Religious diversification is also taking place in countries with a majority Muslim background, such as Turkey, where a variety of new religious movements are active, reported several researchers at a workshop held in Istanbul on October 25-26, which RW attended. This was the third workshop of the research project “The Yogi and the Dervish: New Religious Movements in Turkey.” Led by Alexandre Toumarkine of the Orient-Institut Istanbul, the project brings together 26 scholars who look at the historical and contemporary aspects of “alternative” religious scenes in Turkey. The original impulse for the project was set in 2007, with plans to cover both Turkey and Iran, eventually settling on the latter country. Both Christian and non-Christian religious movements are considered, as well as groups on the fringe of Islam. While research has primarily been conducted in Istanbul, the largest city in the country, there are possible plans to include other places across Turkey in the future.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a wave of translated Western books in Turkey dealing with alternative beliefs and theories, Toumarkine observed. From the 1980s, there has been a growing popularity of Eastern philosophies and practices in Turkey, explained Till Luge. But it is not only a matter of reading books: Aysuda Kölemen reported on the spread of yoga in Istanbul, which she associates with a wider trend of developing ties between Turkey and India. Yoga has exploded over the past ten years. There are today over 70 yoga schools and several hundred yoga teachers in Istanbul, some of them with a biography in experiences with various spiritual movements. Among people attending yoga courses, practicing Muslims and headscarf-wearing women can be found too. But such practitioners tend not to place Islam above other religions and believe that all religions lead to the same goal, in contrast with most of their fellow believers.
An interesting development is the success of self-help books in Turkey, such as those written by Mohammed Bozdağ (b. 1967), analyzed by Martin Reixinger. With a personal background in Muslim groups, Bozdağ adapts self-help literature to a Muslim context. He believes in the unimaginable potential of individuals and advocates a holistic view (“the universe is one big all”), supposedly supported by modern physics, but rejecting any pantheism. He refers to concept such as chakras and aura, but warns readers against indulging in such practices and tells them that (Muslim) prayer can help one to get relief from stress. His books are selling very well: one of them has already been reprinted 140 times.
Not only Muslims are attracted to new movements, but members of minorities as well. A paper presented by Yoann Morvan presented the activities of the Kabbalah Centre (founded by Philip Berg, 1927-2013) in Turkey. It is a small group in Istanbul, but its existence in itself is worth noticing. More than 60 percent of the participants in Istanbul have a Jewish background, with about half of them attending services at local synagogues. The teachings of the Kabbalah Centre is said to bring to them answers to a spiritual thirst that is not satisfied at local mainstream Jewish institutions. Berg’s Kabbalah benefits from the lack of other spiritual offers in the local Jewish milieu.
Evangelical churches are also present in Istanbul. Some of them have developed work among migrants in Turkey, according to Fabio Salomoni. Even preachers of African background can be encountered in Istanbul, such as Nigerian Joe Nwokoye (Zion Praise Centre), who has also recently traveled to Germany in order to preach to Turkish audiences there. However, according to Dorothea Nold, Turkish converts to Christianity seem currently rather belong to more classical church groups, while some modern evangelical congregations mostly attract expats: she expects nevertheless the impact of evangelical charismatic groups among Turks to increase in the coming years. Moreover, several evangelical movements consider Istanbul as a strategic location for further expansion, which means more are likely to be arriving there.
(Orient-Institut Istanbul, http://www.oiist.org)