A simple phrase uttered by millions of Muslims every day landed Ali Bahçeci in hot water 19 years ago. This was what was colloquially called "old Turkey" then. This former taekwondo referee and coach of the Turkish national taekwondo team has finally had his rights reinstated.
It all started when the national team's players that won medals at an international tournament in Belgium chanted, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), which can be heard five times a day from mosques by state-appointed muezzins who call the faithful to prayers. The year was 1999, two years after generals backed by the secular elite forced the government to step down in a coup that openly targeted conservative Turks and anyone they viewed as the Muslim faithful.
The 38-year veteran of Turkish taekwondo suddenly faced a complaint filed by an official from Turkey's Sports Ministry. It was not a crime to say, "Allahu Akbar," but Bahçeci was already blacklisted in the eyes of ultra-secular members of the public who opposed even a slight hint of religiousness in public. "They categorized this act (of chanting) as "behavior inappropriate with sports ethics," he remembers. Thus, he was banned from tournaments for three months. Later, it was extended to six months, and his referee license was revoked. Finally, authorities suspended him from his coaching duties. Ever since, he has appealed the decision repeatedly but to no avail. His final appeal was to the Ombudsman's Office, the chief authority on human rights violations. "Thanks to them, my ban was lifted and my referee license was given back," he told Anadolu Agency (AA).
"This was an unfair sentence. I was punished for a crime that does not exist. I had nowhere to go as all officials I sent my appeal to had the same mindset as those behind the 1997 coup," he recalled.
The 1997 coup stands out among several other coups in Turkey in terms of how it unfolded. Both before and after the coup, thousands of people were blacklisted, dismissed from their public duties and forced to drop out of schools simply for their adherence to the Islamic faith or viewed as such by a military/civilian elite that had an imposing force on the government. Girls and young women were barred from schools for wearing the headscarf and public sector workers lost their jobs for praying. Years later, Turkey sentenced generals behind the coup to life and managed to remove the regulations and laws of the putschist mindset, including the headscarf ban. Legal cases like Bahçeci's take a longer time due to the judicial bureaucracy, which remains cumbersome.