Thoroughly Modern Muslim

Celebrating Eid In Istanbul

A man sits next to sheep at a market in Ankara, October 11, 2013. Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters

Today is the first day of what people in Turkey call Kurban Bayrami, a Muslim holiday better known as Eid. It's a chance to take a break from work, spend time with friends and family, and debate modernity. 

To commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s orders, those who are religiously observant and who can afford it will participate in the tradition of purchasing sheep or cows, slaughtering them, and distributing the meat to the poor. Meanwhile, many members of Turkey’s self-consciously Western elite will participate in their own tradition: denouncing the whole thing as barbaric. 

All too aware of how these things look to Western observers, Turkish secularists have long argued that animal sacrifice -- especially when it’s done with a knife illegally, in the street, in front of families, with kids in tow -- does not help Turkey in its many-decade struggle to appear modern. In that sense, the yearly Kurban Bayrami debate has been a textbook case study in the country’s culture wars: secularists condemn certain activities as backward, and religious conservatives defend them as vital Islamic traditions.

Alongside these two basic positions, however, there are a host of more surprising arguments, many put forward by pro-sacrifice conservatives eager to claim the modernist high ground. Read together, these arguments offer a more nuanced view of Turkish society and a window into the current Islamist government’s success.

Most, striking, if perhaps least common, are the hyper-progressive naturalist defenses of Kurban Bayrami sacrifices that pop up occasionally among a small set of young liberals: eating meat involves killing animals, and there is nothing more natural than acknowledging this fact publicly. Indeed, the sight of a fuzzy gray kitten contentedly lapping up fresh blood as it flows down the cobblestone streets -- as is common during the sacrifice -- seems to both justify and rebuke one's carnivorous urges.

Turkish animal rights groups, of course, reject the premise. They take to the streets instead

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