Breaking the fast under the trees of a little park close to the Bosphorus is more than a communal get-together. It is a political statement. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul
Turkish group breaks fast with humble pie
ISTANBUL // Sandwiches, potato salad and other home-made food came in plastic containers and shopping bags, to be served by volunteers on old newspapers and picnic table covers spread on the grass.
For the organisers and about 300 guests of an event called Down to Earth Iftar in Istanbul's Yenikoy district, breaking the fast under the trees of a little park close to the Bosphorus was more than a communal get-together. It was a political statement.
"It's a symbol of equality. Everybody sits on the ground, regardless of class distinctions or social differences," said Ozgur Kivanc, the spokesman of a small but vocal group that calls itself Anti-Capitalist Muslims.
Mr Kivanc's group, which argues the version of Islam represented by Turkey's religiously conservative and pro-business government ignores egalitarian, social and liberal values of the religion, has been organising the Down to Earth Iftars at different locations in Istabul and other cities since the start of Ramadan.
The basic idea is to contrast simplicity and frugality with the lavish and glitzy Iftars attended by Turkey's elite in luxury hotels and restaurants. There are no corporate or state sponsors of the Down to Earth Iftars, which are organised like potluck dinners.
Following the wave of anti-government unrest in Turkey last month, the Down to Earth Iftars have also become new focal points for the protest movement opposed to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.
The Anti-Capitalist Muslims, who supported the protests, began their Down to Earth Iftars on the first day of Ramadan with a meal close to Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Gezi Park, next to the square, was the starting point and epicentre of the nationwide unrest after local protests against a government construction project in the park developed into the most serious challenge to Mr Erdogan in his 10-year rule.
Five demonstrators and one police officer were killed in clashes around the country, and several thousand people were injured in the fiercest street battles Turkey has seen in years. Demonstrators accused Mr Erdogan's government of being ignorant of people's wishes and demands.
An attempt by members of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims and other protesters to hold an Iftar inside Gezi Park next to Taksim Square late Sunday was denied by police, who cordoned off the park. The group moved to a nearby shopping street and held their Iftar there. Police later clashed with some protesters, who ignored calls by the officers to disperse, the Anadolu news agency reported. Three people were detained by police, local media reported.
The park in Yenikoy, venue of the Down to Earth Iftar, saw small gatherings of demonstrators after police cleared the protesters' tent city in Gezi Park on June 15.
"Instead of a sultan's dinner, this is a dinner on the ground," said Gamze Saglik, 27, a resident of Yenikoy and one of the organisers of the iftar, as volunteers prepared to distribute food and water shortly before sundown.
"You won't find fruit flambé here," one of the helpers said.
Activists are not the only ones sending political messages through Iftars in Turkey these days.
On the day people gathered in the Yenikoy park, Mr Erdogan attended an iftar at the headquarters of Ankara's riot police, where he made a speech defending harsh police tactics such as the use of water cannons and tear gas against Gezi Park protesters.
The same evening, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, hosted an iftar at a luxury hotel in Istanbul for representatives of the Alevite community, followers of a liberal strand of Islam who say they are treated unfairly by authorities in predominantly Sunni Turkey. The Alevites, who make up around 15 million of Turkey's 76 million people, do not keep the fast in Ramadan.
In his speech at the dinner, Mr Gul said Ramadan taught everyone to understand each other better, according to the website of the presidency in Ankara. "Turkey really needs that," the president said, in reference to the Gezi Park riots.
But several members of an Alevite association declined Mr Gul's invitation to the iftar and attended the iftar in Yenikoy instead.
"While they put on a show of brotherhood in a five-star hotel, we will be at the table on the ground with the Anti-Capitalist Muslims," said the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Cultural Association.
Aydin Deniz, the general secretary of the association, said at the Yenikoy event that he did not want to attend a meeting of a state "that ignores our demands", as he put it. "Alevites are being assimilated" and foced to give up their identity, he added.
Several other guests said they supported the protest movement against Mr Erdogan, whose popularity has slipped since the unrest but who still commands broad support among conservative Turks.
"After May 31, nothing will ever be like it was before," said one man, Fuat Denizli. He was referring to the day when police staged a first attempt to throw demonstrators out of Gezi Park, an operation that triggered the nationwide demonstrations.
Mr Kivanc, the Anti-Capitalist Muslims spokesman, said the "anti-authoritarian" iftar meetings were in line with Islam.
He said his group rejected the interpretation of the religion offered by Mr Erdogan, an observant Muslim accused by critics of following a secret agenda to turn secular Turkey into an Islamist state.
"Islam is against capitalism and against personal enrichment," Mr Kivanc said.
The Anti-Capitalist Muslims, whose motto is "Allah, Bread, Freedom" and who have several hundred members, became widely known in Turkey last year when they participated in a May Day demonstration organised by trade unions and socialists in Istanbul.
Asked what he would do if Mr Gul, was to turn up at one of the group's Iftars, Mr Kivanc said the head of state would be welcomed like everyone else.
"We would have plenty of things to tell him," Mr Kivanc said. "But he won't come, because the state hierarchy is cut off from the people."