It is Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide. Mustafa Askar, a professor of theology at the state University of Ankara, is being interviewed live on the first channel of state TV, TRT1. The topic: «Happiness of the Ramadan.»
He talks about a conversation with his fellow teachers when they were visiting a zoo in Australia. «Why do people brag about praying and fasting?» he asked. «That’s not a good deed, that’s your obligation.»
And he got excited: Watching the animals in that zoo, he says, you realize that «humans are the only living species who pray. Obviously no animal prays. That means, let me be open, and the scripture [the Quran] says this, too: Nobody should feel offended, that means only animals don’t pray. That means those who do not pray are animals.»
Something like this would not have happened 14 years ago in Turkey, before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power.
And nothing happened. Until people noticed it., then the video went viral. First by the «still-independent media» and later through all social networks and blogs.
The government spokesman and deputy prime minister, Nurettin Canikli, was asked about the comments by the «professor.» He didn’t condemn them or even take a position on them. He just said that he «would rather pass on this issue. I think this is being intentionally overblown. If there is anything illegal here, the prosecutors will have a look into that.»
But most probably the reaction was stronger than expected. For some reason, the «professor» finally emerged, saying he «was misunderstood» and apologizing for the misunderstanding.
What’s also sad is it’s only one case in an growing trend to make life difficult for those who do not want to follow the religious practices as understood and «strongly recommended» by the government.
During Ramadan many restaurants make special offers to break the fasting at sunset.
In an Aegean resort I was talking to a shopkeeper, expressing my appreciation that everybody seems to be free to fast or to eat openly in the restaurants. He smiled and said, «Yes, here on the beaches of the Mediterranean it’s the case, because they live from tourism.» And he added, «But go 50 kilometers inside the country and let me see how you smoke or drink water on the street.»
And somebody from the northern city of Trabzon on the Black Sea took a selfie video of himself going through the streets: «Look at Trabzon’s streets; look at people passing by. Is anybody smoking, eating, or drinking water? Democracy and such is all fine. But if you try to break your fast during the day in Trabzon, I swear to God they would dig out your eyes.»
And yet, Turkey’s beauty, compared with many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, is that there is still room for somehow saying «no» even though those ways are being increasingly closed.
In the case of the theology professor insulting those who do not pray and fast, a citizen from the Beykoz district of Istanbul filed suit against him: «I have never prayed in my life. A study from 2015 shows that 27.5 percent of Turkish people and 85 percent of the world’s population don’t pray at all. This is an insult against billions of people worldwide.»