ISTANBUL - İhsan Özkeş is not an unknown person. He sprang to national attention recently when he conducted the funeral service of the late Türkan Saylan who led the fight against leprosy in Turkey and provided tens of thousands of liras in scholarships for young students around the country.
Özkeş was born in Borum in 1957 and went to the Ankara İmam Hatip High School. He then graduated from the Islamic Institute at Bağlarbaşı and served as the mufti (Muslim jurist) in several locations around Turkey. He also studied hadith (religious traditions) in Egypt. Later on he ran as a candidate for mayor for Istanbul’s Üskudar district for the Democratic Left Party, or DSP, and still later as an Istanbul parliamentary candidate from the Republican People’s Party, or CHP. After the elections he was appointed to Adana and then retired. He is a specialist in hadith and the interpretation of the Koran.After Özkeş performed the funeral service in which he praised Saylan, he was accused of trying to whitewash her. His response to that was that Saylan didn’t need anyone to offer excuses for her. He pointed out that there was no place in Islam for saying bad things about people at their funerals. While Saylan was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, the state prosecutor wanted her picked up for questioning within the context of the Ergenekon Case in which many well-known people have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. Unfortunately, there are people who so hated her and were such enemies that they were still sticking their tongues out at a 74-year-old dead woman, Özkeş told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. "Of course nobody can be forced to love Türkan Saylan but at the least the command of Islam needs to be applied. You have to be silent. She’s with God now. It’s not right to speak against her," said Özkeş.
"The press showed Türkan Saylan as nonreligious. I am a retired man of religion and I am also an expert on religion. I’m not just any old person. I have spent years speaking on religion. In Islam, if someone says he is a Muslim, you have to take that person’s word for it. No one can say you aren’t a Muslim; no one has the authority to do so. Her wanting to have a Muslim funeral at a mosque shows that she had a tie with Islam. It bothered her that some were making unsubstantiated accusations that she was unreligious. It made her so uncomfortable that she said this on television. But she was so sick by that time that she had to leave the answers and the struggle to others. Türkan Saylan didn’t deserve these things. She was extraordinarily hurt, extraordinarily distressed," he said.
Özkeş said his view is that every man of religion should be open to people, greet them and embrace them. He had met Türkan Saylan on a number of occasions and considered her such a lady, polite and respectful. He wrote a book titled "Extinguishing Faith" and later had an opportunity to present it to her. He had wanted to visit her but due to personal reasons he hadn’t been able to. For that he feels very sorry. He said he regretted it even more when he learned that he was being asked to lead the funeral service for her.
How did he personally see her? He described her as an unusual person, hard working, principled, full of excitement and life, and someone who was willing to sacrifice for others. He pointed to the work Saylan did on leprosy. She became interested in those affected by leprosy and spoke out in public many times on the subject. She also raised money to present some 40,000 students with scholarships. Özkeş quoted the Prophet Mohammed, "The person who provides the means for a good act is as if he had done the good act."
Many see the principles of Atatürk and religious concepts as two very separate irreconcilable views. It’s as if a supporter of Atatürk cannot be Muslim. To which Özkeş replied, "Atatürk didn’t just do a service to the people in our country but to the whole of the Islamic world as well. He was an example to the Islamic world that was under colonial domination. He was the leader and monument of independence. Just think, what if Atatürk had not established the Turkish Republic, if we were still under occupation, if small little mini-states were established, what would be the condition of people today? Because of Atatürk we have the freedom to worship in mosques," said Özkeş.
"Atatürk is misunderstood perhaps under the influence of enemies abroad or because he is thought to have been someone who was far from religion. Atatürk invited the Islam teachers at Ramadan. He had the Koran translated as well as the hadith of the Prophet and other books that have served as big sources of the religious information in Turkey. The quality of the translations was such that nothing better has been produced since then. I was the mufti who read the memorial service on Nov. 10 [anniversary of Atatürk’s death]. Of course these views exist, and will continue to do so, because our people don’t know much about religion and because they remain under the influence of those who manage them, so unfortunately there is enmity against Atatürk and it is mistaken."
Minorities in Turkey
When asked about the many minorities that exist in Turkey and why many think they can’t be open about their religion, Özkeş said: "It is not right to apply pressure against religion anywhere in the world or limit it or their freedom of religion. This goes for Muslims and for Christians as well. When one examines the Koran, it lays down that those belonging to other religions should be able to practice in a free atmosphere in their places of worship. If we expect our Muslim people to be able to worship in other countries, this is most naturally right for the minorities as well. It is necessary that they are able to worship in our country in the best form."Referring to how the Ottoman Empire accepted Jewish refugees from Spain, Özkeş also pointed out how Christians, Armenians and other religions were allowed freedom of worship. "It is the most natural of desires. We are all the children of Adam and it doesn’t suit mankind or religion if the atmosphere is negative. In creation, men are equal and in religion they are brothers. That is, if a Muslim you are religious brothers and if you are not, you become an equal match. Man is an existence that God has created in the most beautiful form. One day our Prophet got to his feet when a Jewish funeral procession was passing. They asked the Prophet, ’This is not a Muslim funeral, it is a Jewish funeral.’ Our Prophet says, ’He is Jewish but he is a man.’ That is our religion, it is a religion based on man. One has to behave respectfully to everything that God has created. God never created something for nothing. And from that point of view there is the very beautiful expression, ’Be tolerant of the person who was created because of that creator.’ He is a partner. That partner is our God. From that point of view let us love, let us be loved. The world doesn’t belong to just anyone."
About the closing of the Greek Orthodox Theological School on Heybeliada in 1974, Özkeş said: "I have spoken about my view on freedoms. As far as I can understand from the press and publications, this is a state policy or a balance between states. That is, if Greece does one thing, it will do such and such. If in Cyprus such and such happen, such and such will happen. That is, as far as I understand, the situation is one of intergovernmental policy according to politics. But of course my view is that whatever religion wants to do and wherever, it can do it but of course within the law.
"My personal view, as İhsan Özkeş, is however much I want unrestricted freedom and independence, unrestricted understanding and thought for my own religion, if I want this for all the places in the world where Muslims live and that respect be shown to a Muslim friend of mine, and for him to conduct his religious business and have everything ready in terms of companies and organizations, naturally the people on our lands, regardless of whatever religion they are, would consider it natural for their requests to be met. ... I don’t think there’s any religious reason. But I am a man of religion. If I wish that in other countries it is easy for Muslims to practice their religion, then whatever minority that lives in our country we want to provide that ease for them too," he said.When asked about discrimination toward minorities in Turkey, Özkeş pointed to the tax system that "has had a tax that is only taken from minorities." "Where is there a country that taxes its minorities? Such things happened in the past but now even if democratization is not as much as wanted, there is a clear amount of democratization. From time to time local incidents have occurred and because of the [Israeli-Palestinian conflict] events may have awakened some concerns." He pointed out that while he was the mufti in Üskudar he had the opportunity to speak with some of the Church’s priests. And there have been conversations within the context of inter-religious dialogue. He pointed out that it couldn’t be more natural than for them to be equal.
When asked what he thought about the Koran courses for children in Turkey, Özkeş said: "For years as mufti we opened Koran courses and supervised them. I was in the administration and a teacher. Of course as in every organization there were things lacking. I can’t say that the Koran courses were perfect. But they have progressed. Education of the Koran was being given according to the age of the child. Every year what was missing was identified, but now I’m retired and I can’t know how education is given and what has changed. When I was working, the deficiency that I noted was taken care of."
The Turkish Republic is secular according to the Constitution, yet there is the Religious Affairs Directorate. "Minorities cannot be tied to the Religious Affairs Directorate. All of the people working there are Muslims and it is an organization that serves Muslims. I don’t think it would be right to gather the Jews under this roof. For them to be under this roof is as if the religions were united," said Özkeş, when asked about the directorate’s relationship with minorities.
"As for the Alevis, I know there are some problems. I want attention to be drawn to support for the Cem evleri [Alevi houses of worship], for the Alevis’ wish to have their worship service and cultural activities. In the Turkish Republic the Alevis have been ignored. Sunnis get money for Koran courses and for teachers; a salary has to be given to an Alevi elder. They have to have support for their culture and beliefs."