MUSTAFA AKYOL > Prayer rooms in Turkish opera houses?

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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.


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Notice on comments

Murun Buchstansangur

6/15/2012 4:41:11 PM

@Begum. I don't want a penny of my taxes spent on providing somewhere for you to pray. I don't think you would want your taxes spent on building a bar for my friends and I to drink beer. Your 'need' to pray is no more a need than my desire to drink beer is a need.

jd pomerantz

6/12/2012 9:44:08 PM

Begum, the state of both secular & religious affairs would improve if the state got its nose out of religion & vice versa; ie the only income for religious organizations should come from the faithful. In the US there is no subsidy of religion but the faithful get tax breaks for their contributions thereto. This way we help avoid the establishment of religion or irreligion.

Hasan Kutlay

6/12/2012 3:56:31 PM

I'll tell you what Turkey needs. Not so much a mescit in opera houses, but intellectuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Robert Spencer who challenge islam and Erdogan's late push for imposing an islamic "design" on Turkish society. Islam is the intellectualy most unchallenged "ideology" in Turkey.


6/12/2012 3:36:28 PM

@jd the state must provide finance for all kinds of religions not for my religion only.. and this is not incompatible with secularism, i think.. but to be honest what u say makes sense too.. i am a bit confused :S

US Observer

6/12/2012 3:34:34 PM

@ Begum, you are still missing the difference between want and need. As many people have stated, you don't have to have a special room to pray. In any case, if a business wants to offer that to his/her customers, then by all means build it...they will come. Having it required by law is a whole different thing. Also, your handicapped scenario is silly. While we have pointed out you can pray anywhere, a handicapped person does require amenities.

jd pomerantz

6/12/2012 3:02:43 PM

Begum, when you expect others to subsidize your religious practices & preferences to the point of requiring opera houses to have masjids, you aren't secular by definition.

Ameer Raschid

6/12/2012 10:36:46 AM

@american I am am American and have prayed at work, in the street,railroad stations, on trains,planes when there was no time to reach home.Airports, shopping malls now have ablution facilities and mosques to avoid this Sarkozy wanted to prevent street praying but no mosque space.

Blue Dotterel

6/12/2012 10:27:31 AM

Designating a specific room for prayer is a waste of space and unnecessary in Islam anyway. Devout Muslims do not require a room to pray, only a good sense of geography, so that they are pointed to Mecca. I have frequently seen Muslims pray in the aisles of trains (Egypt), and even outside in parks, so why do they need a special room.


6/12/2012 8:50:56 AM

@JD in fact i generally agree with u,but the building owners may sometimes be the state itself,then the situation becomes a bit complicated.i dont oppose public education and i'm in favor of government schools otherwise maybe i could have not afforded to go to school. @MARA,the most pious among us may think anything they want,we read Quran, study the Hadith and with our intellect we draw a conclusion about the opera and religon.i dont think that it is sinful, but to miss a daily prayer is sinful


6/12/2012 8:43:57 AM

US Observer, I want them because I need them. ıt is not a childish demand i think. how do you know that i do not need prayer rooms i just want them?! well, i must say it is NOT silly at all and you disagree that is all .
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