As Turkey grapples with terrorism and myriad social and economic problems, an unexpected controversy has moved on to the country’s crowded agenda. A Jan. 6 directive issued by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu allows public employees to take time off for Friday prayers: “In line with freedom of religious faith, guaranteed by the constitution and related laws, employees of public institutions and establishments who so desire will be given time off for Friday prayer if its time overlaps with working hours without causing a loss in working hours.”
Twitter users were quick to react. Some saw the circular as an affront to the secular system. “Bye bye secularism, bye bye republic, hello Afghanistan!” one user wrote. Another remarked, “Today schools and teachers off for Friday prayer, tomorrow students and soon Friday a full holiday.” Some saw the directive as an attempt by the government to distract from other controversies and problems. “This time they must be trying to distract attention from the Hitler issue and the price hikes,” wrote one person. Others saw the move as putting pressure on less religious employees. “There was already permission for Friday prayer, especially in public offices. Now, those who don’t go will be fingered. Let them not go now if they dare,” one man commented.
Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu, a prominent lawyer petitioned the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, to quash the directive. He argued that the authority to determine working hours belonged not to the prime minister but to the Cabinet. “The purpose here is to flout the secular legal system under the pretext of freedom of faith. Rearranging daily working hours during Ramadan will be brought up next,” asserted Eminagaoglu.
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Eminagaoglu said he was in favor of freedom of religions, but argued that the circular had effectively suspended the unalterable constitutional provision on the Turkish republic’s secular character. He recalled that a similar effort had been turned back in the past by a court ruling later backed by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
“In 1997, the Cabinet issued a decision adjusting working hours during Ramadan to the fast-breaking hours. The arrangement was annulled by the Council of State, and the Constitutional Court deemed it an act contravening the secular system. Objections were then brought before the ECHR, but the ECHR found no irregularity in the [annulment] ruling,” explained Eminagaoglu.
“Not long ago, [female] attorneys were allowed to attend court hearings wearing headscarves. Now, judges have come to wear the headscarf, too. Tomorrow, working hours during Ramadan will be adjusted to the fast-breaking hours despite legal rulings to the contrary. A political and judicial transformation is under way. The latest directive could lead to the blacklisting of those who do not go to prayers,” Eminagaoglu further asserted.
The issue of time off for Friday prayers was first raised in July during collective bargaining talks between the Labor Ministry and trade unions representing public employees. Memur-Sen, a trade union close to the government, put the demand in its collective contract proposal as a last-minute addition. Eminagaoglu said Memur-Sen’s move illustrates how the agendas of trade unions in Turkey have changed over the past several decades.
“In 1975, the Turk-Is trade union, which was close to the center right, had filed a lawsuit against the adjustment of working hours to fast-breaking hours during Ramadan, and the arrangement was abolished. Also, a move by the State Highway Directorate to rearrange working hours according to Friday prayer hours was annulled on the ground that it contravened the principle of secularism. Back in those days, the advocates of labor rights respected the constitution and the supremacy of law. Today, it’s just the opposite,” Eminagaoglu explained.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has secularism enshrined in its emblem as one of the arrows symbolizing the party’s six main principles, has remained silent about the circular, earning it a good deal of criticism.
According to Eminagaoglu, CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu should be expelled from the party for failing to observe the CHP statute calling for the protection of the secular system. Thus far, the party’s only reaction has come from Deputy Chairman Veli Agbaba, who called the circular a smokescreen intended to distract public attention from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s U-turn on relations with Israel.
“There was already not a problem regarding the Friday prayer. Public employees were able to go to Friday prayers without any obstruction at all,” Agbaba pointed out. “The president has suddenly said that we need Israel. How did this need arise? Why do you need Israel? We believe they did this maneuver [the circular] only to cover up this issue and manipulate the religious feelings of impoverished, devout and decent people.”
The CHP’s silence might perhaps be explained by its recent efforts to convince conservative Turks that the party — the legacy of Turkey’s secular founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — is not an adversary of Islam. In a television program earlier this month, senior CHP member Engin Altay remarked, “The [CHP’s] image as a godless party was in part nourished by us ourselves.”
As the public debated what had prompted the circular, given that public employees were already able to attend Friday prayers, the Education Ministry moved within a week to adopt it for schools. In an instruction to education directorates across the country, the ministry ordered “all public and private schooling institutions” to “facilitate things for administrators, teachers and other staff with regard to permissions for Friday prayers” and to adjust class schedules accordingly.
Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, former head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, remains perplexed about the motive behind the circular. In remarks to Al-Monitor, he said, “We were already adjusting the Friday prayer to [noon break] hours convenient for public employees. For instance, if the Friday call to prayer was supposed to be at 11 a.m. or 11:30 a.m., we would send a circular to have it shifted to 12 a.m. During summer, it would be 1 p.m. So, there was no problem. Public employees were able to catch up. The Religious Affairs Directorate is maintaining the same practice at present.”
So what prompted the circular? Yilmaz proffered, “The purpose perhaps was to have the working hours of schools rearranged according to the Friday prayer.” That might explain why the Education Ministry was so quick to act.