Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hakan Şükür & 'Thepobia'

I have been told that there are three driving forces in Turkey: Islam, the legacy of Atatürk as the great founder of the Turkish state, and football. While no doubt an over-simplication, a controversy embroiled around remarks made by Galatasary super-star Hakan Şükür is an arguments about balancing the amalgamation of all three.

Having lived here for more than three months now, I can testify to the fact that Turks take football very seriously. One of the first questions I am frequently asked after it is established that I am from Texas and, yes, enjoy Turkish food, is to what football team I support. I can also testify to the fact that after big football games there is almost always a raucous that follows in the streets involving cars proudly waving Turkish flags alongside those of the football team of which they are devoted fans, car horns galore, and every once in awhile, an occasional fight that breaks out. The match between Galatasaray and their rival Fenerbahçe promised raucous galor and is the context of Şükür's remarks.

So, what exactly did Şükür say to warrant all of the media attention? The footballer claimed that the raucous be kept to a minimum because the game would take place during the week of the Prophet's birth. This deeply angered the secularist establishment who were not delighted to have football combined with religious commentary. With the press enraptured in the controversy, what has emerged is a discourse on secularism. Mustafa Akyol comments on that discourse in his column's contribution to today's Turkish Daily News.

One of the interesting and tell-tale controversies of the past week was the fuss over the recent remarks of Hakan Şükür, Turkey’s famous football star and a pious Muslim. In an interview with daily Zaman, he warned the supporters of his team, Galatasaray, and the other big one, Fenerbahçe, about the impending match between the two. In Turkey, football matches, especially such key derbies, often turn into orgies of violence. But that is very much against the morals of Islam, Şükür noted. And, he added, it would be especially bad to swear and attack fellow human beings during the “week of the holy birth,” that of Prophet Muhammad, in which this match will be played. He reportedly said:

“We are in the week of the holy birth, and we should be worthy of it. We should, in fact, raise our youth and children in the spirit of the tolerance of our Prophet… The fans (of Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray) should come to the stadium with not knives but roses.”

Hakan Şükür’s Blasphemy

Thus saith the football star, and all hell broke loose... Secularist media put his remarks in the headlines and presented it as “anti-secular propaganda.” Daily Vatan wrote critically about how Şükür “tries to insert religion into football.” In daily Milliyet, sports columnist Ercan Güven made the following comment:

“If this country faces much bigger troubles one day, if brothers become the enemy of brothers, if the regime tumbles and the nation falls, make sure that Hakan Şükür will have lots to do with all this.”

Like-minded people on Şükür’s team, Galatasaray, were also outraged. Former presidential candidate of the club, Adnan Öztürk wrote a letter to the current president, Adnan Polat, in order to denounce Şükür. “Our club has always been a symbol of secularism and modernity, and such remarks do not match with our values,” he wrote. He also asked for “the necessary measures to be taken,” which implied that Şükür should be punished or even expelled from the team. Fatih Altayl, another of prominence in the ultra-secular Galatasaray universe, asked for an “investigation” into Hakan Şükür.

I think this whole episode nicely presents a fundamental problem in Turkey. Quite many people in this country, especially those who consider themselves to be the elite, suffer from a sort of neurosis that can aptly be called thephobia. That term refers to the irrational fear from, and disgust towards, anything that relates to God and religion. It is, as American writer Tony Snow puts it, “the absolute, frenetic, run-away-from-Godzilla panic that afflicts some people when they hear the ‘G’ word.” For them any reference to, or symbol of, religion is simply horrifying.

That is what lies beneath the bizarre notion of secularism that the Turkish Republic and its masters subscribe to. In the free world, secularism is a democratic principle that gives people the right to live according their beliefs or disbeliefs. In Turkey, it is the principle that is used to suppress religion, marginalize believers, and ridicule their practices. That is why Turkey’s self-styled secularism is often at war with democracy, and the Constitutional Court declares that “secularism will not be sacrificed to freedom.”

But why are so many Turks theophobes? Well, that is the way that the “education” system and the official ideology have indoctrinated them for decades. The average “white Turk” – the one who thinks he is Westernized – believes that religion must be forcefully pushed to the corners of society for us to be a “modern” nation. The die-hard Kemalists are, of course, the most devout believers in this dogma, but others, including even some “liberals,” have been influenced by it to a great extent. They can doubt the official ideology in matters relating to matters such as the Kurds question, but they very much they share its theophobia.

Revisiting Islamism

The way the term “Islamist” is used in this country, as I have noted in a previous column, is a manifestation of this trouble. In the free world, “Islamist” often refers to one who wants to impose Islam as a state ideology. But in Turkey, anybody who takes Islam seriously and speaks about it is labeled as an “Islamist.” Hakan Şükür, for example, is depicted as such these days because of this abovementioned remarks.

Which brings me to a recent piece by my fellow columnist Burak Bekdil. In his April 23 column titled “Who is an Islamist? Who isn't?” he apparently revisited my distinction between Islamists and Muslims. Among the several descriptions he offered for the former, there was this interesting line: “[An Islamist is]… someone who has a desire to see an increase in the number of observant Muslims.”

Mr. Bekdil can, of course, give any description he wants, but since he defines Islamism as a threat to democracy – which I would have agreed on another definition – we should be careful here. The fact is that, Muslims, of course, can “have a desire to see an increase in the number of observant Muslims.” They can even work hard to make that happen. That is just fine. Both Islam and Christianity are universalistic faiths, and their believers do have a wish to see the spread of their faith, which they see as the path to salvation.

The crucial point is whether they impose their faith, or simply propose it. The former is a threat to freedom, but the latter is entirely justified in a democratic system. Forced conversion is not acceptable, but missionary work is.

Indeed, in an open society, every creed has the right to publicize itself as much as it can. What the theophobes want to do is to deprive religion of this right. They want to make believers shut up so that they can’t mention God or Scripture in the public square.

Only One Idea…

Their psychology is driven by theophobia, to be sure, but they also use a seemingly rational argument. “If we allow a bit of religion,” they say, “how can we be sure that it won’t dominate the whole society?” Well, I can ask the same question for virtually every creed or philosophy. If we allow dialectical materialism to have a say in society, how can we be sure that we won’t soon have a communist revolution? If we allow nationalist ideas to flourish, I can similarly ask, how can we be sure that we will not turn into a fascist state?

Despite the convictions of theophobes, almost every point of view has extremes and carries the potential to go there if all other options are suppressed. "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea,” as Alain Chartier put it, “when you only have one idea." The threat to democracy, in other words, is not religion or some other idea. It is the lack of pluralism.

If you don’t believe me, just look at contemporary Turkey and see how the dominance of one idea, i.e., Kemalism, threatens the whole democratic system, religious freedoms, minority rights, the EU process, and the economy. While the theophobes are freaked out about religion and how it will deprive us from modernity, it is the very ideology fed by their paranoia that is doing that.

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