Turkey Pulse

Deadly fire in religious girls dorm shakes Turkey

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Article Summary
Tragedies similar to the deadly fire in a religious girls dorm in Turkey will continue until the mindset that causes them changes.

A fire at a private all-girls dormitory in the Aladag district in the southern province of Adana broke out on Nov. 29. Twelve people, including the 4-year-old daughter of the dorm manager, 10 female students, the oldest of whom was 13 years old, and a 20-year-old female educator were killed. There are 24 wounded students, mostly from jumping out of the windows to escape the fire and smoke.

An obsolete electrical fuse panel and a fault in the old electricity switches were cited as causes of the fire in a preliminary report prepared by the Aladag attorney general’s office. The fire spread quickly from the lower to upper floors, ultimately resulting in the wood roof collapsing. The carpet in the dorm was made out of a material that is derived from petroleum, adding to the speed in which the fire spread. Moreover, the building’s fire exit was made of plastic and did not have handles. There is a dispute over whether the fire escape door was locked. Adana Mayor Huseyin Sozlu said the doors were locked, but Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak, who along with several other ministers and officials visited the site, quoted the prosecutor’s initial examinations and stated there was no lock on the fire escape door.

“Our firefighters are experts in this job. Students went to upper floors toward the fire escape doors, but they couldn’t open them,” Sozlu said. “This could be either because the doors were locked or the plastic door handles melted.” Four bodies were found in one room and eight bodies in the second room of the upper floor. Firefighter Unit Department head Fatih Durukan shared with Haberturk heartbreaking news that the girls stuck in the fire were in the middle of each room and waited their painful deaths while holding each other’s hands.

Numerous irregularities about the tragedy have been revealed. First, children younger than 15 years are not supposed to stay in private dorms, except in cases of sanctioned protection. So the students were staying in the dorm against the law. The Education Ministry authorized the dormitory after an inspection was conducted in June, and Minister of Education Ismet Yilmaz stated there were no problems and that lessons will be learned from this event. Yet questions remain over the accuracy of the report.

Sadly, the families of the victims, a majority of them poor and jobless, had no other choice but to place their daughters in the dorm. Elif Dogan Turkmen, a Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy, blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) education policies, pointing to the closing of village schools. Education Trade Union Chair Mehmet Balik explained that the state dorm in town was demolished for expansion, forcing the girls to go to private dorms owned and funded by specific religious communities. Mehmet Karatas, the father of one of the victims, confirmed that his daughter, who was in fifth grade, was staying in the dorm for free and that no one responded to parents’ demands to the mayor’s office for free transportation service so the kids could come home. “This was the only dorm. We had no chance to criticize. We had no choice.”

The dorm fire spurred debates about dorms founded and funded by specific religious communities. The problem with such residences is that they are often built according to questionable standards and offer religious education, the content of which the state is unfamiliar with, so students get indoctrinated according to particular beliefs. “This issue is hard to understand without understanding the power of religious communities over local politicians,” wrote Ibrahim Kiras, Karar daily’s columnist.

The dorm that caught fire belongs to the Aid Association to Students owned by the religious group known as Suleymancilar. They are followers of Islamic scholar Suleyman Hilmi Tunahan, who died in the mid-20th century and was a Sufi master in the tradition of the Naqshbandi order. Today, Suleymancilar are known for dorms in which they offer religious education, though students in their residences usually attend state schools. There are around 100 similar dorms in Adana, 80 of which belong to the same group, according to Sozlu. But no clear information exists about the number of existing dorms that pertain to a specific community elsewhere in the country.

The now notorious Gulenist religious community, the ones blamed for the failed military coup on July 15, was known for its vast number of dorms — close to 150 of which were closed in the last few months. So now the state has taken it upon itself to deal with the problem of dorms or to build new ones to be put under its control. The question that remains, according to Kiras, is the functioning of these religious groups as business holdings, especially as owners of banks, companies or dorms. It should be expected that religious communities deal with their designated services and leave school and dorm management to state or adequate civil societies. Some columnists like Ozlem Albayrak disagree, saying even if these dorms were closed, nothing would change as religious communities would operate more secretly. Additionally, she claimed, in a democracy, every family has the right to raise their children as they see fit, including through religious communities of their choice. As it is impossible to close religious dorms, inspections by the state are the solution, Albayrak argued.

Notwithstanding, systemic problems in Turkey are obvious, as dormitory fires are not uncommon in Turkey. In 2008, a gas leak caused an explosion in a religious preparatory school in Konya city in central Anatolia, where 17 girls and one educator died and 29 were wounded. No family complained, and the court case has continued for eight years. The dormitory manager and several officials were charged, but the case is still ongoing. Additionally, on Nov. 30, 2015, six students were killed in a fire in a “Quran course” in Diyarbakir. After the latest fire in Aladag, dozens of students from different dorms in other parts of the country posted photos of fire escape doors from their residences, signaling widespread irregularities.

While the fire at the Aladag dorm brought reactions of lament and condemnation from all sides of Turkey, unfortunately the political bickering soon replaced solidarity. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, “Where there are humans, there must be mistakes. … We haven’t developed a machine that can stop human mistakes.” He announced that a commission to investigate the Aladag fire would be formed in parliament, jointly set up by the AKP, CHP, Peoples' Democratic Party and Nationalist Action Party deputies. Meanwhile, Fatma Barbarosoglu, a columnist from the pro-government Yeni Safak daily, rightly summarized the situation in Turkey: “Secularists register deaths, negligence and lack of inspection only to the side of religious conservatives,” while they “develop a defensive reflex for incoming questions rather than reckon with their conscience.”

Similar tragedies in Turkey will continue until the mindset that causes them changes. It is the mindset that believes that fire escape doors need to be shut for “safety reasons” so the girls can’t escape or boys can’t come in. It is also the wrong fatalist religiosity, which assumes that accidental deaths are part of one’s destiny or that tolerance of irregularities wouldn’t result in a calamity. The only way forward, as Barbarosoglu explained, is a culture of “justice, meritocracy and awareness of responsibility.”

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Found in: religious freedom, religious education, gulenists, girls, fire, education, chp, akp

Riada Asimovic Akyol is an independent analyst and writer. Her articles have been published by The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, The Nation and The National. She is pursuing a doctorate related to religion and nationalism at Galatasaray University, Istanbul. On Twitter: @riadaaa

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