Prayer call debate sparks soul-searching in N. Cyprus

Turkish Cypriots now find themselves in a state of soul-searching. The debate has also highlighted the attitudes of mainland Turkey media towards the KKTC.

Prayer call debate sparks soul-searching in N. Cyprus

Ertan Karpazlı

In recent days, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) has witnessed the start of a debate which at face value may seem to be a simple disagreement over the use of megaphones to transmit the Islamic call to prayer, but in actual fact symbolises an identity crisis within the Turkish Cypriot community.

On October 20, a number of newspapers in Turkey caught wind of comments made by senior Turkish Cypriot lawyer Feza Güzeloğlu on her personal Facebook page, revealing that she was leading a campaign to silence the call to prayer in the country. She argued that the megaphones which transmit the call to prayer from the top of mosque minarets contributes to noise pollution and violates the rights of those who do not pray.

Ms Güzeloğlu, who has in the past led a successful campaign to prevent mosque staff from making the call for the dawn prayer via the megaphones after arguing it disrupted sleep, also denied the sanctity of the call, describing it as nothing but "Arabic screams."

The call to prayer - deemed to be an essential element of daily life in Muslim lands since the birth of Islam over 1,400 years ago - is repeated five times a day to signal the beginning of a new prayer period for those who observe the obligatory acts of worship of their religion. Before the age of megaphones, the call was traditionally recited in a harmonious human voice.

Advances in technology eventually paved the way for the call to be transmitted via megaphones placed on minaret balconies. Despite criticism by some Muslim conservatives in its early days, the use of megaphones became unavoidable in environments such as big cities in order to bellow over the increasing noise pollution generated by traffic.

However, in the KKTC, which is still very much a rural country with relatively few cars, some argue that the use of megaphones in villages and small towns are unnecessary, and due to public pressure, have often had the volume turned down. Nevertheless, for some, including Ms Güzeloğlu, even this is insufficient, as she vehemently calls for the megaphones to be removed completely.

Local imams in some villages up until recently faced pressure to abandon the megaphones, but after mosques in the KKTC adopted a system which allows the call to prayer to be transmitted from one location via radio frequencies, a handful of disgruntled individuals were no longer able to silence the call.

However, as trivial as this debate may seem, this argument has actually stirred an even deeper underlying division between two communities within the KKTC - the Turkish Cypriots who have lived on the island since the Ottoman conquest in 1571, and migrants from mainland Turkey who settled on the island after the military intervention in 1974. Additionally, Turkish Cypriots now find themselves in a state of soul-searching. The debate has also highlighted the attitudes of mainland Turkey media towards the KKTC.

After Ms Güzeloğlu's comments made headlines in Turkey (even before they made headlines in the KKTC), she came to be on the receiving end of insults and threats, having been labelled an "enemy of religion" by certain segments of the Turkish media. However, this was not simply because of her opposition to the call to prayer, but also because of her use of the term "bigot" to describe religious Muslims who had migrated over from Turkey to Cyprus after the 1974 intervention.

Although Ms Güzeloğlu made it clear that she did not believe all people from Turkey were bigots, she was accused of being a racist. Perhaps this was due to the fact she gave the impression that even though in her opinion certain segments of mainland Turkish society were "enlightened", bigotry was an attribute that could only be held by Turkish mainlanders.

Meanwhile, the criticism she received was not necessarily any more humane or civilised. The foul language used against her by some individuals - who supposedly justify their admonition with a sense of religious superiority and moral duty - only provided Ms Güzeloğlu the opportunity to further her argument with evidence that she is indeed facing off against people with a bigoted mentality.

What is even more interesting is the fact that in her comments, Ms Güzeloğlu calls upon all Turkish Cypriots to unite and expel the "invading bigots" from their society. Her statement has been interpreted by some to be representative of general public opinion among Turkish Cypriots towards mainland Turkish migrants, as well as furthering a stereotypical image portrayed in Turkey of Turkish Cypriots being Islamophobic, Turcophobic and generally "ungrateful" for being saved from persecution in 1974.
In reality, however, the situation on the ground is much more complex. Turkish Cypriots have traditionally been part of a tight-knit conservative society. They continued to insist on a more religious-based Ottoman identity up to around two decades after the staunchly secular nationalist Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Interference by the occupying British authorities in the administration of their community also led to a decline in religious learning during this period. By the 1940s, the Turkish Cypriots were no longer able to resist the spread of Kemalist ideology from Turkey. In the build-up to the British pulling out of Cyprus, ending 82 years of colonialism in 1960, Turkish Cypriots developed a firmly secular nationalistic identity to secure Turkey's backing, as they feared becoming an unprotected minority in a predominantly Greek island.
Nonetheless, religious education remained an important part of the Turkish Cypriot school curriculum, as maintaining a Muslim identity was seen as an essential part of being a Turkish patriot. Although the Turkish Cypriots overall became lax in their attitudes towards religious observance, they continued to uphold conservative values stemming from Islam. At very least, behaviours such as alcoholism, drug abuse, adultery and gambling were brushed aside as social taboos.

However, following the 1974 intervention and the establishment of the KKTC in 1983, the desperately weak economy sought a boost from casinos, turning the country into another Las Vegas. As well as the increase of gambling, the opening of brothels (disguised as night clubs) have consequently brought with them not only prostitution, but also drugs and all other forms of moral decay and corruption associated with them. Despite their input into the economy and the tourism sector, these factors have been detrimental to the traditional conservative values of the Turkish Cypriots.

Ironically, these casinos and night clubs were set up by businessmen from Turkey and predominantly serve tourists from the mainland. Also, within the framework of Turkey's secular system which was officially enforced on the Turkish Cypriots after the 1974 intervention, local religious congregations were banned from the mosques. Instead, mosques were assigned state-registered imams, most of whom came from Turkey and were not familiar with the culture and customs of the local people. Turkey's policies during this period only led to a further decline of Turkish Cypriots' affiliation with religion.

As secular as Turkish Cypriots were, as a vulnerable minority on a Greek-dominated island, religion played a major role in securing their Turkish identity. As these values degraded, however, so did their sense of affiliation with Turkey. Sensing this, Turkey sought to revive pro-Turkey sentiment in the KKTC by facilitating migrants from the mainland to settle in the country. The KKTC was a rural country with a relatively educated upcoming generation of youth who were gradually leaving for the UK and Australia due to a lack of suitable work on the island. Migration to the KKTC, which had plenty of land up for grabs - including land acquired from the Greek Cypriots after the intervention - was a golden opportunity for unskilled workers from Turkey.

Naturally, a large proportion of these migrants came from the Hatay province. People from Hatay, who had voted to split from Syria and join Turkey in a 1939 referendum, were sent to the KKTC to fill the void in the newborn state's primary industry. By granting the migrants KKTC citizenship, perhaps Turkey was hoping that over time Turkish Cypriots and mainland migrants would merge into one in order to eventually apply the Hatay annexation model once again. The only problem is, the culture, way of life, educational standard and sometimes even the first language of the migrants were significantly distinct from that of the Turkish Cypriots.

Along with these factors, there were also a number of differences in the understanding and application of religion. Although there is nothing to suggest that the migrants are more religious than the Turkish Cypriots, outward displays of religious identity generally became associated with the foreign, uneducated class of society, which unlike Turkish Cypriots had not culturally adapted to secular Kemalist reforms. In contrast, Turkish Cypriots began to pride themselves as being "enlightened" due to their adopting of Kemalist values - hence Ms Güzeloğlu's use of the term.

However, there is still an overlooked religious segment of the Turkish Cypriot community which amid this ongoing debate is undergoing a silent revival. Often ignored by both mainstream Turkish Cypriot society and Turkey, the polarisation of this debate into a Turkish Cypriot vs. Turkish mainlander issue is gradually forcing this group to emerge from the shadows and become more open about their religious identity. The establishment of the Sovereignty Movement by political advisor and academic Emete Gözügüzelli has worked to counter moves by the left-leaning KTÖS teachers union to close down an Islamic Theology faculty in the capital Lefkoşa.

Likewise, in response to Ms Güzeloğlu's campaign, a vast number of Turkish Cypriots have backed a counter campaign launched by Cyprus Social Media Initiative head Ibrahim Davran, which attracted over 2,000 supporters within its first three days - a staggering sum for an island population. However, Mr Davran made it clear that he is not only running a counter campaign against Ms Güzeloğlu, but he is in fact working to remove the false notion that Islamophobia is rife within the KKTC.

Doubting that Ms Güzeloğlu's campaign would attract more than 1% of the population's support, Mr Davran explained: "Our real aim is to show both Turkish and world media - which often broadcasts an incorrect image - that the people of the KKTC are indeed bound to their religion, as well as to demonstrate that despite constantly being presented in a negative light, good works are also underway in Cyprus."

Expressing his wish to see more balanced news coverage of the KKTC in the media, Mr Davran went on to deny that there is a social chasm between Turkish Cypriots and post-1974 migrants from Turkey, saying that there are individuals for and against religion in both groups. "However, there has never been any behaviour to suggest that this issue is heading to polarisation. Everyone is respectful towards each other and maintains their own way of life. This is one of the best things about the KKTC," he said.
Ms Güzeloğlu, who did not respond to questions posed to her regarding her campaign, has already reportedly sent letters to the Prime Minister's Office, Religious Affairs department and Parliament of Turkey detailing her complaint, and has threatened to raise the issue in the international arena. However, it seems highly unlikely that she will generate enough support to launch an effective campaign.

Nonetheless, dismissing her concerns completely would only provoke more frustration. Although the language and approach she has used to voice her criticisms has no doubt been controversial and unsuitable for someone of her profession and experience, branding her and her supporters as heretics simply for testing the boundaries of Islamic sanctity would not bring about any solutions.

Not every remote town and village is buzzing with the deafening noise typical of big cities. Perhaps residents of small towns and villages have a legitimate right to complain about the volume of the megaphones. After all, the call to prayer is fundamentally an invitation, and therefore all factors must be considered to make it inviting, including the voice of the caller and volume with which it is transmitted. In this case, it has clearly achieved the opposite effect, so instead of labelling those who complain as "enemies of religion" by that virtue alone, it may be advisable to reconsider some of these factors.

It is also important to note that bigotry cannot be limited to one race or class of people. Bigotry is a characteristic that can be found in all walks of life. This can only be overcome with communication and understanding, which seems to be lacking on all sides in this debate. This lack of dialogue has led to huge misunderstandings not only within the KKTC population, but also in mainland Turkish media.
The media needs to stop feeding its audience a story based on an imaginary black-and-white clash between religious migrants from Turkey and non-religious Turkish Cypriots. Instead, they should fulfil their responsibility in presenting more balanced coverage of such debates in the KKTC and promoting a more realistic image of the country and its people.

Moreover, the more outspoken segments of the Turkish Cypriot and Turkish mainlander communities in the KKTC should drop the false notion that they are representative of their entire group. Likewise, those who find themselves sidelined by their communities and the media, such as the pro-religious Turkish Cypriots, need to make their voices heard in order to bring balance to the debate and steer it away from the path of polarisation.


Last Mod: 08 Kasım 2014, 16:51
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