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The different faces of divided Turkey 14 septembre 2006

Posted by Acturca in Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Irish Times (Ireland), September 8, 2006 Friday, Pg. 14

Under the crescent – The faces of Islam: The emergence of an educated Islamic bourgeoisie has heightened tensions between conservatives and secularists in Turkey, writes Mary Fitzgerald.

They came in their thousands, trailing through the warren of narrow hilly streets that leads to the Ismailaga mosque in Fatih, a conservative Muslim neighbourhood far removed from the Istanbul of guidebooks and postcards. Women in billowing black chadors pinned just below the mouth, whey-faced men with long wispy beards, long robes and delicately embroidered prayer caps, silent children. They had come to mourn a local imam stabbed to death during early morning prayers the day before. No one knew why and few dared to speculate.

Most belonged to a Sufi-inspired sect associated with the mosque, one that stresses a spartan way of life reminiscent of the early days of Islam. By the time the imam was ready to begin the funeral oration, the crowd had swollen to 25,000. Large religious gatherings like this make many in Turkey nervous and it showed.

With thousands of riot police forming a tight cordon around the mosque complex and soldiers positioned on nearby balconies, the imam begged the mourners to remain calm. « There will be no slogans, » he said, speaking in a mix of Turkish and Arabic. « It is not necessary to remind you that the whole of Turkey is watching us right now. »

My translator could not believe her eyes. A twentysomething Turk more at home in the chic cafes and trendy boutiques of Istanbul’s more fashionable districts, she had turned up that morning in a flimsy sundress. We were going to an area where headscarves are the norm and it is not unusual to see women in Iranian-style chadors or even the odd burqa. When I suggested her outfit was perhaps not the most appropriate attire, she grudgingly pulled on a cardigan and told me about the time people threw stones at her in a similar neighbourhood because she was wearing a T-shirt exposing her midriff. Watching the mourners, she sighed: « I can’t believe I’m in Turkey. I have never seen anything like this. Who are these people? Where have they come from? »

Later she was surprised when one bearded man looked away when responding to a question she put to him – devout Muslim men will often refrain from direct eye contact with women they are not related to.

« I’m so glad I live in a secular country, » she harrumphed. Two people, two very different faces of Turkey. One resolutely, even militantly secular; the other religious and conservative. Beneath the country’s official embrace of secularism lies an overwhelmingly Muslim population, many of whom consider faith an intrinsic part of their identity. It is a division that has existed since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1923. His attempt to wrench the fledgling state away from its Islamic past was neither gradual nor subtle. In the name of modernisation and progress, Ataturk enshrined secularism as the foundation for a country he was determined would look west instead of east. The caliphate and the religious courts were abolished, the Islamic calendar changed to Gregorian, Arabic script replaced with Latin and the fez banned, with Ataturk declaring: « I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. »

In the eight decades since, Turkey’s severe version of secularism, modelled on the French example of laïcité, has evolved into something approaching a state religion in itself. Ataturk’s legacy remains zealously guarded by the country’s so-called « deep state » – the military, judicial and bureaucratic layers that form a powerful, if shadowy, core of the ruling establishment, one unafraid to stage the odd coup, four since 1960, to protect its interests.

Such rigid secularism in a predominantly Muslim country means everything to do with religion is tightly controlled. The state oversees religious education, appoints imams for the country’s 70,000-plus mosques and pays their salaries. Sermons have to be government-approved and inspectors sit in on Friday prayers to ensure preachers avoid politics and other sensitive subjects. Headscarves are banned from schools, universities and all government buildings.

At times the official paranoia over religion can border on the absurd. Colgate recently fell victim after it launched a new type of toothpaste containing extracts of miswak, a plant said to have been used by the Prophet Muhammad to clean his teeth. The TV advertisement, which featured a modern bearded grandfatherly figure and no mention of the Prophet, was pulled following complaints and Colgate was slapped with a hefty fine for « exploiting religious feeling ».

For a long time the country’s secular urban elite sneered at anything that smacked of piety, dismissing it as the preserve of poverty-stricken villagers in rural Turkey. Strong religious conviction was for those who simply didn’t know any better. The word irtica, literally meaning to go backwards and later made synonymous with religious conservatism, has long been a catch-all insult likely to be levelled at anyone who dared even to question the status quo.

In recent years, however, that view has been shaken. The emergence of a new entrepreneurial class that embraces globalisation and the free market while remaining socially conservative and deeply wedded to religion has rocked the old certainties. Dubbed « the Anatolian Tigers » because so many come from Turkey’s hardscrabble heartland of Anatolia, these shrewd, hard-working businessmen – it is usually men – epitomise what one European think-tank has termed Islamic Calvinism. They are the ones holidaying with their families in the new coastal resorts that boast gender-segregated beaches and swimming pools. They are also some of the most fervent supporters of Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

« The gap that existed between what the secularists viewed as their own sophisticated, urban elite and the backward, rural, unwashed Islamic masses is closing, » says Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul newspaper columnist.

« The religious camp is building its own elite, an educated Islamic bourgeoisie that works hard, goes to restaurants and resorts and wears Versace headscarves.

They want to work within Turkey’s secular framework and that unsettles the Kemalists. « They refuse to believe that you can be devout and still be committed to the idea of a secular state. » These increasingly assertive religiously minded Turks also have a political voice in the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the political party with Islamist roots that trounced Turkey’s secular old guard in the last general election, gaining nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament with their pro-Europe, reformist platform. The AKP likes to compare itself to
Germany’s Christian Democrats and denies that it wants to undermine Turkey’s secular tradition, but suspicions remain.

Attempts to promote religious schools, ease the headscarf ban, criminalise adultery and discourage alcohol consumption with punitive taxes have caused disquiet among the secular elite. Some believe Turkey’s decades-old tension between the secularists and those who would prefer a more Islamic-flavoured national identity has grown more entrenched in the four years since the AKP came to power.

A Pew survey published this year found that 58 per cent of Turks agree that there is a struggle between modernisers and Islamic fundamentalists within the country. Of those who believe this ideological tug-of-war exists, 39 per cent identified with the modernisers; 9 per cent identified with Islamic fundamentalists.

The apparent increase in public displays of piety, most notably in the number of women now wearing headscarves in public, has drawn much comment. It is estimated that more than 65 per cent of Turkish women cover their heads. A national poll conducted by two Istanbul academics earlier this year found that 68 per cent of Turks considered the ban on headscarves – enshrined in the Constitution – to be a form of religious oppression and supported its repeal. The findings also revealed a deep seam of religious conservatism. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed said they would not allow their daughters marry non-Muslims. More than 45 per cent said they preferred schools that specialised in religious teachings over schools with secular curriculums. Furthermore, 60 per cent blamed a lack of religious beliefs for overall « failure in life ». Opposing factions within Turkey’s media, deeply cleaved along religious/secular lines, rarely miss a chance to snipe at the other side. Last month a report claiming that a group of headscarf-wearing women and their families had attacked a woman sunbathing in a bikini, calling her a prostitute, provoked a huge furore.

« The circles that back the AKP should not act with the mentality of those who think they can do what they like because their party is in power, » fumed Ertugrul Ozkok, editor in chief of the secular newspaper Hurriyet, criticising the « social impertinence » of conservative Muslims.

But sometimes telling details are overlooked in the rush to run down the other side. The story of the man who shot dead a senior judge in mid-May is a case in point. The killing prompted tens of thousands of secularist Turks to protest against what was initially depicted as an Islamist attack, the religious/secular divide writ large.

Since then no credible evidence has emerged to support the claim that the gunman, Alpaslan Arslan, is a religious radical. Instead he has been linked with extreme-right nationalists.

Even the widely reported allegation that Arslan shouted « Allahu Akbar [God is Most Great] » before opening fire has been refuted by one of the four judges injured in the attack.

Many believe that Turkey’s European ambitions have laid bare the fault lines beneath the country’s fiercely secular official identity. The question now is whether the secular elite and Turkey’s religious conservatives can move beyond battles of symbolism and mutual prejudice to establish common ground. To find out, says Hussein Bagci, a professor at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, will require soul-searching on both sides of the divide, including a recognition that Islam remains a key aspect of life for many Turks.

« The classic rigid Kemalist secularism is over, » he explains. « We now have people who are pro-EU, pro-business and globalisation but still want to keep their sense of religion and traditions. These are the people who go to the mosque and pray five times a day while being perfectly at home in the modern world of technology and business. This is the new Turkey. This is the new political and social reality we face and the country will have to readjust accordingly. It won’t be easy but it has to be done. »

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