Despite the ongoing political tension between Turkey’s Islamist-leaning administration and its secularist opponents, some of Turkey’s Islamic voices are raising hopes for a liberal future for the country. One of them, Mehmet Gormez, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA), took a commendable step recently by affirming the rights and liberty of both the Alevis, Turkey’s largest non-Sunni minority, and Turkish atheists.
First, it may be helpful to explain what the DRA, a peculiarity of Turkey’s self-styled “secularism,” is. The official institution was established in 1924 after the abolition of the Islamic caliphate by founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new republic. The republic was destined to be thoroughly “secular” in the sense that it was not controlled by religion, but would itself control religion. The DRA, which employs all imams in the more than 80,000 mosques across Turkey, has been the main vehicle of this state control over faith. Its budget is twice the size of the health ministry, and its voice is as authoritative for Turks as Al-Azhar University is for Egyptians.
Under the Justice and Development Party, whose Islamic sympathies are obvious, the DRA became even more significant, but also somewhat reformist under the leadership of two liberal-leaning theologians: Ali Bardakoglu, who was appointed in 2003, and his former vice chair Mehmet Gormez, who replaced him in 2010. Bardakoglu had openly condemned misogyny and appointed women as muftis (Islamic jurists) for the first time in 2005. Gormez, for his part, entered the public record in 2012 as a defender of the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.
Gormez’s latest remarks on freedom of Alevis and atheists came as a new step in this direction, notably at an iftar (fast-breaking) dinner hosted by his own directorate in Ankara on July 23. Speaking to a large crowd, the majority pious Sunni Muslims, he said, “Every human being who lives in Turkey should express the values of their religion freely without any discrimination. Both modern law and our belief system order us to do so. The Quran always gives people a choice whether to believe it or not. If someone decides to deny the Quran, it won’t be appropriate for me, as a religious man, to deny his thought. God already gave everyone this option.”
It was quite important that, with this statement, Gormez based freedom from religion on not only “modern law,” but also religion itself. The atheists have the right to deny God and express their atheistic thoughts not because Muslims had to respect modern liberalism, but because they had to respect individuals’ God-given freedom to believe or not to believe. (Gormez added that the expression of atheism should not come in the form of “humiliating religion,” but in Turkey, where “insult” of almost anything is deemed a crime, this was liberal enough.)
At a time when some radical “Islamic” voices in the Middle East or the subcontinent call for the execution of atheists for "apostasy" or "blasphemy," Gormez’s statement was certainly a breath of fresh air. The same can be said for his take on the Alevis’ religious demands, as well, which is an almost exclusively Turkish issue. Turkey’s Alevis, which make up some estimated 10-15% of the population, have long complained from the exclusively Sunni nature of the DRA. Although the institution is financed by all taxpayers, it serves only the Sunni community by running their mosques and paying their imams, whereas Alevi places of worship (cemevis) enjoy neither official support nor recognition. The Turkish state and its Sunni politicians have defended this structure by arguing that recognizing the cemevis as an “alternative to the mosque” would define Alevism as a separate religion and thus jeopardize the “unity of the nation.” (In Turkey, “one nation under God” reads as “one nation under the same religion.”) The Sunni Gormez, however, dismissed this Sunni-dominant rhetoric at his iftar speech, and argued:
“How members of a certain belief group describe themselves, wherever they gather to practice their religion, that’s how it should be evaluated. … Let’s leave Sunni citizens to live as Sunnis, Alevi citizens to live as Alevis and our atheist friends, if there are any, to live their lives according to their values. The controversial debates on theology will bring us only conflicts, nothing more.”
In other words, instead of making a definition of Alevism according to Sunni Islam, and then asking from the state to act accordingly — as most Sunnis do — Gormez asked from the state to consider Alevis as Alevi consider themselves. He, in short, offered a pluralism of religious traditions and theologies.
Such liberal voices in Turkish Islam, which are not exclusive to Gormez, raise the hope that, despite the bitter confrontation between Turkey’s Islamists and secularists — and all the fervor, zeal and lunacy on both sides — the country’s potential for presenting a synthesis of Islam and liberal democracy is still intact. It might just be a bit buried these days under the brouhaha of politics.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a columnist for Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish