Turkish Cypriots took to the streets this week, despite heavy rain, to protest the “Islamification” of their community after Turkey appointed religious authorities to preach conservative Islamic rhetoric to those attending mosques.
Around 46 opposition parties, non-governmental organisations, and unions demonstrated against what they called an “Islamification agenda” after the “head of religious affairs”, Ahmet Unsal, preached misogynistic rhetoric.
Under the slogan “No to conservatising policies”, organisations, the main opposition party CTP (Turkish Republican Party), the teacher unions KTOS and KTOEOS, and the civil servants union marched.
The demonstration occurred after Unsal, while talking at a gathering in occupied Famagusta, told his audience how the “ideal wife” should behave.
“Women work for men,” said Unsal.
“It is the duty of men to pay for housing, clothing, and health. Therefore, the woman must respond to her husband’s desires. Therefore, her needs will be met. ”
He also claimed that women should obey their husbands and respond to their callings to bed.
Unsal stressed that the aim of marriage should be procreation.
His controversial statements come on the back of increasing worries about Islamic radicalisation in the Turkish-held north.
Reports last week said Islamic organisations are attempting to proselytise in the north, adding that some extremist groups have approached minors to indoctrinate them.
Demonstrators carried banners reading: “Fanatic mufti out of Cyprus”, “we don’t want religious cults in Cyprus”, “Unsal go home,” and “It’s not mosques that we want, it’s shelters” (for domestic violence victims).
The Cyprus Turkish Secondary Education Teachers’ Union (KTOEÖS) secretary Duygu Geylan stated that their struggle would continue and their actions escalate.
Geylan said: “Our actions will continue until the Religious Affairs Office stops exploiting religion to push through political agendas and until the head of the office is dismissed”.
“We are here to put a stop to those who are trying to design and change our way of life.”
She emphasised that Turkish Cypriots will never accept the ‘reactionary mentality’, pointing out that secularism is a fundamental pillar of society.
“We can have a cat if we want, a dog if we want.
“We get married for fun if we want to, and we don’t get married if we don’t”.
Geylan warned the ruling coalition they would never allow those who try to drag the country into the darkness to succeed.
“Our labour, our bodies, our rights.”
The issue of Unsal’s latest comments also caused tension in the Turkish Cypriot parliament, where the opposition accused the ruling coalition of acting like an “ostrich” hiding its head in the sand, ignoring the turbulence in society.
CTP member and known activist for peace and women’s rights Dogus Derya tabled the issue under the title “Questions to the ostrich government, which remains silent about reactionary activities and usurpation of rights”.
Derya argued that recently there had been an increase in attempts to impose a deeply religious lifestyle on Turkish Cypriots, noting that since 1974 there has been a constant effort to Turkify the community.
She told her fellow assembly members that Unsal describes the Turkish Cypriot family structure as corrupt and preaching to young children at mosques how an ‘ideal family’ should be in the eyes of Islam.
“The department of religious affairs organises religious courses for children in mosques, instructing them how a family should be structured.
“Unsal’s recent comments that women should obey their husbands and their bedroom desires conflicts with the law which views marital rape as a crime.”
Derya criticised authorities for not taking action against the Mufti for his comments.
She also asked which state appointed Unsal as the Head of Religious Affairs and who pays his salary.
Responding on behalf of the ruling coalition, Erhan Arikli said that people are overreacting and should calm down, as these were “just the cleric’s opinion”.
He said the media misrepresented Unsal’s statements on marriage.
Derya said that Arikli’s comments were provocative to all women and feminists.
Unsal was appointed head of the Religious Affairs department by Turkey in August 2022, taking on the role of the Mufti in the Turkish Cypriot community.
He replaced Turkish Cypriot Mufti, Dr Talip Atalay, who was relieved of his duties after Turkey accused him of being a member of the Fethullah Gulen movement (FETO), allegedly behind the coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2015.
Atalay was arrested in Diyarbakir, Turkey, in April 2022, in connection with investigations into FETO, which was labelled a terrorist organisation.
He was released but informed that he had been relieved of his duties as the Mufti of the Turkish Cypriots.
Atalay was known as a supporter of peace, with excellent relations with the late Archbishop Chrysostomos II and other religious leaders on the island, promoting reconciliation through the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process under the auspices of the Swedish embassy.
His reunification stance on the Cyprus problem was said to be his downfall.