“Surely the hypocrites strive to deceive Allah. He shall retaliate by deceiving them.” – Qur’an 4:142
We watched quite an interesting Turkish film at the weekend. It was the 2008 Talip Karamahmutoglu movie “Girdap”(meaning “Whirlpool”), starring Rahman Altin, Ufuk Bayraktar and Ozan Bilen. The film was essentially a morality tale highlighting some of the problems arising out of religious fundamentalism in secular political systems. It may be worthwhile to put the action of the film in perspective by considering firstly, the politics and religion of Turkey.
The political system of Turkey is a strictly secular parliamentary representative sytem operating in a democratic republic. The Prime Minister of Turkey is the head of government, and the head of the ruling party in a multi-party system. The President of Turkey is the head of state who holds a largely ceremonial role but with substantial reserve powers. Turkey’s political system is based on a separation of powers. Executive power is exercised by the Council of Ministers. Legislative power is vested in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
As a secular state, Turkey has no official state religion with the Turkish Constitution providing for freedom of religion and conscience. Nevertheless, Islam is the dominant religion of Turkey, exceeding 99% if secular people of Muslim background are included. The most popular sect is the Hanafite school of Sunni Islam. The highest Islamic religious authority is the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Turkish: Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), it interprets the Hanafi school of law, and is responsible for regulating the operation of the country's 80,000 registered mosques and employing local and provincial imams. Academics suggest the Alevi population may be from 15 to 20 million. According to Aksiyon magazine, the number of Shiite Twelvers (excluding Alevis) is 3 million (4.2%). There are also some Sufi practitioners.
According to the KONDA Research and Consultancy survey carried out throughout Turkey in 2007: 9.7% defined themselves as “a fully devout person fulfilling all religious obligations” (fully devout); 52.8% defined themselves as “a religious person who strives to fulfil religious obligations” (religious); 34.3% defined themselves as “a believer who does not fulfil religious obligations” (believer); 2.3% defined themselves as “someone who does not believe in religious obligations” (non-believer/agnostic); and 0.9% defined themselves as “someone with no religious conviction” (atheist).
The plot of the film centres on Umut (Ozan Bilen), a young man in his twenties, who is accepted to study economics in Istanbul University. When he moves to Istanbul he needs to find accommodation and through a billboard at his University’s café finds two flatmates and a flat. Umut is the son of a middle class Turkish family from a provincial city, who at the very beginning of his university days has an apolitical view of the world and is relatively non-religious. The film traces his transformation to a staunch believer and his increasing politicisation.
Umut and his other two flatmates experience some supernatural events in the flat that they live in. Ideed, initially one may be misled into thinking that this is going to be a supernatural horror story. These supernatural experiences cause Umut to be drawn towards Islam and the neighbourhood Hodja (spiritual leader) as a way of finding answers. Umut discovers religion and enjoys this new life style of Islam, joining Friday prayers in the mosque and discussing religion with his fellows and spiritual leaders. Everything goes well for him, but stress develops in his relationship with a fellow student who finds it difficult to accept Umut’s change and the new way he wants structure their relationship.
His new life brings new friends and a completely new environment, which push him towards a more political religious view of the world; as a result of this, Umut’s religious life is not just limited by the Qu’ran or pure religious requirements, but rather he becomes politicised and changes to an Islamic fundamentalist. This transformation into a fanatic forces Umut to extreme behaviour and a causes a complete upheaval in his life with tragic consequences.
The film is a well-made cautionary tale, albeit of a moralistic tone, which nevertheless manages to drive home the point of the dangers naïve young men face when proselytised by fanatics of any sort. The story is well constructed and all events are explained in the end, even the seemingly irrelevant ones. We enjoyed watching this movie and we were interested in the way that it portrayed the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey.