Community leader Mustafa Akinci has challenged the north’s “Prime Minister” Huseyin Ozgurgun to provide legitimate grounds and solid evidence to back up the latter’s demand for the removal of Grand Mufti Talip Atalay from office.
The mufti’s status has been the subject of controversy and heated debate in the north since his detention by authorities in Turkey on July 10 alleging he had links with Feto, the Erdogan-branded “terrorist organisation” of Fetullah Gulen said to have been behind the failed coup on July 15, 2016.
Subsequently released and back in Cyprus, Atalay has consistently and vehemently rejected his accusers’ allegations.
Ozgurgun wrote to Akinci last month calling for the religious leader’s dismissal, but offered no explanation for the request.
The power to appoint or dismiss the head of the Religious Affairs Department is vested solely in the Turkish Cypriot “presidency”. This includes the option of outright rejecting requests like Ozgurgun’s.
In a statement issued by the “President’s Office” this week, Akinci bluntly asserted that those seeking to relieve officials of their appointed duties need to first set out “strong reasons” for such a course of action.
“Everyone who works for the state needs to act in accordance with the legal and moral responsibilities necessitated by their jobs,” the statement said. “Those who are in a position of power to remove them from their jobs need to support their actions with information and documents.”
In order to make the “healthiest decision” concerning Ozgurgun’s demand to sack Atalay, it would be “better if he explained the reasons behind this proposal”, Akinci’s statement said, noting that whatever the “premier’s” claims about the Mufti, there was a need for “proof”. Akinci warned that the “government” had to “ensure that this was not part and parcel of a ploy to get rid of him”.
Akinci’s statement pointedly noted that he had yet to receive “any letter or any documents” from the government concerning Atalay.
Interviewed later in the week by the Turkish daily Milliyet, Ozgurgun, the head of the nationalist UBP party, promised to share everything he knows with Akinci including details of the ongoing investigation into local links with Feto as soon as he evaluates the information in his possession.
So, then, who is Talip Atalay? what is his role in the Turkish Cypriot community and how does he find himself the central figure in this complicated web of intrigue?
The Sunday Mail followed the events that triggered the behind-the-scenes manoeuverings and why it is that certain quarters want to get rid of the current Mufti.
Born in 1968 in Turkey, Talip Atalay moved to north Cyprus with his parents in 1975, returning to Turkey later for his further education.
He graduated from the faculty of theology at Selcuk University in Konya. After acquiring his Masters and a PhD in philosophy and theology, he settled in Diyarbakir in Turkey’s south-east with a post at the university there. The thrust of his research was focussed on the co-existence of various ethno-religious groups in the region. He has authored two books on the same subject in relation to Cyprus.
Atalay was appointed the Grand Mufti in 2011 after Yusuf Suicmez, the previous Director of the Religious Affairs Department, was dismissed by then “President” Dervis Eroglu.
Purportedly this stemmed from a disagreement arising from the mufti’s attempt to meet Pope Benedict XVI during the Pontiff’s visit to the island. At the same time, Suicmez was known to be at odds with the administrative council of the Evkaf Religious Foundation.
Following his appointment, Atalay gained prominence in the south thanks to his dialogue meetings with Archbishop Chrysostomos II and the island’s other religious leaders.
Their innovative sessions, organised by the Office of the Religious Track of Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) under the auspices of the Embassy of Sweden, helped promote cooperation, understanding and tolerance. In the course of these recurring discussions, the Grand Mufti established a close personal relationship with the Archbishop.
VALUE OF DIALOGUE
Clearly, Atalay believes in the value of dialogue with other religious leaders and faith communities. He is staunch in his unyielding advocacy of free access to all places of worship throughout the island.
Asked by the Sunday Mail how he feels about the collapse of the talks, he said firmly:
“No matter what is happening with the Cyprus peace talks, the dialogue between religious leaders should continue. We are not the island’s political leaders but we should support them in their peace effort. Even when they don’t talk, we should continue our work on erasing psychological barriers between people on both sides. I strongly believe neither community should have any problem accessing their mosques or churches. We should always work together. Never mind the politics — we as religious leaders have nothing to do with politics.”
RTCYPP coordinator Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud vouches for the integrity of the mufti’s words.
“Atalay has always played a really constructive role in the dialogue,” she told the Sunday Mail. “He is a man of principle and he has always stood for religious freedom. [To the extent of his powers] he has never gone back on his word.”
But unlike the Archbishop, his Greek Cypriot counterpart, the position of Grand Mufti has very limited powers in the occupied north, where secularism is extremely strong and anti-religious, anti-clerical sentiments are dominant.
The fact that Grand Mufti Atalay has become so well-known both on the local as well the international level has sent ripples of concern through various political and social factions in the north.
According to PRIO consultant Mete Hatay, some dislike and distrust the mufti’s insistence on developing and maintaining contacts with the Greek Cypriots. Others are uneasy and upset, perhaps even a little jealous about his exposure and growing public profile. Then there are those who are set against him because they fear he will strengthen the role of Islam in the north by building new mosques and organising summer religious courses for children.
According to the Cyprus Turkish Teachers Union (KTOS), there are fewer schools in the north than mosques, the numbers being 162 schools and 212 mosques.
“Forty six mosques have been built in the last 17 years, but only 15 new schools were built since 1974. No maintenance has been carried out regarding the 48 schools we have identified in June. The state is able to find money for imams, religious schools and group’s but not for schools or teachers,” Ugur Erien, a board member of the Turkish Cypriot teachers’ union KTOS said last month, accusing the religious organisations in the north of conducting “social engineering”.
Responding to this, the mufti’s office pointed out that a century ago there were 400 mosques addressing the needs of 50,000 Turkish Cypriots. Today there are 200 mosques for a much bigger population.
Mete Hatay offered further reasons why the mufti is a controversial and troubling figure to some of the players in the north’s political landscape.
“UBP [the party that in coalition with DP now rules the north] would prefer to have somebody more closely aligned with them in this role. Moreover, it did not help and indeed alienated many in the north when he became a candidate for AKP in the elections in Turkey two years ago. And of course, given that some people would like to replace him, there are those who are actively working against him. Finally, for some, he is seen not as a Turkish Cypriot, but as a settler and that also makes him persona non grata… With all of these negatives to choose from, there is no single reason why so many people would like to see him gone.”
Comments posted on Facebook after news of the mufti’s arrest in Turkey in July confirm that among some Turkish Cypriots he is indeed perceived as Public Enemy No 1, determined, as they see it, to transform the secular north into a much more religion-driven society.
However, Atalay rejected this characterisation, claiming that those who accuse him of trying to “Islamisise” the north have got it completely wrong. He acknowledged building new mosques on the island, but said that the driving force behind this is a concerted attempt to vacate Orthodox churches which have been used as mosques. As he put it: “You cannot pray well in a temple that belongs to somebody else without having his blessing”.
Furthermore, he insisted that the summer religious courses that raised so much controversy and occasioned a series of protests by the Turkish Cypriot teachers’ unions consist solely of basic teaching on Muslim rituals and prayers. Attendance is voluntary, not compulsory, and a letter from a child’s parents is required prior to enrolment. In no way, shape or form, he said, do these classes bear any resemblance to the doctrinaire boot camps his detractors accuse him of organising.
“They are just for kids to learn how to pray in a mosque, how to say namaz or how to behave at a funeral in a cemetery. They are very basic,” he maintained.
“This kind of religious education is something that people should have access to if they want… There are Muslim people who want to pray and they don’t know how. How can they learn? In our system, people always learnt their religion from schools and mosques.”
NOT AN EASY PATH
Clearly, regardless of his good intentions, the mufti’s path has not been an easy one. As a civil servant, he has to tread a delicate line between various governmental offices in his attempts to deliver on some of the commitments he has entered into with all the other religious leaders. At times, even with the best will in the world, it has proved impossible to deliver.
One such example was his failure to win the support of the Turkish Cypriot authorities for a revised mechanism to process worship applications to churches in the north. This carefully developed practical proposal was intended to address and resolve once and for all most of the challenges, frustrations and violations hampering the right to worship.
Yet another setback was the religious property foundation Evkaf’s sudden decision to pull back from the good cooperation that had evolved with Archbishop Chrysostomos II. This resulted in an abrupt halt of repair work on a priority list of Greek Orthodox churches in the north, which had been compiled and set in motion as a result of the archbishop’s and mufti’s collaborative efforts.
Expectations having been high, rightly or wrongly, some “Christian circles” felt let down by the Mufti. According to Eskidjian Weiderud, the consequences have been negative and something of a setback “for the religious leaders’ dialogue”.
Atalay said rumours about his alleged links with Fetullah Gulen’s Fetö movement are completely unfounded. His disapproval of any religious groups getting into politics is well documented. He believes the rumours were manufactured because “somebody wants to get rid of me”. While awaiting Akinci’s decision, he remains philosophical.
“I don’t know what is going to happen and frankly speaking I am ready for both options. I am ready to either stay or go. I believe that as a human being, no matter where I am, I should be doing my best. I did my best here in Cyprus. I do believe that the other religious leaders and I have managed to show that we can be together as Christians and Muslims — not convert each other — just coexist in respect.”
PRIO’s Hatay expects an in-depth investigation by “the President” as to whether “the PM’s” allegations are true, as well as a crosscheck with Ankara as to what Erdogan’s position towards the mufti might be.
“Akinci doesn’t dislike Atalay, but he is not crazy about him either. He comes from a Kemalist background, so is not a religious person.
“He supported the mufti before, but now that the talks have collapsed and after his arrest it is hard to predict what will happen …,” Hatay suggested.
“Everybody is replaceable but it is worth keeping in mind the old Turkish saying that ‘those who come will make you miss those who are gone’ (the Turkish version of the devil you know…). That is why Akinci is postponing his decision and considering his options. Because one never knows who will come next…”
Meanwhile, Akinci’s spokesman Baris Burcu told the Sunday Mail that “the President” will make his decision in due course.