Turk­ish Cypri­ots split over the rise of Is­lam

Kuwait Times - - International -

NI­COSIA: At over 60 me­ters high, the four black-coned minarets of the nearly com­pleted Hala Sul­tan mosque tower over the plain of Me­sao­ria in the north­ern, Turk­ish Cypriot part of eth­ni­cally di­vided Cyprus. The im­pos­ing, Turk­ish-funded struc­ture that’s be­lieved to be the largest mosque on the east Mediter­ranean is­land will hold as many as 3,000 wor­ship­pers be­neath its mas­sive domes. It’s named af­ter Umm Haram, who le­gend says was a rel­a­tive of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and who died in Cyprus af­ter fall­ing off her mule dur­ing a 7th-century Mus­lim mil­i­tary cam­paign.

But the con­struc­tion of the huge mosque has be­come em­blem­atic of fears held by some Turk­ish Cypri­ots that a resur­gence of the Is­lamic faith is a di­rect as­sault on their long-held sec­u­lar way of life, and a means by which Turkey can fur­ther ex­pand and en­trench its con­trol over all facets of their 270,000-strong com­mu­nity. Reli­gious lead­ers and ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties in the north counter such talk as base­less fear-mon­ger­ing among a rad­i­cally sec­u­lar few. They in­sist what’s hap­pen­ing is the restora­tion of Is­lam at the core of Turk­ish Cypri­ots’ col­lec­tive iden­tity, as it was for cen­turies.

Leftist Turk­ish Cypri­ots have long be­moaned Turkey’s high-handed ways with Turk­ish Cypri­ots, es­pe­cially af­ter the is­land was split in 1974 when Turkey in­vaded in the wake of a coup by sup­port­ers of union with Greece. But the is­sue has again come to the fore af­ter a promis­ing round of talks with the ma­jor­ity Greek Cypri­ots to reach a re­uni­fi­ca­tion deal failed in the sum­mer. Only Turkey rec­og­nizes a Turk­ish Cypriot dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence. It keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.

Apart from pro­ject­ing the im­age as the pro­tec­tor of Turk­ish-speak­ing peo­ples, Turkey feels that it’s earned the right to play an out­sized role in Turk­ish Cypriot af­fairs be­cause it bankrolls the north to the tune of over 250 mil­lion eu­ros ($290 mil­lion) an­nu­ally. “Turkey fol­lows the pol­icy of ‘I fi­nance, you obey,’” says Ce­mal Ozyigit, the leader of the small, left-wing Com­mu­nal Democ­racy Party. Ozyigit and Sener El­cil, the head of the 1,600-strong pri­mary school teach­ers’ union KTOS, have been among the most vo­cal crit­ics of Turkey’s per­va­sive and ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence in the north. Both men say that in the past, hard na­tion­al­ism and mil­i­tarism were the tra­di­tional mech­a­nisms of con­trol. Now, they’ve been aug­mented with re­li­gion.

“With the reli­gious, Is­lamic gov­ern­ment in Turkey, the Is­lamic iden­tity of Turk­ish Cypri­ots has been ques­tioned for the last decade or more,” says Ozyigit. “‘Are they Mus­lim enough? They don’t prac­tice, they don’t fast.’ And now they’re try­ing to push this change on us.” El­cil says that Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan is us­ing Is­lam to con­sol­i­date his po­lit­i­cal con­trol over the north, as he has done in his own coun­try over 14 years of rule. He says as many as 400 Imams have been dis­patched “act­ing like mis­sion­ar­ies” to ser­vice mosques and give lessons on the teach­ings of the Qu­ran, Is­lam’s holy book.

“We’re in dan­ger now as a com­mu­nity be­cause we’re un­der bom­bard­ment of (the) Sunni faith,” El­cil says, adding that Imams are di­rect­ing their mes­sages to young peo­ple and es­pe­cially chil­dren of main­land Turks who set­tled in the north. “Later on, they’re go­ing to use these peo­ple as po­lit­i­cal sup­port­ers of their ac­tions,” says El­cil. “If we’re go­ing like that, in 10 years ... re­li­gion will be a con­flict point in Cyprus also.” Ozyigit says the chil­dren of main­land Turks are be­ing tar­geted for reli­gious ed­u­ca­tion “to speed up the change” to­ward a stricter ad­her­ence to Is­lamic pre­cepts and code of con­duct, un­like many Turk­ish Cypri­ots whom he de­scribed as “softer Mus­lims” who con­sume al­co­hol - a prac­tice Is­lam for­bids.

“We have man­aged to re­sist this change to­ward an Is­lamic char­ac­ter but the ques­tion is how much longer can Turk­ish Cypriot so­ci­ety re­sist these changes be­ing forced upon it?” El­cil and Ozyigit say the Turk­ish Cypriot ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has long safe­guarded the com­mu­nity’s sec­u­lar iden­tity. But re­cent moves by Turk­ish Cypriot au­thor­i­ties have given more weightto reli­gious in­struc­tion in­side and out­side of schools, in­clud­ing the found­ing of the north’s first the­ol­ogy school four years ago.

Turk­ish Cypriot Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Ozdemir Berova says his min­istry is act­ing to meet a de­mand from par­ents for reli­gious ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren. He down­plays crit­i­cism as an ex­ag­ger­a­tion grounded in a leftist ide­ol­ogy that teach­ers trade union lead­ers can’t see be­yond. “As a gov­ern­ment, we be­lieve that if a fam­ily wants their chil­dren to have a reli­gious ed­u­ca­tion, the best way is the ed­u­ca­tion that we give them which is un­der su­per­vi­sion,” Berova says. “We can in­spect and we can con­trol reli­gious stud­ies they’re re­ceiv­ing now.”

It’s that de­sire for reli­gious ed­u­ca­tion among many Turk­ish Cypri­ots that the leader of the north’s reli­gious af­fairs, Grand Mufti Talip Ata­lay, says sig­nals the com­mu­nity’s re­align­ment with its true Is­lamic char­ac­ter that was side­tracked by Turkey’s in­ter­nal politics some 60 years ago. Ata­lay says the his­tor­i­cal record of­fers proof of Turk­ish Cypri­ots’ strong em­brace of the Is­lamic faith. He says in 1949, there were 300 mosques op­er­at­ing all over Cyprus - 100 more than now, to ser­vice five times as many faith­ful. “What is hap­ping here in our coun­try is not Is­lamiza­tion at all,” says Ata­lay. “It is nor­mal­iza­tion. For many decades, these rights have been ne­glected or pre­vented from the peo­ple who are de­mand­ing it, and nowa­days we’re try­ing to bring it back to nor­mal.”

Ata­lay de­nies that the views of ex­pressed by El­cil and Ozyigit rep­re­sent those of the ma­jor­ity of Turk­ish Cypri­ots. He says “anti-reli­gious” ide­olo­gies that emerged from Turkey’s politics of the 1960s have en­gen­dered an un­war­ranted fear of Is­lam. He says these lead­ers have re­peat­edly spurned his calls to jointly de­velop a reli­gious ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum that is in line with the Turk­ish Cypriot way of life. “Un­for­tu­nately, they have such a fear of re­li­gion that they’re not pre­pared to lis­ten or to do any­thing pro­gres­sive. They’re com­pletely against it.”

Ata­lay in­sists Turk­ish Cypri­ots have their own gov­ern­ment and in­sti­tu­tions that can­not be con­trolled by Turkey. He also bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion that bol­ster­ing the Is­lamic faith in the north will fo­ment more dis­cord and con­flict with Or­tho­dox Chris­tian Greek Cypri­ots, in­sist­ing the his­tor­i­cal record doesn’t bear this out. — AP

Photo shows the four minarets dur­ing con­struc­tion works at the Hala Sul­tan mosque out­side of the di­vided cap­i­tal Ni­cosia, in the Turk­ish oc­cu­pied north­ern part of the Is­land of Cyprus. — AP

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