Covering the international students can be tricky. The article featuring Esra Erdogan (“Hopes for Home,” May 5), the daughter of the current Turkish prime minister, the leader of the Islamic AKP (Party of Justice and Development), is a case in point.
Ms. Erdogan expresses her struggle with rules of previous secular Turkish governments regarding her head scarf. She has a very valid point when she tells us how frustrated she was when she couldn’t go to a mandatory national security class because of the ban against the scarf. No one should be denied an education because of their beliefs.
However, the problem is not in what Ms. Erdogan is saying, it is in what she is not saying. For someone who is yearning for religious freedom, she fails to mention that religious instruction is also a mandatory in public high schools and that other students, Christian, Jewish, atheist and secular alike, suffer because they are forced to recite prayers from the Quran against their will.
There is also the state’s failure to include any information on Shiite beliefs in classes which reflect Sunni Muslim doctrines. When, in 1994, thousands of believers waited night and day at the Holy Shiite tomb in Istanbul to prevent it from being demolished by the city government, Mr. Erdogan was the mayor of the city.
Ms. Erdogan also mentions that her father was in jail for reciting a poem in 1997, which I believe constitutes a very sad episode in Turkish political history. Mr. Tayyip Erdogan recited four lines from a poem by Ziya Gokalp, one of Turkey’s best known poets; “Minarets are our bayonets, mosques are our barracks, domes are our helmets, believers are our soldiers.” The poem was written for the Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan who defeated the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV in 1071. In his defense testimony, Mr. Erdogan argued that “as long as the West sees the Muslims as a potential threat, this and answers like these should be given.”
I believe in freedom of speech. Reciting a poem is certainly not a crime. However, Mr. Erdogan’s choice of poem tells us something about how he perceived the relationship between the East and West in 1997. Ms. Erdogan criticizes Milliyet and Hurriyet, two liberal Turkish newspapers, for targeting her family in their coverage.
I am reminded of the Akit, a newspaper with religious orientation, which made Professor Ahmet Taner Kislali an open target by printing his picture with a black cross on it. Kislali, a political science professor and former culture minister, was known for challenging radical Islam in Turkey through his column in Cumhuriyet. Kislali has since been killed in a bomb attack. The Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front claimed responsibility.
Ms. Erdogan’s story is not simply personal. Unfortunately, these are some of the most sensitive political issues in Turkey with much baggage. Like her, I hope that once the concept of democracy is fully understood in Turkey, religious freedom will follow. The problem is that every political group in Turkey wants democracy and freedom, but only for themselves and those who think like them. The religious party in power seems to be no exception.
Yes, the freedom of choice regarding the head cover is an important issue, but not having to be sexually, morally and physically harassed because the length of your skirt doesn’t measure up to the standards of Islam, is also a valid one. I am afraid Ms. Erdogan’s story plays into the stereotype of oppressed Middle Eastern women under tyranny.
Giving voice to the oppressed is a noble pursuit indeed, but we should reflect the full spectrum of the problem, especially when we don’t know the culture in question well enough. Otherwise, the image of an oppressed covered girl comes to represent an entire culture.
Graduate student in Central Eurasian Studies
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