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'Bogus Muslims' exposed for 'fake it 'til you make it' attitude

Muslims faking sudden commitments to a religious lifestyle for political and financial gain are facing backlash from pious Muslims as well as criticism from secularists.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in front of a mosque after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Turkey, May 29, 2015. Erdogan said the launch of Ziraat Bank's Islamic business should help to attract new funds to Turkey and urged other state lenders to help to triple Islamic banking's share of the market by 2023. Islamic finance has developed slowly in Turkey, the world's eighth most populous Muslim nation, partly because of political sensitivities and the secular nature of its laws. However,

Two photos of former Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentarian Rifat Sait and his wife appeared in Turkish newspapers June 10. In one image, the politician has a healthy, pious beard, and his wife wears a headscarf. In the other, more recent photo, Sait is clean shaven and wears a tie, while his wife is no longer covered. Publication of the photos has raised the issue of “bogus Muslims” and loss of faith in the AKP.

Reports have alleged that once Sait understood he would not be elected on the AKP ticket, he and his wife reverted to their secular selves. Sait issued a press release June 14 stating, “My wife and I made the hajj in September 2014, and after that she decided to become a hijabi [cover her hair], and I did not trim my beard. Then I decided to trim my beard going back to my job at the parliament. My wife, under her own will, decided to remove her headscarf. Our choices have nothing to do with the election.”

AKP parliamentarian Rifat Sait appears on the left with a beard while his wife wears a headscarf. On the right, in a more recent photo, Sait is clean shaven and his wife no longer wears a headscarf. (photo by Twitter/@Enginish)

The comments in various newspapers and on social media found readers less than convinced by Sait's statement. There have been too many cases in which people suddenly exhibit a change of heart and become observant Muslims soon after they receive status rewards, fame or lucrative incomes. When the award is no longer available, they quietly return to their secular lifestyles. 

News of the Saits' changed appearance was initially reported primarily by opposition media, but after Rifat issued his statement, it made pro-AKP media headlines along with harsh criticism of opposition media, accusing them of slander and distorting reality. The reporting generated a surprising backlash from pro-AKP readers. The pro-AKP Islamist daily Yeni Akit wrote, “Sozcu, an opposition secular daily, got it wrong again.” Here are some examples of reader comments:

  • “We lost [the June 7 election] because of defending these kind of people. Stop defending them.”
  • “So we are told she took on the hijab to go to hajj. Here is one of the mistakes of the AKP. It is filled with people who do not know Islam. As if our religion says cover your head when you go to do your hajj duty, then take it off. Grow a beard, and shave it after hajj. If it were not for [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, the party would be nothing. Erdogan’s soul balances all this mess.”
  • “Sozcu is not wrong. What kind of preaching and practice is this?”
  • “Hijab is a must. There is no wiggle room”

Another pro-AKP news outlet, Haber 7, proclaimed, “Here is the true story of those two photos.” The reader comments were similar to those Yeni Akit generated:

  • “Cover, remove! What is this, a machine? You are a politician brother, you have to be more vigilant.”
  • “It is clear that they tried to look devout for other people’s approval, not for God. I suggest some religion classes.”
  • “People who work for the AKP’s mission are less than the fingers on a hand. The main goal of others is to become rich.”
  • “Why are you defending these people?”

The comments of pious readers were much harsher than those of secularists.

The June 7 election results have led to serious soul searching among AKP cadres, with devout Muslims losing confidence in the AKP’s sincerity. A scholar of Islam who works in a government institute spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, for fear of losing his job. He said, "These sort of bogus Muslims hurt the pious people’s image in the society. Fifteen years ago, when one said, 'She is an observant Muslim,' people would at least assume she was trustworthy. Now the whole society questions if we are sincere or just faking it for financial and other benefits.

"Also, we see real devout Muslims who have lost their business ethics. Corruption has become so widespread that it is the norm. Devout Muslims who are becoming extremely rich in a few years consider it normal, nothing to be ashamed of or even to conceal. They believe it is their right. It is a painful process to watch for us. Everyone knows that these government employees could not afford flats or cars of such luxury without corrupt dealings, but no one even reacts. It is all out in the open. For those sham Muslims who find displays of religious symbols a route to financial gain, it is normal to revert to their true origins, as they are not believers. I suspect the AKP hype will still last a while, as long as they are able to distribute rewards to supporters."

Indeed, several Islamist pundits have spoken out against the loss of Islamic values as the number of supposedly devout Muslims increases in Turkey. Also, theologians, such as professor Hayri Kirbasoglu, have publicly spoken out, criticizing AKP elites who use religion to praise Erdogan and practically elevate him to the level of a caliph. Kirbasoglu said, “In the last decade, we observed a deep erosion of Islamic values and these people act in such a way just for personal gain. The bitter joke is that the five pillars of Islam are now reduced to three in Turkey: political career, money and fame. These three have evolved in a way to erode the core values of Islamists.”

Zeynep Bozdas, foreign relations adviser for Huda-Par, the pro-Kurdish Islamist party, told Al-Monitor, "The values of some people change to match the values of the government. Those who were struggling to prove they are secular are now displaying images to convince others that they are devout Muslims. They alter their wardrobe and home decor, recite Arabic words, even pretend to pray and attend religious meetings. We want to believe people are truly devout, so no one wants to criticize religious beliefs, but then when you see their masquerade for political or financial benefit, one cannot help but feel distraught. The AKP lost a lot of trust because they awarded people whose masks were exposed just like Egemen Bagis."

Bagis, a former EU minister whose name surfaced in the December 2013 corruption probe, allegedly had a phone conversation with a journalist mocking Quranic verses. Bagis is now an Erdogan adviser at the White Palace.

Umit Kivanc, a political pundit and documentary producer, believes that fake Muslims should be worrisome for everyone. Kivanc told Al-Monitor, “The assumptions we had about religion and morality proved to be wrong. We witnessed legalization and normalization of corruption and lawlessness together. There has of course been corruption in Turkey before, but religion was traditionally seen as the last pure area. Now that is no longer the case.”

There are plenty of cases of bogus Muslims in the media and arts whose careers profited from their becoming an observant Muslim, at least in the public arena. The AKP’s rewarding for these sudden commitments to religious values and Erdogan’s cult of personality have generated strong distrust among both pious and secular segments of society.

When the actress Angelina Jolie met with Erdogan in Mardin province June 20, an Islamist commentator, Zeynep Belgeli, tweeted, “Keep this woman away from our president. She may fall in love with him. He is handsome.” When reminded that Jolie is married, Belgeli replied, “Is Brad Pitt even charismatic? He is like a wet cat in the rain.” It seems fake it 'til you make it is still the norm for those hoping to climb the ladder of wealth and status in Turkey.

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