During the month of Ramadan, preachers hosting and starring in TV programs with religious content were in high demand in Turkey, just as they were in many other Muslim countries.
Lay and religious critics, however, took issue with the hundreds of thousands of liras reportedly earned by Turkey’s televangelists during Ramadan and the rest of the year.
A favorite target of detractors is theologian and university professor Nihat Hatipoglu, who reportedly makes 600,000 Turkish liras (about $200,000) every Ramadan. A graduate of an imam-hatip high school and Ankara University’s Faculty of Divinity, Hatipoglu first took flak in 2014 for the astronomical figure he reportedly received from the pro-government media outlet ATV. At the time, Ihsan Eliacik — a leading voice of Turkey’s “anti-capitalist Muslims” who oppose the neoliberal policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — called upon Hatipoglu to distribute his appearance fee among the poor if he is “a Muslim, honest and a man — [preaching Islam] is not about giving lectures and pocketing the money.”
Social media users took a more jocular route. Some compared Hatipoglu to Bryan Cranston’s legendary character Walter White, who got rich manufacturing methamphetamine in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” while others called the religious scholar the “sultan of 11 months,” using images showing him up to his neck in a pile of money. Traditionally, Turks call the month of Ramadan “the sultan of 11 months” because it is considered to be the holiest of the 12 months in the Islamic lunar calendar.
Hatipoglu has denied receiving the astronomical figures in question.
While Muslim televangelists render an important social service for the people of Turkey, of whom only 9% read the Quran on a daily basis and 63% read it from time to time, it is fair to question whether religious stars are acting against Islam’s foundational text by peddling its message for money.
From a purely theological point of view, the critics are on firmer ground. Chapter Maidah, Verse 44 of the Quran warns Muslims to “not exchange My verses for a small price.” The Islamic holy book repeatedly warns Muslims not to embrace earthly gains lest they lose sight of Allah’s rewards in the afterlife.
Beyond theology, the discussion over Turkey’s televangelists is directly related to the country's politics. In particular, secular Turks who criticize the commodification of faith also criticize the rise of ruthless capitalism that the AKP has engendered since it came to power in 2002. Secular critics also argue that the silly questions audience members ask during TV shows with religious content more or less reflect the intelligence of the average Turkish voter. Turkish televangelists are also accused of catering to the basest impulses of the Turkish electorate, a practice perfected by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP.
According to Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a political scientist and academic who was fired from his job at Istanbul Commerce University after signing the “Academics for Peace” petition in January, Turkey’s televangelists are not a new phenomenon. Yenigun told Al-Monitor, “Providing religious guidance through TV became popular in Turkey in the 1990s with the advent of private TV channels. In fact, one of the most prominent televangelists of that era was the theologian Yasar Nuri Ozturk.” Ozturk died recently and was a darling of Turkey’s secular old guard because of his positive views on secularism and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Yenigun said, “The popularity of televangelists in Turkey has much to do with 'Ramadan Muslimness' [Ramazan Muslumanligi]. Because religious fervor in Turkey reaches a high pitch during Ramadan and because many Turks are content with a 'formalist' interpretation of their faith [without necessarily dealing with the philosophy or substance underlying Islamic practices], YouTube channels and other electronic platforms also become convenient locations alongside TV stations where believers ask experts a question and receive answers. In addition, many people see today’s political elite as 'at peace with religion' at a time when there are plenty of government-friendly media outlets. So while in the 1990s the secular media 'sold' religion, nobody 'bought' it. Today, despite Quranic warnings to the contrary, religion sells, people buy it and it works for everyone. The people do not see a discrepancy here.”
Feyza Akinerdem, a sociologist and media studies expert in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “These TV programs with religious content conducted in a question-and-answer 'town hall format' allow the knowledge of religion to trickle down from experts to citizens. But the latter frequently get mocked and criticized for their limited knowledge of Islam. Meanwhile, because religious TV programs generate high demand, where viewers are part of the content, they create material value.”
One can see the situation as the worst of both worlds and quite antithetical to Islam’s nonmaterialist view of the world: average folks with limited understanding of religion and experts and TV stations that make tons of money off their backs.
But Akinerdem doesn’t find the discussion of religious experts’ personalities and the astronomical compensation they receive useful. She believes the bigger problem on Turkish TV shows is that while star hosts make hundreds of thousands of liras, more junior members of the production staff barely make more than minimum wage. “Turkey’s media sector is unjust — if there is something to criticize, we should criticize the wide pay gap between the stars in front of the camera and the workers behind the camera,” she said.
With respect to whether it is moral for religious shows to generate such massive profits for only a small group of people, Akinerdem has a straightforward solution: “Just like every human practice, religion is something that is formed as it is lived. In a world where everything is judged by its material value, it is not logical to criticize some people for receiving a lot of money in religious programs.”
To solve the moral dilemma of monetizing faith, she suggests that Turkey create “a more egalitarian dialogue environment where knowledge is more accessible and one that can satiate people’s curiosity about their faith. We have to imagine new publics where religious knowledge is more accessible and diverse. New forms of questions and discussions that go beyond daily practice can circulate within these kinds of publics."