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Religion and the Gezi Protests

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Note: I have had to take a hiatus from blogging during the last few months to focus my energy on a number of other writing projects.  One of these was a paper I presented for the “Religious Symbols and Secularisms: Contemporary Perspectives from Canada and Turkey” panel at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  I have revised and condensed some of my research for this paper into the blog post below.  You can read the paper as it was presented on my Academia page.

Religion has played an important if under-studied role in the series of protests that have swept the globe over the last several years. During the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, religious actors served to legitimize and at times even directly participated in the protests. In contrast, during the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul during the summer of 2013, official religious actors were peripheral. Instead, these protests produced the unique phenomenon of lay persons utilizing religion as an instrument of protest. Religion has deep political undertones in Turkey and the Gezi protesters deftly manipulated these subtexts in order to make specific political statements.  The AKP recognized the protester’s use of religion as a challenge to its hegemony over the political use of Islam in Turkey.  Hence why some of the most particularly virulent denouncements of the protesters by the government specifically aimed to characterize the protesters as sacrilegious.  

The rise to power of the current AKP administration marked a significant shift in the politics of religion in Turkey.  Though the majority of the population has always been pious, for most of the history of the Republic the secular elites controlled the country’s political, educational and even religious institutions.  When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he subordinated and integrated the institutions of Islam into the Turkish state. To this day, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, known colloquially in Turkey as the Diyanet, is solely responsible for training imams, maintaining mosques and distributing pre-approved Friday sermons. This bureaucratic arrangement explains the absence of official religious actors at the Gezi protests.

The AKP has worked to break the previous social and legal conventions that restricted public piety.  AKP members frequently use religious symbolism in their official statements high government officials conspicuously pray and their head-scarved wives appear at affairs of State. Despite their claims to represent the masses, it is important to note that the style of Islam that characterizes the AKP is not analogous to the traditional Islam of the lower classes. The AKP represents a “conscious,” modern interpretation of Islam that grew out of twentieth-century Islamist movements. Their brand of Islam is the Islam of the urban, educated nouveau riche that embraces the trappings of elite lifestyles. A whole industry has sprung up catering to the tastes of the pious upper classes. There are Islamic fashions, Islamic resort hotels and Islamic gated communities. As a lifestyle, it is just as exclusionary of the lower classes as the secularism of the old Turkish elites.

The Gezi protesters targeted the AKP’s elitists Islam with the most well-known of its religion-infused protest activities, the iftar dinners that were organized on Istiklal Avenue.  The Istiklal Iftar meals were purposely arranged to create a sense of radical egalitarianism. Diners sat facing each other in two long lines along much of the length of the almost mile-long boulevard and ate donated food from paper plates set on table cloths or even just newspapers spread on the ground. All were welcome to attend, whether religious or secular, protester or bystander, those who had fasted and those who had not. The image of hundreds people sharing food while seated on the street was purposely meant to contrast the catered, closed, official municipal AKP iftar dinners that were taking place nearby. The iftar celebrations served to temporarily sacralize a formerly profane space, creating a peaceful haram (sacred) space in the midst of what at times was a violent and deadly period of protest.

Though the protester’s primary goal was to challenge the AKP and the current neo-conservative Turkish state, their acceptance of acts of public worship and accommodation of religious allies demonstrates that they were more than simply a reconstitution of the old secular elite.  There are numerous documented incidences of secular protesters going out their way to going out of their way to include pious citizens in their midst.  For example, on the night of the Mirac Kandil holiday, the park was declared an alcohol free zone and those who wished to could attend a sermon and communal worship service.

The Gezi park protests were a remarkable moment in Turkish history because they brought together elements of a number of previously mutually antagonistic classes of Turkish citizens.  Represented among the protesters were environmentalists concerned about the destruction of the forests surrounding Istanbul; secularists and nationalists convinced that the AKP is undermining the secular nature of the Republic; minorities such as LGBTQ individuals, Kurds and religious such as Alevis who continue to be face institutional discrimination; and leftists and anti-capitalist Muslims who are opposed to the governments neo-liberal economic policies.  Much has been made of the detente between the Kurds and nationalists in the park, while the interaction between secular and religious Turks has largely been dismissed as trivial.  Most research done on the participants does indeed suggest that the majority of active protesters were both young and secular.  However, ignoring the very real and significant shift in the treatment of public religion and its use as a method of protest during Gezi simply plays into the AKP government’s that only they can truly represent and protect the rights of pious Turks.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Turkey still has a Refugee Crisis

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Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week.  Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack.  Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post.  In addition, investigative reports,  in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state.  Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify  potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.

Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis.  In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul.  Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep.  Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising.  In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep.  In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border.  The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.

After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border.  Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000.  Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.

Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood.  Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs.  They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds.  Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS.  Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.

The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders.  It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis.  I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria.  The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands.  In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups.  This proposal is doubly beneficial.  It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.

This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term.  The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground.  In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together.  Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated.  Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now.  The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.

However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees.  Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined.  The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will.  I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist.  I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement.  Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be.  Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 16, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Shifting Minority Politics

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After more than a decade in power, what can we make of the AKP’s relations with Turkey’s ethno-religious minorities?  On the one hand, certain properties confiscated by the state from Christian minorities have been returned.  Journalists have documented on multiple occasions the rare but real phenomenon of Greeks migrating to Turkey to work or in some cases to return to the homeland their ancestors were forced to abandon.  The Turkish government has pledged to protect all Syrian refugees that seek shelter within its borders, no matter their ethnicity or religion.  On the other hand, both the government and its army of sycophantic journalists have engaged in anti-Semitic fear-mongering as a retort to any and all criticism or protest against the current government.  The minority that has arguably suffered the most under the AKP are the Alevis.  The vast majority of those killed as the result of the past year’s anti-government protests were young Alevi men.  In a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, the deaths of Alevis have resulted in protests and unrest in Alevi towns and neighborhoods, triggering harsher police crackdowns and ultimately the deaths of more Alevis.

Despite the laudable actions the current government has taken regarding the return of confiscated properties and the welcome it has extended to non-Sunni Muslim minorities fleeing Syria, the AKP has failed to change the national cultural attitudes that ultimately undermine the status of ethno-religious minorities.  Of the multiple cultural and historical factors that inhibit the acceptance of minorities, it is the threat of international sabotage, a neo-Sevres Syndrome, that is the current AKP favored political red herring.  Erdogan’s nearly daily speeches accusing foreign elements of instigating everything from the Soma disaster to the corruption probe to the Gezi protests attests to the fact that this kind of rhetoric still holds significant political sway over hearts and minds of Turks.  Jews and Alevis have simply replace the Greeks in the Sevres narrative.  Turkey’s current tolerance of native Christian groups does not signal a greater opening toward ethno-religious minorities, no matter what the pro-government press may claim.  Greek-Turk relations have improved over the years and in its current economic and political state, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Greece and Greeks are still the perpetrators behind Turkey’s woes.  Erdogan and the AKP have simply replaced one boogeyman with another.

Populations that exist on the margins of the majority, blurring the lines between the categories of “us” and “them” often become the targets of violent identity politics.  Therefore, Turkish acceptance of religious pluralism hinges largely not on its relationship with Christians or Jews but Alevis.  A fuzzy symbolic boundary can become a severe existential or even political threat to socially constructed groups.  The centuries-long persecution of Alevis by Sunni Muslim authorities is a prime example of this phenomenon.  It is often easier for religious plurality to exist when beliefs and practices are very distinct, and thus establish clear boundaries.  However, it is not impossible to overcome these kind of existential issues.  For example, if the Turkish government would offiicially recognize the Alevi house of worship, called a Cemevi, as a legitimate worship space, this legal act could also serve to create symbolic boundaries between Sunnis and Alevis.  Currently the government argues that Alevis are Muslims and the only appropriate worship space for Muslims is a mosque.  Recognizing Cemevis would not preclude Alevis from self identifying or being identified by the state as Muslims, but would create a boundary marking them as a distinct type of Muslim.

This kind of recognition of a group as “same but different” has worked to reconcile other boundary groups to a hostile majority, a prime example being the Mormons in the United States.  I would of course not be a magic cure for anti-Alevi sentiment and would have to be accompanied by pluralistic educational initiatives as well.  As evidenced by this recent piece in Al Monitor falsely equating Alevis with Syrian Alawites, even educated elites in Turkey lack a clear understanding of Alevism.  In general, Turkey has a long way to go in embracing and understanding the diverse ethno-religious groups that historically inhabited its territory.  The AKP has made only symbolic gestures toward its original platform promise of creating a pluralistic Turkey.  Hope for real change must be shifted to Turkey’s recently politically-awakened youth demographic.  It has become cliche, but all credible sources agree that Gezi was a rare moment of true pluralism.  We can only hope that youth aspirations toward pluralistic ideal will survive subsequent avalanche of xenophobic propaganda that has come in Gezi’s wake.

Gezi Continues

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Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over.  Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died.  His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa.  Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.

Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign.  Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester.  However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.  Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.

Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria.  The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century.  However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government.  Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs.  Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail.  So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria.  Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community.  Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria.  The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation.  A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down.  The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights.  Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer.  However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights.  If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.

The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands.  In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance.  However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Turkish Airlines, Fashion and Feminism

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Turkish Airlines, named the best airline in Europe for 2012, has also drawn its share of negative national and international attention in recent months.  First it faced vociferous criticism for the conservative look of its proposed new uniforms for flight attendants.  Then it was reported that the airline would ban bright colors of lipstick and nail polish.  Both of these incidents provoked accusations that the airline was imposing conservative Islamic values on its flight attendants.

Turkish Airlines is just the most recent focus of accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey.  Though some examples used to prove the thesis that Turkey is sliding toward Sharia are gender neutral, like restrictions on alcohol, most often critics focus on real or perceived restrictions on women, and more specifically women’s appearance.  The most civil criticisms of the proposed Turkish Airlines uniforms deemed them too “conservative.”  There is no denying that they are a departure from the bright pink mini-dresses worn by the company’s flight attendants in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  However, what most likely caught the attention of Turkish critics of the uniform were the long coats worn by some of the women in the pictures from the company’s fashion show.  In Turkey long overcoats are part of the everyday outfit of religiously conservative but fashionable young women who also choose to wear a headscarf.  Women who cover their heads have long been banned from state jobs including teaching, law and even serving as an elected official.  Though not officially excluded in the private sector, many face discrimination and often were unofficially excluded from working with the public.  The first “covered women” began working for Turkish Airlines just in September of last year.  These long overcoats most likely were designed to cater to the fashion sensibilities of these women specifically as most of the other styles shown, while modest by most standards, show too much leg for the vast majority of covered women.  However, since the coats were shown without a scarf, some may have interpreted this as a sign that women who do not cover will be forced to dress like those who do.

Seemingly unaware that Turkish Airlines had backed down on the red lipstick ban, yesterday the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN posted a statement and pictures to its website in protest of the ban.  FEMEN’s trademark protest is publicly bared breasts, symbolizing their demand that women be able to control their own body and appearance.  Lately they have made the international news for protesting against what they perceive as Shariazation in the Arab Spring countries.  FEMEN is an extreme example, but its stance that by definition nudity is freeing and modesty is oppressive is an intellectual current that runs through mainstream secular feminism.  While the right of a woman who chooses to dress in revealing clothing to be free from harassment has been championed by mainstream feminism, the right of a woman who chooses to cover her body and hair to work or go to school has been largely ignored.  For example, there was no similar media frenzy when rectnly a Turkish lawyer in a headscarf was dismissed from a courtroom by a male judge, despite the fact that the ban on female lawyers wearing such attire had been lifted.  Turkey’s entry into the EU has been stalled for years, in part due to Turkey’s illiberal record in areas like freedom of the press.  However, in 2005 the European Court of Human rights upheld a ban on students wearing headscarves in public universities (the ban was lifted by the government in 2010).

Those that consider themselves liberals and feminists need to realize that in liberal, secular societies women should have just as much right to cover as to uncover themselves.  If the right to wear red lipstick to work is inalienable, then the right to wear a red hijab should be too.  Organizations like FEMEN that campaign against Islamic inspired dress distract from the deeper and universal issues of domestic violence, pay discrimination and access to maternal and reproductive services.  Turkish Airlines has received a lot of negative press over its recent fashion faux pas, but it has also benefited from the fact that these controversies have also served to distract from more pressing issues facing its employees.  Unionized members of Turkish Airlines began a strike early this morning.  However, the strike has no connection to the regulations on appearance that have gripped the attention of conventional and social media.  Statements from  Hava-Is union representatives make it clear that Turkish Airlines history of repressing employees right to strike through layoffs and the company’s dubious safety record is a bigger threat to employees than any of the recent proposed changes to their dress code.  Public outcry gave Turkish Airline stewardesses back their right to wear bright lipstick, but it is a hollow victory considering the larger issues at stake.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 15, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Museum or Mosque?

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While in Turkey last year, I had the opportunity to visit Iznik, known better to Christians as Nicea.  In my travel blog I discussed the trip, which included a visit to the ruins of the church of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the site of 7th and final ecumenical council in the pre-schism church.   This history of the building is typical of many ancient churches in Turkey.  The present 11th century structure was built as a church but was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times.  The building eventually fell into disrepair and disuse and was  a ruined shell when it was reopened as a state run museum in 2007.  However, in  October 2011 it was refurbished in order to serve as a mosque.

I wrote the following observations shortly after my visit to Iznik:

We visited Iznik on a Friday, the Muslim day of communal prayer.  Outside the Green Mosque, which was already filled to capacity, men lined up dozens of rows deep for the mid-day prayer.  The call to prayer echoed from the Ottoman minaret of what a sign now identifies as the Aya Sofya Mosque, however the area was nearly abandoned, with just a few men hanging around outside.  It certainly appears that locals prefer to pray at other mosques, even when they are overflowing, rather than use this church turned mosque turned ruin turned museum turned mosque.  My pious host family was shocked and surprised to hear that the church-museum was now a mosque.  Because hardly anyone actually uses it as a prayer space, the re-sanctification of the building made little real impact on our ability to visit and look around the building.  There is even a small benefit to the visitor.  Since the building is now a mosque rather than a church, there is no entrance fee.

The lack of interest in using the building as a prayer a space that I observed, combined with the opposition from locals as reported in the Times article convinced me that this kind of “re-Islamization” of historic buildings was unlikely to become a trend.  However there have recently been actions taken toward converting a second recently restored Aya Sofya church-cum-mosque  in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.  In both cases the impetuous for the conversion of restored churches to mosques has come from the General Directorate of Foundations, a somewhat shadowy government agency which is officially in charge of Islamic religious foundations.  In the last year the General Directorate has also taken up what was formerly an extremely fringe position and has begun advocating for the re-conversion of the most famous Aya Sofya into a mosque.

News of moves made toward converting the Trabzon and Istanbul Aya Sofyas forced me to reconsider my dismissal of the Iznik conversion as an isolated incident.  An article Thursday by Andrew Finkel characterizes the Iznik’s Aya Sofya’s conversion as well as the threat to convert the two others into mosques as another sign of creeping Islamization and general government mismanagement of cultural treasures.  I share Finkel’s despair regarding the irreparable damage done to historic sites.  Ill conceived restorations are all too common in Turkey and little has been done to reconcile the problem.  The General Directorate is indisputably overstepping the bounds of its authority as well as acting against both the interests and wishes of the Turkish people.  Though I believe most accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey are overblown if not downright false, in the specific case of the General Directorate it appears that there is Islamic ideological as well as Turkish nationalist bent to their recent actions (see Turkish-Islamic Synthesis).  By returning these buildings to use as mosques the Directorate is not only creating more Muslim religious spaces, but imposing a Turkish and Islamic history on the buildings and the cities themselves, whitewashing both the Byzantine Christian history and the Ottoman cosmopolitan legacies.

Despite the damage that General Directorate has done and may still do to Turkey’s historic churches, I don’t yet believe there is reason to panic regarding the  Aya Sofya in Istanbul.  In setting its sights on one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and Turkey’s most visited site, the Directorate may have set the stage for its own undoing.  The ecumenical service cited in the beginning of Finkel’s piece did not propose that all Turkey’s important churches that were then in use as mosques be returned to the Orthodox community, just Istanbul’s Aya Sofya.  The congregation that gathered in 1921 were not interested in reclaiming the Aya Sofya for Christendom just because of its fame, but because it symbolized a lost outpost of Christianity.  “Capturing” it would pave the way for the reconquest of this territory from the Turkish Muslims.  Today, the conversion of the Aya Sofya Museum into a mosque would serve a similar symbolic purpose for Turkey’s fringe Islamists.  The Aya Sofya was “secularized” when it was opened as a Museum in the early days of the Republic by Ataturk himself.  It therefore has subsequently come to symbolize the secular values of the Republic as opposed to officially Muslim Ottoman state.  The reversion of the space into a mosque would be an unquestionable victory for Islamistsover the nearly sacred principle of Turkish secularism.

Erdogan may be happy to allow the General Directorate to quietly go about its Islamization campaign in small towns, but he could never allow such a public affront to the principles of the Turkish state and the near sacred legacy of Ataturk.  Additionally, Turkey cannot risk alienating its Western, Christian allies during a period of such regional turmoil.  Whether framed as an affront to the separation of church and state or against Christianity as a religion, US public outcry against the conversion of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya would be swift and loud.  The US would certainly exert diplomatic pressure to keep the conversion from going through.  If the General Directorate would succeed in getting to the planning stages of the conversion, Erdogan would be forced to finally check the out of control actions of the Directorate.  If the Directorate is smart, it will not force Erdogan’s hand in such an international crisis.  Right now, except for a handful of tourists and dedicated Turkey watchers, the world is largely oblivious to the archaeological, cultural and economic destruction it is causing.  The Directorate could potentially go on with its museum to mosque campaign indefinitely, unless it lets its power go to its head.

*A previous version of this post had stated that the Trabzon Aya Sofya was also a ruin.  It has been recently restored but was an intact building before restoration began.  My references to its condition has been corrected.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Alevis: Past, Present and Future

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I previously blogged about the plight of minorities in Turkey.  However that post fails to mention Turkey’s largest religious minority, the mostly invisible Alevis.  Similar to the United States, the Turkish government does not collect data regarding the religious affiliation of its citizens.  Estimates of the number of Alevis in Turkey vary greatly, ranging between 10% and 30% of the total population.  A secret Turkish military survey revealed by wikileaks places the number at 7 million out of a total of about 75 million citizens.  However, even the smaller estimates place the number of Alevis in Turkey far above the number of all other religious minorities combined.  Despite their large numbers, Alevis are still widely misunderstood both in and outside of Turkey.  Although their names are similar, Alevis  are not analogous to Alawites, the religion to which Bashar al-Assad and his family belong.  Alevism is not a “tribal” or ethnically exclusive religion; it is practiced by Turks as well as Kurds.

Alevism is a syncretic religion, meaning their traditions and beliefs draw from a number of different faiths.  Many Alevis will quite proudly attest to the fact that throughout its history it has incorporated elements from a diverse array of religions including but not limited to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Altaic Shamanism.  Alevis do not believe that praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan or performing the pilgrimage to Mecca is required by God.  They do not condemn Muslims who do worship in the traditional ways but consider the Alevi worship as being on a higher level and therefore closer to the divine.  Alevis also have  a more relaxed attitude in regards to proper interaction between the sexes in both sacred and secular spaces.  Alevi women worship side by side with men, are less likely to veil and more likely to freely interact with unrelated men.

Alevi worship does not take place in a mosque.  In traditional Alevi communities, families with large enough homes would volunteer to host the central Alevi worship ceremony, called a Cem.  During the ceremony, worshipers sit in a circle and participate in cycles of sacred readings, music and dance.  The Dede directs the ceremony and recites from the works of Hacı Bektaş and other sacred Alevi figures.  Most of the time the Qur’an is not cited, nor do the worshipers ever engage in Sunni-style prayer cycles.  For majority of Alevi history the Cem was closed to outsiders.  Even outsider Alevis were barred from attending local ceremonies.  One of the mandatory preconditions for a Cem was a state of peaceful relations between all people in the worship space.  The presence of a stranger added enough reasonable doubt to prevent a verdict of community harmony.  The secretive nature of Cem ceremonies led to rampant speculation and suspicion on the part of outsiders.  Accusations of immoral acts, particularly orgies, were common.  Even today it is not unusual for Turkish Sunni Muslims to infer that a Cem concludes with an orgy.

The state provides official funding and support of all recognized religions in Turkey, including those of the dwindling Jewish and Christian communities.  However, Alevism has never been recognized as a separate religious tradition.  Alevis have always been lumped into the catchall of “Muslim” in 99% Muslim Turkey.  Alevis rarely if ever utilize Sunni Muslim mosques and institutions but their Cemevis (Cem houses) and organizations receive no government funding.

In the past few years certain Alevi organizations have worked with the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in an attempt to resolve the prejudices against and unequal treatment of Turkish Alevis.  In 2009 and 2010 a series of “workshops” addressing the grievances of Alevis took place.  However, the vast majority of Alevis feel that these workshops had little effect on the discrimination they encounter.

The workshops, despite their ultimate ineffectiveness, were at least a step in toward addressing discrimination against Alevis.  As in the case of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the AKP has recently been back sliding toward a more repressive position on Alevi rights.  An Alevi member of the Turkish National Assembly recently requested that worship space be provided for him in the Assembly building.  His request was denied by both a ranking member of the Assembly and the local court because “it is not possible to consider cemevis and other [such] premises as places of worship, because Alevism, which is a sub-group of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques or mescits, which are common places of worship within Islam…”

Because of their more “liberal” beliefs and practices, they are often portrayed by the Western media as the “good” Muslims.  Time described as Alevis as practicing “… a faith-based humanism big enough to incorporate both piety and modernity” and a version of Islam that is “unflinchingly progressive.”  This simplistic depiction of Alevis does nothing to help their position.  Alevis themselves are struggling with how to define and take ownership of their religious traditions.  The last thing they need is for the Western media to hold them up as a shining example of what we think Muslims should be.  Defining Alevis as “good” Muslims is on par with the Turkish government’s insistence that Alevis are Sunnis.  Both of these assertions stem from an urge to shape Alevis to preconceived ideologies.  When the West seeks out “progressive” Muslims such as the Alevis they are reinforcing the notion that “fundamentalists” Muslims are in the majority.  When the AKP insists that Alevis are Sunnis, they are protecting the appearance of a unified and uniform ethno-religious nation-state.  The AKP and the West alike must acknowledge and accept that Alevis fit within the broad spectrum that encompasses Muslim belief and practice in Turkey (and the Muslim world at large) and allow them to freely define and practice their religion without ideological interference.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Religion

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