12/13/2017 10:54 EST | Updated 12/13/2017 10:55 EST

Turkey's Political Rift Has Made Prisoners Of Babies And Mothers

Mothers and their children have been detained as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a rival of the current Turkish leader Recep Erdogan.

This weekend the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights conferred awards to human rights champions in Edmonton. There was a sizable Muslim community in the audience judging by the number of women who sported the headscarf. They were from the Turkish community and had prepared excellent Turkish treats. Food, of course, is an essential part of Muslim hospitality.

Many of them were from the Intercultural Dialogue Institute (IDI), which does incredible community work in forging inter-faith and inter-cultural ties.

At the awards, they raised concerns about the 668 children under the age of six who they claim are in overcrowded Turkish prison cells along with their mothers.

About 17,000 women, many of whom are school teachers, have been accused as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a rival of the current Turkish leader Recep Erdogan.

I have cursorily known about the rift between the two Turkish leaders. But I did not anticipate the impact such political rivalry has had on ordinary everyday citizens.

According to those who are raising awareness on the campaign for 668 children, Gulen's teachings are peaceful and spiritual. Others claim that he wishes to control power through his social network. He is accused of instigating a military coup last year, a charge he vehemently denies.

The situation reminded me of the persecution of Falun Gong, a group that practices peaceful spiritual practice, by the Chinese government. But it also reminded me of religious groups in Pakistan whose social work seeks to garner momentum for a specific cause.

Outside Turkey, people in the Muslim world look up to Turkey as a symbol of economic progress and as a modern Muslim country, like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Umit Bektas / Reuters
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan.

However, there are also fan boys who wish to resuscitate the Caliphate. There are those who view Turkey under Erdogan as a powerful Muslim country that can stand up to Israel, whether it was the issue of the Gaza flotilla (never mind the shift in Erdogan's position in 2016) or the more recent case of the U.S. naming Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Yet, it is also true that women, who wear the headscarf and whose newborn babies are of the same ethnic stock as the Turkish people, have been put in prison cells.

This suggests that dehumanization spares no one. One does not need to be LGBTQ, or belong to a minority religious denomination like Ahmadis, or belong to minority faith groups like Christians in Pakistan to be persecuted. Even those with mainstream Muslim beliefs with conservative religious practice, like followers of Gulen, are viewed with contempt, based on the preponderance of online comments by Muslims outside Turkey.

In this play for privilege and power, many innocent lives are destroyed, be they Ahmadis in Pakistan, Falun Gong in China or the followers of Fethullah Gulen in Turkey.

Charles Mostoller / Reuters
U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Why must 668 babies and their mothers pay the price for the Erdogan-Gulen political rift?

I am not particularly interested in the spiritual beliefs of Ahmadis, Falun Gong or Fethullah Gulen, but if we are to uphold freedom of belief and expression, then it must be afforded to all human beings including those who believe and behave differently from us.

The keynote speaker, Robert P. Lee, at the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, mentioned that we need to focus on intersectional human rights work. This is true, for anybody can usually speak up for their own rights.

In this regard, we can learn about the situation of 668 babies in Turkish prison cells here and sign the petition to free prisoners of conscience, the mothers and their babies here.

Needless to say, we can always play our civic duty for our neighbours in need by calling our respective MPs in Canada, where we enjoy immense privilege of freedom of expression and belief and use it for the succour of those who are denied the same.

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