YAVUZ BAYDAR

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YAVUZ BAYDAR
October 07, 2012, Sunday

In Houston, a celebration

Not at all surprising, a trip to Houston, Texas, demands thorough preparation to spend time in a hothouse. At this time of the year, you feel the humidity at its worst, which helps you understand why the vastly spread cityscape is one of the most air-conditioned places on earth.

Yet, it is a magnet that attracts more and more people because of the work it offers, its vibrant industries and the chances it gives for a good life. Despite the fact that it is a location no Native American tribe ever chose to settle due to such unpleasant living conditions, mosquito assaults, etc., it is the fourth largest city in the US, covering 660 square miles (1062 square kilometers).

Texas is a hub of diversity. Although its native population is profoundly made up of pious Christians, it welcomes others. Three percent of the population, more or less, are Muslim, dominated by Pakistanis.

There are approximately 8,000-9,000 Turks in Houston. In the state as a whole, there are more than 20,000.

What the Turquoise Council, as part of the Fethullah Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement, has done over the past couple of years here in Texas was to gather together ethnic groups from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to celebrate or, to express it more properly, to commemorate the Silk Road as an ancient model of global trade.

According to the Silk Road Festival's website: “It refers to the world's oldest trade route: the network of cities and trails that once spanned the Afro-Eurasian landmass, linking Asia with Mediterranean Europe and Africa. For centuries the Silk Road was the commercial center of the world, but it was also an incredible locus of cultural transmission, intense trade and interplay.”

The hardworking organizers of the four-day festival managed to attract a total of 35,000-40,000 Texan visitors to an arena of dance, arts, crafts, food, discussions and conferences. A visit to the venue was inspiring in the sense that a place like Texas, known for its tough, no-nonsense, inward-looking American spirit, could find itself relating to similar mentalities in what could serve to enhance business on various continents. It was a “win-win basis,” as a council associate expressed it.

“Yes, I am very pleased,” Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, told me. “The community of Turks, here in particular, are very outward, extroverted and curious in a sense of cultural understanding. I wish the others, too, would be like them. They contribute a lot to our prosperity and future and teach us a lot about where they come from, Turkey.”

The festival in Houston represents yet another step in reaching out to Americans to do away with prejudices and misunderstandings about Islam. One exemplar of such efforts, one among many, is İbrahim Sümer, a scholar who teaches a sort of comparative study in narratives between the Old Testament, Bible and Quran, emphasizing continuity among the three monotheistic religions. Many Texans attend his classes, trying to make sense of today's realities.

In the city center, the well-built and oft-visited Turquoise Center also attempts to improve such awareness. It is open to all faiths and organizes courses in line with local demand while keeping the Islamic community together. The imam of the center, a young man from Anatolia, is also an expert on computers and the Internet.

But as a whole, there is a new, rising grassroots-led movement whose goal is to be part of the sphere of influence over the US Congress.

There are now six federations in the United States: the Council of Turkic American Associations, with 43 member organizations serving communities in New York and surrounding states; the Mid-Atlantic Federation of Turkic American Associations, with 31 member organizations serving communities in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland; the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, serving communities in seven states with 58 member organizations; the Turkic American Federation of the Southeast, with 16 member organizations serving communities from Georgia to Florida; the Turkish American Federation of Midwest, serving communities in Illinois, Indiana and other states in the Midwest region with 39 member organizations; and the Western America Turkic Council, with 31 member organizations serving communities on the west coast from Washington to Arizona.

What they have done is break away from the old-fashioned Turkish state approach to focus only on lobbying in Washington, D.C. Instead, they simply and correctly focus on contacting American politicians, regardless of their ideological identity, and, as many other groups do, are developing communications in a civilized manner with the capital of the US. It is hard work that will pay off in the long run in a meaningful way. Of course, this emerging lobby has a lot to do in order to build new bridges with the Armenian, Greek and Israeli lobbies, but the snapshot of Houston demonstrates it is possible to have no problems so long as they are open-minded enough and respectful of each other.