Ahmet Altan, the “chief columnist” and editor-in-chief of Taraf, a radically liberal Turkish daily which minces words for no one, recently wrote a piece titled “Prayer Room for Opera.”
His tone was not supportive but rather very critical of these “mescids” — the Islamic term for prayer rooms — that a new law by the Turkish government requires in all shopping malls, movie theaters, and other public spaces such as theaters and operas.
“Have you ever heard any conservative or religious person in this country complaining: ‘I can’t live my religion if there are no mescids in opera or ballet houses?’” Altan asked. “And has there been any discussion in the history of the Islam on whether there should be prayer rooms in operas?”
According to Altan, this new law was not only absurd, but also ill-intended. It only exposed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s triumphalism and his effort to “hide the real issues” from the public agenda.
For me, however, things are not that black-and-white. Erdoğan certainly has a unpleasantly triumphalist tone, and I agree with Altan’s criticism on that from time to time, if not most of the time. But I also think that secular and left-wing liberals like him sometimes do not respect the rightful focus of Erdoğan and other conservatives on matters of religious freedom.
This tension surfaced in 2008, when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government focused on abolishing the ban on headscarves in universities. Secular liberals such as Ahmet Altan, with some exceptions, had disapproved of this, calling on the government to focus on “more important issues.” In other words, they were claiming a moral and intellectual right to decree which issues are important and which ones are not.
However, it was only rightful and normal for a self-declared “conservative” party like the AKP to focus on the demands of their Islamically-pious voters. Wouldn’t it be normal for a Marxist party to focus on the demands of workers?
Today’s controversy, the one on prayer rooms in public spaces, is similar. Turkey’s fully practicing Muslims, which make up at least 30 percent of society, need spaces for prayer five times a day, and it is only a public service to give them this option. (Let me also note that the laws not only decree prayer rooms, but also nurseries for babies, and various health and security standards. If Turkey’s Christians and other minorities have similar demands, I am certainly with them.)
Finally, I more than welcome the image of a pious Muslim who goes to the opera on a Saturday night, but also sneaks to the prayer room in the brakes to perform his evening services. For sure, two mutually-hating groups in Turkey will find that image scandalous. The first are the secularists, who would despise seeing anything religious in a setting as modern as the opera. The second group is the Islamists, who would despise the idea of a fellow Muslim enjoying such Western and profane forms of art.
However, that very synthesis of modern and traditional, and Islamic and Western, is what Turkey is, and what it needs more of. This was already apparent in the nascent Muslim middle class, which enjoys shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants with foreign cuisine. If they begin to frequent the opera as well, I will only be happier. For, as Ahmet Altan rightly noted, there has never been any discussion in the history of Islam on whether there should be prayer rooms in operas. But now there is, and that is why we live in interesting times.