The Istanbul Convention vs. an Islamist congregation?

The İsmailağa Congregation wants the withdrawal of the Istanbul Convention. They claim that the Convention signed under President Erdoğan’s leadership to combat violence against women, its a war against Islamic values. The photo is from Erdoğan’s visit to the İsmailağa Foundation on January 12, 2020. (Photo: Twitter)

President Erdoğan had stated that Turkey would indeed let go of the Istanbul Convention “if our people want to.” However, not many people, aside from a few fanatics here and there, responded to this statement that was testing the waters. Then stepped in the İsmailağa Congregation with a clear demand from the government: they wanted Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention for “Preventing Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.” The statement published on the congregation’s official website on July 6 also claimed that the contract President Tayyip Erdogan signed in 2011 — then-prime minister — was a “license to declare war” against Islamic values. In their statement, the congregation claimed that the Convention “imposes missions that are in opposition with women’s purpose of creation,” and aims to “demolish our moral structure, and the family structure that our ancestors pass onto us.” It’s worth noting here that imam and TV personality Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, also know as Cübbeli (“Robed”) Ahmet Hodja, is also a famous member of the congregation.

The İsmailağa Mosque in the Çarşamba quarter of Istanbul’s Fatih district is regarded as the headquarters of the congregation which is known to be a religious group that has a big influence on Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The latest of President’s Erdoğan’s contacts with the congregation, which was reflected on the media, was on January 12, 2020. He had met with Hasan Kılıç, who is considered the “successor” of the 91-year-old current leader of the congregation, Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, who was born in the Of district of Trabzon in the East Black Sea region. Cübbeli Ahmet Hodja, also acting as the congregation’s spokesperson, said after the visit that “Mr. Erdoğan is very loyal,” and that he “never breaks the bonds of the past.” Following an earlier meeting when he was received by the President on February 14, 2016, Cübbeli had stated that they exchanged views about “the developments in the Islamic geography.” It’s widely known that the İsmailağa Congregation, as part of the Khalidiyya grouping within the Sunnite Sufi lineage of Naqshibandiyya, is among the religious groups with the most stringent views. The members of the congregation are distinguishable from other Islamic communities through their clothing too. Their men wander in robes, turbans, and shalwars, and their women wear the black chador.

The “Robed Hodja” Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, who acts as the spokesperson of the İsmailağa congregation, is seen here beside President Erdoğan on February 14, 2016. (Photo: Twitter)

They “believe” Erdogan will terminate it

The statement that the İsmailağa Congregation published includes the following statements. 

  • “The Istanbul Convention, which has taken over our agenda nowadays, has the license to declare war to our values that Islam aims to protect. Because the content of the Convention, in its arbitrary nature, contradicts the principles regarding the family that our Lord commanded us, the teachings of our Prophet (Mohammad) about our family-building and the deep-rooted family traditions of Muslims throughout the history of Islam.”
  • “In this sense, the said contract is an obstacle for our children’s potential to preserve and live by our indispensable values such as religion, faith, piety, chastity, and civilization. As a congregation based on “Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar” (“Command the good and forbid the bad” according to Shari’a law) we demand that such a mistake be rectified and the contract terminated. We believe that the authorities will do what is necessary.”

In other words, the İsmailağa Congregation doesn’t merely “believe” that the “authorities,” meaning Erdoğan here, the Convention’s signatory, “will do as necessary” and “rectify the mistake” upon their request to annul the Convention. It also self-rules that the Convention is “against the Shari’a law.” And with these words, the Congregation aims to pressurize the President of the Republic of Turkey into acting as they want, asserting its authority over him. This also brings to mind that this issue of terminating the Convention preventing violence against women, which took over the media out of the blue in the last few weeks, was prompted by Islamic congregations. 

A new dimension in misogyny 

The full title of the Convention is “The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.” But it was named after Istanbul because it had been presented to signatories by Turkey in a 2011 ministers’ committee meeting with the Council. AKP was in power. Abdullah Gül was President, Erdoğan Prime Minister, and Ahmet Davutoğlu Foreign Minister. Current Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was Speaker of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

No remarkable objection had come from Islamic congregations and communities in 2011 when it was signed; it was also when the strongest the AKP government had ever been. The reason why these groups are raising these concerns now might be that they are observing a certain drop in the potential voters for an AKP-MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) alliance. They may be seeking to get the government to compromise in exchange for the continuation of the support coming from these Islamic groups. AKP Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş had claimed that demands were coming from the voter base regarding these issues. The Islamic congregations and communities want the Convention terminated on three main grounds:

  1. Gender equality (a concept which these groups also warp as biological equality as opposed to equality in the face of the law, conducting from there a separate, false propaganda that the Convention promotes homosexuality). 
  2. The convention’s stance against child marriages (15-18 years).
  3. The equality of the sexes. 

Objections from within the AKP

Some stand against the cancellation of the Contract within the AK Party. But Serpil Yılmaz of Sözcü daily reported that President Erdoğan’s daughter and KADEM (Woman and Democracy Foundation) leader Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, who emphasizes the concept of “justice” as opposed to “equality” regarding the issue of gender, did object to the termination of the Convention. The claim in the newspaper was not denied. There are more open protests as well. For example, there is Dr. Aşkın Asan who represents Turkey in the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) founded under the Convention, who is also the head of the group opposing to digital violence against women. Asan is a former Parliamentary member of the AKP, as well as a former Vice-President to the party. She had stated that “the sole purpose of the Convention is to protect women against violence”, and that “its cancellation means Turkey will go back to square one, and all the success so far will go to waste.”

The issue here is misogyny. It’s the non-acceptance that women have the same rights as men. It’s thinking that the sole purpose of women is to bear children and be a mother, satisfy men’s sexual needs, look after the house; it’s thinking that men have the right to subject women to violence. Unfortunately, this is the dominant understanding in all areas from politics to jurisdiction. This includes the people at the Supreme Court who didn’t rule guilty the boss who molested the woman working for him because his behavior was “just fatherly attitude.” Such judicial decisions count as legal violence against women.

Speaking of the İsmailağa Congregation, let us also recall the violence in power struggles within the community itself. Hızır Ali Muratoğlu, the son-in-law of Ustaosmanoğlu, and considered as his successor, was murdered in front of İsmailağa Mosque on May 17, 1998. On 3 September 2006, İsmailağa Mosque imam Bayram Ali Öztürk was killed by Mustafa Erdal with a knife during the post-prayer conversation and Erdal was later lynched there by the community.

We’ve changed the law but it looks as though we cannot change the perceptions. It’s especially hard with the pressures coming from these groups. It’s unbelievable. 


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