x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Islamic sentiments out in open

Critics of Turkish prime minister say the government's campaign of Islamisation undermines the country's secular nature.

Young women wait in front of a school by a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Young women wait in front of a school by a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

ISTANBUL // A young woman has caused a national outcry in Turkey by declaring on television that she loves Ayatollah Ruholla Khomenei, the Iranian revolutionary leader, but not modern Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder. The comment has led opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and leader of an Islamist party, to assert that a government-sponsored campaign of Islamisation has undermined the secular nature of the republic.

A state prosecutor in Istanbul opened an investigation last month against Nuray Canan Bezirgan alleging she insulted Ataturk, which is a crime in Turkey. If convicted, Ms Bezirgan could face up to four and a half years in prison. "The investigation is still going on; we don't know when the trial will start," Mehmet Gumus of the Organisation of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People, or Mazlum-Der, a pro-Islamic human rights group, said yesterday.

It was unclear whether the state prosecutor had called Ms Bezirgan in for questioning. According to news reports, the police have been asked to find Ms Bezirgan's address. The state prosecutor's office declined to comment on the case, and Ms Bezirgan could not be reached. Mazlum-Der issued a statement defending Ms Bezirgan, saying: "It is not an insult to say 'I don't love him'." Ms Bezirgan and a colleague, Kevser Bakir, appeared on a TV news show with Fatih Altayli, a journalist known for his strong anti-Islamic views, to talk about the constitutional court's ruling disallowing women from wearing the veil on campus. Parliament, led by Mr Erdogan's Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, had passed an amendment to the constitution allowing the headscarf.

Both Ms Bezirgan and Ms Bakir, who are veiled, went on the television show representing Ozgur-Der, an Islamic non-governmental organisation campaigning for the right of female university students to wear the headscarf. According to transcripts of the show published by Turkish media, Mr Altayli asked Ms Bakir why she had posted a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini on her Facebook site. "I love and respect him," she answered.

Mr Altayli then asked Ms Bezirgan if she also loved Ayatollah Khomeini. When she said she did, Mr Altayli asked if she loved Ataturk. "Do I have a right not to love Ataturk?" Ms Bezirgan replied. "If I don't have to, I don't love him." Such a statement is rare in Turkey, where Ataturk is revered for having saved the country from foreign occupation after the First World War and putting Turkey on the track of westernisation. His picture hangs in every office and in most businesses and work places, and there is an Ataturk bust on every Turkish village square. His mausoleum in Ankara was visited by 12.6 million people last year alone. Ataturk is routinely referred to as the "national leader" in public speeches.

But Ms Bezirgan refused to call him that. She said the Turkish people waged the war to drive out British, French and Greek occupation troops after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War "for Islamic values". When Mr Altayli said that without Ataturk Turkey might still be ruled by the British or French today, Ms Bezirgan said: "If it had been the British, I would have more rights. That is the problem. If people pressure me in the name of Ataturk, you cannot expect me to love Ataturk."

Ataturk is credited, among other things, with the liberation of the Turkish woman. He encouraged women to wear their hair uncovered and choose western-style clothes, but stopped short of banning the headscarf. He also introduced voting rights for women in 1934, much earlier than in European countries such as France, Italy or Greece. Still, Ms Bezirgan does not see Ataturk as a liberator. "We have never been free" since the founding of the republic in 1923, she said, referring to pious Muslims like herself. "We have never been able to express ourselves." Ms Bezirgan also said there was no political party in Turkey that represented her beliefs. "If any party gets up to defend my ideas, it will be banned."

Ms Bezirgan later denied she had said she did not love Ataturk and said the words had been put into her mouth by Mr Altayli. "He was the one who came up with the comparison and who put Ataturk on one side and Khomeini on the other," she told Turkish media. Ozgur-Der also strongly condemned Mr Altayli's conduct. "Do the media policemen decide whom we will love and whom we will not love?" the organisation asked in a statement. It accused mainstream media of starting a "lynch campaign" against Ms Bezirgan because big national newspapers such as Hurriyet criticised her statements.

"How many Nuray Bezirgans are out there, hiding their hate and spitting it out when the time comes?" Hurriyet asked. The newspaper said ideas like those of Ms Bezirgan were the product of a systematic and Islamic re-education of young people. "The 'enmity towards Ataturk and the republic' or 'efforts to de-value Ataturk' are being injected [into young people] like a lesson in religious brotherhoods, in secret Quran courses and in some religious high schools and private educational institutions."

Deniz Baykal, an opposition leader, said Ms Bezirgan's statements reminded him of the foreign minister, Ali Babacan, who told a committee of the European parliament recently that Turkey's Muslim majority suffered a lack of freedom of religion, in an apparent reference to the headscarf issue. Mr Baykal's Republican People's Party accuses Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of having a secret agenda to turn Turkey into an Islamic state.

"This is a mindset," Mr Baykal told a meeting of Republican parliamentary deputies. He said the headscarf was not the real aim of the AKP: "It is the republic." Mr Baykal also said an AKP politician had supported the view that Ismet Inonu, the closest aide of Ataturk who became Turkey's second president after Ataturk's death in 1938, was an "enemy of the nation". With statements like this, the AKP was slowly showing its real intentions, Mr Baykal said. "We are faced with a big plan, a danger, a deceit."

@Email:tseibert@thenational.ae