Why I’m Leaving My Home — Again

Wall Street Journal NALIN PEKGUL January 30, 2006

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Stockholm

When I was 13 years old my family had to flee from Turkey for political reasons. My father fought for the Kurdish peoples’ human rights.

We came to Sweden in 1980 and, like many other Muslim immigrants, settled down in Tensta, a Stockholm suburb. In those days Tensta was either poetically described as a celebration of the multicultural society or defamed by others as a ghetto where young people are doomed to fail because of drugs, unemployment and crime. Neither of these images painted a complete picture. Yes, we had unemployment and prejudices that led to ethnic tensions. But we also had happy children and ambitious young people with bright hopes for the future.

I stayed in Tensta as an adult, even though I could have afforded to move to a more prosperous neighborhood. This led to accusations that I lived there just because it’s “politically correct.” I never chose to live in Tensta to improve my image. The only reason I didn’t want to leave was that for 25 years Tensta was my home. Many of my closest friends live there. If my children got sick and we didn’t have any medicine at home, there were always so many families around us to ask for help. This gave me an enormous feeling of security — a feeling most people who choose to live where their roots are probably know.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood I called my home for so many years has changed. It’s no longer the familiar place it used to be and, most importantly, I no longer feel safe in Tensta. The influence of Islamic fundamentalists has grown so much over the years that it is now impossible for me and my family to live there anymore. I’m tired of being expected to speak badly of Christians and Jews just because I’m Muslim. I’m tired of the hate preachers. I’m tired of seeing women condemned for the way they dress. I don’t want my daughter to be exposed to this type of aggression in the future. So I will soon have to leave Tensta.

As I look back at the history of my family, which for generations has fought for progress and modernization in Kurdish provinces, I’m astonished by the recent developments here in Sweden. Many years ago my grandfather, living as an imam in Turkey, decided to take his children out of Quranic school and send them to Latin school. That was in the 1950s. During the 1980s, my husband was active in the Kurdish-Turkish student movement and fought for the rights of women. I never imagined that in the new millennium, and in Sweden of all places, my five-year-old son would have to defend and explain in his day-care center why his mother doesn’t wear a head scarf.

Muslim fundamentalists have focused on strengthening their position in Europe for many years now. The first time I ever met Muslim fundamentalists was in 1993. I had read in Turkish newspapers that Saudi Wahabbists were trying to set up organizations in Europe in order to isolate the European Muslims from the rest of the population. These young men I then met in Tensta were educated but also full of hate against the West. I didn’t take them seriously back then.

But today I must admit that they have succeeded. The Muslim fundamentalists are now getting stronger by the day. When the Islamists complain how the Europeans don’t show any respect for the Muslim way of life, you get the impression that all they want is that we all make small, little adjustments out of consideration to their customs. But when have Islamists ever shown any consideration or respect for other people’s way of life?

When you have seen Islamists throw acid in the faces of women because they don’t wear head scarfs, then there is no room for compromise. They want to impose their ideology on the rest of society.

One important explanation for the growing Islamic fundamentalism is that young Muslims feel like outsiders in the Swedish and European society. Fundamentalists exploit the very real discrimination that affects Muslims on the labor and housing markets and especially within the judicial system to recruit new followers.

The Islamists’ solution to the discrimination is for Muslims to distance themselves even further from the European society. Influenced by the fundamentalists’ propaganda, the young men begin to mold their identity exclusively around one central theme — that of being offended and injured Muslims. This was also a contributing factor for the riots in the French suburbs.

All this puts the large majority of moderate Muslims in a particularly difficult position. Ever since the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, people are afraid of Muslims. For millions of us in Europe, life has become very difficult due to ignorance, prejudice and pure racism.

At the same time, though, we moderate Muslims know better than the rest of the population in Europe what type of threat Muslim fundamentalists are. Moderate Muslims — who already have experienced oppression by fundamentalists in their home countries — want to be able to live as faithful Muslims in a modern European society.

This is a two-front struggle for secular Muslims. On the one hand we must fight the prejudice Europeans have about us as Muslims. On the other hand we must continue the struggle against the Muslim fundamentalists who reject society’s democratic values. We need all the democratic forces to work together in this struggle.

Ms. Pekgul is a former member of the Swedish parliament and currently chairman of Sweden’s National Federation of Social Democratic Women.


4 thoughts on “Why I’m Leaving My Home — Again

  1. The situation in Turkey could be moving in an even more dangerous direction than this article suggests. There are in Turkey today three major political groups or movements existing in a wary triangle.

    The first of these are the liberal, western-oriented, middle-class Turks who seek membership in the European Union for the political freedoms and economic benefits it would bring. I think it’s their viewpoint that Turkish writers like Orhan Pamuk represent.

    The second group are the Islamists who have taken root most successfuly in the poorer villages of estern Turkey and the urban slums of Turkey’s larger cities. Kemal Attaturk’s secular vision for Turkey left a spiritual void which fundamentalist Islam has been energetically working to fill.

    The third group are the right-wing Turkish nationalists best represented by the group known as the Grey Wolves. Creating by nationalist officers in the Turkish army during the nineteen-sixties, and promoting a racial ideology similar to that of the Nazis, members of the Grey Wolves have been involved in numerous incidents of violence and intimidation against non-Turkish minorities.

    It was a member of the Grey Wolves, Mehmet Al Agca, who shot Pope John Paul II during the early eighties. The Grey Wolves have been implicated in the killings and beatings of Kurds and Armenians, and in 1996 were again active in Cyprus where they killed two Greek Cypriots demostrating against the Turkish occupation. Ominously, it was the Grey Wolves who organized the latest demonstration against the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate last year, and one can’t help wondering what the extent to which they operate with the support of the Turkish government.

    The most dangerous scenario would involve an alliance of convenience between the Grey Wolves and the Islamic fundamentalists. This could arise as a backlash against liberalizations required in advance of EU membership. The nationalists could perceive these reforms as infringing on Turkish sovereignty, while the Islamists might react against greater freedoms for Christians and other religious minorities. Although Saddam Hussein was not an islamic fuindamentalist he gladly employed the language of jihad when it suited his purposes. The Grey Wolves might do the same.

    A detereoration into open civil war in Iraq, resulting in warfare between Kurds and Iraqi Turcomans might also bring about such an alliance. The Turks might decide to extend their influence into the oil rich area near Kirkuk where the Kurds and Turcomans are fighting each other at a low level currently.

  2. The situation in Turkey could move in an even more ominous direction than this article suggests, if right-wing Turkish nationalists were ever to join in an alliance of convenience with Islamic fundamentalists.

    There are actually three, not two, broad political groups groups in Turkey who form an uneasy triangle. The friendliest of the three are the middle class, urban liberals who support Turkish membership in the EU for the political reforms and economic benefits that closer integration with the west will bring. It is their viewpoint that Turkish writers like Orhan Pamuk reflect.

    The second group are the Islamic fundamentalists who have been most successful in Turkey’s poorer eastern villages and urban slums. Kemal Attaturk’s secular vision for Turkey has left a spiritual void and emptiness of purpose that Islamic fundamentaism has been able to fill and exploit.

    The third group are the right-wing Turkish nationalists who while smaller in number, are an influential presence in the Turkish military and government. The intentions of these Turkish nationalist are exemplified by the shadowy semi-criminal, right-wing group known as the Grey Wolves. Organized by the Turkish military in the nineteen sixties to combat communist groups, the Grey Wolves have adopted a racial ideology and thuggish tactics similar to those of Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s Nazi party.


    Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to assasinate Pope John Paul II, belonged to the Grey Wolves. The organization is behind a number of murders and violent acts directed against non-Turkish minorities including Kurds, Armenians, and Greek Cypriots. The Grey Wolves were active in formenting unrest in Chenenya, Kosovo and Albania, and were behind the protest demonstration and threats directed at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate last year. What is most disturbing is the fact that they operate with at least some level of cooperation from the Turkish government.

    It is possible that EU membership guidelines that require Turkish acceptance and adoption of European legal and politcal standards could touch off a violent reaction from either the right wing nationalists or the Islamic fundamentalists. While Saddam Hussein was not an Islamic fundamentalism he certainly wasn’t shy about using the language of Jihad when it suited his purpose. Turkish nationalists may decide to do the same thing.

    Should both of these groups combine an begin to work together it would dramatically increase instability in the region. Certainly Turkey would become more aggressive towards Greece, challenging Greek territorial claims in the Aegean, and even more hostile to Christians within their borders. A nationalist and fundamentalist Turkey could challenge Armenia and Russia for control in the Caucauses under the cloak of jihad and Islamic brotherhood. In Iraq, Turkey might also decide to challenge the Kurdish enclave in Iraq for control of the oil rich area near Kirkuk where the ethnic Turcoman minority is contending with the Kurds for control.

    All of this makes the geopolitical dynmic in the middle-east, where “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” all the more complicated. If the US goes to war against Iran will it remove a counterweight to Turkish domination in the region, just as going to war against Iraq has freed Iran to expan it’s control?

  3. But wait – President Bush said that Democracy was an anti-dote to Islamism. He said it just tonight, if only given the chance to live in liberty, then Muslims will all become little Ben Franklins.

    Kind of strange that Muslims living in free, Western Democracies are going the other direction, isn’t it? Also strange that when Shiites vote in Lebanon, they vote for Hezbollah, and that when Sunnis vote in the PA they vote for Hamas.

    Equally strange, the hardest line most virulently Islamist candidate won in Iran. And then there is the problem that Egypt’s Sunnis voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in huge numbers. Come to think of it, weren’t the winners in the Iraqi elections all religiously-based parties?

    As Dean mentions, Turkey is also sliding into the grip of Islamists.

    I wonder – is it just possible that Bush is wrong? Is it possible that if given the chance, Muslims aren’t exactly like us? That maybe, just maybe, a Muslim Democracy won’t respect human rights, minority rights, and the rule of law?

    Father Hans – what about it? You’ve been somewhat quiet on this issue lately. The Pope doesn’t think Western-style Democracy is possible for Muslims, but what do you think in the new, post-Hamas world?

  4. Glen: My book recommendation for you is “Charlie Wilson’s War”, by George Crile, about the CIA intervention in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the eighties. Although our success in pushing the Russians out of Afghanistan was one of America’s greatest victories of the Cold War, it had the unitented effect of training and arming the Islamic Mujahaddin who would later morph into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.


    The actual story is as unbelievable and fascinating as it is informative. Tom Clancy on his best day could never have made up a storyline or characters as audacious as those that actually existed; which is why Hollywood is working on a movie version of the book as we speak. I strongly recommend it

    Back to the topic at hand, American foreign policy leaders have forgotten the lessons learned by the British and Russians during the late 18th century, when Central Asia was a giant chess board for the great powers. We may need a foreign policy that preserves order in the middle-east and central asia by achieving a low-level rivalry and delicate balance of power between the various nations. For example use the Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia to keep Iran in check, use Iran and Russia to keep Turkey in check, use India and Iran to keep Pakistan in check, and so on.

    Instead of promoting Ukraine, we may need to support Russia intead, bringing it into NATO and building up it’s military and its economy as a bulwark against the Islamic states to the South.

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