Campus (prayer) wars

Campus (prayer) wars

This column has twice borrowed Shelby Foote’s famous line, with a minor revision: “A Turkish university, these days, is a group of buildings around a library and a small mosque.” That was not a prophecy if one was not too naïve about the Islamist mind.

In December 2007, this column offered colleagues a bet: “When the campus ban on the turban is removed, there will be all sorts of other bans still in effect.” A month later, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) bigwigs, including then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, gave assurances that the government merely wanted to end all bans on campus and the state was an “equal distance” from all faiths, this column asked: “What if a student wishes to wear a Buddhist gown? A t-shirt with a political slogan the ruling ideology dislikes? A Star of David? A kippah? A cross? A t-shirt that says ‘There is no God’?”

After seven good years, no student is suicidal enough to put on a Star of David or a kippah. No student would probably wear an atheist slogan, risking disciplinary action and possibly jail. The idea of “Jedi” was unknown to a columnist who had never before watched a Star Wars episode, but a maverick Turkish student is trying to unmask Islamist hypocrisy on campus freedoms by revisiting this column’s 2007 question: What if a student wishes to wear a Buddhist gown?

The story is genuinely funny – though embarrassing for the hypocrites. Over 25,000 students have signed an online petition demanding a Buddhist temple on their campus after a university president cited an online campaign demand in his plans to build a “landmark” mosque on an Istanbul campus. 
Satire galore! One petitioner said: “I can’t fulfill my religious duties because the closest Buddhist temple is 2,000 kilometers away, and I can’t go there during lunch break.” 

Zeynep Özkatip, who launched the petition, complains that the university administration has not contacted her despite the “huge demand” for the proposed Buddhist temple. She says her campaign group has enough funds to construct the temple. Unsurprisingly, she says she received threats after the Buddhist campaign: “We ironically see that those who keep talking about Islamophobia have no tolerance for other religions.”

In addition, nearly 4,000 students have demanded that a Jedi temple be built on their university campus in İzmir. “We want a Jedi temple to recruit new Jedi and to bring balance to the Force,” said the petition said.
To outmaneuver this smart move, a university president in Istanbul declared that he would build a synagogue on campus “if there was enough demand from the students.” That’s not fair to the 25,000 students who demanded a Buddhist temple. Is 25,000 not enough demand? But the president may have cornered himself. The same shrewd students should now petition for a synagogue and see if the president will honor his promise.  

(A former president of the reputable Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University – a school often ranking in the world’s top 20 universities right after the Ivy Leagues - started the construction of three mosques in one year, along with 53 masjids, to cater to the 15,000 students on campus. Immediately afterwards, the world renowned Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University rose to rank within the top 10 in the world. Sadly, President Erdogan appointed another president to that university. The university president probably should have started 23 mosque projects, instead of just three).

The campus (prayer) wars in Turkey may be amusing to read about. But they have a serious message too. In a country of nearly 80 million people, Mr. Erdoğan’s army of one million imam school students can be a source of pride for him. But it’s still too few to save His Majesty’s Islamist (or just lackey) academic nomenklatura from generous amounts of embarrassment and ridicule. And not just that. Mr. Erdoğan’s ambition “to raise devout generations” is probably too far away from its fulfilment within any living Turk’s life span. 

University presidents are already the butt of jokes on their campuses – and in saner parts of Turkey. But the honorable professors should not give up hope. By now, their tens of thousands of Jedi and Buddhist students are probably drinking to their health.