Turkey's religious body turns into Erdogan's political arm

Turkey's Religious Affairs President Mehmet Gormez stands next to President Erdogan at an extraordinary meeting of Religious
Turkey's Religious Affairs President Mehmet Gormez stands next to President Erdogan at an extraordinary meeting of Religious Council in early August.

When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on millions of people to confront putschists and rogue army troops during abortive coup attempt on July 15, mosques played historic role by reaching out people through call to prayers. Apart form social media, which was normally despised by Erdogan himself in the pre-coup era, mosque proved itself as a traditional medium that offered much-needed service at critical moments.

But startling vividness and central role played by Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs), a bureaucratic institution that regulates religious affairs concerning religious service, mosques and imams, or religious public servants, was not pertained only to that historic day. The politicization of Turkey’s top religious body has for quite some time been in the offing with ominous implications for the relationship between state and religion, or politics and the sacred; two antagonistic fault lines that define unresolved dispute embedded in political modernity, or modern political systems: secularism.

The institution has increasingly become subservient to political rulers today, betraying its founding principle and spirit, leading to questions over the place of religion in politics and the future of political system in Turkey. Diyanet head Mehmet Gormez and other officials frequently appear on TV, release remarks and opinions about current political affairs, mostly in approving fashion of President Erdogan’s policies, even support government crackdown on political opponents.

The recent political assertiveness and publicly partisan standing inflict an irreparable damage to a perceived impartial institution whose very function had conceived been as mere bureaucratic and confined to religious services until very recently. Diyanet is now seen in the eyes of people as an extension of the ruling party and and as its ardent backer. Its paramount task, apart from daily services, is now regarded as a mobilizing tool for pious masses and keep them in party line drawn by Erdogan.

After abolishing of the caliphate in 1924, the republican elites led by founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk saw the institution as an essential tool to keep religious affairs strictly under control of the state. Thus, formation of Diyanet was a natural product of the secular political system designed to deny any autonomous space to religion in political and public sphere. Although the Ottoman rulers also kept the religion under control and servant to its political aims, the Republican administration perfected that endeavor by sophisticated micromanagement, by an expanded bureaucracy that homogenized one version of interpretation of Islam, known as official interpretation that is largely Sunni Islam.

Its meaning and place in Turkish political landscape, its gigantic bureaucratic structure and the exact amount of its budget have always been points of contention and public debate. For secular intellectuals, the body has been seen as an anomaly to the spirit of liberal secularism, while for Turkey’s Alevis, Diyanet is a blunt expression of the Sunni character of the state that leaves little room for heterodox groups and sectarian minorities.

For conservatives and religious segments of society, the body was far from realizing its true potential, had become mostly marginalized or ineffective given far-reaching restrictions imposed by Kemalists in the secular political system. It was this grievance that has now emerged as the dominant view among ruling AKP elites who are embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the entire state apparatus with a missionary zeal.

But it was recently that Diyanet led by Mehmet Gormez appeared as an active and assertive political actor that leaves its mark on public debates by issuing supportive statements for government’s policies. Gormez is now an indispensable figure in the public, offers valuable support by legitimizing Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents, mostly Gulen movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, by portraying the Gulen community as a bunch of heretics and evil people that betray Islam. It is quite normal that Gormez may have different views on a group of people or may harbor critical standing toward seculars, or against other interpretations of Islam. What is disturbing here is the fact that Gormez is a public official, paid by tax payers, and yet he acts as a member of a certain political party, the ruling AK Party. He betrays the impartiality of the institution defined in the country’s laws, however imperfect and defect they might be in reality. During his tenure, observers and critics saw Diyanet turned to a political arm of Erdogan who masters unrivaled sources of public and political power at his disposal.

Apart from controlling media, and economy through patronage networks under his command, and the government, Erdogan tightened his grip now on the army after abortive coup. Erdogan’s mastery of withering political storms and crises is not only confined to his larger-than-life persona, but also to his ability to mobilize masses through benign media, and in the coup attempt, through mosques. The devout portrait of a president is held in high esteem of ordinary folk. For this reason, Diyanet serves as an ideal platform to back up Erdogan through use of religious symbolism and means available.

Diyanet has now publicly taken a side in Erdogan’s personal vendetta and crusade against the Gulen movement, and fulfill its role by laying the groundwork for the nationwide purges and earth-scorching policies against the very normal people who are affiliated with Gulen. Entire Diyanet bureaucracy have been mobilized in this campaign. Friday sermons are reduced to reading political pamphlets of the government, despise and loath Erdogan’s political critics as heretics in religious terms. Politicized content of sermons have alienated many people who go to mosques for Friday prayers but are not supportive of Erdogan.

Of all concerns about Diyanet, a recent report prepared for presentation to a group of Islamic leaders who gathered in Istanbul to discuss the problems of Muslim World this week is singled out from others with gravity of its content.

To the concern of critics, Diyanet report also called for formation of youth branches centered around mosques. Every mosque will have its youth organization. If happens, this would give enormous social power to an already powerful institution. And the youth may well be organized under a certain ideology that may contain political flavors favorable to the ruling Islamist party.

Diyanet, in its report designed to deal with deciphering Gulenists in state bureaucracy, trespassed its boundaries and offered an assessment that otherwise must be carried out by other agencies of the government. Apart from informant role and spying on suspected Gulen sympathizers among imams and members of the mosque congregation, Diyanet scholars have added a new layer to the state-sponsored war against Gulen: theoretical contribution to authorities for ideological efforts.

So to speak, it is a not a political battle or personal feud between Erdogan and Gulen movement, or it is not an investigation led by prosecutors against Gulen people, but rather it must be seen as an existential war between two interpretations of Islam in Turkey, according to Diyanet.

And while Erdogan represents the ideal face of Islam, Diyanet marshaled its scholar corpses, members of High Religious Council, to offer an epistemological argument in portrayal of Gulen movement as a heretic cult. At the 9th Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul on Tuesday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus even went on to say that Gulen movement is Turkey’s Islamic State, as dangerous as radical militants. That approach contains problematic points that reflect the fragmented nature of Turkey’s conservatives and religious segments, and reveals how radicalization may end up in outright dismissal of other Islamist groups as heretics and non-Muslims.

The rejection of Muslim identity of others who don’t share your understanding of Islam is deeply rooted in the Greater Middle East, a region has long been buffeted by endless sectarian strife and armed conflicts. Salafis and other radical groups even denounce Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while elsewhere who are seen as Islamists by the West may well be labeled as heretics in Syria or Yemen by hardliners.

Turkey had remained aloof in the face of such radicalism trap that poisoned social relations elsewhere in the region. But not any more. Recent emergence and domestication of similar tendency is a dangerous precedent for Turkey’s social fabric which so far managed to evade that polarization. Today, polarization is encouraged and even manufactured by AK Party-allied Islamists who seem to eager to import Islamist radicalization, originated elsewhere in the region, back to home to chastise Muslim or secular rivals of the government.

Erdogan has not spared any chance or occasion to hit the Gulen movement, and has used media, police, courts, Turkish embassies abroad, diplomatic meetings, even a meeting at UN General Assembly in New York back in September, business summits, and now Diyanet for that purpose. His crackdown on the movement reached to global level, and he has launched a global hunt for Gulenists wherever they are on earth.

Given presence of Gulen-linked schools across various parts of the Muslim World, Diyanet serves to Erdogan’s agenda to persuade leaders of the countries which hosts those schools. Erdogan’s two-year-old campaign shows signs of crumbling abroad as only a few countries heeded to his request to shut down Gulen-affiliated schools.

Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, even Turkey’s best friend Pakistan and Turkic brothers in Central Asia have all rejected Ankara’s persistent demand to close down schools, citing that those schools are among best in the country and have not violated any law.

After such frustration and exasperation, Diyanet, acting at the order of Erdogan government, used Istanbul gathering as an opportunity to repeat the official narrative about the Gulen movement. During Istanbul summit, Diyanet presented a report to other Muslim leaders that tell “evil character” of the Gulen movement which “exploits religion”. Whether it will succeed or not, time will tell.

But what matters here is the fact that Turkey’s religious body has entirely been politicized, turned itself into a political arm of a leader, and now gives legitimate ground to critics to voice skepticism and opposition to the main function of the institution.

By association with a particular political figure and ideology, Diyanet head Gormez made sure of the fact that the future of reforms regarding the institution have inextricably intertwined with the political future of Erdogan. Once he is gone, the religious body will never be the same and will be subjected to reforms that will ensure depoliticization of the institution, and for good.

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