Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘Islam

Religion and the Gezi Protests

leave a comment »

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.

Advertisements

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

East and West

leave a comment »

Over the past week, there has been a flurry of reactions from the usual suspects regarding Israel’s surprise apology to Turkey.  The part that President Obama played in bringing about this reconciliation has brought the nearly 3 year old conflict between Israel and Turkey into the Western media spotlight.  Predictably, when Turkey becomes the topic du jour amongst commentators who know little to nothing about the country, the cliches start to fly.  One of the most common of these is some derivation of Turkey being a country that exists in the gray zone between “East” and “West.”  Since the rise of the AK party, it has been fashionable for articles and editorials to warn that Turkey was turning its back on the West.  A simple google search of “Turkey turns east” reveals the prolific use of this cliche.  The Turkey-Israel rapprochement has again led opinion writers to speculate where Turkey’s loyalties lie.  While some have interpreted Turkey’s acceptance of the apology as well as the PKK ceasefire as a “promising shift to the West” others have cited Erdogan’s vociferous (and predictable) gloating as further evidence that Turkey has been taken over by racial “Islamists” and that the “West” must confront it.

This division of the world into the West (read: US and EU) and the East (read: everyone else) is not only overdone but a dangerous rehashing of Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.  Though Huntington’s thesis has been the focus of a slew of criticism,  it is still indicative of how many people in both the “West” and the “East” view the world.  In his essay, Huntington uses Turkey as the premier example of a country “torn” between East and West.  He concludes that as hard as the elites may try, Turkey will never be able to escape its Islamic roots.  He believes that the “Islamic Revival” that was just then starting to grow in the country (and in which the AKP is rooted) is powerful evidence of this.  Huntington does not simply point out the real differences in history, cultural and belief between different regions, he posits that only Western Civilization (defined as Catholic and Protestant countries of Western Europe and North America) is compatible with the liberal values of “…constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy… and the separation of church and state” among others.  When Turkey’s dealings with it’s regional neighbors are discussed in terms of “looking East” Huntingtonian baggage is implied.  If Turkey is cooperating with “Eastern” states, it is dismissing liberal values in favor of those of the unchanging “Islamic” Civilization.

Ziya Meral has jokingly dubbed Turkey’s current foreign policy “Free Range Turkey,” a groan-inducing but more accurate characterization of Turkey’s actions than the tired East-West dichotomy.  If Huntington’s model were to hold true, Turkey’s democratically elected but conservative Muslim government should have focused on strengthening its ties to other heirs of the “Islamic Civilization” to the determent of those it shares with the “West.”  Of course, this is not the case.  Turkey has perused its long-standing candidacy for the EU while simultaneously attempting to increase its regional standing and heal previous rifts with its neighbors.   Turkey’s leadership may at times show that it has a soft spot for countries with which it has religious or cultural ties, but the laws of Realpolitik outweigh any ties of “Civilization.”

Written by ataturksrepublic

April 2, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Alevis: Past, Present and Future

with 4 comments

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

Tagged with , , , ,