Turkey Shuts Down French Language Programs in Response to Quran Reform Letter

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gesture as he delivers a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party, during its weekly meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Erdogan has reacted angrily to a group of some 300 well-known French personalities who urged prominent Muslims, by …
Kayhan Ozer/Presidency Press Service via AP

Turkey banned universities in the country from accepting new students in their French language departments in response to a letter from prominent French personalities urging the Muslim world to abandon the violent passages that remain in the Quran, a Turkish official confirmed to Al Jazeera on Sunday.

Authorities at the Turkish Higher Education Board emphasized that students already pursuing a major in French would not have to change course or abandon their pursuit of a degree in that study, but that those not grandfathered into the system would no longer have the choice of learning French.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency first reported that universities would “not allow further enrolment in French departments devoid of students” last week, not mentioning the dispute with a letter published in the French outlet Le Parisien on April 22 urging Muslims to work to remove anti-Semitism and violent rhetoric generally from the faith.

“The education body cited as reasons for the decision the difficulty for graduates to find employment and a lack of reciprocity,” Anadolu reported instead. It noted that 16 of 19 French language and literature departments in the country have no registered students, and further complained that French universities largely “do not offer undergraduate-level courses in Turkish Language and Literature and do not have Turkology departments.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Turkish lawmaker Emrullah Isler—chairman of Parliament’s Committee on National Education, Culture, Youth and Sport—said the real reason for shutting down French programs was retaliation for the Le Parisien letter.

“We have condemned the controversial statements on the Quran coming from France. And the Higher Education Board, which is an autonomous institution, made this move as a response to those statements,” Isler said. “Lack of university departments in France that teach in Turkish is another factor behind the decision. They need to form decent Turkology departments there.”

The letter published in the French magazine was titled “Manifesto Against the ‘New Anti-Semitism‘” and signed by hundreds of prominent French people, including former president Nikolas Sarzoky and wife Carla Bruni, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, actor Gerard Depardieu, Charlie Hebdo‘s Philippe Val, and singer Charles Aznavour. The letter contests that fear of being accused of Islamophobia has allowed the spread of Islam-based anti-Semitism.

“Islamist radicalism—and the anti-Semitism that it fuels—is considered exclusively by a sector of the French elite to be the expression of social revolt,” the letter reads, warning that “Muslim anti-Semitism is the greatest threat to Islam in the 21st century.”

“We ask that the verses of the Quran calling for the killing and punishment of Jews, Christians, and unbelievers be rendered obsolete by theological authorities,” the signatories ask, “as the incoherencies of the Bible and the Catholic anti-Semitism abolished by Vatican II were, so that no believer can rely on a sacred text to commit a crime.”

The manifesto appeared to be referring to various verses in the Quran warning of a lamentable fate for those who do not believe in Islam. Among the most popularly cited is Quran 2:191, which reads:

And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.

This weekend, Paris experienced its latest Islamist attack by a 20-year-old jihadist identified as Khamzat Azimov, who killed one and injured four in a stabbing spree in Paris.

The version of the letter Le Parisien published online does not mention Turkey, but Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to it with outrage, comparing the signatories to the Islamic State.

“Who are you to attack our scriptures? We know how vile you are,” Erdogan said in remarks last week. “You are no different than ISIS.”

The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs also issued a statement calling the letter “out of line.”

“According to the Quran, whatever his/her belief is, human life is valuable, untouchable, and the unjust killing of a human being is like killing all humans, and the survival of a human being is like keeping all the humankind alive,” the statement read.

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