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Thaw on the Bosporus?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 1/2010, P. 5-9
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Turkey is going through a period of radical change, both politically and religiously. A trip of journalists to Ankara and Istanbul - to the Office of Religious Affairs and to the minorities of Kurds, Alevis and Christians.


In the fifteen-million-metropolis of Istanbul Allah is daily invoked a million times. You will hear regularly the muezzins. Depending on the location, their long-drawn chant of "Allahu-Akbar" (God is great) mingles to a modern, dissonant sound, sometimes in a tremendous loudness. The Sunni majority sets the tone. There are countless mosque domes and minarets. The members of the Muslim minority of Alevi meet in their cultural centres for Cem (literally translated as congregation) and then celebrate the divine service with ritual dances and joint chants. In addition, there is the private worship with the public largely excluded, as it is sung by Jews or Christians in the synagogues and churches. And finally, there are also quite a few people to whom any form of religion is alien. Although 99 per cent of the population profess Islam, especially in Istanbul a large number of secular-minded Muslims have a distanced relationship to their religion. They observe often with a mixture of astonishment and fascination the renaissance of the public avowal, which is actively promoted by the Erdogan government.


The Editor in Chief on Pilgrimage

For example, Ertugrul Özkök. The 61-year-old editor in chief of Hürriyet, Turkey's third largest daily newspaper, in September 2009 had for the first time set out for the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj; prior to this he had travelled the famous American Route 66, in Kathmandu and Tibet. "I am a Muslim, but life has sent me just now on the search for the sacred soil of Islam." In his newspaper he has reported about it. The action is unusual, for "Hurriyet" has a liberal orientation and with its circulation of 450,000 copies it is regarded as the stronghold of Kemalism, i.e. Kemal Ataturk's understanding of state order that religion and state should be strictly separated. In his newspaper Özkök acknowledges that he believes in God and that it may make sense to go on a pilgrimage. But because of his "highly individualized soul" he would have greatest difficulties with religious mass events. Whether the rituals of Hajj have become accessible to him, he leaves open. He wants to continue neither fasting nor sacrificing. But in the "organized chaos" of the masses of pilgrims who are restlessly on the way, he had found himself again as a restless seeker.

In numerous books the Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, too, is dealing with the religious life in Turkey. The probably most important contemporary poet of his country has repeatedly dealt with his hometown Istanbul, and has downright sung the praise of its extremes of Western European life style and traditional-Islamic orientation. With a look from his quarter across the sea he described once the exuberant wealth of this city, its vibrant vitality: "I mean ... the during the night erected buildings, the stalls, bars, pavilions and night clubs, the Luna Parks with their carousels, the gambling casinos, mosques, dervish communities and nests of Marxist groups, the illegal plastic ateliers and nylon stockings factories. Shipwrecks resting on their side of the public steamship company, and vast fields covered with jellyfish and bottle caps will be seen in this ... witches' cauldron."

Faith was of no importance in Pamuk's family. But one is not ignorant in matters of religion. In the "Spiegel" he has outlined his relationship to religion: "I describe myself as someone who comes from a Muslim culture. I wouldn't at any rate say that I am an atheist. Well, I am a Muslim, whose identification with this religion is primarily historical and cultural. For me there is no personal connection to God; here it becomes transcendent. I identify with my culture, but I am happy about living on a tolerant spiritual island."

Hasan Aka, one of the Turkish journalists who accompanied us on our journey, replied quite similarly. The ban on alcohol rather appears to be a cultural custom than a religious duty. The Turkish colleagues were born in migrant families in Germany and are working for Turkish media in the Rhine-Main area, for the newspapers "Hurriyet", "Türkiye", Milliyet, Zaman, or electronic media. They took a personal interest in presenting their home country, its politics, its religions, its social developments to their German colleagues. At the round table the desire had sprung up to "immerse" in Turkey, to show that at the Bosporus a thaw is in the offing that had covered all sections of society.


In the Office of Religious Affairs

The group of nineteen journalists consequently went first to Ankara, to the organizational heart of the state, where since the founding of modern Turkey parliament and government, diplomacy and military have their headquarters. The state Office of Religious Affairs is also located there. There we meet Ali Dere, one of the leading Islamic theologians. He is responsible for the training of imams and their dispatch abroad. The Islamic scholar obtained his doctorate in Göttingen. In Ankara he holds since 1999 the chair of science of Hadith, i.e. the science of the interpretation of Muhammad's sayings (hadith).

The "Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi", as the "Office of Religious Affairs" reads in Turkish, is the religious authority of the secular-oriented state. Actually a contradiction in terms. With regard to the fact that the Constitution provides for a strict separation of state and religion, the government exercises a firm control of religion. When in 1923 Atatürk founded the state, he wanted thus to monitor the Islamist movements and to avoid that they undermine the country's modernization, as e.g. by introducing the Islamic law, Sharia.

The authority is a huge apparatus. Official figures of 2007 indicate that more than 84.000 people are employed there, of whom 60.641 are imams who are responsible for Turkey's more than 79.000 mosques. In addition, 1804 houses of worship are abroad. The office organises the Koran classes in the mosque communities, writes Friday sermons, dispatches preachers, lawyers and assistants, and finances the maintenance of religious buildings. "We do not accept preachers of hatred," says Ali Dere. Theologically, Diyanet acts rather moderately, compared with other Islamic countries. Thus, in Kayseri and Istanbul in 2005 for the first time two women were appointed as responsible scholars, even if only as deputies of the respective muftis. But the number of women who are working as scholars of Islam in the mosque communities increases slowly but steadily.



Ali Dere admits that in the past mistakes were made in the dispatch policy, especially with regard to Germany. "Unfortunately we have not always sent the best people abroad, as one might actually expect it." Today, however, he has no doubt about it that the religious leaders on the spot make huge efforts in the integration work. In fact, the theologians who want to go to foreign countries undergo a selection process, which is considered as remarkable also by experts in this country. An important question, apart from the theological and moral aptitude, is the ability to express oneself in a foreign language. After an examination and an interview by a theological commission, those who are declared fit go to the respective language course, which makes also familiar with the cultural environment of the host country.


Koran and Democracy

Dere reported that for five years one has been to a greater extent recruiting young people of Turkish origin living abroad; they have a school-leaving qualification with university entrance qualification and are interested in the Imam profession. They are usually descendants of the guest worker generation. At present more than a hundred young people from Germany are studying in Istanbul and Ankara. The number of students who come intentionally to Turkey in order to study Islam is all in all at 240. But there were more than three times as much candidates, so Dere.

And what kind of theology and thought is imparted? To this end, we meet Tahsin Görgün at one of the outstanding Islamic research centres in the country, the "Institute of Islamic Research," in short Isam (Islam Araetirmalari Merkezi). The Institute sees itself as a pure research facility, which assists the teaching in the universities. The main task is the research on historical, social, and theological and philosophical issues of Islam. Isam has the most comprehensive library of Turkey, which is also appreciated by Islamic scholars from other countries.

The 49-year-old scientist is an authority on questions of how modern Western and Oriental thinking have an inspiring influence upon each other. For a long time he had lectureships in Berlin and Frankfurt. He points out that there are also interdisciplinary studies at the Institute, as e.g. on subjects of psychology of religion, comparative literature, or sociology of religion. However, the Institute is basically seen as an institute of Islamic theology. This is incomparable to Islamic studies in Germany, which are mainly pursuing Oriental studies. This, he repeats a familiar criticism, was rather a historical approach "about Islam" but no research taking its starting-point "from Islam."

Görgün appreciates Heidegger and Habermas - and he takes the view that the Koran does not dictate a political system. Those who see the Koran as a constitution abuse it." But what has then caused the politicization of religion? The reasons for it were mainly the political circumstances of the 19th century, not least the colonising by Western powers, which had politicized the lives of many Muslims. "Islam, as I understand it, does not impede a variety of political systems. This was and is also part of the Islamic faith." Görgün's answer to the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible: Islam neither dictates nor forbids democracy.

Görgün is working for a modernization of his religion, i.e. faith has to answer to reason. He wants to see the political side of Islam, its immediacy in questions of political order, embedded into a new critical-progressive reflection. But this is still a long way.

But what is the reality? The encounter with the Kurds, Alevis and Christians in Istanbul shows the divisions [Bruchstellen], shows that in the wake of the "thaw" on the Bosporus always new storms threaten. Thus, the EU accession process has admittedly made quite a few things move. But in the midst of the political efforts of the Islamic ruling party to find a new relationship with the minorities (see CIG No. 50, S.563), there is bursting the news of the ban on the major Kurdish party DTP by the Turkish Constitutional Court. Not just "Spiegel online" fears that thus the fragile process of democratization is put at risk. The eleven judges who ruled unanimously see the Kurdish party as the political wing of the banned Workers' Party PKK, which had not sufficiently distanced itself from violence. At least the DTP has never definitely condemned the terror of the PKK. Therefore, the 21 elected DTP MPs are now for five-year banned from politics - an affront against the ruling AK Party because it was it that had initiated the recent dialogue with the Kurds.



The Kurdish conflict reaches far back in the history before Atatürk. Today, almost twenty per cent of the Turkish population - about thirteen million people - belong to this ethnic group. It is the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. In August 2009 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had surprisingly announced a "Kurdish initiative" in order to bring the bloody conflict of 25 years to an end. It was a courageous political declaration of intention, which differed from everything that Turkish governments had ever undertaken to resolve the Kurdish conflict: to strengthen the political rights, to legalise the Kurdish language, and to grant PKK fighters who have renounced violence amnesty.

Whether it will ever happen, however, is doubtful. The Kurdish poet Bejan Matur (born in 1968), an authoress who attracts much attention especially in the young generation of Turks and Kurds, has in a poem condensed the situation of her people into poetic images: "All the red stones on earth are polluted / with the blood of God / And that's why we are reared by red stones / in our childhood / As long as we are children, God / accompanies us / He touches our earrings / and necklaces / He penetrates and is hiding in our shiny shoes / and in the folds of our childish ribbons / Living in the world is pain - / this I've learned."

When Bejan Matur comes to the interview in Istanbul's "Writers and Journalists Association", we do initially not notice anything of this pain. The lawyer who comes from an Alevi family characterized the actions of the AKP government as an existential question for the Turkish Republic, because the reconciliation with the Kurds has absolutely to precede the modernization of the state. "What do you expect?" asks a Turkish journalist. Answer: "That in the Constitution finally is stated that the Kurds have equal rights with other minorities." The present text originates from 1982 and is, due to the former military dictatorship, "fascist".

Oktay Eksi, long-standing columnist of the newspaper "Hürriyet" confirms the need to redraft the constitution. However, it was not necessary to mention expressly the Kurds, since Turks and Kurds have jointly founded the present Republic. The problem had to be solved on a different level, and the Kurds had to distance themselves from terrorism, demands Eksi, who takes a rather critical view of the initiative of the Government. Bejan Matur publishes her articles in Turkish. But she urgently requires that the Kurdish language is at last supported by the state. In the eyes of many native Turks it had only the standard of local folklore. "It is urgent to establish appropriate institutions that promote movies, literature and compositions in Kurdish."

Bejan Matur's poetry oscillates in the tension between Kurdish thought and feeling and Turkish language. "Sometimes she speaks in her poems about the fact that their Turkish language is stronger than her Kurdish. And then she talks about how a seemingly dead language is hiding in the living. But words do never forget their spiritual source," it says in a review.


Among the Alevis

Also the Alevis, a religious minority in Islam, whose faith is shared by many Kurds, have until recently been ignored entirely by the state. It is estimated - there are no exact figures - that at least ten million people in Turkey are Alevis, some even speak of twenty million. Like the Shiites in Iran and in Lebanon, they see themselves as the descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed.

The difference from the Turkish Sunni majority results both from the more individualistic theology and from the practice of lived faith. Alevis advocate a mystical relationship with God; everybody is entitled individually to it. The individual strives to grow in religious life, and meets God above all in the neighbour. Compared with the Sunni faith the more "liberal" practice, which makes the Alevis often look like schismatics and apostates in the opinion of other Muslims, emphasizes the equality of men and women, sees monogamy as the highest value and also endorses democratic action. The Alevi communities have also a different form of worship.



They meet three times per week for Cems. While in the traditional Friday prayers of the Sunnis men and women separately pray and listen to the preacher, Alevis jointly sit in the prayer room on the ground, singing, praying and dancing. The sermon is given by the dede. Alevis do not take part in the Hajj, but instead of it they visit the graves of their saints in order to pray there.

The grave of Ali's successor, Sultan Karacaahmet, is in the Istanbul district Üsküdar. When in the Alevi cultural centre Dede Muharrem Ercan opens the conversation he emphasized the charitable focus of his community, which includes about 6800 faithful. Three times a week we distribute free food to the needy. The cultural centre offers Alevi religious education. It is also the place for the ritual circumcision of male infants. The services also include a library with religious literature and advice on family matters. There are courses for ritual dance, as it is practiced in the Cems, and music lessons. The community centre is solely maintained by donations.

Although the Alevis pay taxes and serve as soldiers in the army, there were no concessions on the part of the state, criticises Ercan. They had even to procure the energy costs, which are paid in the Sunni mosques by the Office of Religious Affairs. "We expect that the state keeps an equal distance and nearness to all religions." Ercan also wants that the Alevis are included by name in the Constitution, as a minority that has to be protected. This would mean that the Sunni religious education is no longer a compulsory subject for Alevi children. However, for all Alevis it is most important that at last a memorial is erected for the injustices suffered by the Alevis.

Ercan reminds of an incident in central Anatolian Sivas. There, in 1993 an incited mob had attacked a hotel and set on fire. 37 Alevi artists - writers, musicians, singers - were killed. "We expect that the permit for a memorial is at last granted by the government." This would be an important signal for the official recognition of the Alevi minority.


Christians as "Enemies of the State"?

Equally cautious and skeptical as the Alevis are the Christians in Turkey, for whose rights Western governments, the World Council of Churches, the Pope and human rights activists time and again advocate. According to Otmar Oehring, Head of the Human Rights Office of the relief organisation "Missio Aachen" there is currently no evidence of a fundamental change. Only 150 000 Christians live among the 72 million Turks. A hundred years ago the proportion was still twenty per cent. The massive decline was the result of government-imposed displacement and resettlement. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Orthodox Greeks from Anatolia went abroad. The situation is still depressing e.g. for the numerically largest Christian group, the Armenian Christians who stayed in the country. The Armenians run admittedly fifteen schools and a hospital in the country. Anyway, the Deputy Patriarch could personally submit recently his troubles to the government. But there is, as Gorgun Feneriya, parish priest in Istanbul told, a lot of mistrust towards Christians. In textbooks they were still called "enemies of the state." And although in everyday life one often meets the Muslim neighbours, the dialogue in matters of religion would be broken off.



At a dinner with representatives of Christian communities in Istanbul, the Armenian priest is too polite to mention openly the deep wounds of his people: the genocide of 1915, when at least 800.000 Armenians were killed by Turks according to plan. To this day, the Turkish government does not accept its responsibility. However, there are some signals that made people sit up and take notice. Thus, the Armenian and the Turkish government decided to establish diplomatic relations. After decades of silence, this is regarded internationally as an important factor in normalizing relations. Both countries have also appointed a commission of historians to deal with the genocide. And in the summer President Abdullah Gül attended demonstratively a football match - Armenia v Turkey - in the capital Yerevan. The startling solidary Internet reconciliation initiative (see CIG No. 52 / 2008, p. 576) of Turkish intellectuals, however, has been forbidden, and the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink shows how deep-rooted the hatred is, which has to be overcome by reconciliation initiatives. It remains to be seen whether the positive developments, like so many things get stuck half way or in the long run wear fruit.

With regard to the rights of Christian minorities the complaint is repeatedly heard that Christians are not allowed to build churches in Turkey. In 2003 the government actually relaxed the building laws. Since then it is allowed to build "places of worship". Yet, since the non-Muslim religions in Turkey continue to have no legal status, Christian communities that want to congregate must rent apartments or retail stores with the help of private persons in order to celebrate religious services - often under police surveillance. Otmar Oehring: Only a board of trustees [Trägerverein] is allowed to apply to the authorities for a new place of assembly. But the Law on Associations prohibits you founding associations with a religious foundation. In most cases the legal confusion therefore ends in paralyzing resignation. In addition, governors or mayors mostly refuse to issue building permits for Christian buildings.

This is also a question of survival for the Greek-Orthodox Christians. At least, their threatened existence was recently mentioned during the heated debate on the Swiss Minaret Referendum in some Turkish newspapers, as e.g. in the liberal "Sabah". The well-known columnist Nazli Ilzak wrote, "But if we would organize a referendum against the church bells, then perhaps ninety per cent would vote for a ban - and we would be the country of disgrace." The journalist Mehmet Barlast went even further, "Have we forgotten that here in this country persons of a different faith were butchered? That the seminary on Halki is still closed?" This empathy for minorities in the otherwise not very kid-glove and nationalist Turkish media landscape gives hope. The thoughtful vanguard of intellectuals whose eyes are turned to Europe is capable to endure the balancing act between tradition and reform, and spiritually to renew the country.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'