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Is Erdogan signaling end of secularism in Turkey?

The Religious Affairs Directorate has become the center of the election campaign in Turkey, causing further social discord.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a Peace Summit ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, in Istanbul April 23, 2015. Thousands of Australians, New Zealanders and Turks gathered on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula on Thursday ahead of the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of World War One. A century ago, thousands of soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) struggled ashore on a narrow beach at Gallipoli at the start of an ill-fated

In a televised speech April 25 for the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bluntly criticized the campaign promises of two leftist parties about the Religious Affairs Directorate (known as the Diyanet). “They are now targeting the Diyanet," he said. "The main opposition party [referring to the Republican People’s Party (CHP)] has written in their election platform, 'The Diyanet will be at equal distance to all faiths.' The religion of this nation is clear. And the members of other religious communities have their own institutions, and those are clear. So why are they bringing the controversy to the doors of the Diyanet?”

Erdogan then focused on pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) that had promised to close down the Diyanet. “And those who promise to abolish the Diyanet, it is clear what kind of a lesson our nation will teach them,” said Erdogan, who urged the main opposition party, CHP, to join HDP in promising to close down the Diyanet. “When we look at the establishment of the Diyanet, we see that it was during the time of founder of Turkey and CHP, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Why won’t the CHP tell you this?”

Erdogan continued his speech imploring both CHP and HDP aim to shut down imam-hatip high schools. This was not a spontaneous statement, but rather a coordinated effort, as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu echoed the same sentiment at the Sivas rally a few hours after Erdogan. “HDP is a violent gang," Davutoglu said. "However, this nation will not let you shut down the Diyanet. We are going to protect the Diyanet and all other moral values of this nation.”

Why has the Diyanet become such a center of attention for the upcoming elections?

At least three reasons:

  • The Diyanet is supersized. In the last couple of years, as an institution under the prime minister’s office, the directorate has expanded its budget and employment significantly (doubled between 2003 and 2013). Reaching over 120,000 permanent and 30,000 additional temporary employees, the Diyanet is a major institution. A scholar of theology, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor, “There are almost 100,000 members of the Diyanet now in the field actively campaigning for the Justice and Development Party [AKP]. The institution provides two benefits only to the AKP; first through the mosque network, [all imams are appointed and paid by the Diyanet that also subsidizes all Sunni mosques]. They [operate in the] most remote corners of Turkey; and not be ignored is the decent reputations mosque imams enjoy. People still respect them.”

  • The Diyanet is now viewed as a tool of the AKP. A former mufti and CHP parliamentarian Ihsan Ozkes has gone on the record several times explaining that Ataturk and his colleagues established the Diyanet for a purpose different from what it has become. He reiterated his respect for the imams and Diyanet employees but also criticized the sermons written by the directorate as a crutch to the alleged corruption of the AKP.

  • Reports of lavish Diyanet spending. For example, a $375,000 Mercedes specially designed for Diyanet head Mehmet Gormez. As these allegations spread, the Diyanet announced that the car was only about $120,000. Indeed, harsh social media criticism has even been brought into Friday sermons by prominent imams in Turkey. One of the young and popular Istanbul imams, Yasin Gundogdu, told his congregation: “Do not believe all the fake news generated by some media outlets. And remember, the prophet himself was riding the best of camels. If you are a high-level government employee, you need to be protected.” Before the luxury car discussions were over, there were allegations that Gormez's residence had been renovated and a jacuzzi was installed. The jacuzzi's price was stated as 500,000 Turkish lira ($190,000).

Not all Muslim scholars were condoning the alleged lavish spending. Ihsan Eliacik, an Islamic scholar-author, said that if the allegations were true, and these are bought by government money, this would be treachery. "In a country where the poverty limit is 1,300 lira [$489] and minimum wage 949 lira [$357], we can expect about 6 million people living below the poverty line," he added. "In such a country, the leaders cannot build a palace, should not purchase Mercedes cars or lead luxurious lives. To the contrary, they should give up all these.”

Al-Monitor spoke with members of different religious communities in Istanbul, Izmir and Diyarbakir. One young imam, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “I get paid by the Diyanet, and I have good benefits and a retirement plan. Yet here I am in a small town in Diyarbakir province. Most of the congregation here is Shafi [most people in Turkey belong to the Hanafi sect so the Diyanet teaches Hanafi school of Islam]. They do not pray with me. They come to the mosque and they are nice and respectful but they don’t want me as their imam. I had high hopes becoming an imam to reach out to the community and help people. Now I am stuck with a community who sees me as alien.”

Similarly, Caferi (Shiites) in Turkey told Al-Monitor that they cover their expenses and educate their own imams with no help from the Diyanet. Jews and Christians of Turkey also do not receive any services from the directorate. All communities pay taxes for the institution but it only serves some.

The main argument is that Turkey is 99% Muslim. However, there is a strong controversy. Are Alevis Muslim? The Diyanet does not recognize their prayer house, cemevi, and keeps building mosques and providing imams for these communities. Yet, Alevis are not exempt from religion classes in middle and high school.

Hatice Altinisik of HDP’s Central Executive Council told Al-Monitor, “As an Alevi mother, raising a child in Istanbul I struggled with the religion class since the early 2000s. My child was ostracized, called an 'unbeliever' because we wanted him not to attend the religion class. The Sunni teachings are contradictory to our beliefs and young children are confused between their family’s teaching and school indoctrination. Yet, today you can see several towns all over Anatolia, where the elders are Alevi but the youth has been Sunnified. The cemevis are in a difficult position as well. The government does not give them any tax breaks, and their buildings can be confiscated if they cannot pay their dues. Ironically, the government pays for imams in Alevi towns with no congregations. I met a young aspiring imam in Gokcam town of Corum district. He was bored because all he had to do was to read the call to prayer five times a day with no one coming to the mosque. The government sees Alevis as citizens when it is time to pay taxes, but not when it comes to listen to our demands and respect our identity.”

Indeed, Alevis are not alone. A small but expanding Salafist group in Turkey is also against the Diyanet. They are critical of its activities such as celebrating the prophet’s birthday with cakes in the shape of the Quran or Kaaba.

While the AKP tries to portray the directorate as a moral value to be protected, the HDP asks a valid question: “Did we learn Islam from the Diyanet that we cannot survive without it?”

While Erdogan’s most recent comments put the last nails in the coffin of secularism in Turkey, controversy about the Diyanet is likely to continue beyond the June elections.

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