Lauderdale's Anatolia Cultural Center endeavors to 'show the real Islam'

Sun-Sentinel, September 14, 2008

Over dinner with a Muslim family in Turkey, Gary Weiner couldn't resist asking his hosts: "Do you know we're Jewish?"

The host's answer, in fluent English, brought him to tears: "We don't care. You're human."

"It touched the deepest part of my soul," recalled the Boca Raton lawyer, who was visiting the country with a dozen others from Congregation B'nai Israel.

"Here we were on a rooftop, sitting on carpets, eating off tables 16 inches high," Weiner continued. "Yet he dismissed the idea of differences as irrelevant.

"It showed we're all part of the same family."

That leap across cultures was exactly the hoped-for impact of the 10-day tour of Turkey this past summer. Building trust. Crossing religious lines. And promoting a kinder, gentler Islam.

Sponsoring the tour, and others like it, is the work of the Anatolia Cultural Center, where Turkish-Americans gather to enjoy and preserve their faith and culture. It's the only one in South Florida.

"Some people say Turkish culture is Asian, some say it's Mideastern, some say it's European; I say it's unique," said Yasin Bagci, who organizes interfaith concerts and dinners as well as the tours of Turkey. "We lived for 600 years with many religious groups. And we want to show we're still the same way."

The tour was one of five sponsored by Anatolia since 2006, with Jewish and Christian congregations. The B'nai Israel members paid airfare, but food and accommodations were underwritten by businessmen in Turkey.

The tourists hit some familiar spots, from the metropolis of Istanbul — said to be the only major city sitting on two continents — to the peaks of the Cappadocia region, once home to cliff-dwelling monks.

One stop was a complex where a church, a mosque and a synagogue share a common courtyard. The group visited each house of worship.

Having read opinions from American commentators about war with the Muslim world, the tourists saw a different side of Islam.

"You hear so much about an almost-inevitable battle of cultures," said Aaron Meyerowitz, a math professor at Florida Atlantic University. "That's not the world I want to leave to my children. One culture or another doesn't have to win."

Anatolia Cultural Center

As ambitious as the Turkey tour was, it's only one activity of the Anatolia Cultural Center.

Named for the subcontinent Turkey occupies, the center runs on an annual budget of $250,000, paid by some of South Florida's estimated 15,000 Turkish-Americans. It operates from a 5,500-square-foot building in a warehouse area just north of Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport.

There are weekend classes in Turkish language and cooking. Jumah, the Friday prayer service, draws up to 50 people.

Members reach out, inviting non-Muslims for monthly coffees and Turkish music nights. And they sponsor annual Turkish festivals and Abrahamic dinners — named for the common patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

An overriding concern is the image of Islam, Bagci said. "People in America hear Muslim and think of al-Qaida. We want to show the real face of Islam."

They want to show how Muslims live in a Muslim land. Besides B'nai Israel, the Anatolia center helped send 13 members of First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables this year. Members of both congregations have been invited this month for Iftar, a nightly dinner held each night of Ramadan, the holy Islamic month that started Sept. 1.

Anatolia members visit churches and synagogues, striking up conversations and bringing "Noah's pudding" — a Turkish dessert said to have been eaten by Noah's family after the Great Flood.

"I'm not an expert on Turkey, but it seems their form of Islam is less isolationist," said the Very Rev. Andrew Sherman of St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, Boca Raton, where the Anatolia members have visited and brought Noah's pudding. "Turkey wants to be more connected with Europe."

Rabbi Richard Agler of B'nai Israel fostered a friendship with the Anatolia center to understand other faiths. He wants to help stem the tide of violence that is often committed in the name of religion.

"The language of faith is often warlike," Agler said. "The language we speak with the people at the Anatolia center is healthy and respectful and peaceful."

Helping forge that common bond has been Elvan Aktas, a founding board member of the Anatolia center. He was among a small group of young Turkish professionals who started socializing, then holding weekly home studies of the Quran.

They felt a "huge need" to show a better public image of Islam after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Aktas said. He and others began speaking at churches and interfaith groups. They then laid plans for the cultural center, which opened in 2004.

When he first visited B'nai Israel the following year, he didn't expect Agler to listen to him.

"But I found so much in common between Turkish immigrants and this congregation of Jews," said Aktas, now a professor of finance at Georgia State, Valdosta. "I had my doubts about interfaith dialogue. Now I'm convinced it works."

The Gülen movement

Anatolia is part of a loose association guided by the beliefs of an elderly Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gülen.

Now living in Pennsylvania, Gülen, 67, has built a reputation as a religious moderate. He embraces Islam as well as science, education and friendly relations with those of other faiths.

John Voll, an Islamic history specialist at Georgetown University, estimates that up to 15 million people worldwide may follow Gülen's views, if participants in school and cultural center activities are counted.

"It's not a well-organized Islamic party; it's a social and cultural movement, like the environmental movement," Voll said.

Local admirers share Gülen's belief that in a shrinking world, people need to cross cultural and religious lines.

"Muslim countries were once separated from western countries," said Mustafa Yucekaya, a founder and former head of the Anatolia center. "Now there are Muslims in the United States. You can no longer separate 'them' from 'us.'


Not everyone admires Gülen — even in his homeland, where a national debate has arisen over the role of Islam in public life. For some Turks, his beliefs run afoul of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular republic in the 1920s.

Prosecutors in Turkey accused Gülen of trying to overthrow the government in favor of an Islamic state; he was cleared in June. But some opponents still suspect Gülenism.

Stephen Schwartz, head of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, calls the movement a "front group" for the religion-friendly Justice and Development Party in Turkey, trying to gain sympathy from influential Americans.

"The Gülen movement wants to support soft fundamentalism in Turkey, and have influence wherever Turks are living," said Schwartz, author of a book on Sufism called The Other Islam.

Gülen denies making a power grab.

"Islam has never offered nor established a theocracy in its name," he told Foreign Policy in its Aug. 5 issue. "Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government's general character."

Future of Anatolia Center

The debates don't affect work in South Florida, the Anatolia center leaders say. For them, there's a more down-to-earth question: How to measure success?

"Actually, we don't know," Bagci said. "We're just trying to show the real Islam."

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