Friday, July 20, 2012

Hos Geldin Ramazan (Welcome the Holy Month of Ramadan): A Look into Recent Debates

People lining up before the iftar (break-fast) to buy the special
bread baked especially for Ramadan
 Living in Turkey off and on for over a decade, I have come to like the month of Ramadan, a change in routine is a nice break. Istanbul is a city way over populated and way over the top in many dimensions. Nothing really comes in small doses here.  However, during Ramadan, a month when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk (something quite difficult in the summer months) everything moves a bit slower, and nightlife considerably slows down. Just as many Jews fast on Yom Kippur but do nothing else throughout the year, many Turkish Muslims refrain from drinking during Ramadan (even though the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam).

Last week, in the Eyup district of Istanbul, the annual Efes Pilsen One Love Rock festival took place.  For over 11 years, party goers and rock music lovers have met at Bilgi University to celebrate the event.  Sponsored by Efes Pilsen brewery many festival goers enjoy escaping the indoors to lie on the grass, listen to music, and drink beer to cool off from the Istanbul heat. However, this year the Eyup municipality pressured the university to ban alcohol from the event due to the fact that the Eyup Sultan Mosque is one of Turkey’s most religious historical sites (see the attached link which is a translation about the banning of alcohol at the event from Turkey’s Taraf newspaper) and the school gave in. While they managed to ban the drinking inside, local vendors brought shopping carts of beer to the event and people managed to drink quite a lot outside the concert grounds with some religious/political groups heckling in the background and signs in the area revealing the ills of alcohol. It is a pity that the university gave into pressures to ban the alcohol. By Turkish law, people 18 years and older can drink alcohol and it has never has been a source of problems in the past. Of course, this was not a violation of the religious site since the mosque is not in the immediate vicinity. Further, it should be noted that most people attending the concert would most likely fight to defend the sanctity of holy sites and the need to respect them.

Friday Prayer on the first day of Ramadan
With the debate at its height some in the Turkish media have been discussing the repercussions of such social pressure and how it might lead to a dangerous polarization during Ramadan. Mehmet Ali Birand (English link, Turkish link), wrote of his fear that those who don’t fast will be subjected to social pressures, or what he calls “neighborhood pressure (mahalle baskisi)," and asks “what if those who do not fast are oppressed? What if those who drink alcohol are beaten? What if entertainment venues are raided?.” He ends his commentary by stating that “Nobody should have a right to create such an atmosphere in this country. Let the citizen decide himself what he will do and what he will not do…” 

 A local simit seller making his daily bread during
Ramadan. He also stopped selling the bagel like snack
to join Friday prayer
The Turkish government should work to strengthen the middle ground between secular and religious people and to ensure the rights of all.  Baseless claims by conservative religious factions, as we saw at the One Love festival, only create unneeded tensions. Just as many secular people rightly supported the right of women to veil in universities, religious people should stand up and speak clearly about the right of secular people to live their life in respect.  This does not mean drinking alcohol on the steps of the mosque or provoking religious folk by marching in and eating publicly during the month of Ramadan. Finding the balance between secular and religious lifestyles has been and will continue to be a challenge, and usually one that Turkey has succeeded in achieving. It is what makes Turkey unique and I would argue why many Muslims find Turkey appealing.  Often I see Arab tourists walking through the streets full of bars on Istiklal and curiously admiring what they often do not have in their country: the choice to decide and the chance to be part of a multicultural society.

For now, I will continue to enjoy Ramadan, seeing the long lines for the iftar break-fast bread, hearing drummers pounding away to wake up people before the fast begins, and seeing tents feeding thousands of people celebrating the iftar (the break-fast) together.

On that note, I am happy to wish all my Muslim friends and happy and holy Ramadan. 


  1. i appreciate the post, and love the photographs.