Turkey: Turkey orders sermons on women's rights

The Chicago Tribune
Reforms preached in 70,000 mosques.
ISTANBUL -- Turkey's young governing party, with roots in political Islam, has confounded critics and some supporters alike by transforming the nation's 70,000 mosques into bully pulpits from which preachers advocate women's rights and other democratic reforms.
The government's Directorate of Religious Affairs, which dictates the all-important Friday sermons, has instructed the nation's imams to turn their spiritual guidance to the arena of human rights and ridding Turkey of unwanted vestiges of traditional society.

Rather than the calls to holy war that echo through mosques in some parts of the world, worshipers here are being told that "honor killings," in which men murder female relatives suspected of tarnishing the family name, are a sin as well as against the law.

Those attending services also are hearing about formerly taboo subjects, such as a need for equality of the sexes in the home and the workplace and women's reproductive rights.

Liberals pleased

The messages have pleased liberal Turks, many of whom had feared that the Justice and Development Party's sudden rise to power in November 2002 would herald a retreat to conservative religious policies because of the party's ties to Turkey's Islamic political wing.

But the sermons are only one of many signals that the government appears to have embraced secular democracy and rejected the orthodoxy of religious fundamentalism practiced by some of its conservative core of supporters.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent efforts to persuade Turkish Cypriots to approve a referendum to unify the divided island of Cyprus and his government's adoption of legal and constitutional reforms aimed at gaining membership in the European Union have won him and his party international praise.

But in this predominantly Muslim country, from which the Ottomans once ruled the Islamic world, the most significant change might just be the simple idea of using Friday prayers to emphasize the rights of women.

The architect of the transformation is Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, which regulates religious practices in Turkey.

A former academic with a mild manner, Bardakoglu has taken the unusual step of consulting numerous women's groups and physicians as part of an effort to craft sermons addressing women's issues.

"To have the head of the Religious Affairs Ministry seeing women's rights as important may in itself bring about change," said Yakin Erturk, the new UN Human Rights Commission's representative on violence against women. "He can reach people the human-rights advocates often cannot--the 15 million men in Turkey who attend services every Friday."

Sermons called `revolutionary'

Halime Guner, a member of Flying Broom, one of the women's groups consulted, described the new sermons as "revolutionary."

Bardakoglu said the country's religious practices must parallel the modernization under way in other sectors of Turkish society. Part of that transformation, he said, involves using the influences of imams to point out that abuses of human rights, particularly women's rights, do not originate in Islam.

"In modern Middle Eastern society, when you say `women's rights,' not everyone or every country has the same understanding of the term," he said. "Not only in Turkey but also throughout the Islamic world, we are trying to help these issues be better understood."

Bardakoglu said the government would prefer that the imams write their own sermons, but he s aid the majority of the preachers could not deliver the right message because they lack the proper training and resources.

As a result, a committee of 16 religious scholars affiliated with his agency prepares the sermons for the Friday services, and the messages are dispatched across the country. The imams, who are civil servants, risk losing their jobs if they do not deliver the sermons, though they are free to make their own comments afterward.

Eventually, Bardakoglu said, he hopes a majority of imams will be allowed to craft their own sermons, reflecting the simultaneous progress of religion and democracy in Turkey.

Not everyone is pleased with the process. Some conservative preachers bristle at the control exercised from Ankara, the nation's capital, angered as much by the meddling in religious affairs as the messages.

"In a secular state, which Turkey is supposed to be, this is not right," said Abdullah Sez er, imam at a mosque in Istanbul's conservative Fatih neighborhood. "But we do not have religious freedom in this country, the way they have it in the United States."

But a younger imam, who asked that his name not be used, said the government plays an important role.

"As a citizen and as a Muslim, I think government control is helpful," he said. "Without it, some mosques could go out of control."

The government-dictated sermons would seem to violate the strict secular tenets on which modern Turkey was founded in 1923. But the definition of secular here differs slightly from the American practice of separating church and state by tolerating all religions equally. In Turkey, as in France, there is a stricter understanding of secularism, which results in a ban on wearing head scarves in schools or beginning a parliamentary session with a prayer.

Imams resistant

In an attempt to eradicate religion from government , the staunchly secular Turkish military in 1996 ousted a prime minister it considered too Islamic, and the state established control over the mosques. Through the Religious Affairs Directorate, the state pays the salaries of the imams and regulates how religious schools are run.

Bardakoglu acknowledged, however, that getting the imams not only to deliver the sermons but also to embrace their sentiments will take time.

"It is a challenge for the imams that people close their ears to such things," he said. "The resistance is normal, though. It shows that change has begun."

An area where change cannot come fast enough for most Turks is honor killings. There is no reliable record of the numbers of victims annually, but it is thought that relatives kill dozens of Turkish women every year for supposedly besmirching the family honor.

The problem was dramatized in late February when two brothers shot their 22-year-old sister to death as she lay in a hospital bed in Istanbul. She had given birth to a child out of wedlock a few months earlier and was recovering from an earlier attempt on her life.

The Religious Affairs Directorate reacted immediately, bumping another sermon off the schedule. Bardakoglu issued a statement saying that honor killings are only one of the many problems faced by women around the world.

"These problems do not arise from a religious source," he said at the time. "These problems are caused by social, cultural and economic reasons. ... The fact that 14 centuries after the Koran was revealed to us women still face discrimination is saddening and thought-provoking."

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

By Catherine Collins

The Chicago Tribune

Originally published on 9 May 2004