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Finding answers in Islam

The Imam of the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in Larnaca proves a prickly customer as he stands up for the rights of Muslims in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets him


Imam Shakir Alemdar is just about fed up with the present government. The previous government was better, he insists, sitting in his office at the Hala Sultan Tekke, the beautiful mosque just across the road from the old Larnaca Airport. Mr. Sylikiotis, in the days when he was Minister of the Interior, came to a reception on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and gave a lovely speech. But the present government has proved un-supportive and un-cooperative. Imam Shakir asked to see the President six months ago, to congratulate him on his appointment, but received no reply; as for the current Minister of the Interior, “I don’t believe I will ever see him”.

Yet “I am a major person in this republic,” he tells me, his temper rising. The Imam is a shrewd, courteous man, but he does have a tendency to rant. “I’m representing the Mufti’s office, I am a mufti and I am Turkish Cypriot Muslim clergy. Why are you ignoring me? I did not expect them to ignore me, honestly.

“Show me you are supporting us,” he goes on, as if the island’s politicians were standing in his smallish office, the silence outside broken only by the distant sounds of tourists roaming the grounds. “You don’t want me? This is the question I am asking. Do you think I am too much? Well, if you think I am too much, open your Constitution. And you will see if I am too much or not”. He was expecting more open-mindedness, he sighs, more understanding. Instead, “to be honest with you, I find them still 50 years back. This government, I find is still 50 years backwards”.

‘Is this off the record?’ I ask, surprised by his vehemence. ‘Or can I mention it?’

“You can mention it,” he replies simply. “I am not saying anything wrong. I have not seen any move from the government, neither from the President nor from the Interior Ministry. Because we are an important part of the Cyprus Republic,” he goes on, getting increasingly agitated. “Yet you are choosing to ignore me? Sorry, you cannot ignore me. I mean, what are you going to do? Hang me? Kill me? Wipe me out? I-am-part-of-this-island!” he cries, emphasising each word in turn. “I am Cypriot! You cannot ignore me!

“Why, as President, you didn’t open up your mouth and say ‘Happy Eid, happy Bayram’? Huh? Why not? Barack Obama, the American President, said it. The American Ambassador sent me a celebration for Ramadan. And yet, yet, yet…” He shakes his head disapprovingly. “As President of Cyprus, you are not only president for the Greek Cypriots, you are president of the Muslims as well. You should have opened your mouth and said ‘Happy Eid, celebration of Ramadan, for our Muslim citizens’. Did he say that? I didn’t see it.”

It is indeed Bayram, the day after the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting and contemplation having obviously honed Imam Shakir’s appetite for argument. His anger is at odds with our surroundings – because the Hala Sultan Tekke is a very serene place, perched in a clump of trees on the edge of a salt lake. In winter, the lake fills up and it looks like Switzerland; in summer it looks like the surface of another planet, an implacable vista of salt which the locals used to harvest on picturesque donkeys back in the old days.

There are 110 mosques in Cyprus (eight of them open for worship) but this is by far the most important. Wikipedia quotes various sources claiming it’s the third- or fourth-holiest place for Muslims in the world, though Imam Shakir dismisses such crude list-making – but it’s certainly, he says, the holiest Muslim site in Europe. The mosque contains the tomb of Umm Haram, the Prophet’s aunt, who died in 647 but still appears in visions to the faithful. “This is a very well-known phenomenon, you know, having spiritual visions of her. It happens to us as well, many times.”

Really? It’s happened to him personally?

“Yeah, many times.” He’ll sometimes see her on the first or second night of Ramadan, when he starts praying. “I see her, like, welcoming us at the entrance. I see her figure, her dress, etc.” Just a fleeting vision, he explains, like an image appearing in time-lapse. “Many people see her. Many people see her in a dream as well. She’s very… uh, active,” he adds, searching for the right word. “She’s very active.”

That, coincidentally, is also the word to describe the Imam himself. He leads an active lifestyle, being a sporty chap as well as a devout Muslim. He loves fishing, sailing, kayaking, the sea in general. He does archery (of all things). He likes going camping with his family – he and his wife have two daughters, 21 and 15, the elder now studying in the UK – likes going off-road and exploring “uncharted places”. And of course he’s even more active in his work, being the type (I suspect) who’s very hard to shake when he wants something. “I started here five years ago, 2008,” he says, “and since then we’ve covered a lot of distance with the authorities. There has been much progress. But of course there are still many things that need to be fixed”.

The main thing is access. The Republic of Cyprus views the Tekke as an ancient monument, so it’s only open during museum hours. This is not right, says the Imam hotly, “because the people who use it are alive. I mean, we are not fossils, you know? You cannot make a place that I use a museum”. At the moment, the doors open at 8.30am and close at 5.30pm in winter, 7.30 in summer (an exception was made during Ramadan, with a midnight extension for night-time prayers); thus, the Imam can only perform two of the five daily prayers required of Muslims, missing the sunset prayer, evening prayer (9.30pm) and morning prayer (5am). “I keep telling them ‘Listen, I have an obligation’,” he explains plaintively. “‘I cannot follow the museum hours’.”

The battle is ongoing. There’s now an official sign at the entrance to the Tekke, warning tourists that “this is a place of worship” and asking them to dress respectfully – a welcome acknowledgment of the mosque’s status as a mosque. On the other hand, right in the middle of Imam Shakir’s office is a hole, about eight feet deep, covered with a sheet of plexiglass: the Antiquities Department carried out an excavation in 2002, saying they’d found an ancient settlement “in order to claim it’s a museum. No. This is illegal”. He’s happy for the mosque to be listed as a monument and tourist attraction, he explains – but it should be like Kykko Monastery, where the busloads of tourists don’t prevent the monks from doing what monks have to do.

Yet there’s also a larger – and more frustrating – issue: the fact that he feels he’s being treated as part of the Cyprus problem (what he calls “the political abnormality”), whereas he has nothing to do with that. “Turks and Greeks, they’ve done a very bad thing,” he intones: “They have involved – between their Turkish and Greek thing – they have involved Muslim and Christian as well. The conflict is not religious. The conflict is political, it’s got nothing to do with my faith”. He has no love for the ‘government’ up north, nor does he feel they represent him. He doesn’t even live there, he points out; he lives in Nicosia, on the Greek Cypriot side, his car is registered there and his children go to school there. As for the thorny issue of reciprocity, the Imam’s position is clear: “Any church in the north should be accessible for Christians. 100 per cent, I agree with this… Military zone or not, I don’t care. Church is a church, mosque is a mosque. You should give freedom to this. But the politicians, they have hijacked this”.

His own official title is Representative of the Grand Mufti of Cyprus in the Republic of Cyprus (the Grand Mufti himself is a Turk, whereas our Constitution calls for a Turkish Cypriot) – and of course Imam of Hala Sultan Tekke, the first in decades after the last Imam was forced out by the troubles. “Hala Sultan is empty,” lamented his spiritual master Sheikh Nazim – the 91-year-old Sufi who lives in Lefka and runs various centres in the UK – and Imam Shakir came back from London on a personal quest, to “look after my heritage” and restore the holy shrine to its full glory.

He lived in London for 18 years, trained by Nazim’s organisation (who also introduced him to his wife). At the Tekke, his sermons are usually in English. “Our approach is very un-traditional,” he insists. “Very humanitarian, very universal”; the centres are playfully known as “United Colours of Sheikh Nazim”, because they attract Sufis from all over the world and every nation gets a differently-coloured turban. “I don’t have traditional Islamic education,” he explains. “My family is extremely secular”. He was born in Kyrenia 45 years ago, his dad a civil servant, his mother a housewife (“very nice people, beautiful people”); he went off to study Physics but had meanwhile started “questioning life” as he puts it, and found the answers in Islam. “The message is pure. And it feeds us. It feeds my soul and my heart very, very efficiently.”

Couldn’t he find the same satisfaction in a non-religious way?

“Some people have a hunger for spirituality,” he replies. “Like some people love the sea”. Some people don’t, and there’s nothing you can say to convince them. “This is a state of the soul. For me, from birth, I have been hungry for spirituality. And I am the only one in my family like this.”

His parents and siblings remain quite secular. His wife wears traditional hijab, but his daughters don’t and he’d never force them. “To be a devoted Muslim or not, it’s up to them,” he insists. “We are open-minded. We are a very free family. But we have standards”. Having ‘standards’ does impose some restrictions: he’d never go on holiday to Ayia Napa, for instance. “Because religion don’t support craziness. Religion don’t support drunkenness”. Still, it all sounds quite civilised, a “European attitude” as he likes to say – and a far cry from the public perception of Islam, I point out, inevitably triggering another rant.

“Taliban?” fumes Imam Shakir, taking a sip of his coffee (it’s hot but he drinks it from a glass, in the Middle Eastern style). Suicide bombings? Kidnappings? “What is this? My religion is not giving me such an order.” You have one billion peaceful Muslims in the world, he hectors, “so why show extremism as representing Islam? No! We are normal people. We eat, we drink, we laugh, we cry. We have neighbours. We have lived with Greek Cypriots, we live with British. We are normal people. We don’t have guns, we don’t have Kalashnikovs. What is this? These people, they just come down from the mountains and hijack religion. We don’t accept this… How can Taliban represent me? I have thousands of years of heritage. I have thousands of years of civilisation. It’s an insult.”

Yes – but maybe his “European attitude” doesn’t represent many Muslims either.

“I don’t give a toss about that!” he replies, 18 years of North London coming out unexpectedly. “I don’t care. Because we want Islam to be presented peacefully.”

You see a lot of that when you talk to Imam Shakir – the reckless passion that ‘doesn’t give a toss’ about naysayers, the self-assurance (maybe even arrogance) that’s equally insulted by being associated with Taliban or snubbed by the Minister of the Interior. There’s no doubt he’s a prickly customer. Still, the agenda he’s pursuing – to extract religious matters from the fearsome maw of the Cyprus problem – is a worthy one, and he clearly has a point: Muslim rights are enshrined in the 1960 Constitution, however battered and threadbare. After all, “Islam is part of Cyprus since the time she came here” (‘she’ being the 1500-year-old woman who still appears in visions now and then). “It’s not newly introduced. We are here since the 7th Century”.

“This is a place of worship,” he says firmly, with a nod to the serene grounds behind him. “This is a blessed place. I want everyone to come and benefit from it. But first give me my rights. So that I can serve you better”. Ignore him at your peril.

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