Skip Navigation

Welcome to the the Office of the President

Istanbul, Charleston and the Value of Religious Tolerance Turkish Community Dialogue Dinner

March 19, 2009

It is a great privilege for me to be with you this evening. To be honest, when the letter of invitation first arrived, I wondered whether the Istanbul Center might have made a mistake and really intended to invite somebody else to speak. After all, on more than one occasion, I have received a letter that was intended for former Charleston police Chief Reuben Greenberg. And let me tell you, I thought that my mail was pretty scary until I saw a sample of what comes to the police chief. Of course, now that Reuben has retired, it didn’t seem like the Istanbul Center would be trying to contact him. So why, I wondered, would the Turkish community be interested in hearing from me?

The truth of the matter is that my knowledge of Istanbul is pretty much limited to my experience there as a tourist a couple of years ago. Of course, not knowing anything about a subject has not stopped me from talking about it before. In this instance, however, it suddenly dawned on me why I might be an acceptable choice as the speaker - it won’t take me very long to say what little I know about the topic. My hope tonight is to prove that assumption correct.

I would like to begin with just a word about our trip to Istanbul, which now is one of my favorite cities in the world. In fact, it seems that everyone who visits there comes away with the same impression. And, why wouldn’t they? With nearly 9,000 years of history, the story of Istanbul is the story of human progress.

Istanbul also is a city of unbelievable natural beauty and equally remarkable cultural beauty. Who can come away from a cruise up the Bosphorus without a sense of awe for the physical environment of two continents sidled up against each other? Who can visit the Hagia Sophia Church or the Blue Mosque without being moved by the spiritual power of the city?

And perhaps most importantly, the people of Istanbul are warm and welcoming to strangers - we learned during our trip that one of the great delights for a visitor is to take public transportation and carry a digital camera with you. Taking a few pictures of the young people on board is sure to entertain the children and make their parents proud, whether or not any of them speak a word of English. Equally important, they all have delicious snacks to share with the photographer and friends. With all of the glorious history in Istanbul, it is the young people and the promise of a bright future that I will remember most.

It is in that spirit that I would like to talk tonight about the need for tolerance and understanding. As we think about the problems facing the world today, clearly the financial crisis has emerged as the leading issue in the minds of most Americans. In a CNN opinion poll last month, for example, three out of four Americans indicated that the top priority for the new president was dealing with the economy. Only 6% of respondents indicated that the top priority was the war in Iraq and another 6% identified fighting terrorism as the number one priority. Just one year ago, in a similar national poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Bloomberg News Service, the war in Iraq was the number one priority at 32%, the economy was second at 25% and fighting terrorism was not far behind at 18%.

That is a pretty amazing shift in public opinion in a single year and it speaks to the speed and extent with which Americans are feeling the pain of the recession. Clearly most Americans, and probably most of us in this room, are more focused today on the state of our 401(k)s, our home mortgages, and our job security than on wars in foreign countries and even the threat of terrorism at home.

In that light, probably I should be talking tonight about the global economy. There are two reasons for my sidestepping that topic, however. First, I agree with the historian Thomas Carlyle who referred to economics as "the dismal science," and it seems especially dismal these days. Who wants to spoil a wonderful evening with a depressing talk? Second, and more important, I know absolutely nothing about economics.

So, in the hopes of selecting a slightly less dismal topic, my talk tonight will be on the topic of religious tolerance. Now, just to be clear, my knowledge of the subject of religious tolerance is just about as limited as my knowledge of economics. This is perhaps not surprising, since the two subjects may have something in common. As Voltaire wrote: "When it is a question of money, everyone is of the same religion."

Now, it is apparent that we are living in a time in which the world is divided by strong social, economic and political differences. To some extent, this divide coincides with differences in the predominant religions of countries, and in some instances, religious fundamentalists have been the most vocal and visible critics of the other cultures. It is not surprising, therefore, that religion is often perceived as the cause of these conflicts.

For example, an ABC News poll in 2006 found that 45% of Americans had an unfavorable view of Islam. The same percentage of Americans reported that they believed that Islam did not teach respect for non-Muslims.

In spite of this skepticism, there is some evidence that people around the world can imagine a world in which these cultures are not in conflict. For example, the BBC conducted a global poll in 2007 that sampled the opinions of 28,000 people living in 27 different countries. About two -thirds of the Americans who were surveyed thought that it was possible for Western and Muslim nations to find a common middle ground. In Turkey, about half of respondents believed that common ground was possible. In both Western and Muslim settings, people were less likely to ascribe the conflicts to religious and cultural differences than to political power struggles. Nevertheless, almost four out of ten Americans cited religion and culture as the underlying cause.

Being able to imagine the great civilizations of the world finding a common ground does not necessarily mean that it can be achieved, of course. Human history and even current events provide ample bloody evidence to the contrary. For those of us who cling to a hope for a different future, however, any historical precedents must be cherished and celebrated. And that, my friends, is what brings Charleston and Istanbul together tonight - for both have histories of remarkable acceptance of minority faiths within their communities.

In these two settings, separated by more than 5,000 miles and millennia of recorded history, customs, faiths, and traditions, there is an important commonality. Namely, outsiders have been welcomed and allowed to practice their faiths freely. While Istanbul and Charleston are not unique in that regard, they stand in sharp contrast to the vast majority of communities, in which religious minorities have been ostracized and persecuted. The stories of tolerance within these two municipalities are worth remembering tonight as we strive to build a future of harmony.

Chronologically, the story of Istanbul takes precedence, so let us begin there. Let us travel back more than 500 years to the year 1492. When the year 1492 is mentioned, probably everyone’s first association is with the expedition led by Christopher Columbus to the New World. That remarkable voyage, funded by Queen Isabella of Spain, was not the only noteworthy decision made in Spain that year. King Ferdinand issued an Edict of Expulsion on April 29th of that year, requiring all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. The Edict made clear that Spanish land was forever closed to the Jews who "dare not return . . . not so much as to take a step on them or trespass upon them in any manner whatsoever."

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain followed centuries of official persecution, forced conversions and massacres. Of the estimated quarter of a million Jews living in Spain at the time of the expulsion, about a fifth were baptized and remained there. Those who left were forced to abandon their homes and could not take with them any form of money or jewelry. The trip out was hazardous, with almost 10 percent dying en route. Those who survived were scattered to numerous countries in Europe and beyond, with over half going to the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Beyazit II welcomed the Jews and ordered the governors of the provinces: "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially."

In part, the Jews were received with open arms because they brought skills and technology not previously available there. For example, they were the first to introduce the printing press to the Ottoman Empire. The Jews also included physicians whose European practices were valued by the Sultans. Several Jewish physicians attended to the Sultans, perhaps the most famous being Moses Haman. In reflecting upon the skills and experience of the new immigrants, Sultan Beyazit II reportedly said: "How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king -the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours."

Under such benevolent rule, the Jewish population of Istanbul flourished, increasing in number fivefold within the first few decades after the expulsion from Spain. Jewish communal life was organized around the synagogues, each providing religious, legal, educational and social services. A number of these synagogues are in existence today in Istanbul, including one that dates back to the first wave of immigrants from the Spanish expulsion.

In the Ottoman Empire, Jews and other minority groups were allowed to tax their own populations to fund schools and other essential community services, and they were free to establish their own laws and enforce them. Not surprisingly, the Jews, who were oppressed elsewhere, found the Ottoman Empire a comparative haven, and it grew to become the largest concentration of Jews in the world.

This is not to say that the Jews, or Christians for that matter, enjoyed complete freedom in the Ottoman Empire. Members of religious minority groups were prohibited from serving as rulers. Even their dress was restricted, so as to distinguish them from the Muslim majority. The restrictions on clothing concerned its color (dark and drab required), as well as the quality of materials and the size of turbans and robes.

By today’s standards, we might find the special taxes, the limitations on public office, and the restrictions on clothing to be inconsistent with true religious tolerance. It is unfair, however, to judge 15th century practices by 21st century values. When viewed in the context of what was happening to Jews elsewhere at the time, the Ottoman Empire was truly a safe haven.

This brief description of the life of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire cannot do justice to the topic, but in the interests of giving equal time to Charleston, let me move on. We all know that Charleston, with its abundance of places of worship, is aptly known as the "Holy City." One cannot walk around this town, or take a horse drawn carriage ride for that matter, without admiring the diversity of spiritual groups that have flourished here. Certainly, everyone in this room is well aware of the history of religious tolerance in Charleston.

At the same time, I have to confess that in preparing for this talk, I learned a lot about the history of religious freedom here, so bear with me while I share with you some of what I discovered. From its earliest days, Charleston opened its arms to those whose religions were not tolerated elsewhere. The first official expression of this policy can be found in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina drawn up by the English philosopher John Locke in 1669. Locke, educated at Oxford, was a physician and he trained under the renowned Thomas Syndenham.

One of Locke’s friends and most influential patients was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the First Earle of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury credited Locke with saving his life from a liver infection. The grateful patient was one of eight Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, and he had Locke appointed as the Secretary to the group. Under Locke’s hand, with or without help from Shaftesbury, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina was drafted as a design for representative government in the Province of Carolina. The settlers in the province were not particularly receptive to this document, preferring instead the more flexible royal charter. As a result, the Fundamental Constitutions was never ratified; nevertheless, many of the principles proposed in it were either adopted into law or influenced the culture of the Carolinas.

With respect to religious tolerance, the Fundamental Constitutions set some clear guidelines. It identified the Church of England as the official religion, as it was in all of the lands under British rule. At the same time, provision was made for welcoming peoples of other faiths. The text itself is quite bold in stating that: "Those who remove from other parts to plant there, will unavoidably be of different opinions concerning matters of religion, the liberty whereof they will expect to have allowed them, and it will not be reasonable for us on this account to keep them out; that civil peace may be obtained amidst diversity of opinions, and our agreement and compact with all men may be duly and faithfully observed."

The Fundamental Constitutions specifically mentions for protection: "Jews, Heathens and other dissenters from . . . the Christian religion." Official recognition was granted to "any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion," who "shall constitute a church or profession." Why exactly seven persons were required is a mystery to me, but at least the bar was not set prohibitively high. The Constitutions warranted that; "No person of any other church or profession shall disturb or molest any religious assembly." Further, it declared that "no man shall use any reproachful, reviling, or abusive language against any religion of any church or profession." Finally, it affirmed that: "No person whatsoever shall disturb, molest, or persecute another for his speculative opinions in religion, or his way of worship."

A document so demonstrative in its assertions about guarantees of religious freedom was certainly precedent-setting, if not radical, for its times. Locke was a determined and persuasive advocate for religious tolerance. Approximately twenty years after he drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina he wrote a letter that could serve as a manifesto on freedom of religion. In that letter, Locke wrote that: "The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light."

The separation of church and state, so famously enshrined by our Founding Fathers in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, was articulated by Locke a full century earlier. He wrote that: "I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between one and the other."

The patina of 300 years cannot dull the brilliance of those words. Yet, we may ask whether down through the ages, Charlestonians have risen to this call for religious tolerance. Just as the Ottoman Empire had welcomed the Jews who were evicted from Spain, about two hundred years later, Charleston welcomed their descendents, predominantly arriving from Portugal.

Charleston was founded in 1670 and within two decades a Jewish community was growing there. Here, the Jews were not constrained - they could vote, and records indicate that they did as early as 1702. They could also serve in the military and a number fought in the War of Independence. By 1800, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in North America, only eclipsed in the 1830s by the large immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the Northeast United States. Charleston was also the first place in which a Jewish citizen was elected to public office - Myer Moses was elected to the legislature in 1810 and he also served as the commissioner of education and fought in the War of 1812.

Other religious groups found a haven in Charleston, perhaps the most distinctive of which was the Huguenots. The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church in France. They followed the teachings of John Calvin, the French theologian whose seminal works were written and preached in the middle of the sixteenth century. Members of the Reformed Church decried the ritual and relics of the Catholic Church and professed instead the sovereignty of the rule of God. They believed that God is at work in all facets of life, whether spiritual or secular.

A distinct minority in France, representing about 10 percent of the population at its peak, the Reformed Church and its believers found themselves in armed conflict with the ruling Catholic majority. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, a series of Religious Wars were fought, which concluded with the signing of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. By act of King Henry IV, the Edict separated civil from religious unity and granted to the Protestant minority civil rights and amnesty.

The period of tolerance ended when Louis XIV, who believed in "one faith, one law, one king," revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Protestantism was declared illegal and its adherents were either converted or forced to leave. The exact number of those who departed is unknown, but is estimated to be about a half million persons. Popular destinations were the predominantly Protestant countries of Europe and the New World. In North America, Huguenot settlers came to several population centers, but none was more welcoming than Charleston.

It appears that the first French refugees arrived around 1680, but the numbers increased after the Edict of Nantes was revoked. The French settlers were welcomed by the Lord Proprietors who saw in their arrival the opportunity to cultivate trades in silk, oils, and wines. The earliest French settlers experienced some prejudices against their language and their customs, but within a few years, they were granted equal justice under the law and enjoyed the same privileges as the English settlers.

An influential group of Huguenots came shortly after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 from the town of Pons in southwest France, not too far from Cognac. The pastor of the Reformed Church in Pons, Reverend Elie Prioleau, led his congregation to Charleston, where they established the first French Reformed Church in North America, the descendant of which is at the corner of Church and Queen Streets and is the only surviving Huguenot church in the United States today.

Anyone familiar with the prominent names of Charleston, among them Gaillard, Huger, Legare, Ravenel, and Prioleau, can appreciate the significant role that the Huguenots played in this community. The wealthier settlers purchased plantations and excelled in the indigo and rice trades. Others were skilled in the arts and languages, many becoming teachers. Still others made livings in trades such as baking, dressmaking, and hairdressing. As is true of many immigrant populations, the second generation adopted the language and customs of their new country. Much of the distinctive culture of the Huguenots was quickly lost through intermarriage and assimilation with their majority English neighbors.

As was mentioned in our discussion of the Ottoman Empire, applying standards of 21st century morality to the early days of the Carolina Provinces leaves much to be desired. While European immigrant populations, such as the Jews and Huguenots, were accorded civil rights and citizenship, others who arrived on these shores were not so fortunate. The importation and ownership of slaves from Africa was not an exclusive domain of the English majority. Both Huguenots and Jews were slave owners. In fact, the Fundamental Constitutions authorized the practice of slavery by declaring that: "No slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him." It goes on to say that: "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves." So, the freedoms that Locke espoused for religious practice did not extend to the issue of human bondage. Slaves were not entitled to civil interests that Locke defined in his letter on tolerance as: "Life, liberty, health and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like."

So, what lessons can we learn from the 15th century Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the 17th century Carolina Lords Proprietors? Are these two local historical examples just relics of the past, or do they have meaning in our new global context? Well, if they have no relevance, then I have just wasted about 20 minutes of your time, so let’s hope that we can find a way to give them currency today.

I would suggest to you that the stories of Charleston and Istanbul, where religious minorities were welcomed and allowed to prosper, were never more pertinent than they are today. In a world in which predominantly Christian countries and predominantly Muslim countries stand in nervous tension with each other, a call for peaceful coexistence is in order. On both sides of the widening chasm, we must denounce extremist voices of intolerance. We must be guided instead by the principles of tolerance that are anchored in the original religious texts of our respective faiths.

In the Quran (Surat El-Nissa 4:36) it says: "Serve Allah. . . and do good - to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer you meet." For Jews and Christians, a similar sentiment can be found in Leviticus 19:34. "The stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you; and you shall love him as thyself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

The history of mankind is replete with examples of atrocities committed in the name of religion, and surely there will be more to come. As the writer Jonathan Swift wrote: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another." Today, international conflict mixes the volatile emotions of religious difference with a deadly cocktail of politics and power. Our best hope, perhaps our only hope for the future is that we must not forget our past. When religion and politics are allowed to intermingle both are corrupted to the detriment of all involved.

It is my firm hope, and my sacred belief that human beings can overcome their prejudices and recognize that it is in all of our interests to live in harmony. In the words of Anton Chekhov: "We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels; we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds."

Thank you very much.