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Turkey v. Tennessee: Religious extremists took over one; the other not so much

(Editor’s note: This is not meant to be a scientific comparison of Turkey and Tennessee. It’s an on-the-ground, anecdotal opinion post by someone who knows both worlds intimately.)

Okay, expats … when you think of religious restrictions and political oppression, which is more free and modern, Turkey, or Tennessee?

We just got back from Turkey, and I’m writing this post because I expected Turkey to have gotten more conservative after 20 years of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who’s done his best to advance Islam by building countless new mosques and religious schools while raising the taxes on alcohol. But while we were there, I couldn’t help noticing that Turkey – at least western Turkey – is the same progressive place we lived 20 years go. Izmir ain’t Kabul.

If anything, it’s more like Europe than ever before.

And it occurred to me that while Erdoğan has failed miserably to recast Turkey in his devout image, America has a growing Red State minority that is armed and angry, “standing athwart history and yelling ‘Stop!’ ” as William F. Buckley famously put it.

In fairness, you probably don’t know anything about Turkey, and it’s the most complicated country in the world. Physically in both Europe and Asia, but culturally its own animal. Complex and contradictory. But if you’re an expat in Europe, you probably know more about Turkey than Tennessee, which is also its own curious animal.

Being from the American South, I know Tennessee to be just as contradictory, with a boom economy, world-class educational institutions such as Vanderbilt University, but a whole lot of disenfranchised people from Appalachia who love Trump, guns and Jesus.

It is arguably both the richest and poorest state in the Union, with billionaires, rock stars, medical researchers and the country music industry in Nashville and people living in mountain shacks in Appalachia, barely scraping by.

The common denominator should be religiosity – anti-booze, anti-gays and anti-anything progressive. But is it?

Let’s compare.

Shared values?

In this corner, Turkey is a supposedly “conservative” Islamic country, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the conservative-democratic AK Parti in control for the past 20 years. Okay, Turkey is a parliamentary republic, but at least 90 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, along with a number Alevi, Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and others.

Tayyip Erdoğan, a devout Sunni Muslim whose wife wears a headscarf, recently squeaked past the opposition in the 2023 presidential election. He’s also a guy who throws political opponents in prison at the drop of a hat as he moved past authoritarianism toward dictatorship.

In the other corner is Tennessee, a Deep-Red Southern state with one very affluent city – Nashville – and the rest of the state run by religious extremists and social ultra-conservatives. Tennessee is represented in the U.S. Senate by Trump acolyte Senator Marsha Blackburn, who votes against anything that’s remotely progressive and calls Christians – 99 percent of the population – “a persecuted minority.”

The governor, Bill Lee, is a notorious anti-LGBTQ warrior who’s trying to outlaw drag shows.

So, you would assume there would be shared values and that the feel on the ground would be similar.

We returned to Turkey after 18 years expecting closer alignment of values. Wrong. Not in Izmir or pretty much anywhere in western Turkey.

While Tennessee has strict alcohol laws and prohibitions, you can buy Woodford Reserve from my native Kentucky in Turkish grocery stores. In the resort town of Marmaris where I’m writing this, drag queens are a thing, with multiple shows nightly along the seaside promenade.

Drag shows in Turkey are for the British tourists but there are no prohibitions.

After living here for years, then finally returning after 18 years, my best description of daily life in Turkey is, politics aside, multi-culti. In a sense, it’s a lot like the Netherlands where we’re based – go-along, get-along. In Turkey’s western cities, at least, you’re free to be yourself. Our favorite street performer in Izmir is trans and the cosmetics stores were full of trans women.

Unlike Tennessee, abortion has been legal since 1983. (See the Guardian’s recent post, “How close to death must a woman be to get an abortion in Tennessee?”) Tennessee has the most restrictive abortion law in the United States.

You want secular? Turkey does secular in most of the cities, including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. You want to guzzle beer and raki in your favorite pub while wearing your Nirvana T-shirt? By all means, go for it.

You want religious conservative? In Bursa, Konya and a few other conservative cites, the restaurants actually close for Ramadan, or at least during the day.

It always comes down to tolerance. Simply put, people in Turkey seem to be willing to put up with a lot more non-conformity than people in Tennessee, which is now the center of “thou shalt not-ism” and culture wars. Beyond that, Turks (even Erdoğan) have always been about living for the future, devoting resources to better infrastructure, cutting pollution and modernization.

Tennessee? Not if Bill Lee and Marsha Blackburn have anything to do with it.

As an expat, I always assess a place by one criterion: “Could I live here?” I say “yes” to both Tennessee and Turkey. But when Erdoğan goes (and he will go), the decision gets a lot easier.


Read more about Turkey here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Terry here.

Website | + posts

Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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