I was with a woman visitor from Ireland and we were standing in the middle of the Galata Bridge in Istanbul earlier this week. I pointed across the waterway of the Bosphorus to the forested hill of Çamlica which looms over the buildings reaching up to it.
“You see that hill over there with the TV tower on the Asian side” I said. “They’re going to build a giant mosque on top of it, starting in a couple of months. It’ll dominate the skyline and be visible from everywhere in the city. It’ll probably have a golden dome.”
“My God! How awful!” said my guest. “It’ll spoil the view!”
Not according to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul himself, who considers the Çamlica mosque to be the most important addition to six other new mosques his government plan to build on the Asian side of the strait. It will occupy an area of 15,000-square-meters and include a madrasa (religious school). On top of that there is a long list of renovations for other mosques in Istanbul. Most recently renovated was the Fatih Mosque, originally built by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, and re-opened to coincide with the 559th anniversary of his conquest of the city. It looks like Erdogan is making his own insiduous conquest with his burgeoning mosqueopolis.
As Mayor of Istanbul Erdogan is quoted as having said: “Thank God, I am for Sharia. One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.” And he aims to make sure that secular Turkey is well and truly Islamized. Therefore any insult to the true religion will be deemed as a serious crime.
Internationally famous Turkish pianist Fazil Say learned this to his cost recently when he was formally charged with insulting Islamic values because of a couple of humorous tweets he sent expressing his thoughts. In one tweet cited in the indictment, Say said: “What if there is raki (traditional Turkish anisette drink) in paradise but not in hell, while there is Chivas Regal (scotch) in hell and not in paradise? What will happen then? This is the most important question!!”
In another he quoted from a poem by Omar Khayyam: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”
Say stated in his initial testimony during the probe that he had no intention to humiliate any religion. He was basically criticizing those who are exploiting religion for profit. Little did he know that exercising his free speech thus to a few friends on Twitter would result in a criminal charge. The trial will be held in October. If convicted he faces an 18 month prison sentence.
Erdogan is a powerful man, number 3 on Reuters List of Most Influential Islamic Leaders.
Woe betide you if you cross him. I was shocked to learn this week that two university students who unfurled a protest banner reading “WE WANT FREE EDUCATION!” in an auditorium at a government event attended by Erdogan a couple of years ago have been sentenced to 8 years in prison apiece, charged with being “members of a terrorist organization and spreading terrorist propaganda”. They spent 19 month in jail before being charged.
Around 600 students are imprisoned in Turkey under the auspices of the Anti-Terror Law for activities such as participating in anti-government demonstrations and rallies, shouting slogans, carrying political banners and writing political articles.
In a recent petition student activists announced: “We demand the Government to take the necessary steps to stop these detentions, to improve the conditions of those imprisoned, to acknowledge their right to education, to shorten the trial periods which effectively turned into actual criminal sentences, and to release all detained students immediately.” The group also called for the cease of the political repression on all segments of social opposition in the country, urging both the Turkish and the international public to express their solidarity in supporting their cause.
Erdogan has stressed the importance of “raising a religious youth”, to affect his goal of an Islamic state, no doubt. Reacting to a huge demonstration by students protesting in Taksim Square earlier this year about an exam cheating scandal involving an Islamic Movement influential in the governing AKP Party, he stated: “We could have more than doubled the number of students in the square with our own, but we chose not to do so to avoid tension.”
Turkey is still a secular state in name, but if criticizing Islam is a crime it is a misnomer. Nor can it be considered a democracy when the prisons are full of innocent people who have been detained for years without trial on trumped up charges of treason and terrorism.
Tayyip Erdogan himself has also spent time in prison. In 1997 he was given a ten month sentence (of which he served six ) for reciting a poem which, under article 312/2 of the Turkish penal code was regarded as an incitement to religious hatred.
I imagine he might have plans to quote it again at the opening of the mega-mosque on Çamlica Hill when it is completed, to be greeted by rapturous applause this time rather than arrest: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….”
In the meantime I think he should take a look at this quote by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and try to understand and learn from it –
“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will, every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.”
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website.