Islam Draws New Fire From Turkey's Army

Secular leaders ban sale of skins from animal sacrifices for the April 7 Muslim feast.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Iqmal and Zeynep Mudar woke up their children early on the morning of April 7 and helped them dress in their best clothes - navy jackets for the two boys, a spring dress for the girl.

The family gathered outside its Istanbul apartment building and, in a tradition dating back 2,000 years, sacrificed a sheep purchased for the occasion the night before.

The sacrifice is the heart of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, called Kurat Bayram in Turkey. But while Bayram celebrates a belief that Allah protects those who submit to their faith, religious Turks are receiving a different message from their government.

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The festival this year comes amid a government crackdown against Islamic activism in the country - one that has seen an Islamist government driven from power, Islamist politicians prosecuted, veiled women barred from campuses, and Islamic schools shut down across the country.

The holiday commemorates when Allah asked the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice that which was most precious to him - his son Ismail - as a sign of his faith. When Allah saw that Ibrahim was willing to obey him and sacrifice his son, he intervened, and allowed Ibrahim to substitute a lamb.

This is the Muslim corollary of the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Christian tradition. The Koran, Islam's holy book, does not name the son who was to be sacrificed, but says he was rewarded for his obedience. Many Muslims believe the reward was a second son, Isaac.

This year, the holiday celebrating the sacrifice also marks the latest collision between secularism and Islam in Turkey.

Turkey's powerful Army is dedicated to preserving the ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern, secular state. The generals, as they are known, want to keep fast-growing Islamic fundamentalism at bay. But they do not want to alienate Turkey, a member of NATO, from the democratic, Western nations they seek to grow closer to.

In the government's latest move to discourage political Islam, the Justice Ministry has announced that it will prosecute those who illegally trade in sheepskins - one of the byproducts of the Bayram slaughter.

Justice Minister Oltan Sungurlu said April 4 that unauthorized sheepskin collecting can result in up to six months in prison. The law has apparently been on the books for a long time, but - like the one barring veils at the university - has until recently gone widely ignored.

No longer. Turkey, whose population of 60 million people is 98 percent Muslim, is deeply divided over the role of Islam in public life. And, as the sheepskin controversy shows, the latest government campaign to purge politics of religion is driving the debate into people's homes.

"The government is making a hell out of Bayram," says Cengiz Candar, a columnist for the Turkish paper Cumhurriyet. "Bayram is supposed to be a time of peace and tranquility and reconciliation. But the government is making it the opposite.

"The government thinks religious groups make a great deal of money out of sheepskin trading," Mr. Candar adds. "And this money, the government reasons, helps fund the growth of Islamic political groups. So, they are trying to kill these Islamic groups in their embryonic stage, and it starts with sheepskins."

Turks enjoy a range of religious observance. While some families kept the tradition of Bayram, others took advantage of the week-long holiday to head to Turkey's Mediterranean beaches or go abroad. And while veiled women predominate in some neighborhoods, other women here would look at home in the capitals of Europe.

And there are plenty of signs here that many Turks support the government's efforts to root out religion from the state.

Lovingly framed black and white photographs of General Ataturk hang in most every Turkish home, shop, and restaurant. Turkey's military says it is carrying out the will of Ataturk when it pressures the government to move against Islamic activists, who it fears want to create a country based on Islamic law.

Murad Hoffman, a longtime German diplomat who has converted to Islam and now lives in Istanbul, says Islamic groups do pose a threat to military-backed governments such as Turkey's.

"The threat these Islamic groups pose is to change the status quo at home by the introduction of democratic procedures and the observation of Islamic law," Mr. Hoffman says. "You could say these movements - which some people call fundamentalist - are often the only political opposition existing in these countries."

The Eid feast is one of the rituals marking the end of the Haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that is sometimes used as an occasion to air political views - from condemnation of Israel to support for Muslims in the embattled Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Turkish Muslims are highly politicized.

Hoffman compares Islamic political groups in Turkey to Roman Catholics who rose against Communist rule in Poland, and Protestants who helped overthrow the Communist dictatorship of East Germany.

"What do you expect in a Muslim country? It is just the same thing. It is a political struggle," Hoffman adds.

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