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Pope’s Trip at Risk as Turkey Becomes Less Secular

ICC Note:

The way Muslims have reacted to the Pope’s speech is cause to wonder whether genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims is possible. If Muslims cannot restrain themselves they will lose their credibility to the Western world, and to Christians everywhere.

by Mavi Zambak

AsiaNews (09/17/06) – Turkey ’s Christians are horrified by the reaction out of proportion to the Pope’s university speech. Increasingly, people are wondering whether this reaction was planned by local mass media to reignite an anti-Christian diatribe that never truly died in the last few months. Turkish Christians appeal to “moderate Muslims to have the courage to speak out and show, first of all, that Muslims have not lost their mind and are still capable to engage others in a rational dialogue without clashing and resorting to violence and threats like months ago over the Muhammad cartoons affair.”

The Pontiff: “arrogant” leader or sharp scholar?

For an important Turkish public figure, who chose to remain anonymous (which says a lot about the current situation), the Pope’s speech in Regensburg was no accident. Of all the thousands of quotes the Holy Father could choose why did he have to pick the one by Manuel II Manuel II Palaiologos on the links between Islam and violence?

Is the Pontiff “an ignorant and arrogant provocateur” as the Turkish press continues to characterise him today? Or is there something more? There are in fact some who think otherwise.

As a sharp scholar and theologian, it is not possible to think that the Holy Father did not take into account that his choice of quote would not provoke an uproar in a world like ours, in this very global village, where every little word, especially by a prominent leader, is scrutinised, its resonance amplified, its meaning extrapolated and distorted by the mass media.

For the aforementioned anonymous Turkish public figure, the Pope’s choice of quote was a deliberate litmus test ahead of his crucial trip to Turkey, the first Muslim (and secular) state he is scheduled (perhaps) to visit. And the Turkish government fell for it by siding with the defenders of the Islamist camp and its profound religious identity.

Turkey threw itself head first in the media war; Turkish politicians didn’t pull any punches. In so doing though they lost a golden opportunity to demonstrate that their country was “truly” committed to the separation of state and religion, to democracy and against ideological fanaticism and political radicalism.

First act in this play was the intervention by Turkey ’s minister of Religious Affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, who, as if he had any authority in the matter, called for the cancellation of the apostolic visit. Then Prime Minister Erdoğan slammed the Pope for his “ugly and inappropriate” words without looking into the overall meaning of the Pope’s speech and who failed to see that the Pope was calling for a dialogue between faith and reason against all forms of violence and preconceived ideology.

Under the circumstances where was Turkey ’s secularism? Where are the moderate Islamists who make Turkey so proud?

What is apparent is that a process is underway that is eroding the foundations of the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As the Kemalist veneer is removing the ever-present but hitherto hidden religious substratum is re-emerging.

For Bishop Luigi Padovese, vicar apostolic to Anatolia , “Turkish society is going through a transition; it changing from a ‘solid’ to a ‘liquid state’. Western influence—which is trickling into the country through trade, tourism, the mass media and especially the desire of much of the population and the government to join the European Union—is seen as a threat to Turkey’s highly nationalistic ethos whose advocates thought they could have democracy without pluralism, at least in its ethnic and religious dimensions. Atatürk’s secularism is losing much of its original character under changing political and religious circumstances. Turkish society is reverting back to a more fanatical religiosity based that equate being Turkish with being Muslim. All this is fuelling tensions and raising doubts about the Turkish government’s ability to preserve the Turkish Republic ’s secular, moderate and democratic character”.

This raises another question. Is there a moderate Islam that can show the world that an Islamic democracy is possible?

The telling silence of moderate Muslims

Is there no better time for moderate Muslims to speak up than now? Why aren’t they distancing themselves from the sort of religious fanaticism that, like wildfire, is spreading irrationalism in response to a quote made by the Pope from some ancient source?

The harsh reactions by Turkish political leaders and mass media have surprised and saddened Christian authorities in Turkey . No voice trying to appease emotions has yet spoken out against this explosive and obnoxious cacophony.

Mgr Padovese himself knows that there are the great “many fair-minded people in Turkey . They should be the first to stand up against the fundamentalists, but instead they have no voice in chapter and are silent out of fear or as a result of intimidation”.

Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI is no globetrotter, but he must have realised the importance of his visit to Turkey . From the beginning of his pontificate, he stressed that ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue was one of his priorities. For this reason, if he does go to Istanbul on November 30 to meet Bartholomew I to discuss intra-Christian matters, and goes to Ankara to talk to Muslims, knowing that he is facing hard-nosed Kemalists like President Sezer and military leaders, and nationalist fringes like the Grey Wolves, he might have expected to rely on Erdoğan (who comes from the Nur or ‘light’ movement), on Gülen whose Islam espouses clemency and mercy, and on the growing number of Sufi movements.

It is from this kind of Islam that the Pope could have expected support against terrorism in all its forms, and found allies backing him in defending the principle that every life is sacred and that no intention, however, sacred, can justify and legalise actions against another human being.

What will happen now?

Tomorrow the Bishops’ Conference of Turkey will meet in Istanbul . Its members were supposed to discuss routine matters about the final preparations for the Pope’s visit. Instead, they will now have to decide whether the Pope’s visit to Turkey ’s can go ahead in such a hostile climate.

One thing is certain though. The Pope’s trip is not the only thing at risk; Turkey ’s secular character is as well.