When someone says something and then feels that it needs an explanation, it is a clear signal that something is wrong.
That is exactly what happened to Mehmet Gormez, Director of Religious Affairs. What he touched upon was something so sensitive that it mirrored all the arguments concerning what Turkish democracy really means if the state is controlling religious practices, and whether there is a way forward under an Islamist-oriented ruling party for people to also exercise the right of freedom from religion. In a free society after all, everyone should be free to choose how they reach God, or not.
“Izmir has a different kind of religiosity. This religiosity is in need of wisdom of the [religious] traditions,” Gormez said on Tuesday [March 26] when he addressed the members of his directorate in Izmir. “Therefore, it is no coincidence that a mufti raised by this [religious] tradition of wisdom is appointed to Izmir.”
His remarks received an imminent reaction from the public, as well as from members of parliamentary opposition parties. In return, ruling party members immediately stood up in Gormez’s defense, accusing others of intentionally misunderstanding him. However, two things echoed in criticism of Gormez, thereby highlighting that people’s sensitivity over his remarks has a long history. For example, those offended in Izmir by Gormez’s remarks recalled what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in December 2005.
“There are some labels that are tagged to Izmir,” Erdogan said, which was perceived at the time of him calling Izmir an “infidel” city. “Inshallah, it will rip off these tags with the first upcoming elections.” It was not the first time that the Islamist camp had attacked the Muslim-ness of people in Izmir. Similar remarks were made in the past by the late Necmettin Erbakan, Welfare Party leader, as well as Recai Kutan, Virtue Party leader.
This Aegean city’s lifestyle is certainly different from that in Central Anatolian cities or eastern Turkish provinces. There is a different kind of a mind-set here which allows a qualified equality between men and women compared to other parts of the country. Most importantly, women never shy from enjoying their femininity — all based on the confidence assured in them by the men from Izmir. Women walk on the streets with in short sleeves and mini-skirts, something that is rarely an issue because it is simply a coastal city. Therefore, their difference in religiosity should have been only accepted as a natural richness of the country’s social fabric. No wonder Gormez also tried to backtrack from his remarks laying out this obvious premise. “Each city, each region, is embraced with a unique religiosity that reflects itself. This diversification can never be interpreted as a mistake,” the written statement by the Religious Affairs Directorate released today [March 27] read, aiming to bring clarity to Gormez’s controversial remarks. The statement also stressed that Gormez was actually expressing a kind of failure on their part for falling behind on keeping Izmir up-to-date in religious terms.
In any case, many people in Izmir will not be easily convinced with his backtrack, citing Erdogan’s remarks of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) receiving support from Izmir’s representatives as well; many feel threatened that their lifestyles will be jeopardized when that happens. Erdogan often takes pride that since they came to power over a decade ago, no one has been forced to change and that women with and without head covers walk the streets side by side. This pretty much existed in the "old" Turkey as well.
In May 2008, then Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, however, complained to the European Parliament that “the Muslim majority, too, faced problems regarding religious freedom in Turkey.” Erdogan agreed, saying, “No one can deny that there are problems.” The people of Izmir are now crying out that they are also experiencing severe intimidation because of their religious beliefs, and they express concern of the direction and rhetoric spelled out against them.
No doubt that Turkey’s current problems stem from its past mistakes in which the state imposed firm restrictions on religious education; since then “secularism” means “non-religious.” And the dismissal of any positive view of contemporary Islam on both sides — secular and religious — is the core reason of the threat that continues to cast doubt over Turkey’s democratic future.
It is only tragic that the director of Religious Affairs had to release a statement correcting himself on an issue that finds itself at the core of any democratic society. The truth is that this is the way how things have been working in Turkey for a long time — whoever is in power feels that he has the right to dictate and dominate his people. It is difficult to change a culture unless people recognize that these traditional habits keep them away from creating a free society in its real sense.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.