Turkey’s Ramadan ‘Dinners on the Ground’ ruffle government feathers

The simplicity of the “Dinners on the Ground” angered a political establishment used to going to “iftar in luxury cars and living in luxury houses.”
Sunday 26/05/2019
People at the “Dinner on the Ground” in Istanbul’s Uskudar district. (Thomas Seibert)
Celebratory gathering. People at the “Dinner on the Ground” in Istanbul’s Uskudar district. (Thomas Seibert)

ISTANBUL - About 100 people gathered in a small park on the Bosporus in Istanbul’s Uskudar district recently to break the fast together during Ramadan. They sat on the grass in long rows and spread home-made food, fruit and sweets on blankets before them, waiting for the muezzin’s call to signal the end of the day.

As the sun set, more people joined them on the bank of the Bosporus. Chatting and laughing, participants opened water bottles and distributed hot soup and bread.

The idyllic nature of the gathering, part of an initiative called “Dinner on the Ground,” belied its political significance in a country with a deep gulf between supporters and critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A few weeks ago, police broke up a “Dinner on the Ground” in Istanbul’s city centre by force and detained several guests.

Erdogan’s party has overseen the rise of new elites, including observant Muslims who have taken the place of Turkey’s traditional secular upper class. The government said this development reflected normalisation in a country with a population that is 99% Muslim.

However, critics accused the AKP, a party with roots in political Islam that has ruled Turkey since 2002, of arrogance, corruption and of ignoring democratic standards to cling to power. Earlier in May, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council, under pressure from Erdogan and the AKP, ordered a rerun of a mayoral election in Istanbul that had been won by an opposition candidate in March.

“Dinners on the Ground,” organised across Turkey during Ramadan, started eight years ago when activists sat to break the fast in front of a five-star hotel in Istanbul where members of the AKP’s Islamic-conservative establishment gathered for a glitzy iftar gala.

Tens of thousands of people take part in “Dinner on the Ground” meetings, Zeki Kilicarslan, a prominent doctor, political activist and co-founder of the initiative, said at the Uskudar meeting. “From the very start, we have been against discrimination and for freedom and the rule of law.”

Celebratory iftar meals at the end of each day during Ramadan are part of Turkey’s national culture. Municipali­ties and charities sponsor iftar events to provide free meals to the poor while more affluent Turks meet for meals in hotels or restaurants. Erdogan recently spoke at an iftar reception for lawmakers in front of Turkey’s parliament building in Ankara.

At the “Dinners on the Ground,” the general idea is to stress Islam’s messages of solidarity, inclusiveness and simplicity, said Bedri, a guest at the Uskudar dinner. He said participants rejected the luxury of official iftar occasions. “One iftar meal can cost as much as the monthly minimal wage” of about $300.

People bring their own food to the “Dinners on the Ground” and expressly welcome everyone, including non-religious Muslims and members of other religions.

Even though there are no corporate sponsors, no chairs or elaborate decorations and no speeches by politicians, the modest meals attract thousands. The biggest “Dinners on the Ground” drew 15,000 people in Istanbul in 2013, the year of the anti-government Gezi unrest.

Ilhan Eliacik, a Muslim theologian critical of Erdogan and the driving force behind the “Dinners on the Ground,” said the gatherings rejected discrimination based on religion or class. “There is no hierarchy, one has to find a place and sit down,” Eliacik told Medyascope.tv, an internet television channel.

“We’re trying to say: Let’s sit down and talk. Those who believe and those who don’t, people from the right and from the left, the pious and the atheists.”

Sitting in front of a blanket filled with plates of fruit, Turkish-style pizza, dates and ayran, a yogurt drink, Sibel, a 56-year-old translator, said she did not keep the fast “but this is a table of solidarity.” She described the meeting as a sign of protest against “the misuse of religion” by the government. “We’re really against the system,” she said.

Some in Uskudar, pointing to police action in Istanbul in May, accused the AKP government of spreading fear among citizens. “People are afraid,” said one participant. “Otherwise many more would be here tonight.”

Eliacik said the simplicity of the “Dinners on the Ground” angered a political establishment used to going to “iftar in luxury cars and living in luxury houses.”

“Some people sit down on the street and put dates, cheese and water on newspapers,” he said. “That makes some people uncomfortable. They don’t want to see that.”

Eliacik was among eight people detained by police on Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square on the first day of Ramadan this year. Video of the incident showed him being led away by police and falling to the ground. Speaking on Medyascope, Eliacik called the events a “black day.”

Authorities said no public gatherings were allowed in the part of Istanbul’s centre chosen for the “Dinner on the Ground” despite letting the events go ahead there in previous years. Eliacik and the others were released a day later.