Back to the ministerial headquarters after a three-year stint in Baghdad (2003-06) I was kept for a while in a kind of an administrative limbo within the Middle East Directorate. Which translated in day-to-day affairs as being tasked to all tedious missions that fell under the “any other business” category. “World Religious Leaders Summit” fit exactly that definition. I was told to keep my mouth shut, attend the meetings as an observer and enjoy the opportunity to visit my home town, Istanbul –by the seasoned Director General himself who seemed unable to suppress his laughter while delivering me my marching orders.
Details related to the so-called “summit” itself are superfluous for the purpose of this column today. Except perhaps the fact that, with 20/20 hindsight from this year’s end of 2020, it may be classified as an early AKP attempt to re-organize or re-energize Muslim Brotherhood networks around the globe under its leadership. Anyway, by way of dignified entertainment I suppose, we were invited to attend a “sema” ceremony of Mevlevi order whirling dervishes in the evening which was held in historic Galata Mevlevihanesi in Pera.
To be honest, the non-observant muslim with somewhat pantheist, gnosticist and syncretist penchants that I am, I was still touched and even transported by that event. With my readily rinsed soul in spiritual fervour, I turned around to face my Algerian neighbour in the stands: “What do you think about it, sir” I asked him with beaming pride in my country’s cultural richness. “L’islam ce n’est pas ça, c’est la gymnastique!” he had exclaimed in protest. Non-observant or not, my first instinct was to punch him square in the face, there and then.
That incident seems now to be almost a century ago. Yet, after enjoying the privileges of a mere eighteen years of political islam in power, one feels increasingly the urge to shout “I can’t breathe” almost every day. For the know-all western pundit, who is confident that the polyglot intellectual estranged to her/his own history and culture and therefore is representative of no one else but her/his sorry and sour self, this feeling of being suffocated would only be worthy of an ironic smile. After all, Morocco or Oman, Turkey or Mauritania, islam is islam, masses are masses, east is east.
There would be a center in the middle of any society, and a periphery in constant stampede mode to take over that oppressive UFO of a political center. There is no top-down progress possible but only social forces which will inevitably revert the course of history to its original riverbed. Then, one would have to watch that river flow comfortably seated “ottoman style” by its side for centuries in order to take note of meaningful change –and if that ever really happens, that is.
Recently, the Turkish megapolis Istanbul’s Metropolitan Municipality, which we should be needlessly reminded of that was won by the opposition, organized yet another “sema” ceremony to commemorate Mevlana Rumi. During which, lo and behold, the extreme act of profanity (!) was committed by allowing a recital of Quran in Turkish. According to political islamists in power this was again a proof of predetermined insult to not only to religion but to the people –in short, an act of liberticide per se.
The self-appointed supreme guide Religious Affairs Director who is legally no higher above than any other public servant rushed in his evergreen zeal to the help of the AKP government to decree and declare that the Turkish version of Quran does not count as the real thing and that all “ulema” agree on that point. The hapless secularist republican opposition found itself yet again cornered by his own making to defend its credentials as being equally pious and nationalist to boot. Why? “Because the next general elections, stupid…” –or so, they claim.
Turkey, by its constitution, is a secular republic. Secularism is enshrined as a principle in the preamble of its constitution. All the more so that even changing that principle cannot be proposed. Ergo, here is a folk song by contemporary bard Mahzuni Şerif- born in 1939 in a village in central Anatolia, a Qizilbash Alevi, a Marxist, a secularist, jailed numerous times, married with eight children, died in Köln-Germany in 2002. Translation is by your humble servant: “O readers in Arabic / Does God not know Turkish? / English, French / Do they not address to us?”
It is naturally not an insult to recite Quran in its Turkish version. On the other hand, it is an insult to our intelligence that, there exists a mainspring in that imagined societal watch of Turkey once free from the yoke of forcibly imposed top-down progress, will always revert back to its original and ergo natural state of being which is, by default, full inertia. Yet, liberty is as natural for any human being in this world as the need for living in dignity.
Late Mahzuni continues to play his three-stringed traditional “saz”: “It is ours these gardens and vineyards / It is ours these grand mountains / Let the zealots be forgiven / Do they not worship in vain? / A single nightingale does not bring in the summer / Here comes the nigthingale’s song / Does Mahzuni not play the ‘saz’ / To the universe?” Mahzuni was no foreign language educated highbrow intellectual. Mahzuni, too, is Turkey. Furthermore, Mahzuni is universal too–as secularism and liberty is.
“Cultural differences may prove to be deadly” read the sub-title of the 1990 movie “Heart of Glass”, written and directed by Fehmi Yaşar. In my humble opinion, that movie had heralded the genesis of the “new Turkish cinema”. If “sociology is a martial art” as predicted by none other than Pierre Bourdieu himself, politics is a constant “act of survival” today in Turkey. If others, watching from outside in, may be inclined to sacrifice life at the altar of an artificial stability that they may be much inclined to worship, we will keep on defending pluralism and freedom in even, so-to-speak, our living-rooms.