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The road to towers, minarets and wisdom (I)

HDN | 12/22/2009 12:00:00 AM | BURAK BEKDİL

The patriarch's comments about being "second class" were proven further by the foreign minister, who took it upon himself to comment on a Turk's comments.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder once quite wisely argued, “There is an undeniable lack of religious freedom in some Islamic states, but they cannot serve as an excuse to restrict rights in our own country.”

In the article, “The Road to Towers” (Social Europe Forum, Dec. 12, 2009), the former chancellor wrote: “We perceive ourselves as an enlightened society. And enlightenment does not mean repeating the shortcomings of other societies in our own.”

Nice words, powerful argumentation that reminded me of Andre Feuz, the priest of a Protestant church in Basel. Feuz recently put a sign on the gate of the Elizabeth Church that, in protest of the Swiss ban on mosque minarets, declared the church’s tower to “also [be] a mosque minaret.”

Reading the story on the front page of daily Hürriyet, most Turks must have felt affection for this brave priest. Few must have questioned whether it would be possible for an imam, say, in solidarity with slain missionaries in Turkey or the deprivation of the religious rights of non-Muslims, to declare a mosque minaret “also a church tower” – or whether they would feel the same affection for that imam too.

Precisely for that reason, I was amused to read the columns of most Islamic “free thinkers” in reaction to the Swiss ban. Words like Nazism, Swiss racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia were in boring abundance.

Racist Swiss? A country where “foreign” immigrants constitute a quarter of the population? Could the Turks really cohabit peacefully with 18 million foreigners in their country? Could they really cohabit peacefully with 4 million non-Muslims? How many Swiss journalists have been murdered by “pure-blood” Swiss because they have non-Swiss DNA?

Fine. Let’s forget the too-visible and disturbing asymmetry and, for a moment, subscribe to Schroeder’s wisdom and admit that failings in Muslim lands cannot be an excuse for failings in Christian lands. But does that mean we should not criticize failings?

Yes, we wholeheartedly praise the government in Ankara for eventually – albeit slowly – paving the way for the opening of Akdamar, an Armenian church in Van, for services next fall. But where in Schroeder’s epic optimism could we locate the almost nationally uniform uproar over the words of the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians?

It is totally futile to put Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s “we-are-being-crucified-daily” plea under the magnifying glass. Focusing on the wording and its various connotations in different languages will only cause distraction from the big issue.

The heart of the matter should not be which words the patriarch chose to express himself; it should be why he, a Turkish citizen, feels the need to complain that “we are treated as second-class citizens,” and why he feels “crucified under a government that would like to see [his] nearly 2,000-year-old Patriarchate die out.”

Forget further legitimate questions as to why Turkey would not recognize the patriarch as ecumenical or re-open the Halki School of Theology. You might have to listen to a long Islamic sermon telling you it is the secularists who (have) block(ed) all that, or a conspiracy theory linking the torment of the tiny Greek Orthodox community to wicked plans at the General Staff headquarters.

But there is something more alarming than the patriarch’s plea. It is how Foreign Minister Ahmet “Strabismus Depth” Davutoğlu commented on Patriarch Bartholomew’s remarks: “I hope it was a slip of the tongue.”

Very simple. Spot on. A veiled threat? What are you going to do, Mr. Foreign Minister, if it was not a slip of the tongue? Tell your friends to fabricate a link between the patriarch and the Ergenekon gang? Send him determined tax auditors and charge his church a tax fine of $1 billion?

But is it not bizarre that the “foreign” minister has to comment on the opinion, either right or wrong, of a Turkish citizen? Since when is it in the Foreign Ministry’s jurisdiction to deal with the domestic affairs of Turkish citizens? Would Minister Davutoğlu also like to comment on the salary problems of imams? Is this not telling us clearly that the Turkish citizens of non-Muslim faiths are “somewhat foreigners”?

The truth is, Patriarch Bartholomew was absolutely right when he said Turkey’s Christians are treated as second-class citizens – because they are. Most recently, the European Court of Human Rights found that a Turkish court ruling barring a church from starting a foundation violated the congregation’s right to freedom of association. A ban on launching a foundation in a country where every other building on your street may officially or unofficially belong to an Islamic foundation...

But let’s apply Schroeder’s noble logic to the Turkish example and see where we might end up. “Enlightened” nations should not seek reciprocity in safeguarding religious rights and use “others’” shortcomings as an excuse for “our” shortcomings.

We, therefore, cannot cite some of the problems Turkish minorities in Christian countries might be facing, or the Swiss ban on minarets as a reason to treat Christian Turkish citizens as second class.

God forbid! If we do that, we might be tagged as “not an enlightened nation.” But we aren’t that, are we?

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