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An old friend was visiting Istanbul with her family a couple of weeks ago, and I, a long-term resident of the city, was showing them around. Passing Saint Anthony’s Cathedral in Istiklal Street, I said it was worth a quick look inside, being one of the few Neo-Gothic style Christian churches in the city. We walked through the iron gates and crossed the courtyard to the entrance. A young black man stopped me at the door.
"Take off your hat," he told me in English.
I had on the black knitted skull-cap which I always wear except when ordered to remove it before the judge at my trials in Turkish courts. I’m not about to take it off to enter a church.
"Why?" I ask.
He points to a sign next to the entrance which shows a picture of a flat cap in a circle with a red line through it.
"But it’s part of my religion," I fib. "I’m not supposed to take it off."
"You can’t come in with it on," he says firmly.
"Do you mean to say I’m banned from visiting the church because of my religion?" I exclaim. He makes a gesture and another young black man comes out from the chuch. A visitor steps between us, heading for the door. They point to his head and at the picture. He obediently removes his cap and enters.
"What about Sikhs?" I ask. "Do you make them take off their turbans? Do you make Jews take off their kippes?"
I’m just getting started. My friend and her family say they don’t really want to go in.
"And what about women?" I continue. "This is a Catholic church. Women are supposed to cover their heads to enter. Do I see you stopping hatless women from entering, or providing them with scarves to cover their hair?”
But the black Catholic bouncers adamantly refuse my admission, and after being told that the priest isn’t there to hear my complaint, I desist in disgust.
I can see the logic in taking off your shoes to enter mosques, so you don’t bring in street dirt on to the prayer rugs, but doffing one’s hat is nothing but an archaic custom for showing respect for a superior. I recognize no superior, and certainly have no respect for the Catholic Church.
I have no respect for most politicians either, including the Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sympathy earlier this week when he complained on a television discussion programme about his wife Emine being told three years ago that it would be better for her not to enter Gulhane Military Hospital to visit an elderly invalid while she was wearing her headscarf. The secular military strictly uphold the rule ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public institutions.
I don’t really cover my head for religious reasons, but Mrs. Erdogan does. Yet both of us are barred from entering buildings because of our headgear. Is this discrimination right? I know a couple of young women who are barred from going to university because they wear headscarves, and there are many other females in the same situation, students and teachers.
The question is – if the headscarf ban was to be lifted, would it, in a country with a staunchly Moslem government, turn instead into an enforced wearing of the headscarf , and the banning of uncovered hair? The ‘headscarf issue’ is an interesting one, but not, it seems, burning enough to bring angry sisters out on the streets in protest, demanding the freedom to cover their hair everywhere.
If they were to call for such a demonstration it would be advisable to hold it somewhere other than in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, which, police announced this week, has been banned for a year again as a place of assembled protest. Mind you, the police know how to clear the square quickly enough anyway with their more than liberal use of pepper gas. People throughout the city for miles around were coughing with running eyes from the smoke bombs fired by the police to break up the anti IMF protest in Taksim last year.
Still, the subject of Mrs. Erdogan’s headscarf is enough to send some temperatures soaring, and even to cause fisticuffs in the Parliament building on Tuesday between members of Erdogan’s Justice and Developement Party (AKP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) after deputy Osman Durmus, referring to the Prime Minister’s remark about his wife being refused entry to the military hospital because of here headscarf, had sneeringly asked how it was possible to deny entry to the wife of "a prime minister who is regarded as a prophet?"
This remark sparked sudden mayhem and flying fists between members of the opposing parties, resulting in several injuries and a call by the Speaker for a ten minute break. After the recess Durmus explained his remark by saying that an AKP member had described Erdogan as ‘the second prophet’. The Prime Minister replied that nobody who attributed such a title to him could keep their place in his party, adding: "You cannot insult my wife! This is crude and immoral."
He’s very senstive about the insults, is Mr. Erdogan. I was in court last week charged with ‘insulting his dignity’ with a collage caricature I made in 2006 showing him with a dog’s body, held on a leash made from the American flag, his tail an American cruise missile. The judge found me guilty of insult, but when I informed him that I would refuse to pay a money fine as a protest against the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey, he decided to defer sentence until March 9th in order to give me time to reconsider my defense. The alternative is up to two years in prison.
There was an online petition going on until my aquittal in September 2008, calling for the charges against me to be dropped. At that time there were 559 signatures. Had we known that several months later the case was to be reopened the petition would have continued. I’m sure by now there would have been well over a thousand signatures of support.
Following the recent amount of press attention, the prosecuters are probably wishing they hadn’t annulled my previous aquittal and reopened the case. Not only was the offending image broadcast yet again on news sites and blogs all over the internet, but last week the free London daily newspaper ‘Metro’, read by thousands, featured my story and the picture. Perhaps the comment about the Prime Minister being referred to as the second prophet came from stories from several Turkish newspapers comparing the disgrace of my caricature of him being shown in London’s ‘Metro’ to the outrage in the Moslem world caused by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper a few years ago. Erdogan himself declines the the title of ‘second prophet’, declaring that "the chain of prophecy ended with our last prophet (Mohammed)." Oh yeah?
The Prime Minister publicly accused the opposition deputy of insulting his wife because of her commital to headscarf-wearing, but it’s doubtful that he’ll open a legal case against him because of it.
"I just retold an incident that my wife experienced," he explained. "Neither I nor my wife brought the issue to the agenda as we don’t want more tension in the country."
They’ve got plenty of that at the moment. Strikes, high unemployment, riots in the Kurdish south, unrest countrywide.
"We, as the government, know perfectly well that our main challenge is to change mentality," Erdogan announced recently. "It’s not an easy task."
He should start with his own.
MICHAEL DICKINSON can be contacted through his website: http://yabanji.tripod.com/