I started to write this as a letter to a friend but decided instead to post it here. It is in response to a thread on a Lonely Planet forum regarding what, in Turkey, is called Kurban Bayramı (Sacrifice Holiday). Potential visitors frequently comment about this holiday and wonder what they might see or even if they should travel during this time. The Sacrifice Holiday or Feast of the Sacrifice is an Islamic religious festival. In Turkey, it is known as Kurban Bayramı (koor-BAHN bahy-rah-muh), and in Arabic; Eid el-Adha or Eid el-Kebir. Muslim families sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep or goat but often larger animals, in commemoration of the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son.
Kurban Bayramı is also the time of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), so both domestic and international travel is intense in Turkey at this time.
My friend wrote in the Lonely Planet thread that the Kurban Bayramı “is NOT about killing animals for food, but about killing animals as a religious sacrifice. I think pre Christians of old did this once in ancient times, Hindus still do it, certainly Buddhists abhor it, but the concept of creating religious merit through killing an animal is difficult to understand these days for non-Muslims – perhaps they too are questioning this concept now?”
Wikipedia tells us that animal sacrifice is performed because “the sacrificial ceremony acts as a medium, a means of communication with the sacred, which enables him to create a link, a communion between him and the invisible powers”.
My response was…
I believe you are correct in assuming that there are many people in Turkey who have and now are questioning the concept. Many of the younger generation and some of the enlightened elders no longer practice, or have never practiced this custom. As the educated middle-class expands (we hope), methinks this “custom” will continue to abate. It is, after all, a custom–many of the people who slaughter an animal for this holiday do so because their parents and grand parents and those before them performed this ritual, much as a non-Christian or atheist might decorate a Christmas tree or sing holiday songs with his more pious colleagues.
IF these people eat meat, and most do at least occasionally, AND IF meat-eating is OK, then I do not understand why anyone would think the Kurban practice is barbaric? Most of the street slaughter and public blood-letting has been relegated to “official” places where an imam, a veterinarian and the person “sacrificing” the animal go to kill, dress and distribute the meat. So much of the “nastiness” of the business is now hidden away. I do not see this practice any more barbaric than slaughterhouses or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
I am a vegetarian and I believe that meat-eaters, especially those so-called Christians (aka Westerners), who attempt to justify their meat-eating and then who turn around and condemn the sacrifice of creatures on the street, or the killing of dolphins, whales, dogs, cats or other “cute” animals are hypocrites. For example, in an article called You eat cows, we eat dolphins, Paul Scott blasts “the hypocrisy of attempting to label the horrifying slaughter of these caring, intelligent creatures (dolphins) as a moral repugnance all the while chewing on your hamburger.”
I read an article recently by Roger Ebert a film reviewer and critic. It is called Did You Choose Your Religion?. Several paragraphs into the article Ebert writes “Today I saw an extraordinary film named “The Other Son,” about Israeli and Palestinian baby boys who were mistakenly switched at birth…We have two boys accustomed to think of themselves as Jewish or Palestinian, and they are legally each other….How many people choose their religion, and how many have it thrust upon them?”
Most of the people who might call themselves Muslims in Turkey were born into it just like the Baptists and Methodists, Catholics and others who call themselves Christians in the United States. At the founding of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk declared (not always publicly) that Islam was the reason Turkey was so backward, he started to move the country into a semi-“godless” arena where the practice of Islam was scorned by many of his followers and predecessors. The idea of secularism in Turkey is actually the concept of Laicism, which has been to control religion and not to keep it separate from political activity. The military made sure that happened between 1923 until recently.
For a long time, most of the educated elite would not be seen attending a mosque, it was considered taboo, or backward or only something “villagers” (i.e, peasants) might do. There are a lot of old and middle-aged Turks who have never been in a mosque in their life. Many of them have no clue about what is in the Koran (Quran) other than what they read in the papers or what some neighbor or friend told them.
In Turkey, all official imams are on the federal payroll, they are public servants and are sent a sermon to “preach” on Fridays. When the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) or Justice and Development Party was elected to power in 2002, they started to loosen the prohibitions on religion, much to the great concern of the more conservative of those who call themselves Kemalists. This change may be for the better or not. If it goes too far it could lead to State Fundamentalism and fundamentalists of every religion on the planet tend not to be very tolerant of opposing viewpoints.
Most Bibles in the United States are in English, but most Sunday school classes teach the “party line” of whatever branch of Christianity they belong to and are seldom questioned. My mother wanted me to go to what are called catechism classes in the Lutheran church. I used to ask embarrassing questions such as why is it OK to say fuck but not damn? Or why is it OK to smoke cigarettes but not drink alcohol or go to dances or how could a god condemn to hell those such as “primitives”, who have never heard “his” word? I got into a lot of trouble over that and those questions sewed the seeds of my own refutation of any religion.
Likewise, in Turkey and other countries with Muslim populations, many of those who go to Koran courses only memorize the Arabic symbols and mutter the Arabic phrases but few of them actually grow to learn the meaning of what they murmur.
Some of the current generation of children and grandchildren of old Kemalists, and others, are going through a spiritual awakening. The AK Party regime of Prime Minister Erdogan has made it fashionable to wear religious symbols such as headscarves and does not forbid imams to wear their religious garb outside of mosques. The AKP also encourages religious activities and some young people are seeking to fill a spiritual void in their lives. All they have known or are surrounded by is Islam, they were born into it and attempt to find their lost spirituality through it. This is leading to a polarisation among the population. The failed attempt to control religion was like putting too much heat to a pressure cooker, soon the lid will blow and it is starting to hiss steam in Turkey.
Religion is strong stuff to many people, too strong to control, that was one reason the framers of the Constitution of the United States wrote into it the separation of church and state. Its success has been mixed but the results, at least until recently, were better than most other so-called secular places. Christian fundamentalism is now rearing its ugly head in the United States and fundamentalists are calling the country a “christian nation.” If this continues, it can only lead to State Fundamentalism. One recent example was the furor over whether Obama is a Muslim or not. The real issue should be, in a country where the Constitution mandates a separation of Church and State, why should it matter?