Islam taking root in Turkey's bureaucracy

Posted in Europe , Broader Middle East | 30-May-07 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

The gold bazaar neighborhood in Denizli, a Turkey city that has a liberal reputation, but is feeling an Islamic influence.

DENIZLI, Turkey: The little red prayer book was handed out in a public primary school here in western Turkey earlier this month. It was small enough to fit in a pocket, but it carried a big message: Pray in the Muslim way. Get others to pray, too.

"The message was clear to me," said a retired civil servant, whose 13-year-old son, a student at the Yesilkoy Ibrahim Cengiz school, received the book. "This is not something that should be distributed in schools."

This leafy, liberal city would seem like one of the least likely places to allow Islam to permeate public life. But for some residents, the book is part of a subtle shift toward increasingly public religiosity that has gone hand-in-hand with the ascent of the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The phenomenon is complex: The party has not ordered changes, but sets examples through a growing network of observant teachers and public servants who have been hired since it came to power in 2002.

The shift goes to the heart of the question that has gripped this country for the past two months: As the party settles more deeply into the bureaucracy, will it bring Islam with it? Or will it keep its roots in the past, and leave the public sphere as nonreligious as before?

The answer is as complex as Turkey itself. In more-religious Turkish cities, the party has had a moderating influence, persuading deeply conservative residents to support the European Union. But here in Denizli, a city situated closer to Greece than Iran, which never voted for pro-Islamic parties before Erdogan's, the party's new recruits seem to be laying the groundwork for a more pious society.

The mayor, Nihat Zeybekci, a charismatic businessman and a member of Erdogan's party, strongly disputes claims that the party has limited freedoms. Alcohol is still sold near mosques. His party has women in local government. The opposition parties do not.

"I get offended when a lady says to me, 'When you have absolute control, will I still be able to swim at the beach?' " he said. "It's like asking if I'm a thief."

But secular residents say that they see changes, and that they are the inevitable outcome of several decades of economic transformation. "In a very quiet, deep way, you can sense an Islamization," said Bedrettin Usanmaz, a jewelry shop owner in Denizli. "They're not after rapid change. They're investing for 50 years ahead."

At the heart of the issue is a debate about the fundamental nature of Islam and its role in the building of an equitable society. Turks like Zeybekci argue that their country has come a long way since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular revolution in 1923, and that it no longer needs to enforce controls such as of women wearing head scarves.

"It's like locking everybody in a stadium, when you know that only three are thieves," Zeybekci said in his office, hung with pictures of Erdogan and Ataturk.

But secular Turks argue that Islam will always seek more space in people's lives, and therefore should be reined in. They look to the military as secularism's final defender.

"Islam is not like other religions," said Kadim Yildirim, a history teacher in Denizli from an opposition labor union. "It influences every part of your life, even your bedroom."

Yildirim is part of a number of concerned teachers who say that the new teachers hired in recent years, often from conservative backgrounds, are adding up to a change in the education system.

Last month, the Education Ministry relaxed requirements for appointing new school principals. It was later annulled, but in the brief period it was in effect approximately 4,500 people in 40 cities across Turkey were appointed as principals and deputy principals, two-thirds of whom were affiliated with Erdogan's party, according to an analysis by Egitim-Sen, an opposition education labor union.

According to a report to Parliament by the education minister, 836 people from the government's Religious Affairs Directorate have been transferred to the ministry's offices during Erdogan's tenure. That has also led to lifestyle changes in the bureaucracy: In Denizli, during the month of fasting in Ramadan, the lunchroom in the Ministry of Education no longer serves food, in an assumption that all workers are religious, employees said.

Staff changes are a common feature of any change in government administration. But in Denizli, as in other more secular Turkish cities, the shift is potentially society-changing. Most of the new workers are from an entirely different social class, having come to the city from the surrounding towns and villages to work in new textile mills that started in the 1980s. In 40 years, the population of Denizli has grown ten-fold, according to Zeybekci.

"They are coming to power, and it scares the hell out of the established elite," said Baskin Oran, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. The two groups "have nothing in common," he said. "Try to find a similarity."

The mixing has caused friction, which, in Denizli, burst painfully into view last month, when the Turkish military, the backbone of the secular elite, publicly warned the local government that it had strayed too far from secularism. Its sins? Organizing an Islamic singing performance of schoolgirls in full head scarves and a running women's religious study group in a public school in a village south of Denizli, called Nikfer.

For Zeybekci, the transgressions were so minor that the rebuke had to have been about power, not religion. The military was simply trying to remain relevant, he said.

"They are very aware of what kind of power they are going to lose," he said.

But power has already changed substantially under Erdogan's party, despite attempts by the secular establishment to stop it. Government candidates that were vetoed by the president have continued in the prospective positions as "substitutes," including the head of the public television and radio, the Education Ministry director in the city of Izmir, and the director of research and training at the Ministry of Culture. In the Education Ministry alone, 536 are working without approval, according to the minister.

In Nikfer, the school principal who allowed the religious study group was a religion teacher. He has since been transferred to another town, a punishment that Asiye Sozeri, a 33-year-old housewife there, regrets: Her teenage daughter no longer has a religion tutor.

Koran classes in Nikfer have proliferated in recent years, Sozeri said, but far from being politics-related, the reason can be found in the deteriorating state of farming.

As villagers migrated to Denizli to work they tried to put their children in its schools, which were far better than rural ones. Many could not afford apartments, and as a result, the student hostel became a central feature of city life. Often supported by donations from religious groups, the hostels were places where poor students lived and studied, but had religious undertones: Chaperones, often devout college-age Turks, were the role models.

"Education is where the religious communities concentrate their efforts," said Gulay Keysan, a 31-year-old English teacher in Denizli. In a school in the city's Karaman district, where she taught several years ago, a quarter of her students lived in hostels.

Perhaps the most sensitive point for teachers like Yildirim are the changes they say are occurring in textbooks. Changes were already under way, part of an upgrade needed to join the European Union, but some officials say that as the nationalism is taken out, a new conservatism is being put in.

One of the country's primary eighth-grade science books, for example, "Science Knowledge," has lost its detailed description of Darwin's theory of natural selection, and gained a reference to a theory that holds that living beings did not evolve but came into being exactly as they are today, attributed to several ancient Asian scholars. The reference was not there before, nor was the word Islamic to describe them.

All education material, once vetted centrally, is now checked in a far looser fashion, according to one senior Ministry of Education official in Ankara, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was afraid for his job. A point system to rate textbooks has been loosened. The red prayer book, illustrated with pictures of small children praying, would probably not have been distributed in past years.

It is still unclear where today's changes will lead the country. Oran argues that although the ideology of Erdogan and his allies "is inevitably Islam," they are workers and tradesman who are ultimately motivated by profit. "They are very rapidly becoming bourgeois," he said.

"There must be a distinction between those who give the public service and those who receive it," he said. "The first cannot wear head scarves. But the second can go as they want."

Yildirim draws hope from a recent exchange among his students he overheard. One posed a dilemma: If you were rowing a boat with only one extra seat and passed by a deserted island with the Prophet Muhammad and Ataturk, whom would you save? Another answered: "Ataturk is resourceful. He can save himself. Take Muhammad."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Denizli and Istanbul.