Istanbul, April 6 () - Thousands of Turkish students have raised their voices in online campaigns to build Jedi and Buddhist temples at their universities, after a series of mosques were constructed on their campuses by rectors who stressed “huge demand.”
The debate started last month when Mehmet Karaca, rector of Istanbul Technical University (İTÜ), announced that “a landmark mosque” would be built on the campus.
While stressing “huge demand,” the rector referred to a petition on change.org that more than 185,000 people signed to demand the construction of İTÜ’s first mosque.
Karaca’s positive response to an online campaign encouraged university students from other religions around Turkey, as well as many others who launched satirical campaigns to point at what they claimed to be a political emphasis on “religious populism” even as many education institutions lack scientific instruments and research funds.
In one of the counter-campaigns on change.org, more than 25,000 people demanded a Buddhist temple at İTÜ.
“I can’t fulfill my religious needs because the closest Buddhist temple is 2,000 kilometers away, and I can’t go there during lunch break,” a petitioner named Utku Gürçağ Borataç said on the website.
Zeynep Özkatip, who launched the petition, complained in an interview to daily Hürriyet that the university administration did not contact her despite the “huge demand” for the proposed Buddhist temple.
“If they think that building a mosque is realistic, unlike building a Buddhist temple, for the fact that donations need to be collected for the construction, they are wrong. We have already received enough donation promises to complete the construction,” she said.
Özkatip, a third-year student in İTÜ’s Civil Engineering Department, also complained that she received “threats” due to the petition.
“We ironically see that those who keep talking about Islamophobia have no tolerance for other religions,” she said.
At a university far, far away...
Despite the hurdles that some İTÜ students are facing in demanding a Buddhist temple, a similar campaign has been launched at another Turkish university in a province far, far away.
In one of the most popular among them, a number of Dokuz Eylül University students in the western province of Izmir have demanded a Jedi temple to be built on their campus.
“To recruit new Jedi and to bring balance to the Force, we want a Jedi temple,” said the petition that received more than 3,900 signatures on change.org, referring to the famed knights of the fictional Star Wars universe.
Karaca, the rector who apparently opened the Pandora’s Box at several universities, had also vowed to build a synagogue on İTÜ’s campus, if there is enough demand from students.
His critics, on the other hand, say the emphasis on popular demand may potentially damage minority rights.
Turkey’s government-controlled religious authority, the Diyanet, announced late last year that mosques were being built on campuses at more than 80 universities in the Muslim-majority country.
So far, the government, which is accused of pursuing a Sunni-driven agenda by the opposition, has not publicized any plans to fulfill the needs of students who belong to other sects and religions in Turkey.
Debate on democracy
The debate also stirred controversy around the question as to whether Turkish universities are administered democratically or not.
Sedat Laçiner, then-rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Univerity (ÇÖMÜ), started the construction of three mosques in one year. By the end of 2015, the total capacity of the three mosques and 53 masjids at the university is expected to exceed 15,000.
While a number of its students complain about lack of scientific instruments and research funds at ÇÖMÜ, Laçiner managed to win the election to keep his seat, thanks to a total of 253 votes.
President Tayyip Erdoğan, however, opted to appoint another scholar as the rector of ÇÖMÜ last month, using his constitutional authority.
Erdoğan’s disapproval of Laçiner was presented by a number of Turkish media outlets as an expected response to the former rector’s alleged links to the movement of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen.
Gülen is the erstwhile ally of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which also has a political Islamist background.