Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ties and Minarets

There are two interesting news items in the Turkish press that strike me as connected and instructive regarding some of the domestic challenges facing Turkey.

First up, from the town of Cizre, in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast, where a local principal and shopkeeper were detained after they were accused of distributing school ties with the likeness of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan on them, rather than that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From a Hurriyet Daily News report:
According to reports, a police officer saw the tie given to his daughter and lodged a complaint. The local prosecutor’s office was told the figure on the tie “looked like PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.”

An investigation was launched and an expert appointed by the prosecutor’s office supported the claims.

Both the school principal and the shopkeeper who sold the ties were detained by police Tuesday and questioned while the school collected the ties.

The shopkeeper said he had asked a company in Istanbul to produce 115 ties and had placed Atatürk’s silhouette on them as per the school’s order.

He said he and the principal were questioned a day before being released pending trial. “The Atatürk silhouette on the tie doesn’t look anything like Öcalan anyway.I can’t imagine how they came to that conclusion,” he said.
(You can see a shot of the offending tie here. To my eye (and Kamil Pasha's), it looks a lot like Ataturk, but go figure. As the article reminds readers, this is only the latest phantom Ocalan sighting that has led to legal action. In July, an Ankara lawyer found himself in trouble after authorities charged him with having a photo of Ocalan up on his office wall. Turns out the man with the bushy mustache in the photo was the lawyer's deceased father.

Next, from Istanbul, a very interesting story about the blurring of the boundaries between mosque and state. As several papers have reported, the minarets of five historic mosques were recently strung up with lights that spelled out nationalist slogans. The lights, known as "mahyas," are usually hung during Ramadan and deliver blessings and religious sayings. This time, the messages included the famous slogan "How happy is he who says he is a Turk," as well as "The country comes first," and "We owe our gratitude to the army."

The messages drew the indignation of civil groups, which held demonstrations in the streets of İstanbul yesterday. Rıdvan Kaya, the chairman of the Freedom Association (Özgür-Der), termed the nationalist messages in mahyas a source of “ugliness” and “provocation."

“We want authorities to reveal who led to such ugliness. Are they still not aware that such moves aim to drag Turkey into an atmosphere of war? While the government is exerting efforts to settle the Kurdish issue, some are attempting to provoke the people,” Kaya said....

....No body or institution has yet claimed responsibility for the controversial mahyas. Today's Zaman asked the Directorate of Religious Affairs about the move, but directorate officials denied responsibility. “We are in control of the mosques, but they are owned by the General Directorate of Foundations. The Directorate of Religious Affairs is fully outside of this mahya issue,” they said.

The General Directorate of Foundations, however, pointed to the Regional Directorate of Foundations in İstanbul and the İstanbul Governor's Office as responsible bodies in the determination of messages spelled out on mahyas.

The director of press and public relations of İstanbul Governor's Office, Nazır Şentürk, said İstanbul Governor Muammer Güler would call a press conference on the mahya controversy. No press conference was called by the time Today's Zaman went to print. The mahyas were spelled out on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of İstanbul from occupation by foreign powers following the War of Independence.
(As a side note, Turkey watchers may recall that prior to taking office, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent time in jail, accused of inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem that said: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers..." In light of that, it's interesting to see messages in support of the military being strung from minarets.)

Both these stories strike me as having a lot to do with Turkey's struggle to define it's post-Ataturkist identity. School ties and minarets now seem to be yet another battleground in this continuing fight.

(Photo -- an Istanbul mosque with the message "How happy is he who says he is a Turk" strung up in lights between its minarets. From Today's Zaman.)

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