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The inevitable elephant in the room

HDN | 10/4/2011 12:00:00 AM |

'With his triumphant tour of the countries of the Arab Spring this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed to set up Turkey on the international stage as a role model for a secular democracy in a Muslim country – a secular state where all religions are equal.'

“With his triumphant tour of the countries of the Arab Spring this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed to set up Turkey on the international stage as a role model for a secular democracy in a Muslim country – a secular state where all religions are equal.” This is how a recent article in the New York Times opened, and went on to comment that, “The only trouble is that he has yet to make that happen for Turkey,” (“Turkey’s Elephant in the Room: Religious Freedom,” the New York Times, Sept. 28, 2011).

No doubt, Mr. Erdoğan’s government deserves praise for what his predecessors thought were too dangerous taboos, like returning the confiscated properties of Christian Orthodox foundations and allowing services at previously “sealed” Greek and Armenian churches. His rhetoric that makes a clear distinction between a “hostile Israeli government” and non-hostile Jews of Israel and Turkey is no less promising.

But sadly, Mr. Erdoğan’s Turkey is moving toward a mental zone that is in total contrast with his rhetoric on secularism. The New York Times was right: The prime minister has yet to make Turkey a place where all religions (including no religion) are equal. And that word “equal” should not come with a prefix, suffix, an “if” or a “but.” Equal means equal, regardless of numbers – numbers of adherents to a faith or no faith, or to ideologies/political parties.

Mr. Erdoğan – and probably a majority of Turks – thinks that Turkey needs a new definition of secularism. Although atheist/secular/less pious/more pious/Islamist Turks often draw swords over one of the most conscientious issues of Turkey’s modern political history, they surprisingly agree on one definition, and that’s how Mr. Erdoğan says he views secularism: the state should be at an equal distance to every faith (or no faith). Why, then, is there a never-ending civil cold war over secularism? Simple.

A majority of Turks, Sunni Muslims, overtly or covertly believe that they should be “more equal” than the others because they constitute the majority. They think that it is their natural right to enjoy preferential treatment in terms of governance and law enforcement. Remember how the crowds in Istanbul last year, trying to attack the Israeli consulate, shouted at the police who were trying to prevent bloodshed? “Leave the Jews to us! What kind of Muslims are you?” A simple search will produce thousands of examples of this nature unveiling the conscious or subconscious desire of the Sunni Turk for preferential treatment in public administration.

Most recently, the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office charged a cartoonist with “insulting the religious [Muslim] values adopted by a part of the population [Muslim],” demanding that the artist receive up to a year in prison in its indictment. That cartoon may or may not insult part of the population. And yes, blasphemy laws are not exclusively Turkish. But a state, or in this case, law enforcement, that is equal to all faiths should ensure that similar cases are opened against, say, the Sunni majority when they insult, say, other monotheistic or atheist parts of the population. Can anyone imagine a Muslim Turk having to stand trial for writing a book that insults atheists?

The trouble is that a paradigm that cannot remain at an equal distance to a different sect of the same religion, or to less pious practitioners of the same sect of the same faith, cannot be at an equal distance to other faiths or to atheists. Mr. Erdoğan can start by not discriminating against the less pious if he wants a Turkey where all religions are equal.

Author’s note: CNN has issued a correction for the mistranslation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks that “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been killed by Israelis,” a line that made the main theme of this column last Friday. I apologize for any inconvenience CNN’s mistranslation and my comments on the misstated text may have caused.

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