Turkey: Theologians take conservative Turkish clothing designer to court

Two liberal theologians have taken Turkey’s most famous Islamic clothes designer to court, alleging the couturier is exploiting religion for personal profit. The case is highlighting the growing tension between Islam and the country’s market economy.
Dubbed "Allah’s tailor" by the press, Mustafa Karaduman long ago earned the odium of Turkish secularists for his successful mass-marketing of the brightly-colored headscarves and ankle-length coats that have become a trademark of conservative urban women.
But what angered the two Turkish theologians -- Ilhami Guler and Suleyman Bayraktar -- was the name of the company that Karaduman established in the 1980s. "Tekbir" refers to the core statement of Muslim belief -- "there is no God but God."

"Jesus was upset by the sight of the money-lenders in the Temple, and I’m upset by the thought of a new generation of Muslims for whom Tekbir means expensive headscarves," Guler says.

He would have opened the case much earlier, he adds, but it was only recently that lawyer friends told him about a law forbidding the commercial use of names "imbued by society with a moral value."

"Requests to use Mevlana as a brand name are always turned down, for instance," Guler’s lawyer Yakup Erikel points out, referring to Turkey’s most famous Sufi Muslim saint.

A court decision requiring Tekbir to change its name could trigger a host of other cases against countless other Turkish companies with religious names -- from Sharia Swimsuits via Medina Travel to Jihad Meat Balls.

Tekbir’s Karaduman has long been vilified by religious conservatives in Turkey, who argue that the fashion displays of headscarf-wearing models he pioneered in the 1990s are un-Islamic. But Ilhami Guler says it was the heavily publicized mid-April release of Tekbir’s 2008 summer collection that drove him to take action.

With white-robed dervishes whirling in the background, models -- none of whom wear a veil in real life -- strutted up and down to the sound of mournful Sufi pipes. At one point, they dropped to their knees and raised their hands, as though asking God for forgiveness.

Guler wasn’t the only one appalled by the display. For Ahmet Hakan -- a former Muslim radical turned liberal who writes a popular column in Hurriyet, Turkey’s most influential newspaper -- it was symbolic of the hypocrisy of the new religious-minded high society that has risen with the former Islamist AKP government. "Look at these bigots puffed up with pride because they’ve got the cash to make even Turkey’s most famous faces look as though they’ve found religion," he wrote.

In the conservative press, too, news of the court case has generally been greeted positively. But not all pious Turks approve of Guler’s action. A headscarf-wearing PhD student in Istanbul, Hilal Kaplan thinks the mentality behind the Tekbir trial is uncomfortably close to the closure case a senior prosecutor opened against the AKP government this March for anti-secular activities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"One is unhappy about the mixing of religion and trade, the other about the mixing of religion and politics," she says. "What we need is debate, not bans."

While Mustafa Karaduman declined to comment about the case, his belief in Islamic fashion appears unshaken. Interviewed recently by a conservative Turkish news agency, he boasted that even the Iranian government had asked for his help in modernizing Islamic clothing.

If anything, the threat to Tekbir’s domination of the conservative fashion market comes from Karaduman’s public admission late in April that he had three wives. Accepted under Islamic law, polygamy has officially been banned in Turkey for 80 years. Karaduman’s confession sparked outrage, not least among conservative women.

"I used sometimes to shop in that gentleman’s store," says Hidayet Tuksal, a prominent religious feminist. "I will never do so again."

She doesn’t think she’s the only one taking a stand either. "The Tekbir shop near my house used to be packed. Every time I’ve walked past it since April, it’s been nearly empty."

By: Nicloas Birch

3 June 2008