Meeting Halfway

Turkish protesters holding a Turkish flag demonstrate on the main city square, Kizilay, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 3, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN) Turkish protesters holding a Turkish flag demonstrate on the main city square, Kizilay, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 3, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN)

Turkish protesters holding a Turkish flag demonstrate on the main city square, Kizilay, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 3, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN)

One of the initial reactions of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Gezi Park protests was to portray the protesters as secularists who had no respect for Islam. He insisted that demonstrators in Istanbul had consumed alcohol inside the Dolmabahçe mosque. Fleeing pepper gas, several protesters had indeed taken refuge in the mosque, but no evidence was found to support the claim that alcohol was consumed inside the holy place.

In fact, the protestors who first took to the streets to object the demolition of Gezi Park were extremely careful in showing their respect for the pious. In particular, the active role played by the group known as the “Anti-Capitalist Muslims” during the Gezi demonstrations struck a serious blow to Erdoğan’s efforts to vilify the protesters.

During the protests, when the Anti-Capitalist Muslims started to pray, a human chain was formed around them to protect against disturbance from the crowds. The Gezi Park protests witnessed many such examples of religious–secular collaboration.

The ninth day of demonstrations coincided with the Lailat Al–Miraj, known as Miraç Kandili in Turkish—the Muslim commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem, his ascension, and the revelation of the ritual five prayers. Protesters decided to mark this religious event with several activities. Volunteers distributed kandil simidi, a Turkish bagel that is prepared specially for Miraç Kandili. Social media campaigns also declared the park a no-alcohol zone for the night.

“We did not ask for it. All this was initiated by the Gezi protestors themselves,” said İhsan Eliaçık, an Islamic theologian who is the public face of the Anti–Capitalist Muslims.

“Prior to Gezi, the understanding [of secularists] on religion was ‘we don’t approve of it but we respect it.’ Now it is one step further, there is also interest,” added Eliaçık. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has an authoritarian interpretation of Islam according to Eliaçık, who believes the Gezi youth are looking for a new approach to religion.

As the prime minister continued to underline the much touted religious–secular divide, some of the protesters took great pains to build bridges with the more conservative segments of society. This effort was certainly evident at one of the forums held after demonstrators were forced out of Gezi Park by the police.

The forum, held in a park located in the Etiler district, one of Islanbul’s chic neighborhoods, witnessed a heated debate over the headscarf issue. “Look at the forum. There is not one single person with a headscarf among us. We need to be in dialogue with them,” said one of the participants.

The headscarf issue has long been one of the most significant concerns pitting conservatives against secularists. However, the presence of women covering their heads in public spaces used to be a red line for many secularists; this is no longer the case.

“We don’t have so much of a problem with the youngsters. It is the ‘aunties’ who give us these denigrating looks,” said one young woman who has decided to cover her hair despite her family’s objections.

The month of Ramadan has also witnessed another push towards bridging the gap between secular and religious youth. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, has become a new meeting point for Turkey’s diverse youth.

In contrast to the luxurious iftar dinners organized by the ruling party members in five-star hotels, Anti–Capitalist Muslims have called for “ground iftars,” where people started sharing their food on paper laid out on the streets.

“It was such a humble initiative that even I, as a non-practicing Muslim, thought of fasting for the first time in my life and joined them in the fast breaking dinner,” a law scholar, İdil Elveriş, told me.

“Turkey’s modernization experience ventured to replace an Islamic habitus with a secular and Western one,” wrote sociologist Nilüfer Göle. The Islamic habitus has not been indifferent to modernity in Turkey; it has also transformed, according to Göle: “Today, the modern habitus does not particularly point to a European lifestyle alone. Turkey’s cultural codes are increasingly becoming hybridized and localized. The ground iftar meals point to a brand-new phase. They demonstrate the coexistence of the secular Muslim and the pious Muslim, especially the desire of the former to learn from the latter.”

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