NICOSIA, Cyprus — At over 60 meters (200 feet) high, the four black-coned minarets of the nearly completed Hala Sultan mosque tower over the plain of Mesaoria in the northern, Turkish Cypriot part of ethnically divided Cyprus.
The imposing, Turkish-funded structure that’s believed to be the largest mosque on the east Mediterranean island will hold as many as 3,000 worshippers beneath its massive domes. It’s named after Umm Haram, who legend says was a relative of the Prophet Muhammad and who died in Cyprus after falling off her mule during a 7th-century Muslim military campaign.
But the construction of the huge mosque has become emblematic of fears held by some Turkish Cypriots that a resurgence of the Islamic faith is a direct assault on their long-held secular way of life, and a means by which Turkey can further expand and entrench its control over all facets of their 270,000-strong community.
Religious leaders and education authorities in the north counter such talk as baseless fear-mongering among a radically secular few. They insist what’s happening is the restoration of Islam at the core of Turkish Cypriots’ collective identity, as it was for centuries.
Leftist Turkish Cypriots have long bemoaned Turkey’s high-handed ways with Turkish Cypriots, especially after the island was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. But the issue has again come to the fore after a promising round of talks with the majority Greek Cypriots to reach a reunification deal failed in the summer.
Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence. It keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.
Apart from projecting the image as the protector of Turkish-speaking peoples, Turkey feels that it’s earned the right to play an outsized role in Turkish Cypriot affairs because it bankrolls the north to the tune of over €250 million euros ($290 million) annually.
“Turkey follows the policy of ‘I finance, you obey,'” says Cemal Ozyigit, the leader of the small, left-wing Communal Democracy Party.
Ozyigit and Sener Elcil, the head of the 1,600-strong primary school teachers’ union KTOS, have been among the most vocal critics of Turkey’s pervasive and expanding influence in the north.
Both men say that in the past, hard nationalism and militarism were the traditional mechanisms of control. Now, they’ve been augmented with religion.
“With the religious, Islamic government in Turkey, the Islamic identity of Turkish Cypriots has been questioned for the last decade or more,” says Ozyigit. “‘Are they Muslim enough? They don’t practice, they don’t fast.’ And now they’re trying to push this change on us.”
Elcil says that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using Islam to consolidate his political control over the north, as he has done in his own country over 14 years of rule. He says as many as 400 Imams have been dispatched “acting like missionaries” to service mosques and give lessons on the teachings of the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
“We’re in danger now as a community because we’re under bombardment of (the) Sunni faith,” Elcil says, adding that Imams are directing their messages to young people and especially children of mainland Turks who settled in the north.
“Later on, they’re going to use these people as political supporters of their actions,” says Elcil. “If we’re going like that, in 10 years … religion will be a conflict point in Cyprus also.”
Ozyigit says the children of mainland Turks are being targeted for religious education “to speed up the change” toward a stricter adherence to Islamic precepts and code of conduct, unlike many Turkish Cypriots whom he described as “softer Muslims” who consume alcohol — a practice Islam forbids.
“We have managed to resist this change toward an Islamic character but the question is how much longer can Turkish Cypriot society resist these changes being forced upon it?”
Elcil and Ozyigit say the Turkish Cypriot education system has long safeguarded the community’s secular identity. But recent moves by Turkish Cypriot authorities have given more weight to religious instruction inside and outside of schools, including the founding of the north’s first theology school four years ago.
Turkish Cypriot Education Minister Ozdemir Berova says his ministry is acting to meet a demand from parents for religious education for their children. He downplays criticism as an exaggeration grounded in a leftist ideology that teachers trade union leaders can’t see beyond.
“As a government, we believe that if a family wants their children to have a religious education, the best way is the education that we give them which is under supervision,” Berova says. “We can inspect and we can control religious studies they’re receiving now.”
It’s that desire for religious education among many Turkish Cypriots that the leader of the north’s religious affairs, Grand Mufti Talip Atalay, says signals the community’s realignment with its true Islamic character that was sidetracked by Turkey’s internal politics some 60 years ago.
Atalay says the historical record offers proof of Turkish Cypriots’ strong embrace of the Islamic faith. He says in 1949, there were 300 mosques operating all over Cyprus — 100 more than now, to service five times as many faithful.
“What is happing here in our country is not Islamization at all,” says Atalay. “It is normalization. For many decades, these rights have been neglected or prevented from the people who are demanding it, and nowadays we’re trying to bring it back to normal.”
Atalay denies that the views of expressed by Elcil and Ozyigit represent those of the majority of Turkish Cypriots. He says “anti-religious” ideologies that emerged from Turkey’s politics of the 1960s have engendered an unwarranted fear of Islam.
He says these leaders have repeatedly spurned his calls to jointly develop a religious education curriculum that is in line with the Turkish Cypriot way of life.
“Unfortunately, they have such a fear of religion that they’re not prepared to listen or to do anything progressive. They’re completely against it.”
Atalay insists Turkish Cypriots have their own government and institutions that cannot be controlled by Turkey.
He also bristles at the suggestion that bolstering the Islamic faith in the north will foment more discord and conflict with Orthodox Christian Greek Cypriots, insisting the historical record doesn’t bear this out.
The Mufti says he’s deeply invested in peace efforts on the island and has joined the island’s Christian leaders in a common front for peace.
“I have taken so many risks to build bridges and to be a good example for peace building, how come my religion is against peace?” he says.