For many Turks, Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü – also known as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, a Muslim televangelist with a big wardrobe of long robes, matching hats and an untidy beard – is a figure of ridicule rather than awe. A member of the İsmailağa order, Cübbeli has been sailing through broadcast and social media for the last two decades, sprouting controversial views that anger many, including fellow theologians. One fellow theologian has described Ahmet Hoca as “a crazy man with an obsession to be in front of the cameras at all times.”
Cübbeli’s most controversial remarks are, naturally, on sex, but the last one drew an unlikely target: Chess. Cübbeli, as he is known to the public, claimed that playing chess is “worse than gambling and eating pork,” two clearly defined sins in Islamic scripture. Calling chess players “sinners” and “likely liars,” he argued that they would be denied salvation even if they declared their Islamic faith (shahada) in their last breath.
His remarks were far from consistent, as many Cübbeli-watchers pointed out. A few years ago, in a program with journalist Fatih Altaylı, he had said the shahada would purify anyone, “even horrific 90-year-old horrific heathens.” He had also said in 2011 that while Islam categorically banned gambling, there was a difference in how various sects regarded chess, as it was a mind-developing exercise. But consistency has never been one of his strong points – consider his remarks on oral sex: He had first said “keep your mouth clean because you recite the Quran with it,” before later announcing that oral sex was actually no sin at all.
Elsewhere, Cübbeli’s remarks on chess would be laughed off and merely retweeted and re-posted on Facebook and Twitter, along with a long chain of (mostly lewd) comments.
But this time, in the wake of the Reina attack that came after a steady stream of criticism against people celebrating the New Year, the remarks drew outrage as well as legal action. The Turkish Chess Federation announced that it had started legal proceedings, saying Cübbeli’s comments had an impact on thousands of chess players and families at a critical time. “You are pointing the finger at a new target at a time when there are internal and external groups who want to destabilize the country,” wrote Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan, who has long been a strong critic of Cübbeli.
Since the Reina attack, Turkey – from its coffee shops to its TV talk shows – has been engaged in a lively debate on the role and the responsibility of anti-New Year statements in what happened. “You showed the way to the terrorist with your endless condemnation of New Year festivities,” is a shout heard long and clear, though “you” may vary according to the speaker – from theologians to politicians to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). One NGO even launched a court case against Diyanet head Mehmet Görmez earlier this week. Many believe Görmez’s statement condemning the attack was painfully short, coming after the Diyanet’s Friday sermon on Dec. 30 that was harshly critical of New Year celebrations.
Still, the wording of the Diyanet’s sermon pales in comparison to some of the “so-called pious” hate-speech on the Internet, both before and after the Raina attack. “I’m not going to cry over the death of those squirming under a different man every night at Raina,” read one tweet, mixing religious radicalism with misogyny. The tweet was removed after several people reported it, yet many others who target lifestyles, women, transgender people or, as in this case, chess players, remain.
The Reina attack is the first reminder of 2017 that hate speech on the internet has become a major issue. It is no longer a case of “sticks and stones can break our bones but words cannot hurt us,” because those words do indeed now.
Turkey is not alone in this. It can learn from the best practices, such as the understanding reached between Germany and major social media outlets. What we need is stronger rules against hate speech, particularly organized hate speech, and greater freedom of expression for legitimate criticism. It should not be the other way around.