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Ramadan and the state

  • October 11th, 2007

I see that my government is to honour Islam with a Parliamentary celebration of the end of Ramadan.

I have been in Turkey for the past week. I love watching every evening’s buildup to breaking the Ramazan fast.

Restaurants and coffee shops are full (mostly of men ) Families spread picnics in parks and mosque grounds. The bread is broken, soup bowls filled, waterglasses in hand. The hawkers of delicacies do a roaring trade before and after the magic moment. It took us several evenings to realise that we were the only ones gobbling what we queued to buy. Everyone else was carrying it off wrapped to stay warm, to add to the picnic.

All are waiting for the muezzin’s sunset call . That is when a white thread can no longer be distinguished from a black thread according to my wife, who is working her way through the Koran.  The always startling blast of the amplified call from the minaret is the go signal to a long collective drink. Joyful eating seems to wait till the prayer is over.

 The following couple of hours are delighful. After eating kids wheel and dive. Teenagers parade in protective single sex groups, most of the girls scarved, and adults promenade in family pairs, or stand gossiping in the warm evening air. There is general bonhomie, with no antagonism toward the curious tourists even when they have broken the taboo by eating and drinking throughout the preparation.  A small child is encouraged by his burka-swathed mother to offer Cathy a biscuit.  

Yet here in Turkey Islam is the political problem. No nincompoop politician could do without malice what the ‘godless atheists’ who have usurped our Labour movement are now doing. That is to buy minority votes with apparent indifference to our conventions by offering a selective switch-off of the electric fences that guard the separation of church and state. They switched them off to hound the Exclusive Brethren. Now they switch them off again to show favour to a force that can be demonstably more malevolent in some of its manifestations.

Those who advocate such moves here in Turkey know exactly what they are doing. They seek to destroy separation of church and state, the compromise lines painted in blood on the nation’s floor, by Ataturk.

The ground is fertile. Yesterday’s newpapers report the Turkey results of a PEW survey conducted in 47 countries between 10 April and 8 May. 58% of Turks say they support the core democratic values (free speech, freedom of religion, honest elections etc).  But only 31% think democracy can work in Turkey. 24% think there should be restrictions on the employment of men and women in the same place. 55% think state and religion should not be kept separate and only 14% (down from 22% in 2002) think that homosexuality should be tolerated.

As has been reported so often before, the secular leadership of the army holds the line against the democratic majority’s wish to see more of an Islamic state.  With a mildly Islamic party in power the composition of the army will change. As I type this sitting at a table of an idyllic waterfront cafe army vehicles grind past. As from yesterday they are at their highest level of mobilisation. The government is responding to a clamour for warlike action against the Kurdish camps across the border in Iraq. We are a thousands of km away, but fighters screaming overhead, mostly unseen before they are gone, remind one of how little humans have changed since slaves built the awesome walls at which we’ve spent days gawping.

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