Ramadan both Alla Turca and Alla Franga

Ramadan both Alla Turca and Alla Franga

For those who frequently attend the invitations at the Palais de France, the residence of the French consul general in Istanbul, Bekir bey and his staff are familiar figures. Their attention makes our stay more comfortable each time.

Entering the magnificent building last Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to see that we would be sharing the same table as Bekir Emik and his aides. Having served at least 10 consul generals over the past three decades, Bekir bey was the guest of Muriel Domenach this time, sharing the same table with Beyoğlu Mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan, Özlem Zengin, the head of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Istanbul women branch, historian İlber Ortaylı, and painter Bedri Baykam, who is known to be a staunch secularist.

No wonder Domenach mentioned equality, as well as liberty and fraternity - the national motto of France - in her opening speech.

However, it was her messages about secularism that most suited the spirit of the dinner, which was attended by nearly 250 guests who later went on to enjoy the jazz concert in the gardens.

It is widely accepted that Turkey “imported” secularism as a concept from France. “French laicism is sometimes understood wrongly here,” said Domenach.

“This is an open laicism. It does not deny religion; it designs the independence and separation between the spiritual and the worldly. It regulates the independence of the public space to enable believers from different religions, and non-believers, to live together,” she said, addressing a crowd that included women with headscarves and women with miniskirts; men who were waiting to break their fast as well as those waiting for their regular dinner.

“Secularism is not a principle of exclusion, but of freedom and unity. The freedom of whether to believe or not, away from social pressures, is also a condition of equality,” said Domenach.

A “night of Ramadan” was a first, Domenach told the audience. Iftar was followed by a jazz concert in the framework of “Jazz in Ramadan,” an initiative of Hakan Erdoğan productions that aims to make jazz part of the festivities for all, whether or not they see this month as holy.

When I talked about it on social media, some raised their eyebrows. There are a lot within the secular camp who are angry at Europe for having supported the AKP government and deserting the secularists. Regardless of supporting it, however, France under François Sarkozy did not have bright relations with Turkey at all. With François Hollande as France’s new leader, there is no doubt an effort on the part of Paris to make up for lost years and appeal to the conservative/religious vein of the government, which might be part of a pragmatic strategy.

But reaching out to Muslims by giving iftar meals is not specific to Turkish-–French relations. It is not a novelty either. It seems that the French Foreign Ministry has been organizing iftar meals for representatives of member countries of the Islamic Cooperation Organization (OIC) for the past three years.

Actually, I think this is rather a belated initiative. As Domenach said, Ramadan matters to France. “First, because this is a universal religion; second, because it is the second biggest religion in France.”

European Muslims-turned-jihadists happen to be one of the continent’s main problems. Countries concerned about this problem, including France, need to think about where they have gone wrong and whether their policies toward Muslims have been inclusive or exclusive.

Among the guests of the iftar were half a dozen headscarf-wearing female university students with double nationalities. Having grown up in France, they were provided scholarships by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate to study theology in Turkey. After their studies they will go back to France to work as religious officials. It seems that “home grown” religious officials are also what France has been looking for, rather than Turkey sending non-French speaking imams to France.