Aug 24

From John Alabilikian to El Paso to Mehmet

By Ismail Akbulut

On August 3, a hate-driven heinous mass shooting targeting immigrants in El Paso, Texas left 22 people dead and added another chapter to the saddest of American stories.

The tragedy made me reflect on the lives lost. They came to the US in search of a better future. Their deaths reminded me of the stories and tragedies of so many who look for the same thing.

I came to America over a decade ago with my young family. Both my wife’s and my family had emigrated from Turkey to Germany in the 1970s. The US meant opportunity for us. We were young and idealistic.

The history of the US is well-known. This country has traditionally been a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge for the persecuted, and a land of hope for people fleeing tragedies that range from discrimination to famine.

From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the gateway for about 12 million of these people. They all went through a tough vetting process that included a myriad of tests and examinations, but about 98 percent of them were allowed in.

A few weeks back, my family and I decided to visit Ellis Island as part of our first road trip to the East Coast. We are an immigrant family and we wanted to learn about those who entered the US a century ago.

We talked about how difficult it must have been back then to leave the only place you know by ship and travel for weeks under cruel conditions to a new land, hoping desperately that you’d finally find peace, freedom and prosperity upon arrival.

Our tour included audio stories from these men and women who took a chance on America so many years ago. To my delight, I saw that one of those stories belonged to a person from Turkey. His name was John Alabilikian. The surname gave away his Armenian background.

I was instantly curious about why Alabilikian came to the US in 1922.

As It turns out, Alabilikian’s story is heart wrenching. He was born in Yozgat, today’s Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1915, when Alabilikian was 7, most Armenian men in Yozgat were rounded up by the Ottoman army and disappeared; that’s what happened to Alabilikian’s father. Then the same thing happened to his mother and sister. He lost his family because they were Armenian.

In order to survive, his aunt married a Turkish man. They adopted Alabilikian and raised him as a Muslim. Since his step-father’s family was well off, they could afford to immigrate to the US in 1922.

Alabilikian was able to celebrate his Armenian identity and heritage when he arrived in the US. In the Ottoman Empire, it was this very identity and heritage that got his parents killed.

That tragedy never left him, but he always carried gratitude in his heart for what the US gave him.

John Alabilikan’s story reminded me about a dear friend who also came from Turkey to the US. Let’s call him Mehmet. Of Turkish descent, Mehmet lived in Western Turkey until he was 15. He’s the third youngest of four children. His family enjoyed a comfortable life in Turkey. Mehmet moved at the age of 18 to pursue his education in the US.

But the good times didn’t last.

What started as the American Dream turned into a nightmare for Mehmet and his family on the night of July 15, 2016.

On that day, a faction within Turkish military tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government, headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Much like Hitler’s reaction after the Reichstag fire, Erdogan called for a press conference while the coup attempt was still happening. He used the occasion to call this attempted coup “a gift from God” and, with no evidence, readily designated the perpetrators behind the failed coup as Fethullah Gulen and the famed Gulen Movement.

The Gulen Movement (GM) identifies itself as a peace movement that started in the 1960s in Turkey. it focuses on charity, education and dialog activities. The group initially supported the Erdogan government until he turned into an autocrat and shut down a corruption probe involving him, his family and his government.

Erdogan used the failed coup to target his political opponents. He’d already hollowed out much of Turkish civil society, including academia and the news media — incidents that have been thoroughly documented by international human rights groups and think tanks. Now he had the GM in his cross-hairs.

Like millions of other Turks, Mehmet and his family anxiously followed the coup attempt on TV and social media. Afterwards, a neighbor reported Mehmet’s father as a Gulen follower. This resulted in him doing five months in a concrete cell.

Then his father learned that the Turkish government had a search warrant out for him. He was accused of being part of a terrorist organization that tried to overthrow the Turkish government. He’d get 16.5 years in prison for that.

They gave zero evidence. But they didn’t have to since they ran the country.

Mehmet’s father didn’t give in. He knew that the police were torturing GM members as well as those accused of being participants or supporters. So he and his family went into hiding in a rural area, eventually becoming farmers.

Last October, Mehmet was driving on the highway when his mother called him and asked him to start FaceTime. He felt that something was wrong but kept his composure. He FaceTimed and smiled.

Then, in tears, Mehmet’s mother gave her 22-year-old son the awful news: his father just died in a tractor accident. He was just 56 years old.

His mother found out later that Erdogan’s government now had a search warrant out for her. They used the same baseless accusations. This forced her into perpetual hiding. First at a friend’s house, then to another friend’s house…and on and on…

Mehmet’s older brother and sister finally decided to flee Turkey because search warrants were issued for them as well.

His older siblings and their families, which included a three months old baby, fled to Greece by boat. To get there, they swam across the Evros River where they almost drowned. From Greece, his siblings managed to travel to Germany and the Netherlands where they filed for political asylum.

Mehmet prays every day that he’ll be able to rescue his mother and younger brother from Erdogan’s tyranny. They’re still hiding from authorities, on the run.

Mehmet is the only one in the family who has a decent job. He works as an IT specialist by day and drives a Lyft by night in order to provide for all his family members.

I’m grateful to be in the United States, to enjoy its privileges. The challenges we face today, including mass violence, makes me think about how we got here. I don’t have all the answers, but I know one thing: as a privileged member of society and a successful settler of this country, I am responsible for welcoming and assisting those who reach our shore in search of a better life.

They may be our friends. They might even have been our ancestors. We can never forget about them.

Published on August 22nd,
https://mirrorspectator.com/2019/08/22/from-john-alabilikian-to-el-paso-to-mehmet/

Aug 24

Religions Come Together To Celebrate Unity Amid Tragedy

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – It’s the first day of Islam’s biggest holiday. Coloradans from different religions came together on Sunday to celebrate as one and learn from one another.


(credit: CBS)

At an office park in Aurora, Muslim and Jewish people got together to celebrate Eid Al-Adah.

“Today is the highest Islamic holiday,” said Ismail Akbulut for the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation. “We are commemorating the story of Prophet Abraham when he was going to sacrifice his oldest son.”


(credit: CBS)

At their center in Aurora, the day began with a prayer. A feast soon followed, and as any host can tell you feasts are a lot of work. So, it’s a good thing there was a lot of help.

“Right now we are just doing odds and ends,” said Josh Klasco.

He and his friends belong to the group Judaism Your Way. They are an organization whose goal is to share Judaism with the community and embrace other religions like Islam. They also organize multi-faith volunteer events.


(credit: CBS)

Initially they focused their volunteer work around mass shootings. Following the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch, they grieved and comforted the Muslim community. Then when a shooting at a synagogue happened, Muslims returned the favor.

“And at a certain point one of the Rabbis from our organization started saying, we have to stop meeting like this,” Josh said.


(credit: CBS)

They decided to start coming together in times of celebration and Eid Al-Adha was their first opportunity. Jewish people and a few Christians come out to pray with the Muslim community at Multicultural Mosaic on their holiday.

They then helped prepare the feast and ate alongside each other.

“It is heartwarming. It is beautiful. It is encouraging,” said Akbulut.

If you took a look at the people eating and having fun you would never know they are any different and maybe they aren’t so different after all.

“Today we are getting together as cousins and celebrating this festival,” Akbulut said. “We have a future in this country together.”

Published on August 11, 2019,
https://denver.cbslocal.com/2019/08/11/islam-celebration-festival-aurora

Aug 24

Group Fills Backpacks For Immigrant Students: ‘It Is Love Inside’

DENVER (CBS4) – The Multicultural Mosaic Foundation is coming together to help immigrant students in Colorado have what they need to succeed in the classroom before the new school year. Starting off at a new school is tough enough for most kids, but imagine if you were starting a new school in a totally different country.


(credit: CBS)

Gulsum Katner knows what that is like.

“The biggest challenge with the newcomers, the immigrants is to be accepted in an environment,” she said.


Gulsum Katner (credit: CBS)

Katner emigrated from Turkey to go to college and says the biggest struggle was wondering if she belonged. Once she felt accepted, she was able to focus on the things every student should be worried about like her school work.

“If they feel loved and cared (for) and like they are part of it, it will work for them,” she said.


(credit: CBS)

Now she’s the CEO of Multicultural Mosaic Foundation in Aurora. They’ve created an annual fundraising program for immigrant and refugee students at South High School in Denver.

They collect donations to give freshmen backpacks full of school supplies.


(credit: CBS)

“We want to give a chance to society to welcome those refugee kids and immigrant kids, and also to show those refugee and immigrant kids that society is willing to accept you.”


(credit: CBS)

Katner says if students have the basics they don’t have to worry so much about fitting in, and that encourages them to stay in school. She says it’s not much, but it’s a huge first step and each backpack is more than just paper and pens.

“As soon as they have the backpack they realized it is not just help. It is love inside.”

Published on August 9, 2019,
https://denver.cbslocal.com/2019/08/09/multicultural-mosaic-foundation-backpacks

Apr 24

Multicultural Mosaic Foundation condemns all crimes committed against humanity.

April 24th, 2019, Aurora, Colorado – Multicultural Mosaic Foundation condemns all crimes committed against humanity.

On this day, we remember the victims, families, communities and people who are and were victims of crimes against humanity such as systematic mass killings and genocides.

Every human is created with dignity by God and every human life is equally valuable.

We hope and pray that humanity can come together to marginalize and eventually root out all totalitarian ideologies that use violence as a weapon.

We extend our heartfelt condolences to families and relatives of all victims of crimes committed against humanity.

Multicultural Mosaic Foundation

Jan 02

The Other Side of Home by Ismail Akbulut

Hayko Bagdat
Hayko Bagdat

In a tweet fired off earlier this month, Turkish sociologist Yahya Mustafa Keskin from Abant Izzet Baysal University took aim at journalist Hayko Bagdat — who has Armenian roots — by mockingly referring to him as the “remains of the sword.” This might seem cryptic for the average English speaker, but Keskin was insulting Bagdat’s family as the lucky ones who managed to survive the 1915 Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks. Keskin then drove his point home by saying that Turks have never committed any genocides.

Author Jason Stanley argues in his recent book How Fascism Works that fascist regimes, especially ones with a history of atrocities, always emphasize a mythical narrative that portrays its own past as morally pure and free of tarnish. Today’s Turkey not only denies its role in the Armenian Genocide, but is in the midst of carrying out atrocities against its own citizens, according to many academics and politicians. Today’s victims are Turkey’s marginalized dissidents: liberals, leftists, Kurds and, most notably, participants of the Gulen Movement (GM), or Hizmet.

Members of Hizmet were once accepted as legitimate players in Turkey’s complex body politic until the movement ran afoul of current Turkish President Erdogan, who now refers to them as terrorists. Hizmet members are publicly demonized, have their assets and wealth confiscated, and their passports revoked. Many have been and are tortured, abducted and even murdered.

While participants of the GM are enduring these heinous atrocities in Turkey, GM participants active at the Colorado-based non-profit Multicultural Mosaic Foundation made a historically meaningful and courageous gesture last month by screening the film “The Other Side of Home.”

Made by the award-winning filmmaker Naré Mkrtchyan, the movie center on a Turkish woman named Maya, who discovers that her great-grandmother was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Maya embodies the conflict. Her turbulent, mixed emotions represent opposite poles of the debate in Turkey regarding the crime: one that suffers and the other that denies. She goes to Armenia to participate in the 100th year commemoration of the genocide and to explore her conflicted identity. Aside from being a universal story involving identity and conflict, and the film explores how the genocide’s effects ripple down the generations for both Armenians and Turks.

Historically, Hizmet participants would either support the Turkish state’s narrative of denial or stay quiet about the topic. Discussing the issue publicly was taboo. But Erdogan’s brutal witch-hunt against the movement in Turkey has led many participants to question state narratives on various issues, including the Armenian Genocide. A growing number of participants now fully recognize that the crime did actually happen. Many are even courageous enough to say so out loud in public.

Back to the film screening…

More than 80 people, including many Turkish-Americans, packed the film screening at the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation. One could observe in the audience many surprised faces and expressions. Other even teared up as the film moved them.

Mkrtchyan herself was also in the audience and stayed for a Q&A following the screening. The noted filmmaker was nervous at first about showing such a film to an audience with many Turkish-Americans, but was welcomed on stage with immense applause. She acknowledged that despite many screenings of the film across many countries, this was the first time it’s been shown to an audience with so many Turks. Many questions were directed to Mkrtchyan about her feelings when she landed in Turkey and how she was treated there.

She said she was puzzled and uncertain when she arrived there for the first time. She felt as if she had, “I am Armenian” labelled on her forehead. She was especially surprised when someone referred to her in Turkish as “yavrum,” or honey, the same way her grandmother would call her.

One highlight of the evening was when a woman in the audience who identified herself as Turkish admitted that she recently discovered that her ancestors were Armenian. Her parents made her believe growing up that she was either Turkish and Kurdish.

The audience also noted that the film promoted understanding for the narratives and realities on both sides. It shows the levels of denial on the Turkish side, borne out of ignorance, convenience, or fear of retaliation by the Turkish government. On the Armenian side, the film illustrates the pain and trauma that Armenians are still suffering through today as a nation.

The heinous witch-hunt in Turkey against participants of the Gulen Movement are experiencing the pains of murder and oppression first-hand. The film screening was simply a first step in trying to heal very old wounds. It’s a symbolical gesture, statement, and opening by participants of Hizmet.

There’s a lot more work to be done by members of the movement and beyond.

This article was published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator on December 20th, 2018.
https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/12/20/the-other-side-of-home/

Sep 27

Ismail Akbulut: Greece – a cradle of Western civilization

Greece – a cradle of Western civilization, home of the first democracy, and birthplace of Socrates, one of the founders of Western Philosophy.

I’d always wanted to visit Greece, but as someone with Turkish heritage, the word “Greek” contained a bitter aftertaste. First of all, the Greeks and Turks have had a long and often bloody historical rivalry going back several centuries. Adding the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 by Turkish troops and the current political rift between the two nations; a lot of bad blood has yet to be wiped away.
According to a recent report by the Hrant Dink Foundation in Turkey, Greeks rank among the top three ethnic groups targeted for hate speech by the Turkish media.

In spite of all this, in July 2018, my beloved wife Miya and I – a couple of Turkish descent who grew up in Germany and live in the US – decided to travel to Athens, Greece. The following is a collection of our expectations, observations, experiences, and surprises.

Arrival in Athens:
I had travelled before to many European metropolises, including London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Gdansk, Bratislava and Istanbul. Based on my travel experiences, I was imagining and dreaming of a rather stereotypical Athens full of ancient Greek ruins and monuments embedded in a modern context. But we found so much more than that…

We arrived late in the evening at the Athens International Airport, the “Eleftherios Venizelos,” and took a taxi to our hotel in the center of Athens. Our driver, a very kind family man in his 50s named Dmitris, was very curious about our background and purpose in Greece. Dimitris’ father was born in a city in South Western Turkey called Alikarnassós during Ottoman times, known today as Bodrum, As part of the Lausanne Peace Treaty, signed in 1923, a compulsory population exchange between Turkey and Greece took place. Dimitris’ father had to leave his home to settle in Athens. About 1.2 million Greek Christians were sent from Turkey to Greece and about 350.000 Muslims were sent from Greece to Turkey in the early 1920s.

I told Dimitris that my great-grandparents belonged to the Muslim minority that lived in the city of Parga in Northwestern Greece, and had to leave for Turkey because of the same agreement between the two nation states. This mutual history of uprootedness and exile filled the beginning of our trip with a faint sense of irony.
As we drove through the dark, narrow alleys of Athens, Dmitris and I agreed that the past was filled with unfortunate episodes for the land our ancestors dwelt on.

An early surprise: the Ekklisia Kimisi Theotokou Chrisospileotissis – Greek Orthodox Church.
We made sure to rise early the next morning. As I opened the window of our hotel room, we were amazed to see the dome of the beautiful and spectacular Ekklisia Kimisi Theotokou Chrisospileotissis – Greek Orthodox Church.
Walking through the alleys and streets of Athens, we made sure to stop to observe the buildings, churches, architectures, and monuments we passed by. We talked to people from all walks of life over cups of Greek coffee.

A quick flashback
A few years ago, I travelled with my Greek-American friend John to Turkey. I took him to the Mausoleum of the founder of the republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara. I later realized that this decision was a particularly insensitive faux pas toward John.
Along with our guide, John and I walked through the halls of the nationalist Anitkabir museum, learning about how the heroic Turks fought against the dastardly Greeks in several wars. Greeks were portrayed in the museum as aggressive oppressors and occupiers of Turkish lands. About half-way through the museum, John couldn’t take it anymore and asked me to leave the museum. He added that he could take me to Greece where I could listen to the same stories about Turks who committed barbaric and shameful acts against the Greeks. I respected John’s reaction but wasn’t sure what he was talking about exactly until my recent trip to Athens.

The politics of victimhood
Miya and I hopped on a fancy double-decker bus to tour some of Greece’s most significant sites: the Roman Agora, Areopagus, Acropolis, Monastiraki Square, Rizari Park, Academy of Athens, National Archeological Museum, etc… We learned about the historical importance of the sites we visited and why they mattered. By the Greek Parliament across the Syntagma Square, which is the central point of Athens, our guide explained the meaning of the Presidential Guards that looked over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier–a tomb dedicated to the memory of Greek soldiers who perished during war.
The guards’ uniforms resembling those worn by Greek fighters who fought during the Greek Independence War (1821–32) against the Ottoman Turks. Part of the uniform is the fustanella, a skirt-like garment with 400 pleats symbolizing each year under Ottoman rule, an era remembered in the official Greek narrative as a time of great suffering, occupation and oppression. I realized that Greeks and Turks tell very similar stories about their victimhood (and of their enemies) in order to justify their own heroism in wars fought between the two sides.

As Muslims, we also wanted to see Muslims monuments. We found two: the Fethiye and Tzistarakis mosques. Both Ottoman era mosques are located in the heart of Athens and function today as museums. We were able to go inside the Fethiye mosque and were only allowed to see the niche of the Imam. The Islamic art on the walls were all covered with paint.

City on a hill
A must see in Athens is, of course, the Acropolis, the ancient citadel on a hill above the city of Athens with a history that stretches back to the 5th century BC. We bit the bullet and hiked in 35C heat and high humidity up to the hill, and it was absolutely worth the labor. As Miya and I gazed like little kids at the Acropolis, an astonishingly beautiful monument built thousands of years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what the builders would’ve have said if they were told that, one day, millions of tourists would travel from all around the world to admire their structure. History, as it turns out, is all about unanswered questions.

Our short trip to Athens gave us a glimpse into the beauty and richness of Greece. We were able to breathe in the culture, taste the food, interact with locals, and gaze upon the remnants of a proud history.

We could also observe the familiar tricks of nationalism being used (in a very similar way among Turks) to create cohesion in a society that has gone through hard economic times. Even though Greece is still recovering from its recent economic crisis, we were able to witness the open heart of Greeks for refugees. Greece welcomed thousands of refugees from Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years. We were also very sad to learn about the wildfires around Athens.
Overall, we loved visiting Greece, we send our love and prayers to the people and are planning to go back soon…

This article appeared in the The Circle on August 16, 2018
Link: http://thecrcl.ca/ismail-akbulut-greece-cradle-western-civilization/

Aug 30

PRESS RELEASE: Response to threatening messages.

AURORA, COLORADO August 30th 2018. Multicultural Mosaic Foundation (MMF) is a Colorado based non-profit, dedicated to understanding, dialog and peace. Since 2016 our foundation has received several direct or indirect threatening messages. An example can be seen in the attached postcard written in Turkish which translates, “We are watching you inglorious” signed by an anonymous person referring to himself as M. Kemal’s soldier. We received this one in August 2018. The purpose of this press release is to outline our perspective on this incident and other such similar incidents.

First, MMF abides by the laws of the U.S. and we are in close cooperation with federal and local law enforcement. Therefore, we pass these threats to them immediately and consult with them on this, as well as other issues that may be relevant to our community.

Secondly, we are open to people from all walks of life. Everybody is free to join us in our events and programs. We organize programs and events to foster better understanding, respect and dialog among all cultures and faith traditions. One of our principles is to accept every human being regardless of their color, background, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, culture, political views or language. We are open to sitting down with everyone to discuss matters that will foster peaceful coexistence. We prefer open communication regardless of whether it is critical or constructive. Therefore, we love to be watched, we appreciate being watched, and we invite everyone to watch us.

Messages similar to the one on the post card demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to be done. This message motivates us to be more engaged and active in the areas in which we are already active.

We will continue our work with our allies as we believe that it contributes to mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. We invite all to our upcoming events. Please visit our web site (www.mosaicfoundation.org) for a listing of events.

Please click here for PDF version of press release.

Multicultural Mosaic Foundation

CONTACT:
Name: Ismail Akbulut
Email: contact@mosaicfoundation.org
Phone: 720-608-1907

Mar 27

OP-ED: Does the Gülen (Hizmet) Movement Deny the Armenian Genocide? by Ismail Akbulut

Ismail Akbulut

In the past, certain individuals affiliated with the Gülen Movement, and sometimes the movement as a whole, have often been accused of supporting lobbying efforts to circumvent the passing of resolutions that commemorate the Armenian genocide. Members of the Armenian diaspora have voiced complaints about this, both in several articles and in verbal statements. To tell you the bitter truth, I would be lying if I said that the accusations held no weight at all.

Let me state something straight from the outset: this is not an attempt to curry favor with the Armenian community. And no, I am not an “ex-Gülenist” bashing the Gülen Movement (GM), otherwise known as the Hizmet Movement. Furthermore, I speak for myself alone. I am not a spokesperson of the GM making an official statement of some sort.

Instead, this article reflects an honest attempt of an individual participant in GM to articulate his personal views and experiences of GM-Armenian relationships during the last decade.

First, a bit about Gülen and the movement he has inspired.

Hizmet, or the GM, is a global faith-inspired civil society peace movement, founded by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. It is best known for fostering universal education, interfaith dialogue and humanitarian activities. Inspired by Gülen’s teachings and philosophies, participants in the GM engage in various altruistic activities to sow the seeds of world-peace for future generations. Indeed, the term “Hizmet,” the name participants use for the movement, means “service” in Turkish.

Gülen himself emphasizes the importance of human agency in bringing sustainable change and fostering morality and good virtues. For over half a century, he has been an advocate for liberal democratic values such as human rights, social justice, pluralism, the empowerment of women, freedom of speech, thought, and religion. Gülen consistently urges participants in the GM to be law-abiding citizens willing to work to help others, and to promote understanding for others regardless of culture, faith, or ethnicity.

Nevertheless, critics from various backgrounds accuse Gülen of pursuing a range of sinister, secretive agendas. Certain Islamist groups, for instance, have pushed the conspiracy theory that Gülen is actually a secret cardinal of the Pope, or that he’s a crypto-Armenian trying to spread Christianity among Muslims. Moreover, some secularists allege that Gülen is pushing efforts to consolidate powers to transform Turkey into an Islamic caliphate.

The movement did not develop in a vacuum. The roots of the GM go back to Turkey, hence many of the participants in the movement, including Gülen himself, were educated and socialized in Turkish schools that acted as vessels for the indoctrination of the glory and sanctity of pure “Turkishness.”

Historically, the GM has never openly supported any political party. Instead, most participants have supported the party that they believed would pursue a liberal democratic agenda. Consequently, the movement was criticized by Islamist parties for “selling out” to the liberals, particularly before 2003.

However, with the rise of the Justice and Development (AKP) party under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which appeared (according to its own party’s manifesto) to promote liberal democracy, human rights, and inclusion in the European Union; the leadership of the GM, for the first time in its history, decided to form a political alliance based on shared goals. The AKP was not only supported by GM participants, but many liberals, nationalists, leftists and minority groups also voted for that party in the belief it supported democratization.

In fact, GM-affiliated media outlets such as Zaman and Samanyolu TV openly praised and endorsed Erdogan’s AKP, further reinforcing the perception that the whole movement backed the party.

The history of the GM in the US is still very young. Many GM participants came in the early 2000s as students, academics, engineers, businessmen or educators from Turkey. Excited about the “New World,” GM participants wanted to carry out their civil society projects in the US. Several saw opportunities to contribute to American society through establishing intercultural dialogue centers, charter schools or charity organizations.

This involvement allowed them to foster valuable relationships with pastors, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders. Turkey’s economic boom of the early 2000s allowed for an unprecedented, and deeply longed-for, patriotic self-confidence. Intercultural dialogue trips to Turkey, offered to US-based legislators, religious leaders, academics, media personalities and community leaders created awareness of the spirit of the GM and promoted understanding of Turkey, the greater Anatolian region, and the religion of Islam.

The first interaction between GM participants and the Armenian community in the US took place after the assassination of Hrant Dink, the prominent and brave Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights activists in front of his newspaper, Agos, by an ultra-nationalist youth on January 19, 2007.

Subsequently, GM participants paid their respects through visits to Armenian churches and organizations to express their condolences. These visits opened doors for conversations and dialogue, mainly with Armenians from Turkey. Consequently, GM participants were exposed, often for the first time, to the suffering of Armenians during the Ottoman and modern Turkish eras, and during the genocide itself. In many cases, this created new empathy among some participants of the GM, thus acting as an antidote against years of propaganda.

Yet, despite this fabulous story of a “Turkified” American Dream, one of the most profound disappointments we felt was the ongoing vilification of Turkish people on the part of many in the Armenian diaspora. On this front, GM participants have been living in a state of inner turmoil.

On the one hand, we deeply desire a constructive and positive relationship with Armenians. However, on the other, the very word “genocide” has proved to be an obstacle for engagement. Indeed, the facts of 1915 have become the massive “elephant in the room” when the two groups, Turks and Armenians, come into contact. One of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories promoted by some on the Turkish side, was that ultra-nationalist Armenians across the United States, have been engaged in inciting a “revenge” genocide, to be perpetrated on the “poor, innocent” Turkish people.

During this time, high-ranking Turkish officials and diplomats reached out to GM for support to stop the passing of resolutions that recognize the Armenian genocide.

Serving the nation of Turkey by visiting US officials in America and repeating to them the Turkish state’s official narrative about 1915 thus became an altruistic patriotic deed.

Yet, recently, our own support for the Turkish narrative has waned, and GM participants have begun questioning almost everything they had learned about what happened in 1915.

The turning point was the outcome of July 15th coup d’état attempt in Turkey. After the Turkish government held the GM responsible for the coup attempt, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, who were in one way or another affiliated with the GM, found themselves illegally profiled, persecuted, detained, arrested, abducted, tortured or disappeared.

Our experiences thus far cannot be called a genocide; however, we have certainly been scapegoated, and enduring an ongoing collective trauma, with no end in sight. The fact that the Turkish state could label innocent people guilty, and punish them for their association (even tangential) with the GM, opened the majority of our eyes. If they could do this to us, it must be true that they did it to other minority groups (Kurds, Alevis) and certainly to the Armenians. They wiped out Turkey’s Christian-Armenian population and taught us all it never happened.

So, what are the lessons we can learn here…

Driven by patriotic and sometimes nationalistic sentiments, participants in the GM, including myself, have deceived ourselves by acting in a way that contradicted our very values. We failed. We did not question the Turkish narrative, and we did not listen nor read the stories of Armenians.

Today, I personally regret and sincerely apologize for my involvement in efforts that undermined the suffering of Armenians that endured one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide.

I was intending to end this article here, with an apology that was long overdue, instead I would like to make three humble suggestions on how I believe we could repair our relations:

Firstly, I ask GM participants to show genuine gestures to Armenians by showing up to genocide commemorations or contributing to Armenian organizations.

Secondly, I wish Armenian journalists would reach out to Gülen for an interview with him to ask him about his views on what happened during 1915.

Lastly, I ask my Armenian brothers and sisters to welcome and engage with GM participants to listen to their stories about what is happening today in Erdogan’s Turkey.

March 24th, 2018 Armenian Mirror-Spectator

Dec 15

Shalom-Salaam facilitates women-to-women interfaith dialogue for Jews, Muslims, Christians

Shalom Salaam

By ANDREA JACOBS. Intermountain Jewish News. December 8th, 2017

On the surface, Bobbi Furer and Gulsum Ciftci Katmer are worlds apart. Furer, 87, is Jewish. Katmer,31, is Muslim. But they are joined at the hip by their shared gender, humanity and hope.

Shalom-Salaam, a cadre of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women pursuing interfaith dialogue, first met in July of this year. Membership has since increased on all fronts. Furer and Katmer, who came to the IJN to discuss the group’s evolution, are antithetical in every way, from their religion to their height
(Katmer towers over her diminutive colleague).

Yet they complete each other’s sentences, philosophize, joke and exchange familiar winks. Despite their differences, the women genuinely admire each other.

Furer, a native Denverite, hails from Hungarian immigrants. Her family owned Freed’s Gift Shop in
downtown Denver. A mother and grandmother, she attends Judaism Your Way, Temple Sinai and B’nai Havurah. “I’m the wandering Jew,” she laughs.

Katmer was born and raised in Turkey. She relocated to California to study biology, stayed five years,
married a man from Turkey and moved here in 2013. Now she’s the executive director of the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation, a nonprofit interfaith organization founded by Muslim Turks.

The genesis of Shalom-Salaam stemmed from Furer’s coincidental run-in with a Muslim woman waiting for an East Denver bus.

“It happened in 2010, when I was walking my little poodle Sammy (Shmuli) near a bus stop,” she says. “I saw an Arab woman standing there with her three children.

Two were hugging her skirt, but the boy was waiting for the bus to arrive. “When they saw us, they backed up, looking like they were afraid. I said, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t come near you. I know you can’t touch dogs.’
“She asked, ‘How do you know I can’t touch dogs?’

“I answered, ‘Because I’m Jewish.’”

The Arab woman stretched out her arms to this petite stranger.
“She ran down the hill, took my hands and said, ‘Oh, you’re my sister!’ with tears in her eyes.

“I said yes, I’m your sister.” The Arab woman uttered shalom. Furer answered, salaam.

“I thought, wow, a couple of thousand years of hatred banished in one little encounter,” Furer says.

She wrote about the experience on Nextdoor, a neighborhood app, and received seven positive responses, primarily from Muslim men.

“When can we meet?” they posted.

Then Furer was invited to a program on Islamic culture and faith hosted by a Muslim group. “I left
thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get Muslim and Jewish women together,” she says.
Furer contacted the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation and spoke to Katmer.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a female-driven interfaith journey.

Furer publicized the first meeting of Shalom-Salaam on Nextdoor. She assumed that
only Jewish and Muslim women would show up at the July 27 gathering at the Mosaic Foundation.

But several gentile women also attended. “Now the group is for any woman regardless of faith, color or ethnicity,” she says. “We’re here to unite, not to divide.”

Initial questions at the inaugural meeting concerned “what we all believed,” Katmer says. “That was
the warm-up. Then we sat face-to-face at round tables and spoke about our values.
“It was really great to learn and hear about other faith backgrounds,” she says. “At the end, everyone had a big smile and wanted to know when the next meeting was scheduled. We knew it was working.”

While Jews and Muslims maintain strict food restrictions (kashrut and halal), it took a while to get it
right. “These dietary laws are a source of commonality between us,” she says.
Although listening, learning and respecting each other is the priority of Shalom-Salaam, do con-
tentious political issues ever surface?

“You know, as a person who believes that interfaith dialogue is a real need in this century, I don’t
have to accept everything,” Katmer says. “But I have to respect the differences, whether they are
religious or political.”

Shalom-Salaam participants have forged numerous since the group launched.
“My idea of getting together is building a huge family with each other,” Katmer says. “We should be
good friends who are able to say, ‘Let’s go out for coffee’ after meetings.

“And I do have friends like this, especially Bobbi. I go to her home and she comes to mine.”

Asked whether women are uniquely qualified to promote peace between disparate cultures, both ladies nod
affirmatively. “I think this is part of our nature,” Katmer says. “G-d gave us a softer heart. We should promote peace, because most of the time — and I don’t want to generalize — guys are direct and women are more emotional.”

As mothers and grandmothers, they are intimately aware of the importance of forging peace for the sake of future generations. “Why not make the world better for them?” Katmer says. “I’m always hopeful about the future. And lots of women I know — like Bobbi — are trying to do good things.” Furer’s girlhood memories of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver set the conversational stage about 21st-century Islamic stereotypes and the hesitancy to speak out against hatred.

“When I was 10, I saw Mayor Stapleton, who was the head of the Klan in Denver, walking up 17th Street
downtown as the KKK screamed anti-Semitic rhetoric against the
Jews,” she says. “My family, as Jewish business owners, was terrified.” Furer’s grandmother repeatedly imparted proper behavior to avoid being singled out as Jewish to her granddaughter.
In the retelling, Furer emulates her grandmother’s accent and gestures. “‘Bobbi,’ she warned,‘when you go out, don’t talk with the hands. People will know you’re Jewish.’ Or ‘Bobbi, when you get in an elevator, don’t talk or they’re gonna think you’re Jewish.’”
Furer was scared whenever she rode in an elevator — and stayed resolutely mute.

“But one time I looked around and no one was talking, ”she laughs,“and I thought everyone was Jewish!
Oh, I was so happy!” Asked why her family adopted this public code of silence, Furer shrugs.

“We wanted to be liked; we didn’t want to say anything wrong,” she says. Katmer compares her friend’s
defensive etiquette with some Muslims’ reticence in decrying the current anti-Muslim, anti-immigration furor. “Just as Bobbi explains how she felt seeing the Klan, I think Muslims feel today,” she says.“Not many Muslims speak out either. “It’s the same thing: ‘Don’t talk.’ “That’s why we believe inter-
faith dialogue is so important,” Katmer says. “If we don’t give others the opportunity to get to know us, there’s a risk that our children will hate unless they learn to love people of other faiths.”

Competitive victimhood, a tendency to see one’s group as having suffered more than another, has gained credence in psychological circles. But it’s not an issue for these women.

Bobbi Furer lost relatives during the Holocaust. A few survived Auschwitz; most never returned.
“I just read a book detailing the ghosts of Theresienstadt,” she says. “The author said, ‘There were no
humans.’ That phrase kept coming up. “The Jewish elders obeyed the

Nazis and thereby saved their families — until the Nazis decided otherwise. “I’ve been thinking. If I had the chance to survive with my family, what would I do?” Atypical quiet permeates the room. “The real question is, what does it mean to be human?” she reflects. “I have always felt really bad about the Holocaust,” Katmer says, directing her words to Furer. “Now my friends are in jail in Turkey. “A friend told me before I came to Denver that people are jailed with out any evidence. Women are tortured, raped and often become pregnant. What do they do?

“Of course, it’s not as horrible as what the Jews went through,” she adds apologetically. “But it is horrible.”

Furer stops her.

“Don’t ever say it’s not as horrible,” she says. “Every situation like this is horrible.”
Katmer’s parents reside in Turkey because they support the regime in power.
“I feel terrible about my parents’ choices,” she admits. “I’m glad they are safe — but this, too, can feel bad. The innocents struggle.” Seven years ago, Furer’s idea for an interfaith dialogue for women grew out of an incident with Shmuli the poodle and a Muslim woman’s fear of dogs.

Katmer has since enlightened her regarding the canine prohibition in Islam.
“In Islam we cleanse ourselves five times a day before we pray, ”Katmer says.“The Hanbali sect believes that touching a dog is an unclean act. I follow the Sunni Hanafi sect, which believes it’s OK to touch dogs. “I love cats and dogs,” she laughs. “I touch them, I hug them. It’s fine. This is why we teach each other our respective faith traditions. Misunderstandings exist on both sides.” Furer and Katmer, who converse openly and in barely discernible decibels about everything under the sun, are asked about their goals for Shalom-Salaam.

“I think it’s about creating a better future globally, not just in Denver,” Katmer says. “It begins with your family, your neighbors and friends, and these circles get bigger and bigger.”

“It’s especially important for the children,” Furer says. “I love when they come to our meetings. “They are the future.” Furer worries that, given her age, no one will continue spreading the interfaith message once she departs this world. Katmer puts a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Even when you’re gone, Bobbi, there will good people who stick with this,” she reassures.“You begin with the differences. In the end you see the commonality. “It’s like you say.We’re all humanbeings.”

Information: Bobbi Furer, 303-388-8611 or light2u@comcast.net.
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at andrea@ijn.com.

Link to Article as PDF.

Nov 30

OP-ED: ‘You Will Burn in Hell’ by Ismail Akbulut

President of Multicultural Mosaic Foundation’s opinion piece in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator:

‘You Will Burn in Hell’

Ismail Akbulut

“You will burn in hell! Since you’ve committed treason, you’re no longer worthy to carry out God’s mission!” That’s a curse recently hurled at me by one of my own relatives, a Muslim Turk, in reaction to my latest op-ed: “Why I Am Grateful to Erdogan, the Dictator of Turkey” [Armenian Mirror-Spectator, November 4] My sin was to violate two of the most “sacred” narratives of Turkish mythology.

In the Islamic tradition, Muslims believe that there is life after death. Either one is cast into hell as a punishment for sins, or is granted access to pass through the gates of paradise. Obviously, no Muslim wants as his or her fate to spend eternity in hell. Why, then, would my own family member curse me with this fate instead of send me loving blessings? Here I will respond to some of the reactions to my previous article, and elaborate on why some believe I have committed blasphemy.

Many Muslims tend to believe that God was on their side during certain historical periods, because of their personal piety and work towards protecting Islam in general. Frankly, today most supporters of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, believe that the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire was part of God’s divine mission, and they still grieve its defeat in 1922.

As some of my Turkish readers reminded me, in the official Turkish narrative held by many as sacred and inviolable, the Armenians were guilty for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the land protected and favored by no other than God himself. The multiethnic and religiously diverse Ottoman Empire, known for its relative tolerance vis-à-vis its minorities, entered WWI as an ally of the Central Powers. In this construction of history, Armenians, considered as the “trustworthy citizens” of the Ottoman Empire, collectively committed treason by rebelling and collaborating with the enemies, including the Russians and French, against the “holy” Ottoman Empire.

In this version, the “vulnerable” Ottoman Empire was “forced” to proactively relocate all Armenians, in order to protect them from Turks’ revenge and to protect Turks from Armenians as well. During the “required” relocation, many Armenians died due to inclement weather, or were killed by Kurdish rebels (not Turks). Therefore, as this narrative puts it, what happened was indeed unfortunate, but really just a part of the collective suffering of those nations involved at that time, and in this light, must not be considered a genocide.

As much as this “sacrosanct” myth attempts to address why at least hundreds of thousands of Armenians died (up to a million and a half), and so many were brutally deported, it ignores, disregards, and denies the massacres of Armenian intellectuals, men, women, and children in the heartland of the Ottoman Empire committed by Ottomans using state power and means. The official Turkish version, which silences history, lacks credibility as it has a lot of holes that can only be filled with cement, through categorically denying and destroying evidence of those crimes. Thus, I regard this version as an apologetic excuse for the crimes the Ottomans committed; a rewriting of history in which Turkish glory conveniently remain untainted.

Thus, my first heretical sin was to committed treason by collaborating with an Armenian newspaper, a newspaper that had been established by “traitors” who were responsible for the fall of the “holy” Ottoman Empire. But this is not all. No, my sins did not end there…

In Turkey, those that supported a greater role for religion in the public realm suffered under the Kemalist secularists for decades, until the rise of Erdogan in 2002. Many saw this as a sign from God, and here we come to the second “sacred” narrative, in which God came to redeem the pious in Turkey. He did this through empowering Erdogan, bestowing him with a divine mission to restore the Ottoman Empire from its ashes, like a phoenix. In this mythology, the figure of Erdogan portends the renaissance and Golden Age of Islam. His “holy” leadership deserves unconditional loyalty, as it is championed by God himself. Thus, arguing against him or criticizing him is equal to rebelling against God. Indeed, in this paradigm, a person who defies God deserves nothing more than to be cast into hellfire. I became a sinner the moment I criticized him and called him a dictator—according to this creed, I have committed a grave form of blasphemy and must burn. Sadly, even one of my own relatives is ready to throw me into the flames.

Well, this is not the end of this article. The wonderful news is that in fact, I also received overwhelmingly positive, encouraging, supporting, and heartening messages.

I received notes from a variety of readers including legislators, academics, journalists, authors, Turkish and Armenian intellectuals, religious leaders, human rights activists, and from friends and family who genuinely thanked me for the courage to articulate what thousands feel these days but don’t dare to say out loud.

One private message from a prominent Armenian intellectual who recently fled Turkey, in which he commended me for my article, made me especially happy. Reading through all of the messages, I got the impression that most of the supportive voices are of those who suffer today or in the past from oppression by despotic regimes.

As I was raised in a background that preached the denial of the Armenian genocide for a century, I totally get it why some of the readers of Armenian background might look at me with suspicion, mistrust and mixed feelings. However, in my personal life as a practicing Muslim who lived his entire life in the West, I realize that we can only overcome mistrust if we listen to each other and try to understand one another. I am very hopeful that we can foster mutual understanding, caring friendships and a peaceful future if we open our ears, eyes and hearts for one another.

Today, I am more hopeful about the future than I was yesterday.

(Ismail Akbulut is board president of a Colorado-based non-profit, Multicultural Mosaic Foundation [http://www.mosaicfoundation.org/mmf/] [Twitter @IsmailDenver])

November 16, 2017 https://mirrorspectator.com/2017/11/16/will-burn-hell/

Older posts «