The Mosque, the Church and the Nationalist Underbelly of Turkish Islamism

 Dear brother, please take this advice with the good nature in which it is intended...

No, no… I’ll start again.

Dear brother, please be aware of my best intentions before reading this...

Okay, now what? Actually, scratch that – the first one was a better opening line…

God, I don’t know where to start. I’m writing an e-mail to the computer teacher at our school, Furkan hoca, after he invited me on facebook to attend a prayer session organised outside the Hağia Sofya by Saadet Party's civil wing - Anadolu Gençlik ('Anatolian Youth' - an inexpliquably old and beardy bunch). The worshippers were praying not out of flamboyant zevk-i Allah, but as a protest to draw attention to their demand that Hağia Sofia re-open as a mosque. Something it has officially not been since a law inacted in 1934, during the one-part period.

I used to be in support of it becoming a mosque again. My reasoning was somewhere along the line of columnist Mustafa Akyol's, when he said "The museumization of places of worship used to happen in communist dictatorships such as the Soviet Union. Turkey should not follow that bad example — at least anymore." Underlining this view was a kind of phobia to anything done under the one-party period, with little public consultation, and of course, my own pseudo-Islamist nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. However, upon re-examining my position by reflecting upon the very Islamic law I thought was in need of resurrecting (albeit with a revamp) and basic courtesy (i.e. not taking other people's stuff), I realised I had fallen prey to that classic Muslim tendency to white-wash the questionables of a much-glorified past.

Although it was not for these reasons Atatürk shut down the place, I can seperate the matter from the circumstances that led to it. Call it karma, or illahi adalet, I have decided it was not absolutely neccessary for Muslims to take it in the first place. 

The reason I started writing this e-mail, and putting way too much thought into it, is not only because of the mosque (church/museum/whatever). It is just one of many things I want Furkan to be aware of. We have already bumped heads over my school's political party of choice: Saadet, or Felicity Party, a party that, whilst claiming to act in the name of all Muslims, only seems to alienate the non-Turkish ones. I think this is because party because of the ferocity of Turkish nationalism as enshrined in education and law, but that the movement has couted this whilst claiming universal Muslim love.

Kemalism for Muslims

It took me a long time to find the Islamists. I had put up with alot of alienating rhetoric whilst working in state schools, studying in Ankaran universities and sitting in bars in Turkey’s pretentious, West-coast towns. For this reason, I romanticised those bearded boogie-men – always absent from view but the subject of constant debate and insults by people I’d otherwise assume to be level-headed well-to-do liberals. I thought of the Turkish Islamist as the universalist hippie anti-dote to all their idolotrous flag-waving nonsense.

Now after two years working in a Saadet-party school, not only am I disappointed by certain attitudes amongst the group, but, I see that many of these attitudes are the very bones of contention I had with the Kemalists.

To an extent, the community lives in self-imposed exile like a Muslim diaspora, censoring their own vocabulary, attitudes and beliefs with via conspiracy-obsessed news sources and a whole host of other devices lest they become ‘like the rest of the country.’

Saadet’s sympathisers imitate the civilising mission of the early regime by re-formulating how they eat (right hand please – and don’t drop the bread!) speak and a whole host of other things. But no-where is the similarity with their supposed foe so stalk as in the passion of their complains about even slightly alternative depictions of their golden age  – the Ottoman Empire.

Every nation needs its myth apparently, but no country has quite the pathological grip on its myths as Turkey. For example, the moment it was announced there would be a film depicting the rape and pillage of Istanbul by the otherwise all-round nice-guy Mehmet II, the movie poster proudly displayed on the wall of our staff room. Not one day after the film's first showing, I found the poster ripped to shreds in the staff room bin. Mehmet hadn’t been revered enough apparently, and staff poured in to complain about the lack of his sacred depiction all day. Not many complained about the dipiction of the Byzantine’s as war-mongerers though, I noted.

It was the reaction of a… Kemalist. I was reminded of a documentary in 2009 called Mustafa, a biographical documentary which engaged the topic of the dictator's (who died of cirrhosis) alcohol problems, the director was sent to court and fined. The prosecution tore the film apart for evidence of aposty and even lodged that Atatürk’s hands were not depicted as elegantly as they should have been. One Kemalist friend cursed me for having the DVD, complaining about his poor portrayal to which I replied, "well, you're a trained nurse, what else can cause cirrhosis?" She pouted silently, as I made a speedy exit.

The National View

But I digress. My main contention with the group lies not so much in its attitude however, as the amount of national ideology put into its brand of political Islam. I put it to Furkan that even the name of the group’s ideology – “The National View”, reveals that the group's limitations have been defined by nationalism, something anathemical to mainstream Islam – but I was quickly corrected: “Ah, don’t tell anyone this, but 'National' actually refers to the Nation of Prophet Ibrahim.

I should have known. In Turkey, political associations based on religion, or non-Turkish nationalities, are banned. Thus, Kurdish political parties like the currently un-banned Peace and Democracy Party, have had a whole alphabet soup of names based on open political principles barely concealing the fact they only canvas votes in Kurdish areas and maintain ties with the PKK.

Furkan went on to define who was included in the real nation with pitch-perfect rhetoric skill:

“What do we mean when we say Nation? We mean, the Turks. We mean the Iranians. We mean our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We mean brother Liam in England. We mean Mr. Salih over there. Of course there are people who think in an exclusivist way - nationalist, communists, Kemalists and the rest – even in our own ranks those kind of folk exist. But it should not be like that. Who are we? We are the Ummah”

Right on. But how does the Nation united by faith rather than birthright, act on these beliefs? Well, the answer seems to be by indulging in Turkish nationalism, just with the religious bits that the Kemalist movement left out.

One sign of this, is the drive to have the Hağia Sofia reverted into a mosque.

Being Mehmet II is Nine-Tenths of the Law

The Hağia Sofia is probably Turkey’s most famous landmark. Having served as a cathedral and the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for 916 years, it was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conquorer after an awesome battle, depicted in this year's Turkish blockbuster Fetih 1453.

Although they may differ in accuracy and attention to detail in their accounts, it is clear from eye-witness reports that the sack of Constantinople was a depressing three-day binge of destruction, rape and looting. In medieval terms, that's what you get for putting up a defence and it should not be seen as unusually brutal. Mehmet had the city in mind for his new seat of government even before the battle, sending a vanguard to protect the nice parts, including the church and its environs (but not those inside, who were divided up into either slaves – or various parts of themselves on the floor).

Mehmet allowed the Greek Patriarch to remain head of his flock in a city whose successful rejuvination could only be guarenteed by an influx of former Byzantine civil servants and tradesmen. This marvellously universalist policy undoubtedly gleans over the fact that while Constantinople burned, the Hağia Sofia was converted into a mosque as part of the booty of war.

According to Furkan, this is inaccurate. The mosque was paid for in financial terms, although he has not looked at the sources. But this is irrelevant. There is an excuse for everything in Turkish historiography and Mehmet II is no exception.

According to Furkan, the same rules do not apply because the Prophet Muhammed is reported to have stated that “Constantinople shall be opened, and praised is the army and its leader who shall open it". Thus, due to the prophet's seal of approval, every detail of the attack was sacred. This explains why Mehmet is given the term “Hazreti,” – an Islamic term of respect normally strictly reserved for prophets and saints. Mehmet was the fulfillment of a prophecy mentioned from the lips of the RasoolAllah himself, and that is the end of the debate.

Carnival Islam and the Ataturkification of Mehmet II

It is not a bizarre coincidence that at midnight on the 31st December, every year without fail, my school-chum James would follow the new year countdown by singing "Happy Birthday to me!". In the same vain, neither is it by chance that Youth Day coincides with Atatürk Remembrance Day, or that Children's Day occurs in line with National Independence Day. The tactic of "while I've got you all together, let’s take the chance to remind you this useful information" means that in Turkey, every celebration becomes as excuse for the pomp and ceremony of a national anthem, a flag-waving competition and the chance for a 6-year-old to read a poem about Atatürk.

The posters advertising Saadet's Carnival Islamic festival
high-light the Hağia Sofia as a focal point
The coersion does not just occur at state level. As an impressionable young’un in Izmir, I was duped by friends into attending a concert by one of Turkey's biggest stars Sertap Erener on the anniversary of Atatürk's death, assuming the mourning was restricted to a curricular activity. Not long had the singer finished an unusually morouse set, when I found myself in the midst of ten thousand people waving their flags and clapping without pause for two hours, whilst the big screen displayed Atatürk's speeches against the whisful sounds of Izmir's sypthany orchestra. A bleary-eyed woman handed me a flag with a look of disappointment being the only one sitting down throughout proceedings. In her eyes I was probably either a heretic or handicapped, but pity seemed appropriate for both possiblities. It was at that moment, in the ultimate alienation of the crowd, did I realise the full power of spectacle.

The spectacle provides no prosylatising function. The best research on this I have seen, has been conducted by Christopher Houston, who points out that elites are the consumers of their own performances – after all, who else would attend them? They consolidate the support of the faithful in “braying one-upmanship” against the foe.

In response to this cradle-to-grave series of state spectacles, Islamists, who would have scorned statues and images in earlier times, have copied another characteristic of Kemalist Turkey and created “Carnival Islam,” almost validating that camp's right to set the agenda not simply in ideological terms but also, asthetics.

On 26th May, Anadolu Gençlik organised a “Conquest and (coincidentally) Youth Day” celebration to mark the anniversary of the battle for İstanbul. On top of waving flags and the national anthem, the event was marked by young men dragging a model galleon around the stadium in remembrance of the unique battle tactic embarqued by Mehmet II to by-pass Byzantine sea defences.

Carnival Islam is not so much anti-nationalist as new nationalist, or neo-Ottoman to use the fashionable term. It incorporates elements that the ideological republic in constituting itself once exclused.

Probably the best arguments that Turkish Islamism has fallen prey to taking the form of its opposition comes from Kurdish Muslims. They have been encouraged to bracket their ethnic identity with an Islamist one, leading to accusations of a new assimilation – in the name of Islam – mirroring the Turkish nationalist one.

An interesting example of this, occured at an Islamic event organised in Diyarbakır to honour the Kurds’ most famous son, Selahaddin Eyyubi, (Saladin) defender of the Holy Land. The event was to mark 900 years passing since the crusaders were thrown out of Jerusalem.  References to Saladin’s ethnic origin were deemed too contentious to be stated openly and often references to ethnicity were rebuked even when unnamed. However, in the eyes of Govenor of Diyarbakır, it was appropriate to introduce the symposium as a celebration of a “Great Turkish Warrior”.

Some Things Will Never Change

I have decided not to finish the e-mail to Furkan. Instead, I have settled for using this very blog as an outlet for my frustrations. Furkan already knows that I am not automatically on-side with the party by virtue of being Muslim anyway, as it is not the only time we have bumped heads on an issue. And it won’t be the last.

I have been invited to the movement’s next calander date – an action meeting entitled "We Want Pink Buses". This is the party's new campaign to ensure that alongside Istanbul's regular otobus service, runs a fleet of "Pink Buses" exclusively for the use of women ("what next" the missus implored, "pink cities?")

I chose to make dialogue with Furkan above all the other teachers as he is a good listener, and has a patient, thoughtful manner – in many ways he is what I look up to as the ideal Muslim gent. Far from the stereotypical stone-faced image of an Islamist, he is always smily. In fact, the only time his smile turns up-side-down is when his determination to do good is undermined. I love to watch his face at the lunch table when I pour glasses of water for the other teachers, as he quickly realises he forgot to get in there first.

Furkan is, to me, the embodiment of the Qur'anic command to “vie with one another in good Works”. Similarly, Furkan knows his stuff when it comes to the deen. If I can get some of my concerns across to Furkan, then it means either me or Turkey’s Islamist movement are not so far-gone that there cannot be any common ground. It’s a vain hope.

Like a flower in need of direct sunlight to grow, I can’t help feeling that Furkan – and many others sympathetic to the Saadet Party movement – have had their growth as Muslims stunted under the all-encompassing shadow of the “National View”, the ideology of the Islamist party and its founder Dr. Necmettin Erbakan (The “Leader of the Islamic World”, according to a poster outside Saadet’s headquarters in Cevizlibağ). I have to tread carefully with this view out of respect, We are ‘all brothers and sisters’, yadda-yadda, but on many occassions I feel that nothing but lip-service to a cosmopolitan Andalusian Islam that no longer has the conditions needed to exist…

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