Not too long ago, when the military acted as the enforcer of a rigidly secular system, a politician in Turkey could be punished merely for reciting religious poetry. Now, with the military’s influence waning and moderate Islamists firmly in charge of the machinery of state, government agencies are trying to punish a cartoonist, Bahadir Baruter, for blasphemy.
A satirical cartoon by Baruter, published in the weekly humor magazine Penguen, depicted a man on his cell phone in a mosque speaking to God. “Is it possible to skip the last prayer? I’ve got a lot of things to do,” the man asks God in the cartoon. A message on the wall of the mosque proclaims that “There is no God. Religion is a lie.”
Outraged, Diyanet, Turkey’s official religious affairs directorate, in February filed a complaint against Baruter. Istanbul’s prosecutor decided in September to file criminal charges against the Ankara-born cartoonist for “disturbing the public peace.” He is being prosecuted under Article 216 of the Criminal Code. A trial date has not yet been set.
The case underscores the tremendous shift in the relationship between mosque and state that has taken place in Turkey over the past decade. A Turkish researcher on freedom of religion calls the prosecution “not surprising.” Article 216, which bans inciting disputes among different population groups based on religious differences or “denigrating” the religious beliefs of such groups, “has been used mostly to suppress criticism of Islam,” argued Mine Yildirim of Helsinki’s Åbo Akademi-Institute for Human Rights. Those convicted under Article 216 face prison terms from six months to three years.
Many Turks see the cartoon case as a reflection of the governing Justice and Development Party’s desire to lower the wall between mosque and state, said Yildirim. “Many people see a trend towards Islamization; not an Islamic state, but [an] Islamization of people and public life with reflections in politics,” Yildirim added.
A leading expert on political Islam in Turkey said it is too early to determine the significance of the case. “You can’t really tell the real effect of the government on this,” said the expert, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of Baruter’s case.
A spokesperson for Penguen magazine told EurasiaNet.org that Baruter was not speaking to the press about the case, adding that the publishing house could not comment. The Ministry of Justice did not respond to a request to interview the prosecutor involved in the case.
Amid a building debate over Islam in Turkey, Turkish public opinion appears sharply divided over the incident.
Some journalists and analysts are using the cartoon prosecution to express alarm over Diaynet’s increasing power. According to Yildirim, since the AKP came to power in 2002, the number of Diyanet employees has increased from 74,000 to 117,541. Its budget of 2.5 million liras (about $1.36 million) is more than that of some state ministries.
Others point out something that might seem obvious, but which is often overlooked in debating the role of religion in Turkey: the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, and more conservative than perhaps previously thought.
Human rights activist Tuba Nur Sönmez, a member of the Istanbul-based human rights organization Mazlumder, suggests that Turkey isn’t becoming more Islamic, religious Turks are simply becoming more visible. In July, Mazlumder held a demonstration against “Our Oath,” a sort of national pledge of allegiance that asserts Turkey’s secular identity. Mazlumder alleges that the pledge is not inclusive of all peoples in Turkey.
In the past, such a protest would have earned a harsh reaction from the government, but not any more. “It was not possible 20 years ago” to protest, Sönmez said. “We are trying to change that kind of oppressive state.”
A more liberal environment for public debate, tied to the European Union accession process, as well as increased access to education, have promoted opportunities for practicing Muslims to show their beliefs publicly, she argued. With this outspokenness comes greater public irritation with the tradition of depicting practicing Muslims as backwards, a negative influence on Turkish society. “The cartoon is a continuation of this mentality,” Sönmez commented. “It is freedom of speech, OK, but only as long as it’s not hurting” other people.
While the greater opportunity for public debate may first bring ordinary Turks to mind, organizations like Diyanet can be caught up in the change as well. Or the government, some secular Turks fear. A ban placed on outdoor tables and chairs in the lively Istanbul restaurant quarter of Beyoğlu, which coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, prompted many to fear that the AKP-run city government wanted the change for religious reasons.
In a bid to dispel such theories, Dr. Mustafa Çağrici, the mufti of Istanbul, has called for moving the discussion of Islam and cultural identity in Turkey away from conflict between the religious and the secular. In reality, he asserts, “[t]he black-and-white cultural picture is changing toward grey.”
With the possibility of a prison term now staring him in the face for asserting that religion is a sham, cartoonist Baruter might disagree. But activist Sönmez argues that religion does not necessarily mean resisting change. Traditions must be challenged, she says. With that, Baruter is likely to agree.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.